Spaghetti alla carbonara, photo by Mattes Boch.
Typically carbonara is made with pancetta or guanciale, egg yolk, and parmesan cheese mixed in spaghetti.
Pancetta is a bacon that has been salt cured and spiced with nutmeg, pepper, fennel, dried ground hot peppers and garlic usually and dried for about three months. It is typically not smoked.
Guanciale is a smoked bacon with pigs jowls mixed in.
There are so many varieties of carbonara that it is hard to sort them out. On the other hand, I lean toward pancetta and rarely use guanciale (can’t get used to the taste). In the US, sometimes cream is used in the recipe, but this is not typical in Italy. I give some variations on carbonara, but the recipe below is my favorite. Oh, by the way, carbonara is Italian for charcoal and has led to the idea that it was a coal miners spaghetti (nonsense – no one probably knows the origins of carbonara).
I would like to think that my carbonara is more of a delicacy than a staple. It is a less traditional recipe than one would find in homes in Italy. But it is so creamy and delicious that my mouth waters just thinking about it. Try my recipe below and then move on to some of the variations I suggest to see what you prefer. It is a great dish for social gatherings.
Ingredients (4 to 5 servings):
8 slices pancetta (you can substitute applewood smoked bacon if you want a more typical American dish)
1 large onion chopped (you can use leeks but make sure you only use the white tender parts)
2 large eggs at room temperature
½ cup parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 pound linguine (you can use spaghetti but I don’t like it because it is hard to mix with the other ingredients)
Rolled smoked pancetta. Photo by Dancan.
Cook the pancetta in a large skillet over medium high heat until done – about 8 minutes (I don’t like it crisp but you may wish to reduce the fat by cooking until crisp). Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with a paper towel to drain (dice or chop into fine pieces). Add the onions and sauté over medium high heat until tender (about 6 minutes).
At the same time, cook the pasta in salted water al dente style (it literally means cook the pasta enough to still have a slight resistance to the pasta when chewed – but this is a matter of taste and I recommend what you are comfortable with). Drain the pasta but reserve at least ½ cup of the liquid that you cooked the pasta in.
Whisk the eggs and parmesan cheese in a bowl and then whisk in ¼ cup of the reserved pasta liquid. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the onions and stir while heating. Remove the pasta and onions and then pour the egg mixture over the pasta. Stir until the sauce is a wonderful creamy consistency and the eggs are no longer raw (less than 2 minutes). Return the mixture to a very low heat (do not overcook because the eggs will curdle). Add some of the pasta liquid if the pasta seems dry. Stir in the pancetta and parsley and serve adding salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese to taste.
I love the opportunities for variation with this dish. The most common carbonara calls for egg yolks instead of eggs. So you can substitute 4 egg yolks for the 2 eggs in the above recipe (I hate to waste the whites). If you have a trim waste line you can add ½ cup heavy cream to the egg mixture and 2 garlic cloves (diced).