Spaghetti alla carbonara

879A2961photo courtesy of Andreas Papadopoulos

This is a pasta that is synonymous with Rome and the province of Lazio, along with other Roman specialties cacio e pepe and spaghetti all’amatriciana. However, no record of it exists before WWII. Whatever the origins of the name, nearly seventy years later,  it is well-known all over the world. As with any type of sauce from la cucina italiana, simplicity is key: ingredients must be of excellent quality. There are four key ones for preparing this dish: totally fresh eggs, parmigiano Reggiano, freshly-ground black pepper and nutmeg.

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Since we have fresh eggs from the chicken coop here at Cerines, this has become a family favorite. For years I made this with store-bought eggs (let’s just say it wasn’t my favorite pasta.) The first time I made this with fresh eggs, it was as if I have never had this dish before. If you have access to free-range, organic or just plain-old, uncertified fresh eggs from either your or a neighbor’s chickens, you will be amazed how simple and delicious this dish is. The golden color of the fresh eggs is translated into an equally golden sauce, totally light and creamy in all the right ways.

When it comes to creamy, let’s dispel a commonly-held myth about pasta. La cucina italiana, save for the special-occasion dish spaghetti al ragù (known the world over as alla bolognese [pronounced bol-on-yay-zay]), does not utilize fresh cream. Pasta has gotten a bad wrap in recent years because of the anti-carb movement and more recently, the gluten-free movement. It would benefit the reader to remember that a standard portion of pasta is 100 grams (or less than five ounces); a third or half of the portion that one is served in most restaurants. Actually, the creaminess of the sauce actually comes from the emulsification of the eggs and the cheese. Whisked together, they are added to  the hot pasta, the heat of the steam cooking the egg and melting the cheese in one go. This adheres to the pasta in a uniform way unlike other pasta sauces, making sure every forkful is consistent from start to finish. It’s kind of hard to resist pasta that is glistening.

As for the meat, traditionally this is made with guanciale, the cured cheek of the pig. Equally as acceptable–most likely because it is more readily available–is pancetta. While it is made from the same cut of pork as bacon, the comparisons end there.  It is not smoked but salt-cured and has a distinct flavor different from prosciutto and altogether unrelated to bacon, which is sweeter in comparison. Get your hands on the flat pancetta (called ‘stesa’), which can be cut into cubes or short slices right at home.

Our version differs slightly from the traditional recipes: we use parmigiano Reggiano, from Emilia-Romagna instead of the more traditional pecorino romano from Lazio. Pecorino is sharper and is equally as nice. Onions are added and caramelized to give the finished dish a naturally sweet flavor to counteract the salty cheese and pancetta.

Make sure your table is set and everyone is seated. bring the skillet to the table and finish in front of your hungry diners. You’ll need to eat this immediately; it’s at its peak straight from the warm pan.

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Servings: 4-6

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add:
1  T. coarse sea salt

In a large skillet, gently sauté just until translucent, being careful not to overcook:
180 grams | 6 oz. pancetta

Remove to a chop plate. To the same skillet, add:
2 small onions, sliced in slivers (optional)

Allow the onions to develop a caramelized color. Add:
4 T. good-quality white wine

Allow the wine to reduce until thickened, scraping off any bits off of the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat.

In a glass measuring cup, combine:
4 large eggs, fresh or organic
@150 grams | 5 oz. parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino romano
@ 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
grating of fresh nutmeg

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Mix the ingredients until emulsified. The mixture should be thick and creamy. If runny, add a bit more cheese to thicken.
NB: Since the cheese is salty and you’ve salted the pasta water, adding salt is unnecessary.

Meanwhile, boil according to manufacturer’s direction:
500 g. | 1 lb. spaghetti, or other long pasta (fettuccine or bavette are great alternatives).

Just before the pasta is finished, warm the skillet with the reduced wine/onion mixture. Add:
reserved pancetta, to warm through.
NB: Do not cook or heat the pan so that it is hot. (You will end up with scrambled eggs!)

Remove from heat. Using a pasta fork or serving fork, add all at once:
reserved cheese/egg mixture

Toss through until the mixture coats the pasta. Just when you think it may need to be tossed more to cook, remove to plates right from the skillet. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

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Sources:
North America: All-Clad Chef’s pan, www.all-clad.com