I can still remember my first dreamy mouthful of Spaghetti Carbonara. It was later in life, because my family knew jack squat about pasta. Meat sauce (made with the help of a seasoning packet) heaped over spaghetti was the only pasta dish I ever ate as a kid, and it was a very occasional treat. And later, when I began to cook professionally, I gravitated toward the French country classics. It took me a while to make my way to Cucina Italia.
As I remember, MauiJim and I had just returned from the movie Heartburn, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. We were both smitten with the scene in which Meryl casually and confidently whips up Spaghetti Carbonara, plunges two forks into it, and then serves it in bed to Jack–after you know what.
When we got home from the movie, I put a pot of water on to boil, grabbed an Italian cookbook from the shelves, and 20 minutes later, we too were sitting cross-legged in bed, eating Spaghetti Carbonara from a shared plate, too much in love and too unfamiliar with the dish to realize I had scrambled the egg yolks. We have reenacted that scene many times since then. It’s the perfect impromptu, romantic, late night indulgence for two.
Over the years, I tried dozens of variations on this simple dish, in an attempt to come up with the perfect formula. Here are some of the altogether contentious considerations around creating a perfect Pasta Carbonara.
In Search of the Perfect Pasta Carbonara
- Spaghetti, linguine, or penne? (Spaghetti is great, but I also love a chewy pasta with this sauce, such as Manicaretti’s Strozzapreti.)
- Whole eggs or egg yolks? (My vote goes to egg yolks.)
- Cream or water? (I used to prefer cream, but after several tests this week, water also makes a wonderful sauce. It’s less rich and the egg flavor is more pronounced. So now, I like the sauce with either cream or water, depending on mood. Regardless, eggs alone, with no liquid, scramble on contact with the hot pasta, so I don’t recommend forgoing the liquid.)
- Butter or olive oil? (Make mine with olive oil.)
- Pancetta or bacon (I say pancetta.)
- Garlic or no garlic? (Garlic seems essential to me.)
- Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano? (I like a half-and-half combination. It has a bit more zip which balances the richness of the sauce.)
- Eggs creamy or scrambled? (Creamy, but scrambled is also delicious—just not Carbonara.)
- Wine? (An interesting idea, as it adds a bit of acidity to offset the richness. A little lemon juice also works wonders.)
- Saucy or dry? (I prefer the dish on the saucy side, but not drenched.)
- Freshly grated black pepper? (No one seems to disagree on this point. Use LOTS.)
- Ingredients in addition to pasta, eggs, cream if using, cheese, pancetta, and black pepper? (I must have slightly caramelized onions.)
Now for a few fundamentals to help ensure your Pasta Carbonara is perfect every time.
Tips & Tricks for Perfect Pasta Carbonara
- There are so few ingredients in this dish, it is imperative to use premium quality everything. Buy the best you can afford.
- When egg yolks are heated suddenly, they scramble. You can hamper this effect by tempering the eggs before adding them to the hot pasta. Simply whisk a little hot cream or water into the egg yolks, thus gradually increasing the temperature. Then add the egg yolk-hot liquid mixture to the hot, but not too hot, pasta.
- Don’t sauce the pasta in the saute pan. After combining the pasta with the pancetta and onions, remove to a large mixing bowl. Then pour the combined egg yolk, hot cream or water, and cheese over the top and quickly toss to combine.
- Most recipes for this dish that I have tried do not call for sufficient sauce to coat the pasta. Perhaps this is because different pastas absorb different amounts of liquid. Some pasta suck up the sauce like a sponge while others do not. If you aren’t sure, have extra egg yolks and cheese on hand so you can adjust on the fly if needed.
Pasta Carbonara with Caramelized Onion & Fresh Rosemary
This simple dish is so heart-and-soul satisfying that you may find yourself making it weekly. If you have grated cheese and diced pancetta on hand, you can have this dish on the table in less than 30 minutes. And 10 minutes of that time will be spent waiting for the pasta water to come to a boil.
Serving Note This dish must be served immediately after it is prepared; it loses its creaminess as it cools. Warm 2-3 wide-rimmed pasta bowls, set the table, and make sure your guests are ready to eat.
Ingredient Note Different pastas absorb varying amounts of sauce. On your first try with this dish, note whether you have too little or too much sauce and then adjust accordingly
on the next round, making sure to use the same pasta.
Ingredient Note Trader Joe’s sells nifty 4-ounce packages of cubed pancetta, which is the perfect amount for many dishes. I keep a couple extra in the freezer because running out of pancetta is not a trivial matter. Of course, you can usually substitute bacon, but the flavor is quite different.
2 tablespoons salt, for the pasta boiling water
½ pound strozzapreti pasta (or other premium-quality pasta)
1 tablespoon cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, preferably cut into ¼-inch dice
1 medium-large onion, peeled and sliced into ¼” by 1” matchsticks (2 cups sliced)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced, optional
1 cup cream or water, heated to a simmer (if using water, use the pasta cooking water)
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
½ cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten, room temperature
fine sea salt to taste
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano
2 tablespoons cooked pancetta (from above)
½ teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced, optional
- Bring a large pot filled with 1 gallon of water and 2 tablespoons salt to a vigorous boil.
- In a large saute pan, add olive oil, and quickly saute the pancetta until just crisp but still tender. Remove the pancetta to a small bowl and put aside 2 tablespoons for garnishing.
- Add the onions to the pan. Add a little more olive oil if needed. Saute the onions over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, to caramelize slightly and soften. Add the garlic and sauteed pancetta (minus 2 tablespoons reserved for garnish) to the pan, along with the rosemary if using. Remove the pan from the heat and reserve.
- In a saucepan, bring the cream or water to a simmer and then whisk in the cheeses until smooth and creamy. Remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes. Whisk a few tablespoons of the hot sauce into the eggs to temper them and then whisk the mixture into the sauce in the pan. Reserve.
- When the pasta water is boiling vigorously, immerse the pasta all at once, stirring with a wooden fork to separate the strands. Put a lid on the pot and return to the boil as quickly as possible. Remove the lid and continue boiling (rapidly but not ferociously) until the pasta tests “al dente.” (To test the pasta, lift a strand out of the pot with a long handled fork and take a bite. The pasta should be tender but at the same time retain some inner resistance to the teeth.) This can take as little time as 15-30 seconds after the boil returns with fresh pasta to 7 minutes or longer with packaged dried pasta. Nothing is more disappointing than overcooked pasta, so watch closely.
- Drain immediately into a colander and jerk up and down to force most of the water out of the pasta. The pasta must be sauced and served very rapidly to prevent it from cooling and becoming sticky. Always have the serving bowl and individual plates or pasta bowls heated and ready to go. (Have guests ready to go too!)
- Add the pasta to the saute pan with the still hot pancetta and onions, and toss to coat. Quickly turn the pasta out into a large mixing bowl.
- Add the sauce mixture. Toss together quickly, season to taste with salt, and add plenty of freshly grated black pepper.
- Scoop the pasta onto a serving platter or into individual wide-rimmed pasta bowls, and garnish with the reserved pancetta, grated cheese, and rosemary if using.
- Serve immediately.
More Pork Recipes from LunaCafe:
- Apple Cider-Brined Tenderloin of Pork with Rhubarb Deglazing Sauce
- Grilled Baby Back Ribs with Garlic-Ginger BBQ Glaze
- Homemade Mexican Chorizo–with a Secret
- Smoky Spanish Zarzuela with Chorizo & Emmer Farro
- Spinach & Egg Fettuccini with Wild Mushrooms & Pancetta (Straw & Hay)
- Strozzapreti with Spicy Italian Sausage, Broccolini & Garlic Crema
- The Best Damned Hash
More Pasta Recipes from LunaCafe:
- LunaCafe OtherWorldly Mac & Cheese
- Old World Spaetzle: The New Pasta?
- Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni Salad
- Spicy Penne & Chicken Salad with Chipotle Lime Dressing
- Spinach & Egg Fettuccini with Wild Mushrooms & Pancetta (Straw & Hay)
- World Famous Green Chile Mac & Cheese
- Carbonara Sauce Debate: Egg Only or Cream Also
- CookThink: Fettuccine Alla Carbonara
- FoodGawker: Carbonara
- Frascatelli Carbonara with Sweet Corn
- Images for Pancetta
- Kitchenography: Spaghetti Carbonara
- Lobstersquad: Heartburn: the book, the movie, the carbonara
- Manicaretti Pastas
- Momofuku2: Marcella Hazan’s Carbonara Recipe
- Oui, Chef: Spaghetti Carbonara
- TasteSpotting: Carbonara
- The Little Teochew: Spaghetti Carbonara
- What’s Cookin, Chicago: Creamy Carbonara
Copyright 2011 Siusan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.