Tomato sauce is fine and good most of the time. But, some days, you pine for pig on your pasta. Spaghetti alla carbonara is sure to sate your suine-filled cravings. Pan-crisped pancetta and aged pecorino adorn this pasta.
No one is sure where “carbonara” comes from. Roman residents trace it back to WWII, when American soldiers abroad missed the homey taste of bacon and eggs. Others point to working-class roots — saying the dish resembles a meal coal-workers (carbonari) once made with cheese and eggs.
Although many American restaurants add bacon or cream to their versions, purists in Italy use just cheese, yolk and pork. Unlike American bacon, pancetta is not smoked. The meat is air-dried, snug in a coat of salt and spice. It’s satisfyingly unctuous but won’t make your meal taste like a fire pit.
Tasty carbonara needs good ingredients — orange yolks, pecorino romano and salt-cured pig. Avoid pre-grated “parmesan,” as the cheese loses flavor after grating. Once the spaghetti cooks, toss the still-steaming pasta with the cheesy-peppery-eggy slurry. Hot pasta will melt the cheese. Be sure to toss the pasta where you’d frizzled the pork: rendered pancetta creates the dish’s signature creaminess.
• 8 oz of spaghetti or tonnarelli
• 4 or 5 oz of pancetta, cubed or cut into thin slivers
• 3/4 to 1 cup of freshly grated pecorino romano
• 3 or 4 egg yolks
• Black pepper, freshly ground
Lightly beat the yolks together with a fork. Add the grated cheese to the egg mixture, stirring until you have a thick slurry. Grind a healthy heaping of black pepper into the eggy/cheesy mix — 5-7 twists on the pepper mill. Cook the spaghetti meanwhile in 3 quarts of salted water. While the pasta is cooking, render the pancetta in a large skillet.
Crisp the cured pork over medium-low heat, waiting until the fat has mostly rendered. (You may need to pour 1 teaspoon of olive oil in the pan before sautéeing to avoid sticking). If the heat is too high, the pork will burn and not render. Keep the rendered fat in the pan. Pancetta, remember, is not American bacon. We want that tasty grease. Once the pork begins to crisp, turn off the heat. Leave your pancetta in the skillet.
Remove the pasta from the hot water with a slotted spoon, reserving at least 1/3 cup of starchy pasta water in the spaghetti pot. Do not run the pasta under cold water. It needs to be steaming hot. Toss the hot spaghetti in the frying pan with the crisped pancetta. If the rendered fat has begun to solidify, the hot pasta should re-melt it. Pour the yolk slurry over the pasta. Toss vigorously until a smooth sauce forms.
If the cheese clumps together, add 1/4 of a ladle of steaming starchy pasta water to melt it. Shake the pan to make sure the egg coats all the pasta. Crown with a handful of grated pecorino. Serve hot.
For more of Chris’ pasta, check out his upcoming PASTA-MAKING class