I first came across a recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara in Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano cookbook. It’s a recipe with a very short list of ingredients, but when Batali described it as “slightly tricky in its execution,” I became intimidated. There is a photo of it in the book – it looked absolutely delicious, so I had to attempt it. It was not a success on the first try, but after much trial and error, along with some tweaking of the original Batali recipe, I’m now proud of how well it turns out every time. I thought it would be a great first recipe to share with you here – I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned that make this recipe a bit less tricky to execute. I also like this recipe because it can be scaled easily for however many people you plan to serve – you can adjust it to make for one person, or four.
I’m sure many of you, like myself, have ordered carbonara in a restaurant and received a pasta tossed in a rich cream sauce with bacon. That is not this recipe, although this version is indeed rich and delicious. True Roman carbonara contains no cream, and instead relies on eggs, cheese and pasta water to create its smooth and creamy consistency. Because there are so few ingredients in this dish, I encourage you to find the best pasta, cheese, eggs, and cured pork you can find. For this dish, I used bucatini pasta and pecorino romano from “Penn Mac” (as everyone in Pittsburgh refers to it), fresh eggs and guanciale from Crested Duck Charcuterie (at the Pittsburgh Public Market). For those of you wondering what guanciale is – as I did when I first read about it in Batali’s recipe – it is an unsmoked Italian “bacon” made with pork cheek. I prefer its flavor in this dish over pancetta or bacon – it seems less salty and more nutty. I’ve been experimenting with different peppercorn mixes from Penzey’s Spices – for this recipe I’m using a mix of white and black peppercorns, but feel free to experiment with different varieties if you like. I also garnished the pasta with some fresh parsley from Marty’s Market. The most authentic carbonara’s typically don’t use a parsley garnish, but because this carbonara is so creamy, I like a bit of fresh green on top to lighten it up a bit.
The recipe below serves two.
Extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound guanciale cut into 1/2″ cubes (you can substitute good pancetta or bacon)
1/2 pound bucatini (you can also use spaghetti)
3/4 cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
2 very fresh large eggs, yolks and whites separated
2 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. I add about 2 tablespoons of salt to my 8-quart pot.
2. Heat the oven to between 180 to 200 degrees. Place the bowls you’ll serve the pasta in into the oven. I’ve found that warming the bowls makes for a better sauce at the end.
2. While the water is coming to a boil, heat a bit of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Once the pan is warm, drop in the guanciale and cook until it’s rendered to a crispy golden brown. Remove the pan from the heat – place the guanciale on a paper towel to cool. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Set aside.
3. Cook the bucatini in the boiling water until al dente. Refer to the pasta package, but this should take about 10 minutes.
4. While the pasta is cooking, combine the egg whites and half of the grated pecorino. Sprinkle in a healthy amount of ground black pepper. Whisk this together. Save the egg yolks for later.
5. This is an important step. Once the pasta has cooked about halfway, scoop out about 1/4 cup of hot pasta water. Slowly add the hot water to the egg-cheese mixture while stirring quickly and continuously. This tempering of the eggs will help keep the sauce from getting lumpy when you add it to the hot pasta later. Set this aside.
6. A couple minutes before the pasta is finished, return the remaining guanciale fat to a burner over low heat. Once the pasta is done, toss it in the pan with the warm rendered fat. Stir it around to make sure all of the pasta is thinly coated. Then stir in the tempered egg-cheese mixture while shaking the pan. Stir like crazy! This will help create a nice smooth and creamy sauce with evenly melted cheese that’s not too lumpy. Add the crispy guanciale.
7. Divide the pasta among the warmed serving bowls – be careful when removing them from the oven. Use a spoon to make a little “nest” in the center of the pasta, and gently place one yolk into each next. Garnish the pasta with more black pepper, pecorino cheese, and chopped fresh parsley.
8. Once the pasta is served, each person should stir the yolk into the pasta. The warm pasta and sauce, along with the warm bowl, will help cook the yolk while creating an even richer, creamier sauce.
What tricks have you learned to perfect a favorite dish you enjoy cooking?
Click here to download a printable PDF of this recipe.