One of my favorite TV moments is a line about spaghetti carbonara from Orange is the New Black. Red, the prison's tough talking cafeteria cook says of a new Martha Stewart-esqe inmate:
Carbonara is a controversial subject on the Internet with people feuding over which is the most authentic recipe. I'm not against improvisation but there are two tenets which are always required to make truly great Italian food.
2) Top-notch ingredients.
If you are Italian-American, spaghetti carbonara is not likely something your grandmother cooked for you and that’s because it wasn’t invented until the 1940s. The Internet is regularly filled with new theories and arguments over its mysterious origins. It first seems to appear in Rome after the Allies ousted German forces and distributed rations to the starving Italians which included large amounts of bacon and powdered eggs. Quickly, it started showing up on American menus as GIs returned home from Italy and popularized it.
Carbonara means roughly “in the manner of coal miners,” and the likely origin of the name is a Roman restaurant named Carbonara. However, it may also have earned its name because the flecks of black pepper appear like coal dust against the creamy eggs, cheese, and pasta. And it has been speculated that it was a dish made for a secret society called the Carbonari, the charcoalmen who formed in the early 1800s and who played a part in the unification of Italy.
Here's what to ask for:
-A carton of small eggs for the best yolk to white ratio
-Their best pecorino romano from Italy, very salty.
-Guanciale or pancetta. Guanciale is more traditional, but pancetta is just as good in my opinion.
-Thick spaghetti or bucatini. Barilla brand pasta just won't do. Get Gragnano, Dal Verde, La Rustichella d'Abruzzo.
That's it! No garlic, no peas, no cream. Now you're ready to make world-class cabonara!
Spaghetti alla Carbonara Recipe
The rule of thumb is one egg for each person. This recipe serves one so adjust accordingly.
- 1 small egg, beaten
- 1/4 cup grated pecorino romano imported from Italy. It should be very salty.
- 1/4 cup of pancetta or guanciale cut into small cubes
- 1/8 pound high-quality thick spaghetti or bucatini
Put a medium pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
In a large pasta bowl, mix the cheese and beaten egg together with a fork until it's well integrated and has a nice custardy texture. Add a dusting of black pepper to your taste. (Or feel free to leave it out!)
When the water comes to a boil, add your spaghetti. Good quality pasta will take a little longer than the regular supermarket brand to cook. About 12-15 minutes. Taste it occasionally until it is al dente.
In a sauté pan, cook the pancetta or guanciale over medium-low heat, turning occasionally until each piece is crispy, about 5-8 minutes. Remove to a paper towel for 2-3 minutes so the cubes cool just a bit. Then add to your egg/pecorino mixture.
When the pasta is cooked, quickly drain it with a colander and then quickly add the hot spaghetti directly to your plate of egg and cheese. Use tongs to mix it all together and coast all the strands. The heat of the pasta will cook the egg mixture.
Add another dusting of black pepper if you like.
Pro tip: If the mixture seems to runny, simply add more grated cheese. The trick here is to stir quickly with tongs so that the egg mixture cooks, but does not turn to scrambled eggs.