May 21, 2009

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Yep, this is another rustic and traditional pasta recipe from Rome. No one exactly knows the origin of this dish, but because carbonara is a cognate of the Italian word carbone (charcoal), some people say this pasta was initially prepared for charcoal workers who needed a hearty meal during their hard work day. In a way there is some truth in this statement since at the beginning of the 20th century, Italian laborers used to carry simple pasta dishes to work, such as spaghetti cacio e pepe. However, coal miners worked in Umbria (and not in Rome), and in fact there are no historical records of spaghetti alla carbonara before World War II. This suggests that a possible origin of this dish was the Italian interpretation of what the American and Canadian soldiers ate while they were in Rome during WW II. Basically, Italians took the quintessential North American breakfast based on eggs and bacon and served it with … pasta, of course!

1 lb spaghetti
5 oz guanciale, diced
4 oz pecorino romano cheese, grated
4 egg yolks
1 egg
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the entire egg. Gradually add the cheese while vigorously whisking the egg mixture. Add some freshly ground black pepper to the egg mixture. Meanwhile, begin to cook the pasta. In a saucepan, heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil, then sauté the diced guanciale until it turns golden. About 1 minute before the pasta is cooked al dente (according to the cooking time on the label instructions), add a couple of Tbsps of the cooking water to the egg mixture. Does it sound familiar? We are tempering the eggs, just as we did when making gelato. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and toss it directly into the pan where you sautéed the guanciale. Then toss the spaghetti into the bowl with the egg mixture. The eggs were raw, but the heat of the pasta will cook them. If you are not convinced of this, make sure you are using pasteurized eggs. Add the guanciale. Give a quick stir and serve your spaghetti alla carbonara with freshly ground black pepper and more grated pecorino romano cheese.

Common mistakes when people make spaghetti alla carbonara outside Italy: adding onions, butter and cream. The use of cream is something you actually can find in the north of Italy, but this is a Roman dish, so, no cream.

In North America, people associate carbonara sauce with the erroneous version with cream and butter. At the same time, North Americans prepare “coal miner’s spaghetti” which not only has a name that seems to be a translation from Italian (if we believe the mine worker origin), but also the way you prepare coal miner’s spaghetti is more like how you prepare spaghetti alla carbonara. However, coal miner’s spaghetti calls for bacon instead of guanciale, people use a combination of Parmesan and Romano cheeses, parsley is also added, and the ultimate Italian-American ingredient is not absent either: garlic.

Despite the simple ingredients of this dish, spaghetti alla carbonara is pretty tricky to make. Usually what happens is that you get scrambled eggs instead of a creamy egg sauce. The use of cream and onion makes this recipe foolproof, but you should try the traditional recipe.
Posted by Daziano at 10:12 PM |  
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