When you live alone and have lived alone for a long time, you develop habits. Some may be borderline strange, others just mind numbing in their repetition. Often, you don’t question these habits. Others make you cringe and think what if the world could see me? Those who know me and my foodie ways think I come home and cook a four course meal for myself after work every day. I think they would be surprised at how many nights I pick at leftovers in the fridge or flop down on the couch with a bowl of cereal. Foodie or not, when five o’clock comes around I am tired. And I don’t have a family to feed.
I am embarrassed to tell you how often I come home and whip up spaghetti carbonara. It could be worse, I could be cooking up Kraft dinner. It’s just that this dish is so unbelievably delicious and, since I have discovered the secret to a perfect carbonara every time, it’s so easy.
Composed of egg, parmesan cheese, onion and pancetta, the sauce is simple and requires no cooking. It’s just a matter of tossing the ingredients together. There is a trick, however, and that is not allowing the eggs to scramble in the hot pasta.
An Internet search will reveal vociferous disagreement about how to execute a perfect carbonara. Purists also insist that a true carbonara consists of guanciale, the pork cheek that no doubt elevates the pasta but can be difficult to find, depending on where you live. At the end of my busy work day I settle for cubed pancetta or bits of bacon or prosciutto, which to me hardly seems like a compromise. After all, it’s the salty deep flavor of cured pork to contrast with the caramelized onion and creamy sauce that you’re after.
As far as my love affair with pasta goes, I came to carbonara pretty late in the game. But a transcendent experience with the dish in a local restaurant had me running to the kitchen to recreate it. If you predicted disaster–a plate of scrambled eggs and noodles–you would be wrong. My first carbonara was better than I hoped; long, loose strands of pasta generously coated with rich, creamy sauce–no hint of brunch about it. The problem with cooking by instinct, however, is that sometimes one fails to recreate dishes in their former glory. This is exactly the problem I had when I tried to remember exactly what I had done the first time.
After many failed attempts, I finally found the solution in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. Italy’s answer to Julia Child, I find Marcella to be the trusted authority on Italian cooking. She reveals that the key to the perfect sauce is adding hot spaghetti to the eggs and tossing well–not the other way around.
Marcella’s recipe is for an authentic Roman style-carbonara, which does not call for cream. I like to add it sometimes, though. Half a cup for this recipe should suffice, but use your discretion. If the pasta needs a bit more of a coating, even a bit more than that would be desirable–just be sure to heat it through first. Also, I have added onion, as many other recipes for carbonara call for, however, many also disagree that this is a required ingredient for a carbonara sauce. I just happen to love it.
Marcella Hazan’s Spaghetti Carbonara
adapted from Essentials of Italian Cooking
1/2 pound cubed pancetta or slab bacon
1 small onion, finely diced
4 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 large eggs
1/4 cup freshly grated romano cheese
1/2 freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 1/4 pound spaghetti
1) Mash the garlic with a fork and saute in the olive oil in a saute pan on medium heat while you cook the spaghetti. Saute until the garlic becomes a deep gold color, then remove and discard it.
2) Put the onion and cubed pancetta or bacon in the pan and cook until onions are golden and the pancetta is crisp at the edges. Add the wine and let it bubble for 2 minutes, then turn of f the heat.
3) Break the eggs into a serving bowl in which you will toss the pasta. The serving bowl can be warmed in the oven if it is ovenproof. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, add the cheeses, a liberal grinding of pepper, and the chopped parsley. Mix thoroughly.
4) Add cooked drained spaghetti to the bowl and toss rapidly, coating the strands well. Briefly reheat the onion and pancetta over high heat. Turn out the contents of the pan into the bowl and toss thoroughly once more. Serve immediately.