Of all the popular Italian dishes in America, spaghetti carbonara is among the most misunderstood. Practically synonymous with “pasta and cream sauce” here in the states, the traditional Roman recipe relies solely upon raw egg and grated cheese for its silky coating. Juicy cubes of smoky pancetta, fresh parsley, and black pepper finish off the dish, a perfect balance that is all at once bright, rich, and nourishing.
And it’s exactly what I’ve been craving this spring. These sunny April days with their windy, thin air seem to demand a boost of yolk-yellow protein. Though it is relatively simple to make, carbonara is initially intimidating in that it requires the cook to add steaming hot spaghetti to the raw egg mixture, quickly whisking it so as to coat the pasta in luscious sauce.
I had seen the dish made several times by the expert hands of Italian grandmothers, but had always avoided it myself for fear of producing a lumpy scrambled-egg sauce. However, I knew that if I wanted real carbonara, the dish described by my favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin, as “heretically tasty,” I was going to have to make it myself. It was time.
Carbonara’s sort of American roots
In semi-nervous preparation, I read up on the traditional technique in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Interestingly, I learned that carbonara was inspired by American bacon and eggs during World War II, somewhere around Rome. While there are varying accounts of how our troops’ rations found their way into Italian bowls of pasta, the bottom line is that carbonara was a wartime creation, born out of creative necessity.
For my rations I visited the Portland Indoor Farmers’ Market to pick up the freshest, yolkiest eggs I could find. Gina Simmons of Common Wealth Farm in Unity recommended duck eggs, as they have larger, fattier yolks than chicken eggs. I’d add that they were also “orange-ier.” As an added bonus, duck eggs are richer in nutrients and have viscous, protein-rich whites. Perfect for my quest.
I whisked two of these lovely eggs together, added about ½ a cup of grated parmigiano, several tablespoons of freshly chopped parsley, and a few grindings of black pepper. Although it will depend on the size of your eggs, density of your grated cheese, and personal pasta-to-sauce ratio preference, I found the portions described here to be best with about ¾ pound of dried spaghetti.
As my pasta water came to boil, I fried 4 whole, crushed cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once slightly brown, I removed the garlic and added my cubed pancetta, house cured by Rosemont Market (bacon or guanciale, made from pork jowl, can also be used). When the meat started to crisp I added ¼ cup of white wine, simmered for another couple of minutes, and removed from the heat.
Assembling the dish comes in two quick stages: adding the drained pasta to the egg mixture, then tossing the meat mixture into the coated pasta. I put my game face on, started by adding small amounts of pasta, and did some intense whisking. Not a clump of egg to be found! Just a gloriously shiny nest of pasta that turned out to be unbelievably satisfying.
Carbonara alla “Picnic”
Newly liberated by my carbonara foray, I began testing variations based on the principle method of tossing raw egg into hot pasta. For instance, one night I wanted carbonara, but didn’t have any white wine or cured meat on hand. No matter, it was the egg I was after. After whisking the egg, cheese, pepper, and parsley together I cooked a bit of onion in truffle oil and olive oil, making a kind of vegetarian alternative to the traditional recipe. It was delicious.
Another time I skipped the heated oil stage altogether. I simply added the olive oil directly to the egg-coated pasta and topped the dish with thin bits of proscuitto that I had lightly crisped under the broiler. It might not be traditional, but the heart of Italian cooking lies in resourcefulness, making due with what’s at hand.
The other guideline, of course, is that nothing should be wasted. To that end, we repurposed the spaghetti carbonara leftover from a large batch using a concept I discovered at Dominic’s Italian Bakery and Deli in Waltham, Massachusetts: the pasta frittata. We buttered a small loaf pan, packed in the leftover spaghetti carbonara, topped with parmaggiano, and baked at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Also known as “picnic pasta,” it can be cooled, cut into slices and, presumably, transported to a springtime meadow for consumption.
My next foray into the uncooked egg will be egg yolk ravioli – stay tuned!