Carbonara is a dish that needs no introduction; nonetheless, I am going to share my obsessive ramblings on it. Although I can never give a satisfying answer to the question “What’s your favourite dish,” because of course “favourite” is context-dependent (i.e., who, when, where, how, why), if I had a gun to my head and was forced to answer, “Carbonara” would be my answer. My first encounter of carbonara was in the best place possible, the place of it origin—Rome. I was a full-of-life 22-year-old on a 3-month backpacking trip in Europe, making new friends with the same kind of ease that I now find in going to bed at 10pm on a Friday night (true story).
I met a girl in Venice. She was an American artist living in Rome on a weekend trip to Venice. We made an instant connection. I was completely enamoured by her vitality, clarity, and kindness. We made plans to meet up again in Rome when I meandered my way down there. She picked the restaurant, Roscioli, and to this day probably has no idea how much impact that meal has had on my life.
The restaurant is also a deli and grocery store, where people stream in and out, buying ingredients and then going about their day. Not having made reservations, we sat right beside the deli where I was dazzled with sensory overload by the prosciutto-carving, burrata-splitting, anchovy-arranging spectacle happening behind the deli counter and, on the other side, a wall full of Italian wines.
That first bite of carbonara ignited something in me that had me attempting to recreate it at home, again and again, and then going back to Rome, solely to eat at that restaurant again. It is without question my favourite restaurant in the world.
Full disclosure: I have the Roscioli cookbook, which I purchased specifically for the carbonara recipe, and I am sharing their techniques here.
The ingredient list is short and simple, yet this is a highly technique-driven dish. The final, time-sensitive steps must bring the ingredients together into a harmonious ensemble. This is a recipe you’ll want to read in full and mentally rehearse before starting the process.
Classically, carbonara is made with guanciale, which is cured pork jowl, found in Italian specialty stores. I get mine from Pasta Genova here in Kingston, but they sometimes have it and sometimes don’t (they are susceptible to restocking when you threaten to buy). I’ve made it with bacon and pancetta before, and let’s face it—this dish of carbs, mountainous servings of cheese, and salty cured fatty pork is going to taste good no matter what. But, if you want the truly authentic carbonara, hunt down that guanciale. It is 100% worth the trouble and not replicable by the alternatives.
In order to get those crispy, unctuous bites from your guanciale pieces, you will need patience. When you first throw them into the hot pan, do not disturb until about half the fat has rendered. Then, stir, lower the heat, and caramelize for 20 minutes.
Until recently, I was too cheap/poor to buy good quality eggs. Now that I finally have a steady income on resident salary, I have upgraded to local, free range eggs. I highly recommend using fresh, local eggs laid by dignified hens in this dish as you will indeed taste the difference. Also, it feels good to support happy livestock husbandry and your local economy.
To add that yolk on top or not? Strictly speaking, the yolk on top is not authentically Roman carbonara. However, I think that it adds an absolutely riveting visual appeal and I love the extra coating from the dripping yolk. I do not think that it detracts from the authentic flavour and texture of the whole dish, but rather enhances it. I have been chastised for the top-yolk, however, by online interest groups for protecting the authenticity of carbonara. I do not rescind nor apologize for my claim that this is an authentic carbonara recipe.
Elevate your carbonara *eggs-perience* by making your own fresh egg pasta. This Jamie Oliver pasta dough recipe is decadently rich and also highlights the importance of good quality egg yolks. I love the blend of 00 flour and semolina which adds a layer of complexity and texture to the pasta for optimal cheese/guanciale oil/yolk clinging. Ugh, I’m salivating now.
If you are not keen on making your own pasta, do make sure to buy a good brand of spaghetti such as De Cecco.
The Cheese Mixture
The holy grail of carbonara recipes (i.e., the Roscioli book) calls for a 21:4 mix of Pecorino Romano to Parmagiano Reggiano. I honestly don’t ever measure things out while I cook. I just add a lot of parmesan to A LOT MORE of pecorino. But there’s the ratio, which should really be up there alongside gravitation and entropy as a universal law.
And please, for the love of Dionysus, buy full wedges of cheese and grate it yourself, and avoid the pre-grated ones that have shelf lives longer than you.
Full Recipe: La Carbonara
150-200g of guanciale, pepper rind trimmed and cut into 1-cm cubes
105g Pecorino Romano, finely grated
20g Parmagiano Reggiano, finely grated
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 servings of spaghettone (spaghetti will also work)
2 egg yolks (for topping)
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil.
- Heat a cast iron skillet on medium. Once hot, add the cubes of guanciale. Do not disturb until most of the fat has turned translucent, about 4 minutes. Then, stir gently and turn the heat to the lowest setting and caramelize, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Meanwhile, in a large plastic bowl (plastic is best as it does not heat up easily which prevents eggs from setting), whisk together the whole egg and egg yolk, a handful of the cheese mix, and a good grind of black pepper. Set aside.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook al dente. Remember if you are cooking fresh spaghetti, this is no longer than a minute, maybe even less. Drain the pasta water, reserving a cupful.
- Add the cooked pasta to the bowl and put the bowl in a warm spot near the stove for about 1 minute, meanwhile adding in the guanciale pieces and a spoonful of its fat. In a swirling motion of the bowl, toss everything together, adding a bit of pasta water if dry.
- Portion on to individual plates. Gently place a yolk on top with more of the cheese mix and freshly cracked black pepper. Savour every single bite.