I cannot think about Carbonara without thinking about my father. He left most of the cooking to my mother. In fact, he only made two dishes, but, when he did, he acted as though he was a master chef. One was an open faced, rustic bread bruschetta with guanciale and vinegar (excellent by the way); the other was Carbonara. His Carbonara would have been good if it wasn’t for the unnecessary addition of the egg white, which made it runny, and his insistence on undercooking the egg because he didn’t want it to scramble (sorry Dad).
The egg white was completely out of place in the dish, while the concern over the egg tempering was a legitimate one. I like to think of Carbonara as the equivalent of the French Hollandaise mother sauce. In both cases, these are the only two sauces that require the incorporation of an egg yolk into the sauce.
Carbonara is probably one of the most famous Italian pasta dishes in America, and unfortunately it is often prepared with heavy cream rather than egg. This is, in my opinion, a shortcut created by untrained cooks that, like in the case of Alfredo, added cream in order to obtain a creamy consistency. To make things worse-if that is even possible-green peas appeared on this dish, so today if you say “Carbonara” people often think, “Oh the creamy pasta with peas.” Now, I like peas-in Roman cooking peas are a staple-but they have no place in Carbonara. There are pasta sauces with cream and peas, and I have a few great recipes of my own that I will share later, but for now we are discussing Carbonara sans peas.
The origin of this dish is unknown, and there are no records of it until the end of World War II and the Allied Liberation of Rome in 1944. During that time, American troops distributed large quantities of eggs and bacon to the locals, and it is suggested that the dish was then born out of necessity and the availability of these ingredients. Despite the lack of historical documentation, a second theory is that the word carbonara, which translates in Italian as “in the style of coal miners,” could find roots in ingredients largely available to the local coal miners (Carbonari which is the Italian word for charcoal workers). A final theory suggests that the pasta was named after the “charcoal men,” a liberal secret revolutionary society of Italian patriots opposing the conservative regime during the early 1800.
Here is my version of Carbonara:
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
1 lb. of spaghetti pasta
10 oz. of guanciale
1 small onion chopped fine
2 oz. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 oz. grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Black pepper to taste
4 egg yolks
Few ounces of pasta water
Set a large pot of well salted water to boil, add pasta and let cook until it is al dente. Meanwhile, slice the guanciale into 1/16 of an inch thick and 1 inch wide strips and place in a cold sauté pan. Bring the heat up to medium/high making sure not to burn the guanciale by stirring often. Once the pork is crispy, you can add the onions and let them slowly cook on medium heat for about ten minutes until translucent and soft but not quite caramelized. Once pasta is ready, drain it, but make sure to save some of the pasta water. In a separate bowl whisk the egg yolk with Parmigiano, Pecorino and black pepper, adding few ounces of the pasta water to temper the eggs. Here’s the tricky part-in the sauté pan where you have guanciale and onion, add the pasta and over low heat incorporate the egg and cheese mixture. Watch the pan carefully as YOU DO NOT WANT TO SCRAMBLE THE EGGS.
Once dish is creamy and no longer runny (this should take less than a minute), remove it from the fire and, as the pan still carries some heat, allow it to bind for few extra seconds. The dish is now ready. Spoon it onto a plate and garnish with grated pecorino cheese and some fresh black pepper.