Saturday Cooking: Spaghetti alla Carbonara

I do not like chain restaurants, usually.  One reason of several came about when I ordered Spaghetti alla Carbonara at an Olive Garden restaurant many years ago.  It had what tasted like an Alfredo sauce, and there were also vegetables in it.  The whole thing was very heavy, and I did not enjoy it.

Done properly, this dish is very simple; no need to complicate it.

Traditionally, the pork component is guanciale, or meat from the pig’s cheeks.  Since this is hard to find in the States, I use diced pancetta.

I can offer no authoritative explanation for the name of this recipe.  Some conjecture cites the possibility that an older version of this dish called for the grilling of the pork ingredient over a charcoal fire (carbone).  Another theory suggests that the dish was a favorite of coal miners (carbonari).  A simpler, less-appetizing explanation has it that very coarsely ground peppercorns can look like coal ashes.

In any event, a good carbonara never disappoints.

One safety note: Eggs in European countries are very fresh, and I feel completely safe eating them raw or only lightly cooked.  Here in the States, however, they are processed differently and must be refrigerated.  We commonly see sell-by dates that permit them to be stored for several weeks, and this does not inspire confidence.  Also, our industrial method of production raises concerns about salmonella poisoning if eggs are not cooked thoroughly.  To be sure, the light sauce that defines this dish is supposed to be loose and moist.  If this raises health concerns for you, I would recommend pasteurized eggs.  The brand to look for is Davidson’s Safe Eggs.

And don’t try to pasteurize eggs yourself.  You’ll just end up with partially-cooked, shelled eggs.  I’ve tried it.

Incidentally, in Italy this dish is usually a primo piatto–the pasta or rice dish that would precede a main course.


Spaghetti alla Carbonara
(spaghetti with pancetta and egg)
Serves four

one pound of regular or thin spaghetti (I use the Barilla brand.)
one-quarter pound of diced pancetta
two or three raw medium eggs, beaten
two tablespoons of butter
coarsely ground pepper
three tablespoons of freshly-grated Parmesan cheese

In a frying pan, brown the pancetta.  Then, transfer to a bowl lined with a paper towel.

Prepare and drain spaghetti as directed.  Return to the pot quickly, add butter, pepper and half the grated cheese to the pasta, toss with tongs, and cover.  Do not reheat.

Lightly beat the eggs.  Open the lid of the pot, and toss the spaghetti to let off any excess heat.  It is important that the eggs warm only lightly as they are added, and they must not clump.

Add the eggs, and toss until the spaghetti is coated and moist.  Add the pancetta and remaining Parmesan cheese.  Serve with a garnish of parsley.

This recipe can be halved.

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