Four ingredients, infinite possibilities
I love dishes like this. Recipes known and loved universally but who’s true origin and “correct” preparation have been lost to time. So incredibly simple; pasta, eggs, cured pork, cheese are sine qua non but of what type and in what proportion?
The etymology of the name is just as hotly disputed and I am not about to wade into the debate, but I am happy to speculate. Generally speaking the Carbonara origin myth falls into four camps, with the name of the dish always being coal (carbone) or charcoal related:
1. G.I. Joe Theory: After the Second World War American troops stationed in Rome after its liberation distributed their staple rations of powdered eggs and bacon to the local populace to counter the chronic food shortages. The name in this case attributed to the dish being cooked over charcoal braziers. A patently ludicrous theory as firstly there are oral accounts of Spaghetti Carbonara as we know it today that predate the war, although as far as I am aware the first written record was 1957. Secondly powdered eggs in a Carbonara sauce? And bacon? Sorry, no.
2. Coal Miners Theory: Miners working in the Apennine Mountains of Abuzzo created the dish with the resources they had to hand on their long stays in the mountains. Namely cured pork, olive oil, pasta (penne in this case) and cheese kept without refrigeration and eggs sourced from local farms.
3. Revolutionary Tribute Theory: The problem with the theory above is that Carbonaio are not coal miners but rather makers of (wood) charcoal. This third theory however attributes the name as a tribute to the Carbonari, members of a revolutionary, libertarian secret society called the Carboneria who had the goal of Italian unification. The group were so named as members upon discovery in the woods would identify themselves as rural charcoal burners. In the early 20th century the term “alla Carbonara” still meant to act in a subversive or secretive fashion.
4. Pepper Theory: If we are to apply Occam’s razor to the problem, I’d plump for the fact the dish is normally finished with copious grindings of black pepper resembling charcoal dust.
However I recently came across a fifth possibility postulated by Jeremy Parzen which I found quite interesting and haven’t seen anywhere else.
This theory (read the full thing here, it’s fascinating if you are into this kind of thing) basically he says that Ippolito Cavalcanti a veritable Delia Smith of Neapolitan cookery included a recipe for pasta with beaten eggs and cheese (macaroni co caso e ova sbattute) in his seminal work 1839 Cucina Teorico-Pratica.
He goes on to speculate that this dish was the basis for what was to become the Carbonara we know today, the name appearing upon the addition of Carbonata to the original recipe, a term “widely used in Renaissance Italy to denote a type of salt-cured and smoked pork“. I actually found a recipe for it in a cook book I have The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy:
An interesting idea if nothing else!
Anyway I guess you read this post for a recipe, so let us move on to ingredients.
For the eggs, simply get the best fresh organic eggs you can get your hands on, I do think it helps if you can get eggs with a particularly deeply coloured yolk so I favour Old Cotswold Legbar.
The pasta has to be Spaghetti for me, I can’t imagine a recipe more suited to this shape, the sauce clings perfectly to the eminently slurpable noodles.
For the cheese I actually now favour Pecorino Romano rather than Parmigiano Reggiano. This is such a rich dish, the sharper Pecorino does help cut it a little.
The pork is really the only bone of contention here. Guanciale, pancetta or bacon. I include the last simply because of its far greater availability – the joy of this dish is that I normally have the ingredients to make it to hand without needing a trip to the shops. If using bacon, I normally try and use unsmoked lardons which I dice into cubes.
However it would be preferable to use either Guanciale (Italian cured pork cheek) or Pancetta harder though they are to source. There’s a nice video here explaining the merits of using Guanciale in this recipe over anything else. Irritatingly a few days before I decided to make this I was at a farmers market at the Horniman Museum and Gardens where the Kent Collection had a stall and were selling Kent Guanciale but I opted to get some of their (very nice) salamis instead. As it was I used some Marsh Pig Pancetta for this receipe which was on the pricey side, but is very good.
After all that history and provenance, in the recipe I make I go on to bastardise the whole thing by adding garlic and parsley which I am sure would be unconscionable to your average citizen of Rome, but there you go, such is the joy of cooking.
Cooking time: 15 mins
Serves: 2 portions
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
150g Guanciale or pancetta, sliced or cubed
3 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk
100g Pecorino Romano, finely grated
Freshly ground coarse black pepper
Finely chopped parsley
Boil a kettle and pour the boiling water into the two bowls you will be serving this in to warm the bowls through.
Put a large saucepan of well salted water on a high heat and bring to the boil. When at a rolling boil add your spaghetti and cook according to packet instructions until al dente, typically 10-12 mins.
Whist this is cooking heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed pan (large enough to accommodate all of the Spaghetti in due course) over a medium heat. When at temperature add the guanciale or pancetta and fry until approaching golden, by which time the fat should have rendered. Add the garlic clove and fry for a minute or so, don’t allow to brown. Turn the heat down to low.
Using a spaghetti spoon, transfer the spaghetti directly from the boiling water to the pan – DO NOT throw out the pasta cooking water, set it to one side.
Stir the spaghetti in the oil well making sure every last strand is slicked in the porky, garlicky goodness.
A note before the next stage: The one key thing to remember with carbonara is to not let the eggs cook in anything but the heat of the pasta and residual heat of the pan. If you add the eggs when the pan is too hot they will scramble. It is infinitely preferable to have a have a just warm carbonara with the correct sauce consistency than a steaming hot bowl of spaghetti and scrambled eggs – be careful and stir well, especially the bottom of the pan.
Beat the eggs and yolk with 80g of the Pecorino, pour over the spaghetti and remove the pan from the heat and stir the whole lot like a dervish, the mixture should be quite stiff. Now add a tbsp of the pasta cooking water at a time to the spaghetti, letting the sauce down ever so gently until it reaches the desired consistency – be careful not to add too much, there shouldn’t be excess sauce in the pan.
Empty the water out of your serving bowls and add your carbonara. Garnish each with the remaining Pecorino, finely chopped parsley and a really generous quantity of freshly ground black pepper – I like this quite coarse.
Serve and slurp to your heart’s content.