When people outside of Italy think of carbonara, they usually think of pasta, often tagliatelle, smothered in a sauce made from slices of ham and mushroom in cream. The original, Roman spaghetti alla carbonara recipe is very different, however; it has no cream, no mushrooms and it is usually made not with tagliatelle but with spaghetti. This authentic carbonara is quick and fairly easy to cook, and requires only a handful of ingredients.
Origins of Carbonara
There are many different stories about how carbonara came into being. The name probably comes from the Italian word carbone, meaning coal, and people have suggested that it could originally have been a coal miner's dish. Another theory suggests that it was favoured by an Italian secret society called the carbonari. Another theory is that it was made with ingredients, ie eggs and pancetta, which could sometimes be purchased from the same people who delivered your coal. Or, it takes its name from the specks of black pepper which resemble coal dust. Although largely accepted as a Roman dish (perhaps created at the end of World War II as a way of using the American troops' bacon and powdered egg rations) the original carbonara recipe has also been claimed as a 19th century Neapolitan creation.
The Original Roman Recipe
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Ingredients (per person)
- 100g spaghetti
- one egg (one per person, plus maybe one extra yolk)
- a handful of diced pancetta (or guanciale, if available)
- a heaped tablespoon of grated parmesan or pecorino
(the amount of cheese, and how finely you dice the pancetta, should be adjusted according to preference)
The basic carbonara recipe is quick and easy to make. First, get the spaghetti boiling in plenty of salted water. Next, fry the pancetta in a good dash of olive oil. Beat the eggs and the extra yolk together in a bowl.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it but put a bowl under the colander in order to retain some of the water; you may need that later. Now return the pasta to the pan, and stir in first the pancetta with the hot oil, and then the beaten eggs. The egg will cook in the heat from the pasta, but here is where the flair comes in; you need to stir the egg into the mix so that it cooks into a cream and not hundreds of pieces of tiny omelette. Add the cheese, and if the mixture is too dry, stir in a little of the cooking water from the pasta (no more than a spoonful). Serve with coarse-ground black pepper.
It's possible to make variations of carbonara using different meats and cheeses. Two tasty combinations are parmesan with Italian sausage (skin the sausages and crumble them into the frying pan), and gruyere with speck. You can also get different results by varying the pasta shape: spaghetti is the classic but can be dense. Penne can be an alternative, or if you can get them, schiaffoni or pacheri give a large smooth surface that can hold the egg very nicely.
Finally, if you can get it, to be truly authentic you should use not diced pancetta but guanciale, or pig's cheek.