A dish whose principal ingredients are eggs and bacon was always going to be a shoo-in for the British palate: certainly spaghetti carbonara was a regular in my dad’s repertoire when pesto was only a glint in a supermarket buyer’s eye. As with so many Italian foodstuffs, it has a disputed history, although most people accept that carbonara probably originated in, or near Rome.
It’s apparently named after the carbonai, or charcoal burners, allegedly because it was a favourite of these grimy men who spent months deep in the Apennines, relying on foodstuffs that could be easily transported, stored and then prepared over a fire. Sophia Loren claims to have happened upon a group of these lucky fellows while filming Two Women in the mountains in the late fifties – who obligingly cooked her a slap-up carbonara lunch.
Loth as I’d be to contradict the legendary Loren, there are people who believe that the whole carbonaio thing is simply a romantic legend, suggesting instead that the dish was created by local cooks for American GIs who took their rations of bacon and eggs to them to prepare over streetside charcoal braziers. More mature Romans dispute this however, claiming they remember enjoying carbonara while said GIs were still eating milk and cookies at their mother’s knees.
Most plausibly of all, in my opinion, is the theory that the name simply refers to the copious amounts of black pepper customarily added to the dish: so much, in fact, that it’s almost as if it’s been seasoned with charcoal. It’s one of those things which people will no doubt still be squabbling over as the earth implodes: far more important, in my opinion, is working out how to make a really good one. Which is where I come in.
It’s spaghetti cabonara, right? Well, not if you’re Elizabeth David or Simon Hopkinson: the former bills it as maccheroni alla carbonara (I demand to know why we no longer spell it like this: it’s magnificent), although concedes it can be made “with any shaped macaroni, spaghetti or noodles”, and the latter claims that, at the River Cafe, from where the recipe in the Prawn Cocktail Years has been borrowed, they use penne, “and to great effect”. Having never been fortunate enough to eat at that much esteemed west London establishment, I’ll have to take his word for it, but in the River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook they certainly use spaghetti, “inspired by the version we ate in the restaurant Carbonni, in the Piazza Campo dei Fiori in Rome”.
Although forced by an unexpected shortage of penne to swap the two around during testing (so I make the River Cafe recipe with penne, and the Prawn Cocktail Years one with spaghetti; keep up at the back), there’s no confusion in my mind as to which is the superior choice. Penne is not only too dense for my taste, especially with the rich sauce, but also spoils one of the chief pleasures of this dish: slurping up the egg-slick spaghetti. Macaroni, as the style guide compels me to spell it, is rather better, as it’s smaller than penne, but again, no slurping required. Spaghetti it is.
Although pasta makes up at least three-quarters of a carbonara however, it’s almost an irrelevance as far as I’m concerned: the real test is the sauce. These fall, broadly, into three camps: those which use eggs and cream, those which use eggs and butter, and those which keep it simple and just use eggs. Cream and butter, obviously, would not have been ideal luggage for charcoal burners setting off for a few weeks in the mountains, so many purists insist they’re later additions to the pasta party, possibly because they offer an easier way to recreate the creaminess of barely set eggs for restaurants turning out plate after plate of the stuff, or home cooks chary of salmonella and its unpleasant ilk. If they make the dish better, however, I’m happy to keep them: this is the perfect carbonara, not the oldest.
Simon Hopkinson and Nigella Lawson both use double cream, Ursula Ferrigno’s Complete Italian Cookery Course goes for crème fraîche, slightly oddly, and the River Cafe and Anna del Conte choose butter. Elizabeth David and the Silver Spoon stick with just eggs. Much as I love cream, as soon as I tasted a carbonara without it, I realised it was totally unnecessary: not only does it add an overbearing richness (as if eggs, cheese and fatty pork weren’t enough), but dilutes the delicate flavour of the egg itself and leaves a pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl when really all that’s needed is something to coat the pasta. (Tangy crème fraîche, meanwhile, is frankly just bizarre, reminding me of my college speciality: value penne with crème fraîche, smoked salmon trimmings and vast amounts of generic Italian hard cheese.)
Butter is better, melting into the sauce. Anna Del Conte suggests beating a tablespoon into egg and cheese, which is difficult; it’s much better to do as the River Cafe recipe suggests and allow it to melt in the pan before adding the other two ingredients. But having tasted the Elizabeth David recipe, I can assure you that the eggs and rendered pork fat should add all the body you need.
Eggs is eggs
Of course, as ever, it’s not that simple. Should I use whole eggs, as in the Nigella Lawson, Silver Spoon, Elizabeth David and Ursula Ferrigno recipes, egg yolks, as the River Cafe and Prawn Cocktail Years suggest, or a mixture of the two, like Anna del Conte? Yolks alone I think too cloying – when mixed with the grated cheese, they become a stubborn paste, difficult to loosen and toss through the pasta, which means adding more cooking water, pointlessly, given you’ve just thrown away the egg whites. Whole eggs work well, but I’m going to add just the one extra yolk, just because this really isn’t a dish you’d eat every day, and it does add a glorious eggy richness to it.
Bacon and rasher suggestions
Or not – because it turns out the Italians don’t use good old streaky for carbonara, they prefer pancetta, which is dry cured, generally unsmoked, and usually comes in slabs rather than mimsy little slices. Unsmoked bacon is often suggested as a substitute by cookery writers like Anna del Conte, on the basis that pancetta isn’t widely available in this country and if you can get hold of a slab of good, dry-cured streaky bacon, and cut it into stout cubes yourself, it will work far better than the wafer thin pancetta often found in supermarkets. (Do make sure it’s unsmoked though; Ursula Ferrigno advocates smoked streaky, but I think you need the meat to have a slight sweetness: smoke and cheese is umami overload.)
A good pancetta that you can cut into thick chunks yourself, is even better of course: the pieces must be thick enough not to dry out in the pan, and fatty enough to contribute to the sauce. The River Cafe admonishes you to cook it until soft and translucent, but not brown, but, although it shouldn’t be leathery, I prefer Nigella’s instructions to fry it “until crispy but not crunchy”. Some of the fat should remain tender, but a little bit of bite is a pleasant textural contrast to the silky pasta.
Elizabeth David dodges the question entirely by translating maccheroni alla carbonara as “macaroni with ham and eggs”, and using “ham, or coppa (Italian cured pork shoulder)” cut into matchstick lengths instead. Tempted as I am to use the baked British ham that would presumably have been the only option for most of her readers when Italian Food was first published in 1954, I suspect she herself would have made a special journey to Soho for “very good, but expensive” coppa, so I invest in some (it’s still pretty pricey today) to make her recipe. Perhaps it’s the cut, but I find it too dry: the slight yielding squidginess of pancetta is far better.
This isn’t a pasta dish which allows for a delicate sprinkle of parmesan just before serving: no, carbonara demands almost unbelievable amounts of cheese, which, as it melts, helps to give the sauce its distinctively creamy texture. Given the dish’s Roman roots, it’s unsurprising that many recipes, the River Cafe, Anna del Conte and the Silver Spoon among them, call for a mixture of parmesan and pecorino romano, a hard, salty ewe’s milk cheese popular in central Italy. To my mind it has a lighter, more lactic flavour than parmesan, which, in bulk, can make the dish overpoweringly cheesy: the combination means that everything works in harmony.
A pasta dish without garlic? But, it seems, most carbonaras don’t include it: only Anna del Conte and the Silver Spoon use it, and only to flavour the cooking oil: the garlic itself is discarded once cooked. The River Cafe include red onion in their recipe, and Ursula Ferrigno a yellow one, but everyone else eschews alliums altogether. Although I like the sweetness of the onions with the saltiness of the cheese and pancetta, I think the flavour is too dominant: the subtle garlic taste of del Conte’s dish is far more pleasing, adding a very faint heat, without shouting about it.
The River Cafe also include chopped flat-leaf parsley in their dish, which looks pretty, but doesn’t add much: there should be enough black pepper to render it unnecessary. Nigella, like the US legend Marcella Hazan sneaks in a splash of white wine, simmering it down, with the pancetta, into a “salty, winey syrup”. Although undoubtedly delicious (who doesn’t like wine, bacon and cream?), it reminds me more of something French than a classic carbonara. I do like her final grating of nutmeg though – entirely optional, and definitely not very Roman, but as usual, it works wonderfully with egg.
Carbonara may be a simple dish, but the devil is in the detail, namely, how to add eggs to a hot pan and not end up with egg-fried pasta, as in Elizabeth David’s recipe, which directs you to cook them “until they present a slightly granulated appearance without being as thick as scrambled eggs”. The most helpful guide to this is on a wonderful blog written by an adopted Roman called Rachel, who has overcome severe carbonara anxiety over “the crucial moment, the moment you pull the pan from the flame and add the egg and cheese to the pasta and guanciale … endless discussions about the stir, the fold, the flick of the wrist needed to combine the eggs and cheese with the pasta, the moment you add the slug of the pasta cooking water – the pasta water you have judiciously set aside – to the pan, the slug that will loosen the straw coloured sauce into a soft creamy coat”, to perfect her very own version. In short you toss the pasta with the pancetta and its rendered fat until every strand is well coated, then take off the heat, add the egg and cheese, “tossing to combine”, loosen it all with a little cooking water, and serve immediately. It’s an art, but one well worth perfecting.
Perfect spaghetti carbonara
1 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced
75g pancetta, cubed
250g dried spaghetti
2 eggs and 1 egg yolk
25g pecorino romano, finely grated
25g parmesan, finely grated
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Put two bowls into a low oven to keep warm, or boil a kettle and half fill them with hot water. Heat the oil in a large frying pan on a medium heat, then add the garlic and cook until well coloured, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and discard. Add the pancetta and cook until translucent and golden, but not brown around the edges.
2. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling, salted water until al dente. In a bowl, beat together the eggs and the extra yolk and then stir in the the pecorino and most of the parmesan, reserving a little for garnish. Grind in plenty of black pepper.
3. Scoop out a small cupful of the pasta cooking water, and then drain the pasta well. Tip it into the frying pan and toss to coat with the pancetta fat.
4. Take the pan off the heat and tip in the egg mixture, tossing the pasta furiously, then, once it’s begun to thicken, add a dash of cooking water to loosen the sauce. Toss again, and divide between the warm bowls, finishing off with a grating of nutmeg and a little more parmesan. Eat immediately.
Garlic or onion, pecorino or parmesan, bacon or ham, cream or butter – how do you like your carbonara, and what’s the secret to getting that perfect consistency? Do you, blasphemously, add peas, as they tend to in the States, or mushrooms, like my dad? And can anyone tell me why you never see carbonara’s close relative, fettucine alfredo, in the UK when it’s so madly popular in America?
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