Simple Pleasures: (Almost) Authentic Spaghetti Carbonara

All throughout the week, I had this great plan of cooking something nice for myself Friday evening when I got home from work. Something comforting, rich and intensely flavorful, maybe a little elaborate. Unfortunately, I made it home quite late Friday evening. Now, I would love to say that this was because I spent my time working late and hard, but who are we kidding here, I was stuck with my wine guy, sipping a nice glass of Southern Rhône red and talking about plans for the future.

Domaine Maby Lirac La Fermade 2011Rhône Red, the ultimate delayer of things!

Well, work or play, the fact is that once I found my way homewards it seemed a little too late for elaborate cooking experiments, but also a little too great of a day for leftovers or takeout. I craved fast food, not in the greasy, takeout kind of way, but in the “quickly thrown together at home in a satisfying manner” kind of way. Mind racing, conjuring up quick dishes, trying to remember what I already had in the fridge, I browsed the aisles of the local mega mart. And then it hit me: Why not make the quintessential fifteen minute comfort meal? The perfect meal for a slightly chilly April evening when you’re in need of comfort food and are running a little too late to really put in an effort. I’m talking, of course, about the Italian classic: Spaghetti Carbonara.

No idea in the world seemed better at the moment, so very quickly, a few quality ingredients were ripped off the shelves and home I went to create one of the most rewarding fast food meals of all time and the perhaps most comforting of comfort foods.

This post is not only the result of my notes and thoughts from that evening. It’s also my geeky declaration of love to an Italian classic and a simple hope that more people will try the original, dead simple, yet absolutely perfect recipe for Carbonara in the comfort of their own homes.

 

Simplicity and perfection, thy name is Carbonara

Well, I probably don’t have to tell you this, but Spaghetti Carbonara is a world famous pasta dish from the Latium region of Western Italy, more specifically from Rome. Like other Italian dishes before it, it is the essence of simplicity, absolute perfection and an homage to few but top ingredients. Unlike many other Italian dishes, though, it can be made literally in the time it takes to cook a batch of pasta (plus a minute for assembly), making it the absolutely perfect dish for those nights where you want a little something special, but don’t feel like spending a lot of time cooking – or would really rather just spend time with your guests.

Ingredients for Spaghetti CarbonaraNice, simple, fresh Italian food – gotta love it!

Carbonara, in all its simplistic beauty, is “simply” boiled pasta with a bit of white wine tossed quickly but furiously with sautéed pancetta (Italian bacon), butter, grated Parmesan (or Pecorino Romano) cheese and beaten eggs, then served immediately in a piping hot pile of creamy, rich, decadent, comforting and satisfying lip-smacking goodness topped with cracked black pepper and a hint of nutmeg. The beauty in this dish lies in the fact that this mere handful of ingredients play so incredibly well together that every single flavor compound of one ingredient helps lift every single compound of the others to new heights, and vice versa. As a result, the flavors of a proper Carbonara (which we are soon to produce) are so intensely deep, so satisfying and so comforting that you will be surprised that they came about from only fifteen minutes of effort. This is another fine example of what I like to refer to as culinary magic.

 

Coal miner’s Spaghetti?

What’s in a name? Spaghetti Carbonara belong to the long list of interesting dishes whose exact origins and etymology are shrouded in mystery, yet everybody claims to know the origins and stories behind. The thing is, though, as with most other of these dishes, everybody just can’t seem to get their stories straight. Some claim that it was a hearty dish originally prepared for and eaten by coal miners, others that it is named after carbonaro, the Italian name for charcoal burner, and that the specs of black pepper are somehow meant to represent coal dust. Others again, and this is my favorite version, throw a bit of conspiracy theory in and link the dish to the Carbonari, a secret society prominent in the early stages of Italian unification… Gotta love that one!

The theories are many, ranging from the romantic to the absurd, but they’re all just that, wonderful theories. The most likely origin of Spaghetti Carbonara, according to most sources, is post World War II urban Rome where the dish came into being at the hands of locals using eggs and bacon supplied by US troops. Yeah, I agree, coal miners and secret societies make for a much better story.

The fact of the matter is that no matter how you look at it, Spaghetti Carbonra is a truly great, classic dish that is surprisingly easy and hassle free to make at home. And if cooked simply and traditionally, it will be one of the truly best and most surprising simple culinary pleasures of your life. I dang well nearly guarantee it!

 

Keeping it real: Why mess with perfection?

Spaghetti Carbonara, like so many traditional and simple Italian dishes before it, is a dish that has been used and abused, altered and “improved” upon in many ways, some unimaginable to man – or Italian man at the very least. Common additions to the classic lineup include bacon, cream, mushrooms and peas, but I’ve seen things as weird as ham, paprika and chili thrown in for good measure. Now, as any avid reader will know, I’m obviously in favor of shaking things up a bit and mixing them around. Still, in my mind, there are a few dishes that you just don’t mess around too much with. Classic dishes that deserve to be left unaltered at the top of their pedestal. Spaghetti Carbonara is one such dish.

Spaghetti Carbonara, the ultimate fast food?Spaghetti Carbonara, a timeless classic!

I’m not saying pasta with cream, mushrooms, cheese and eggs doesn’t taste wonderful (or that bacon is a bad thing for that matter). I’m just saying you shouldn’t throw all sorts of things in the pot and then call it Spaghetti Carbonara. I’m sorry, I sometimes get a little religious on the issue of Italian food and authenticity. I have my own, little weird set of rules, principles, standards and double standards here. One of them clearly states that Spaghetti Carbonara is a dish not to be messed with, err, too much, simply because the original is so surprising and so rewarding in its simplicity.

But that’s just me, I say everyone should try a simple, authentic Carbonara, just once, before making up their minds about adding or subtracting things. After all, you’re all entitled to your wrong opinions until I have proven myself right! 😉

A vital note on quality of ingredients: I’ve said it a million times, give or take. When cooking simple Italian food, especially dishes with a minimum of ingredients and a minimum of cooking, use quality ingredients! Part of the reason this simple dish works so well is owing to the quality of the ingredients used. Get some fresh free-range eggs, some great pasta, a few quality slices of pancetta and an expensive hunk of Parmesan. This is top dollar stuff, but then again, you really don’t need a lot. Go on, treat yourself and maybe a certain someone. In fact, go out and get a good bottle of white wine to go along and call it a Friday, even if it’s only Wednesday!

But wait, does that mean I’ve been able to leave the dish alone and stick to its purest, simplest form? No, of course not, that would not be very me… but I almost managed this time! The thing is, I’ve cooked this dish a hundred times over in its traditional form, and if felt it really wouldn’t be my version if I did not add a little twist of my own. So, to the Carbonara purists out there, I apologize, this would be no typical post of mine if I did not hassle others for changing up the game, then going ahead and making a few changes myself. My changes are pretty minuscule, though, and would be approved, I hope, by most Italians. I’ve merely gone and added some herbs and a hint of onion, and I’ve done so with respect and understanding for the original recipe, I hope.

 

A slight twist: Winter savory is the new black (pepper)!

So, how does one jazz up such a iconic dish as Spaghetti Carbonara without breaking the dogmatic rules of engagement that oneself just set up? Clever question, that! Well, one looks to the original tastes and ingredients of Spaghetti Carbonara and one makes them slightly better.

As I’ve recently mentioned, I have a bit of a spring crush on fresh herbs lately. I’ve just acquired a large bunch of fresh, lively plants for my urban garden from Growing Home (a lovely brand of grow at home herbs that you can read all about here), among these an exciting herb, I have never played with before; winter savory.

Fresh herbs from Growing HomeLovely, fresh herbs! That’s winter savory on the right, by the way!

Winter savory is an ancient, small edible shrubbery native to southern Europe that has been used in cooking for hundreds of years, but has now sadly gone largely forgotten. Its small leaves have a rich, herbaceous aroma and a pungent, strong, spicy flavor when consumed raw. Not at all unlike the taste of cracked black pepper, a very traditional player in Spaghetti Carbonara, but greener and more, well, herbaceous.

Wait, not quite unlike black pepper, you say? Well, that gave me an idea. Maybe winter savory could be used in place of black pepper to create a slightly more herbal, slightly more spicy yet reasonably authentic Spaghetti Carbonara? While I was busy changing up the game, I went completely bold and decided to throw in a light sprinkle of fincely diced shallots for a bit of extra aromas and a slightly less authentic authentic Carbonara experience.

And with that, a new slightly twisted classic was underway in Johan’s Crash Test Kitchen: Authentic Spaghetti Carbonara with a winter savory twist! What follows below is my recipe and procedure for perfectly creamy Spaghetti Carbonara, but first a few words on irrational fears that are keeping some unlucky souls from making one of the greatest Italian dishes of all time.

 

Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf Pasta Carbonara?

Carbonara is another one of those dishes that can strike irrational fear into the hearts of many a home cook. Not only because it contains raw eggs, but also because it probably seems a lot more complicated and difficult than it really is. On top of this, the dish actually has a few things that can go wrong with it. The eggs, for example, can curdle from excess heat and create a lumpy mess more like scrambled eggs than creamy pasta, or the entire dish itself can in some cases set into a solid, gooey, rubbery mass once it hits the table. None of these are particularly desirable results and many are the times that they put a thorn in the pride of a home cook. But these results needn’t happen, and you needn’t fear raw eggs, please read on and allow me to put your mind to ease:

If we’re to start with the raw egg issue, I’ve been over this in many other posts dealing with raw or undercooked eggs, but I will gladly say it again. In this day and age, if using fresh eggs from a reputable producer, the chances of getting sick are very, very slim. As an example, here in Denmark, food inspectors and health authorities have recently lifted their warning against using properly handled raw eggs in cooking. I have done so myself for a while, actually,  and never worried about getting sick.

That being said, to be on the safe side, do stick to local guidelines and your own instinct, and use untreated raw eggs at your own risk. If you don’t feel raw eggs are for you, use pasteurized eggs which are readily available at any super market, or coddle fresh eggs in boiling water for about 30 seconds to minimize the risk of food borne illnesses.

As for the possible pitfalls involving unintentional scrambled eggs or lumpy servings, I’m happy to report that they are easily addressed in a very simple manner: Preparation, attention and timing will set you free. That is all. This grand dish literally takes fifteen minutes to make, but during that time, you need to be on your game and pay full attention to what you are doing! Fifteen minutes is not a long time to sacrifice for perfect Carbonara. Even if your date is really hot. And honestly, the only secret to great Carbonara, if ever there was one, is that once the clock starts ticking, you need to make sure that all your individual ingredients are prepared, that the pan has your full attention and that you are doing things in the right order with the right timing.

Attention? Got that? Good! Now, then, if you’re not a seasoned Italian chef (and how many of us really are?) you may just be wondering what the hell it is you need to pay attention to in which order and with what sort of timing. Well, dear reader, I’ve gone and done all the mistakes so you don’t have to, here are five extremely basic steps I always follow for perfectly creamy Carbonara every time.

As always, further details, proper instructions, ingredients and tips are available in the recipe just below. I suggest reading and familiarizing yourself with these basic steps first, though. Simple as they may seem, I learned some of them the hard way.

Step one: If you have guests, make sure they’re either seated or getting seated and are ready to eat once the dish is ready. A proper Carbonara waits for no man… or woman, no matter how pretty.

Step two: Get your mise en place in place (no pun intended). Mise en place is a French culinary term for everything in its place. It basically means to get everything cut up, prepared and arranged ahead of time, so come cooking time all you have to do is, well, cook. So chop everything that needs chopping, grate cheese, crack and beat eggs, and get everything in place… mise en place!

Step three: Start by putting some heat under your pasta water, then while then water comes to a boil, slowly and gently cook ingredients that need cooking in a large pan on the side. For full list of ingredients and details on procedure, see the recipe below.

Step four: When pasta is cooked, drain immediately, kill the heat and bring everything together quickly, mix  thoroughly and be sure to heed the final and very important rule:

Step five: Rush the finished dish to the table. At the risk of repeating what I just said in step one: a proper Carbonara waits for no man. Once this thing starts to get cold, the cheese will firm up, the starches will cause things to clog together, gooeyness will set in. So get this to the table quickly for best, most impressive results. The taste will be the same, of course, it just looks more presentable and has a much better texture when piping hot.

As far as I’m concerned, these are the major guidelines when cooking Carbonara, and thankfully they’re not too hard to memorize. So, got all that? Great! Now, then, for the recipe and the details…

Simple Pleasures: (Almost) Authentic Spaghetti Carbonara
 
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This light spin on authentic Spaghetti Carbonara uses winter savory and a hint of shallots for a more herby, aromatic punch. It's cheeky, but still keeping it real.
Author:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 2
Ingredients
  • 200 grams of spaghetti
  • 50 grams of pancetta, chopped
  • 50 grams of Parmesan (or Pecorino Romano), freshly grated
  • One small knob of butter, about 25 grams
  • One shallot, finely diced
  • One clove of garlic, cut into slivers (optional)
  • Two small, fresh free-range eggs
  • half a glass of dry, white wine
  • a quarter teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
  • a gentle sprinkle of freshly picked winter savory leaves (can substitute plenty of freshly cracked black pepper)
Instructions
  1. Put a large pot of boiling water over high heat.
  2. While water comes to a boil, in a cold, large pan or wok, add chopped pancetta then turn heat to medium and cook stirring occasionally till fat has rendered and pancetta is starting to brown.
  3. Add butter and garlic to pan (if using) and turn heat to low, cook for a few minutes to infuse butter with garlic flavor, make sure garlic doesn't burn!
  4. After a few minutes, fish out garlic slivers, then add shallots, and cook for a few minutes.
  5. When your bowl of water comes to a boil, add a tablespoon of salt and cook pasta according to package instructions. Remember to taste for doneness.
  6. Drain pasta, but make sure to reserve a bit of the cooking water.
  7. Add the drained pasta to pan along with a bit of the cooking water and the white wine.
  8. Turn off heat under pan and stir contents to combine.
  9. Add Parmesan cheese, nutmeg and winter savory to the beaten egg and mix well
  10. Move pan off the heat and add egg mixture to pasta while stirring thoroughly and carefully.
  11. Continue to stir and fold pasta until egg mixture is well incorporated, cheese is molten and everything is nice, creamy and shiny. The residual heat will "cook" the egg without scrambling it.
  12. If mixture is too thick and unworkable, add a little more cooking water or another splash of wine if you're feeling generous.
  13. Move pasta to serving plate(s) and serve immediately, drizzled with your most expensive extra virgin olive oil and more cheese if you're feeling cheesy.
  14. If you're not using winter savory, garnish generously with freshly cracked black pepper.

 

Taste test: the greatest fast food ever?

When it comes to quickly prepared, rich and comforting meals, this is definitely one of my favorites! Spaghetti Carbonara can literally be thrown together in fifteen minutes’ time and the end result is just so incredibly rewarding. The deep, meaty, cured flavors of the pancetta, the pungent, aromatic depths and umami-like qualities of the well-aged Parmesan cheese, the subtle bite of the al dente pasta, the aromatic qualities of the shallots and garlic, the richness and creaminess of the egg and the sharp bite of the winter savory and/or pepper. It’s, everything! In a very simple package.

A pretty heavy package, mind you. With the addition of cheese, eggs and olive oil, this one is probably not for the overly health conscious. The good news, though, is that this dish is so rich, so creamy and so filling that it won’t take a whole lot to fill you up. Throw a salad on the side for good conscience, maybe a nice crusty bread and you basically have a full meal.

But what of the winter savory that I so radically went and added, you ask? Well, it truly adds its own little kick. The best way to describe it, really, is that its more peppery than pepper, with a spicy, slightly bitter, greenish herbal-like under note to it. In a wonderfully complex kind of way. The leaves will mix in with the warm, creamy pasta and some of the flavor will infuse into the sauce while the leaves themselves remain little peppery herbal bombs scattered throughout the dish. Brilliant.

Can’t find winter savory? Don’t panic! This dish is equally delicious  and aromatic (more traditional, too) when garnished with freshly ground black pepper instead. Just, please, Do NOT use pre-ground here, it’s a carnal sin in most parts of the world. And get some decent pepper, there’s various grades of quality here as well, just to make things extra tough on you. Grab a nice little pile of pepper corns and grind them in a pestle and mortar if you can, for an authentic feel and a more pungent bite. Or use the coarsest setting on your favorite pepper mill. You do have more than one pepper mill, right? With more than one setting? Or is that just me? Oh, never mind!

Whichever way you choose to cook this simple dish, I’m always amazed at the results. It’s a little dumbfounding that something so quick and easy to make can taste so rich, complex and deeply satisfying. Oh, and did I mention it’s both cheaper and faster than ordering out? Screw take out, Spaghetti Carbonara may be my new favorite fast food!

Have a favorite DIY fast food? Let us know in the comments!

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