Another wonderful traditional peasant dish from Italy! That’s what I thought when I first tasted spaghetti alla carbonara. After all, the name suggests that this is a dish for charcoal burners (“carbonari” in Italian), who undoubtedly appreciated a filling meal that didn’t cost a lot.
Alas, the recipe seems to have been created to use the bacon and eggs given to the starving civilians of Rome by the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. Even if spaghetti alla carbonara is not something that Michelangelo ate for lunch while painting the Sistine Chapel, it is possible that he sat down to a plateful of spaghetti con cacio e uova (spaghetti with cheese and eggs), which is a similar dish minus the bacon but with the grease.
And since my speculator* is working at full speed today, let me say that the good women of Rome may have created the recipe to serve to the charcoal burners bringing fuel from the countryside to a city lacking power that first winter after the war. Whatever the origin of the recipe, spaghetti alla carbonara is a deliciously simple dish.
Today, many people omit the “alla” (which means “to” in Italian) from the name, but whatever you call it, “spaghetti carbonara” or “spaghetti alla carbonara” is a wonderful change from the red sauces and heavy cream sauces most of us associate with pasta dishes. The sauce consists only of eggs, a little oil and Parmesan cheese. If you like bacon, eggs and cheese, chances are good that you will enjoy this recipe.
Here is how to put it on the table in half an hour.
1 T olive oil
1/2 pound extra thick sliced bacon
3 or 4 cloves garlic
1 lb. spaghetti
4 large eggs
1 1/4 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh parsley leaves for garnish
Put four large eggs in a bowl of warm water. Bring four or five quarts of water to a boil in a large pot or or Dutch oven.
While the water is heating, cut the bacon into half inch pieces. Peel and mince the garlic. You should have about a tablespoon of minced garlic. Grate the Parmesan cheese and set it aside.
Put a tablespoon of olive oil into a large skillet and add the bacon. Fry the bacon over medium heat until slightly crisp. Remove the bacon and drain it on a paper towel in a bowl. Remove the skillet from the heat. You should have about three tablespoons of oil in the skillet. Dip out or add a little as necessary.
Beat the eggs until they are lemon yellow in a small bowl. Whisk about half the grated Parmesan cheese and a quarter teaspoon salt into the eggs.
When the water comes to a boil, add a teaspoon of salt and the spaghetti. Cook eight or nine minutes to the al dente stage. Before draining the spaghetti, reserve a cup of the pasta water.
About two minutes before the spaghetti is done, return the skillet to the burner, turn the heat to medium and sauté the garlic for half a minute. Return the bacon to the skillet and make a generous grind of fresh black pepper over the bacon. Turn the heat to low.
Now you have to work quickly. Drain the spaghetti and put it in the skillet with the bacon and garlic. Mix everything together for about a minute. Turn off the heat and dribble the eggs into the hot pasta while you stir briskly to keep the eggs from curdling. Sprinkle on the rest of the grated Parmesan cheese and stir until you have a smooth sauce covering each strand of spaghetti. If the sauce seems too thick and dry, stir in a few tablespoons of the hot pasta water until you have the consistency you want.
Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Mound on individual plates and garnish with a little chopped parsley. Serve with a green salad and a red wine such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a good domestic Pinot Noir.
NOTES: It is important to have the eggs at or a little above warm room temperature so they will cook properly in the hot spaghetti.
Do not use the grated Parmesan cheese sold in plastic jars. You can buy grated Parmesan cheese in the dairy case at the supermarket or better yet, buy a wedge of good Parmesan cheese and grate it just before you use it. The better the cheese, the better the flavor. Top of the line is Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is imported from Italy and pricy, but a good quality domestic Parmesan cheese will work fine.
If you don’t have one already, consider picking up a cheese grater. It has a little hopper that you put a chunk of cheese in so it rests against a metal drum turned with a small crank. The grater handle is hinged. You press the cheese against the drum with the handle while you turn the crank and watch the grated cheese pile up on a plate. These gadgets sell for under ten dollars, and they are worth every penny.
*If you want to know what a speculator is, click here: The Speculator.