Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a favourite of many around the world. There is an endless cream/no-cream debate that takes place outside of Italy on a regular basis in relation to Carbonara (right now people are probably arguing about it somewhere) and I think this argument largely takes place because outside Italy there are a number of generic Italian restaurants that make theirs with cream instead of egg to appeal more to the masses. Also, the taste, texture and feeling of spaghetti alla carbonara is most definitey one of creaminess, and if you had to guess, you would likely say it was made with cream.
My brother and I (both Australian born Italians) actually had a pretty aggressive verbal argument over Christmas about cream/no-cream. He is in the cream camp, and I am firmly entrenched in the no-cream camp, behind a barricade, refusing to move. He told me that when he was travelling in Italy, an Italian chef from the south taught him a version with cream, and I told him that while he taught him a lovely pasta, it wasn’t a carbonara it was “alla crema” and that spaghetti alla carbonara comes from Italy’s capital city, Rome, in the Lazio region.
The beauty of our argument was that the passion with which we both argued our cases led to an uneasy truce – an agree-to-disagree situation which I only agreed to because he was making his version of a carbonara with cream… and I was hungry. I’ve since done a lot more research after Christmas, and I’m happy to report that I am right (although, once he reads this, I’m sure I’ll get a call and our argument will continue into the night). But, I have a food blog and he doesn’t, so I think that means I win the argument right?!
If you need something more substantial than “I just know”, thankfully the ancestors of my Italian heritage are sticklers for the “right way to do things”. So, naturally there is an Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) which painstakingly identifies the traditional dishes and highlights the recipes their panel has agreed are traditional. You can find the Spaghetti alla Carbonara page (in Italian) here.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t experiment with Italian flavours, you totally can you just have to be careful what you call it. Instead of using chicken eggs for my carbonara, I’ve used some glorious duck eggs that were given to me as a gift from the lovely Tass and Vern at Jamberoo Valley Farm (remember them from my no-churn ice cream post a little while ago). It takes the carbonara to the next level of richness but it’s carbonara, so you might as well indulge.
The duck eggs can easily be replaced with chicken eggs in this dish though, so I have listed both in the recipe below for you. Quite simply this dish is pasta, egg, guanciale, pecorino cheese, salt and pepper. A handful of ingredients that transform to create something truly incredible – the trademark of a great Italian dish.
As with all my Italian recipes, I suggest using the best ingredients your budget can afford. Also, make sure you use the freshest eggs you can find – it will yield the best results. Guanciale might be an ingredient that you aren’t familiar with, but basically it is a cured meat made from pork cheek (“guancia” means cheek in Italian) which results in a slightly fattier cured meat not used for eating on its own but used as a pasta ingredient due to its incredible flavour. If your local Italian butcher doesn’t have it, you can use pancetta or bacon instead, or in America you can use jowl bacon which is the closest thing to guanciale.
The cheese is important too, and I used a hard pecorino cheese for this dish in keeping with tradition. Alternatively, you can use a combination of pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano or just the Parmigiano.
Last tip, make sure the egg and cheese mixture is stirred through the pasta after it comes off the heat and is drained. The creaminess come from the residual heat and a dash of the pasta water emulsifying the ingredients to create the sauce. If you cook the eggs and cheese with the pasta over heat, the eggs will scramble.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
- 150g guanciale (or pancetta, or bacon), cut into small cubes or pieces
- 500g dried spaghetti
- 3 egg yolks + 1 whole egg
- 100g pecorino cheese, finely grated
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat a saucepan over medium high heat. Add the guanciale (without oil as it will release its fat with cooking) and sauté stirring constantly until translucent and beginning to brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Don't add salt as the guanciale and cheese are quite salty. Add the dried pasta and cook as per the packet instructions.
Meanwhile, add the eggs to a large glass bowl and whisk until even. Add the pecorino and pepper to taste, and then whisk again until well combined. Add the guanciale and whisk again. Then set aside.
Once the pasta has cooked, drain the pasta retaining a cup-full of the pasta water, and then add the pasta immediately to the egg and cheese mixture in the bowl and toss to coat the pasta with the egg mixture. It is important to add the pasta to the bowl with the eggs off the heat for the right consistency. If the pasta needs loosening a little, then add a little of the pasta water (not the whole cup, just in small amounts to emulsify).
Serve and enjoy immediately topped with more grated pecorino and black pepper.