Pasta alla Carbonara is something we never ate before Italy. When we had it, we loved it. It seemed difficult to get a bad plate of it. When we returned, I researched a few recipes online and made adjustments based on my memories of how it tasted on our voyage.
First, some history. The name comes from a dish made in the Appenine mountains by charcoal makers. They cooked the dish over a hardwood charcoal fire and used penne rather than spaghetti because it is easier to toss with the eggs and cheese. "Alla carbonara", literally means "in the style of a coal worker". Some even say that the addition of coarsely ground black pepper resembles coal flakes.
It's a fairly simple to make a basic carbonara... some sort of pasta that holds sauce well, but has lots of surface area that will temper the eggs quickly without actually cooking them. Spaghetti, bucatini (a hollow spaghetti) and linguini work well, but to remain authentic you might use penne rigati--the ridges would hold the sauce well.
Next, you need something smoky and salty... bacon and cheese. Romano is great. Any kind of bacon or ham works... Pancetta, Canadian bacon, prosciutto, even Black Forest ham. I tend to use cut up pieces of Boar Head brand's Piccolo Prosciutto, sauteed a bit in a pan before time. You can add some diced onion at the beginning too. Then there's the level of spice. Ground black pepper is classic. Slice up some garlic and heat that up at the end and you'll be in heaven. Some pepper flakes added when sautéing the bacon will add heat. Be careful of salt though. The grated cheese and bacon will have enough salt.
The main trick is NOT adding the egg mixture (beaten eggs and cheese) to the hot pan. Instead, after draining the pasta--immediately after when it's still steaming--toss the pasta with the egg mixture in a bowl until creamy. This is enough to lightly temper the eggs without actually cooking them.
Another addition could be reducing some cream, half-and half, or even skim milk added toward the end and reduced and thickened, but this is not a classic technique. A traditional carbonara is made creamy with just the eggs and cheese. Another variation on this would be to use some chicken broth instead of the cream. I suggest trying a basic recipe for carbonara before getting fancy. It's a pretty simple dish, but the timing is key.
And if you insist on making it the way many TV chefs do--in the hot pan--at least remove the pan from the heat for a minute or so before adding the egg...
Enjoy the video of Chef Antonio Carluccio from BBC's Two Greedy Italians making his authentic version!
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