Saturday, March 1, 2008

Carbonara- Hold the Cream Please.

Sure, at first glance the recipe seems easy, docile, and straightforward, but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. This unassuming creation can wreak havoc on even the most seasoned of cooks. Just ask any cook if they’ve curdled any eggs lately and see whether they can answer you with a straight face.
The origin of Pasta alla Carbonara is uncertain. First published accounts of a similar recipe can be found in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s gastronomic marvel: Cucina Teorico-Pratica, published in 1839. Don Ippolito Cavalcanti was a Neapolitan noble who saught to bring food and cooking in Napoli to an aristocratic level. Ippolito Cavalcanti’s book doesn`t read like a modern cookbook, but there are references to pasta being prepared with eggs, not enough however to lay claim to the origins of a Carbonara.
Other theories to the origins of Pasta Carbonara can be traced to the Second World War. As many American GI’s were stationed in Rome for long periods of time, it is said that some Americans, missing their traditional homegrown breakfast, asked some Roman cooks for bacon and eggs and thus was born pasta alla carbonara.
The Romans have a very unique way of making this dish, and you know those Romans- it’s their way or no way. First off, the use of cream is frowned upon. Adding cream to this dish, in the opinion of most Romans, makes the dish too heavy, opting instead to use the water the pasta was cooked in to loosen the sauce up. Also, the meat used in Rome is guanciale – which is a panchetta like cured meat made from the jowls, or cheeks, of the noble pig. Unlike our bacon, guanciale is not smoked, but its flavor is unrivaled due to the soft fat and very firm muscle which makes up the pigs cheek. (A pig’s cheeks are the strongest muscles in the animal’s body, not unlike my own.) The guanciale is cured simply in a salt, sugar, and pepper combination and left to dry cure for three weeks. Compared with some other Italian cured meat, guanciale is surprisingly simple and easy to make at home and most definitely worth it (article to come), not to mention how inexpensive it is. Most butchers will give you a pigs head, but if you’re the squirmy type you might want to ask him to cut the cheeks off for you.
Faced with various ways of making a dish -in this case the way it’s made in Rome as opposed to the way it’s made in North America- all leads to the inevitable question: is there only one true way to make a Carbonara? In a country were cuisine is so regionally varied, how can we isolate one method to be better than all others. The reality is we can’t. Sure we can isolate the original method, but it doesn’t always mean it’s the best method. Lets accept that the food artists out there –and you know who you are- work at finding the best possible ingredients and cooking methods all toward the goal of making a dish taste above and beyond our preconceptions, while at the same time respecting a certain base and foundation which made the recipe good in the first place.
Indeed the appearance of any plate is important, and a plate of spagetti alla carbonara is of no exception, (after all we do eat with our eyes to a certain extent) but in the end, its taste is the most important factor of all; which begs the question: What’s it supposed to taste like? Some will say it should taste like bacon and eggs, which is completely false, while others seem to be under the misconception that a carbonara should be dominated by the taste of cheese thereby turning what is supposed to be a subtle myriad of flavors into a salty, thick, pasty mess I wouldn’t feed my Parents dog, Guido.
What a true Carbonara tastes like begins with its aroma. Breathe it in and your olfactory senses should denote the rendered fatty part of the pancetta, as well as the nutty aroma of the caramelized meat. As the first forkful enters the mouth and makes contact with your tongue you should feel the warm, creaminess of the egg yolks followed by the unmistakable taste of Parmigiano Reggiano. As you begin to chew the pasta the distinct taste of cooked cured meat and its fat joins the magnus opus taking place in your mouth as the perfect harmony of flavors culminates in a discerning symphony for the palate.
The following recipe, if followed precisely, will yield a carbonara much like you would find in Rome. It should be velvety and free from egg curdles.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Serves 4 to 5

-1 medium onion, diced small
-¾ cup of guanciale, cut into ¼ inch cubes (if you can’t find guanciale, you can use unsmoked pancetta)
-5 eggs separated, being careful to keep the yolks whole
- ¼” cup grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese
- ½” cup grated romano cheese
-675 grams of spaghetti (a pack and a half of the dried variety)
-Freshly ground black pepper


Have all of your ingredients chopped and your mise-en-place ready. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
In a large bowl combine the 5 egg whites and 1 yolk with the cheese and mix with a whisk until everything is well incorporated and the eggs are slightly frothy. Have your bowl ready next to the saute pan.
In a large 12 to 14-inch sauté pan, cook the onion and guanciale over medium heat until both the onion and guanciale are translucent, about 7 to 8 minutes, turn your heat to low.
As soon as your pasta is al dente, add ¼ cup of the pasta water into the sauté pan, and add ¼ cup of the pasta water to the egg and cheese mixture. When you add the pasta water to the egg and cheese mixture do so in a thin steady stream while mixing with your whisk. This will temper the eggs.
Drain the pasta in a large colander and shake out as much excess water as you can. (The shaking will also release a lot of steam which can cause your eggs to curdle)
With a pair of kitchen tongs, add some of the pasta to the bowl with the egg and cheese mixture and mix. Add the rest of the pasta to the pan and mix. Now dump the contents of the bowl into the sauté pan and mix vigorously over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through.
To serve, put the pasta in a plate and create a small crater in the center. Gently scoop up your reserved egg yolk and place in the crater. Add some freshly ground black pepper and enjoy.
Note: for the squeamish who recoil at the sight of a raw egg, you needn’t worry about salmonella, the egg yolk is actually cooked by the heat of the noodles as you stir it. Just don’t wait to long before stirring it. Also, make sure your eggs are fresh and free of surface cracks.

No comments: