In the summer of 1978, my parents took the entire family on a two month trip to Europe. We landed in Rome late in the evening, and by the time we arrived at Zia Bruna’s house, we were exhausted, disheveled, and starving.
We sat on her sofa, bleary-eyed, making small talk with our Italian cousins as the smell of bacon and onions began to drift out of the kitchen. Less than a half hour later, we were being served one of the tastiest and most appreciated dishes of pasta I have ever eaten.
Thus was my introduction to spaghetti carbonara, which has since become a Joshua all-time favorite. It is super-quick, super-satisfying, and super-easy (well, there is a timing issue here, but even that’s not too tricky). What follows is what I consider the most authentic rendering of this dish.
- 1 lb spaghetti (and I do mean spaghetti–no linguine or angel hair)
- 5 eggs
- 1/2 lb of bacon, chopped (see note below)
- 1 small onion, chopped (no more than 2/3-3/4 cup)
- salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- freshly grated Parmesan cheese
First things first: get those eggs out of the fridge. The colder the eggs, the harder a time you will have with the final step here.
Put a large pot of water on high heat for the pasta. Don’t forget to salt the water (at least a tablespoon. If you can’t taste the salt in the water, you haven’t added enough). While the water heats up, get your chopped bacon into a 12 inch frying pan on medium heat. Note: traditionally, this dish calls for pancetta, which I have used before (I can’t vouch for Zia Bruna’s–I didn’t even know what pancetta was in 1978). If I am planning this meal, I will buy thick-sliced or slab bacon; more often than not, though, I am making this dish spur of the moment and using whatever bacon I happen to have in the house). Let the bacon cook long enough for the fat to start to render, then add your chopped onion.
While your bacon and onions cook and your water moves toward a boil, wisk your eggs thoroughly in a room temperature glass bowl. Add salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste. I use about a teaspoon of salt, and probably a 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper. You want to be able to see the pepper in your egg–one version of why this dish is called “carbonara” is that the pepper resembles coal dust. Set your eggs beside your frying pan. You’re going to want them close at hand.
Now if I get my timing just right, the bacon and onion are just where I want them when the water has come to a boil. You want some touches of brown on your onion and some crispness in your bacon, but don’t let things get too crunchy. Shut off the heat, but leave the bacon and onion in the pan–and go ahead and leave that rendered fat in there too. If you are freaked out by having that much fat go into your final dish, you can remove some. You definitely want to leave some fat in there, though. In our house, we leave it be. Drop your pasta in the boiling water.
By now, you should have your spaghetti in the boiling water, your bacon and onion cooked and sitting in the frying pan, your eggs in a bowl next to the frying pan, and a colander sitting in the sink. It is important that your frying pan is not too hot by the time you get to this last step–it should have been off the heat for about 10 minutes.
Once your pasta is cooked al dente, thoroughly and quickly drain the pasta in the colander. You don’t want to lose much heat from the pasta–it is what will cook your eggs. Transfer your pasta to your frying pan and immediately pour your eggs over the top of the spaghetti. Let the spaghetti sit for 30 seconds or less (depending on how much residual heat you have in the frying pan; you do not want the egg to cook onto the frying pan). Now toss the pasta through the egg mixture, which will have started to set and cook onto the spaghetti. The goal here is not scrambled-eggs-and-spaghetti; you should end up with something closer to a cooked-enough-to-forget-about-salmonella-but-wet-enough-to-call-a-sauce mixture.
Finally, transfer your pasta to a serving dish, add a touch of grated cheese, and give it one final toss before serving.
We are a family of five–I always cook a full pound of pasta with this dish and plan on leftovers. If you want to halve this recipe, use two eggs.