I remember eating carbonara for the first time with my host family in Italy. Spaghetti noodles were tossed with a creamy, eggy sauce and speckled with pork pieces. I tried to convey my love for it to my host mom, but really all I could come up with was “mi piache, mi piache…” (I like, I like). We had it again several times in those two weeks.
Later, back in Bellingham, David, who was also in Italy and looks exactly like the Statue of David in Florence, charmed us with his take on carbonara. I think he asked our host mom to show him how to make it…or maybe it was his girlfriend’s Italian mother who showed him. It was one of those. If you knew David, you’d take one look at his floppy blonde hair, worn Birkenstocks and single pair of pants (brown corduroys) and say, no way can he pull off this finicky dish. On the contrary, I like his best. Last year on my birthday I had one request: that he make us a heaping pile of my favorite pasta. With a toss of cheese, whipping of eggs and dose of bacon fat, it was a hit. Another thing that’s important to know about David is that he loves bacon fat. He always keeps a necessary mason jar of it next to the stove to throw into whatever he is making (I try not to think about this when I am eating his french toast).
Finally, I made my own carbonara, adapting a “lighter” recipe from Cooks Illustrated. The long editorial introduction explained that this recipe is lighter because it doesn’t have heavy cream in it. I didn’t realize any carbonara had heavy cream in it; it’s unnecessary. The recipe came together nicely with my homemade spaghetti noodles and local, thick cut pepper bacon. I personally would have liked it a tiny bit saucier, but do as the Italians do and appreciate the simplicity of great pasta lightly coated in sauce.
*Note: Don’t ignore the simple, seemingly frivolous suggestions like using 2 quarts of water exactly. It really does make a difference by making the pasta water more starchy to thicken the sauce. Also, read the instructions through because you should work quickly when it comes time to put the pasta water into the egg mixture and the egg mixture over the noodles. The hot noodles and water cook the raw egg.
Makes 4-6 servings/Adapted from Cooks Illustrated
- 8 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (I used pepper bacon)
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons shallot, minced
- 2 1/2 ounces Pecorino Romano, grated (1 1/4 cups)
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 pound spaghetti (I may use a little less next time)
- 1 teaspoon salt
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a dutch oven. Set a colander in a large bowl (to catch the pasta water) and set aside.
Bring bacon and water to simmer in a 10-inch nonstick pan over medium heat. (Cooks Illustrated said this results in chewier, rather than crunchy, bacon.) Cook until the water evaporates and the bacon begins to sizzle, about 10 minutes. Continue to cook until the fat renders and begins to brown, another 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and shallot and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds.
Strain bacon through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl, measure out 1 tablespoon of fat and place in a medium bowl. To the fat, whisk in the eggs and yolk, pepper and cheese.
Meanwhile, add the spaghetti and salt to the pot of boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain spaghetti into colander. Measure out 1 cup of pasta water and discard the rest. Then, put the spaghetti back into the bowl that was just heated by the pasta water.
Slowly whisk 1/2 cup of the pasta water into the egg and cheese mixture. Don’t put it all in at once or the eggs may scramble. Then pour this mixture over the spaghetti and toss to coat. Add the bacon mixture and toss again. Add more of the remaining pasta water if needed. Also check for seasoning. Depending on your tastes, the salty bite of the cheese may be enough. For me, it wasn’t.