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The speedy, cheesy, beloved spaghetti carbonara

Becky Krystal

THE WASHINGTON POST – Eggs, carbs, cheese and cured meat is a combination I enjoy quite often. Pizza. Breakfast sandwiches. Burritos. Quiche.

The thing is, I had not, until recently, partaken in this magical quartet in one of their more obvious, beloved iterations: spaghetti carbonara.

To my colleagues, this was a fairly shocking admission. But they’ve recovered from my revelation, at least enough to indulge me in my quest to figure out how to make a great version of this Italian dish that is a particular Roman specialty.

Spaghetti carbonara consists of pasta coated in an egg-and-cheese-based sauce that’s enlivened with lots of black pepper and bits of cured meat.

“I think it’s immensely satisfying,” said cookbook author Giuliano Hazan, the source of the recipe I’ve adapted, as well as the son of legendary Italian food authority Marcella Hazan. The richness of the eggs, the substance of the meat and, of course, the flavour and texture of the cheese are a perfect pasta storm.

Lest you think that carbonara is not as beloved in its hometown as the legend is made out to be, let cookbook author and Eternal City resident Kristina Gill set the record straight: “They live and die by carbonara in Rome.” You’ll find it in restaurants and in homes, with perhaps as many opinions about how it should be made as places it’s eaten. “Everybody has the best carbonara, you know,” said Gill.

Spaghetti carbonara. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

To ensure you make your best carbonara just the way you like it, let’s break down the main elements and keys to success.

THE PASTA

It’s in the name of this recipe, so you won’t be surprised that Hazan likes carbonara made with spaghetti. Longer pasta is ideal for twirling to pick up all the sauce, he said. Other long pastas he suggested are bucatini, which is thicker than spaghetti with a hollow centre, and spaghettoni, or wider spaghetti. Pass on thinner varieties such as angel hair and spaghettini.

Unsurprisingly, you won’t get consensus on pasta shape. Gill and Parla offer a recipe for carbonara made with rigatoni in their book. The wide, tubular pasta is often offered in Roman restaurants, Gill said, although you may have the option of choosing between it and spaghetti.

Regardless of which shape you use, aim for cooking the pasta al dente, so that there’s still a little bite left.

THE CHEESE

Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino Romano are the typical cheeses used in carbonara, Hazan said. Pecorino is a sheep’s milk cheese that is sharper and, you guessed it, from Rome.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is mellower and creamier, Hazan said. While I liked a 50-50 split between the two, a slight modification from Hazan’s formula, it’s easy to tweak the ratios to suit your tastes. Use a blend or just one. Experiment and see what you like. How much cheese you use is between you and your stomach. This recipe employs one-quarter cup total for eight ounces of pasta, which I thought was the right amount for imparting richness and silky texture to the sauce. Too little will be bland and insufficient to coat the pasta, and too much may yield either a gloppy mess or a bowl with clumps of unmelted cheese.

The most important advice: “You should get good cheese,” Gill said. It’s such a primary driver of texture and flavour that it can make or break the dish. Don’t use cheese from a canister, and don’t go for pre-shredded varieties. You’re counting on the residual heat of the pasta to melt the cheese and bring together the sauce, so the cheese must be finely grated.

Large shreds or chunks won’t melt properly. You can use a rasp-style grater, such as a Microplane, or the small holes on a box grater, which is my go-to. Head to the cheese counter or your local cheese shop or Italian market. A good cheesemonger or shop will be happy to provide you with a sample.

THE EGGS

When I stared down my somewhat intimidating spreadsheet breaking down the elements of nine different reference recipes, this category offered the most variation. Some recipes rivalled custard or ice cream, calling for a half dozen or more yolks.

I had a feeling that would be a bit rich for my tastes and, frankly, the thought of having to deal with so many excess whites was a turnoff. Gill suggests one egg per person as a good baseline to start. As a slight tweak on that concept, I liked Hazan’s balance of an equal number of whole eggs and yolks – here that’s one of each.

The whites are rich in protein, so they give the sauce body, Hazan said. The yolks bring richness and luscious texture. An excess of whites can turn things soupy or even slimy, so dropping just one from the sauce here (easy enough to toss into a batch of scrambled eggs) ensured a smooth but stable sauce.

THE PEPPER

A generous grind – or many grinds – of black pepper is a signature element of carbonara. Ideally, you are grinding the pepper yourself for the best flavour.

Have you had the same peppercorns for years? Might be time to replace them. Remember, each ingredient needs to shine here. If you’re shopping for new spices, Gill recommended swinging by the spice shop so you can experiment with different black pepper varieties, which can boast distinctive flavours depending on where they’re grown. Try them individually or mixed together for a custom flavour profile unique to your carbonara.

THE WILD CARDS

Managing heat is one of the most crucial aspects of mastering carbonara. “You definitely don’t want pasta with scrambled egg,” Gill said. The right amount of heat will thicken and set the eggs – cook, if you will, though it can be hard to guarantee they have reached the temperature the government considers a safe threshold – without scrambling them.

There are a number of ways to ensure you are gently but efficiently heating the eggs. In Hazan’s method, “the heat of the pasta seems to be exactly the right temperature to thicken the eggs” while leaving them creamy.

The freshly drained pasta goes directly into the serving bowl where you have already blended the eggs and cheese so that the sauce starts to come together as soon as it hits the hot noodles. Some recipes call for the eggs to be tempered, so that they are less likely to scramble or seize up.

This can be done with pasta water, but I took another tip from Missy Robbins in Pasta: The Spirit and Craft of Italy’s Greatest Food, with Recipes. She uses some of the rendered cured meat to temper the egg and cheese mixture, so as soon as I pulled it off from its first trip to the burner, I removed about a tablespoon of the fat and incorporated it into that mixture in the bottom of my serving bowl. Not only does it bring up the temperature of the eggs, it also helps the cheese get a jump-start in melting so you don’t end up with unincorporated shreds after tossing.

Some cooks prefer mixing the sauce in a double boiler, or a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, which is one of the methods Gill and Parla share in their book. The duo calls the method “foolproof”, and it has the benefit of a gentler but persistent heat, even more so than the residual warmth of the pasta. This can be especially helpful when making bigger batches with larger amounts of cheese and eggs.

Hazan warned against putting the eggs directly over the heat of the stove, which is one way you can easily end up with a scrambled sauce. Gill said she has seen chefs do it in restaurants. She and Parla include a recipe variation for this method, too, in which the drained pasta is added to the pan in which you’ve cooked the meat, before putting it back over low heat while you stir in the egg and cheese mixture. It may not be the method for nervous beginners, but it’s certainly an option if you’re confident in your ability to avoid overcooking the eggs. For this method, Gill and Parla said to avoid using a non-stick skillet.

Timing goes hand in hand with heat. It may take a few tries to get into your groove – it did for me – but ideally you’ll sync up the different stages of the process so that you’re working efficiently and putting your best plate of pasta on the table. Start by getting the water boiling (it always takes longer than you think!), then get the cured meat cooking. While that’s happening, assemble the sauce ingredients in your bowl so they’re ready as soon as the pasta is done, because, as noted above, the residual heat is what brings everything together.

When the pasta is almost done, slide the meat back onto the burner to reheat and ensure last-minute crispiness. After too often finding meat piled on the bottom or sides of the bowl, I decided toss the pasta with half the meat and then add the rest so that there’s still plenty on top that doesn’t get left behind.

PRACTICE

If you’re anything like me, your first carbonara may be far from perfect. Don’t beat yourself up. With practice, you’ll be cranking out better batches in even better time. Truly, the prospect of a stick-to-your-ribs bowl of pasta made with a handful of pantry and refrigerator staples that comes together in a shade over half an hour is well worth the effort. And it may soon become a family go-to, even on harried weeknights. Hazan said, “it’s certainly an easy dinner to put together”.

SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

35 minutes
Two to three servings (makes about three-and-a-half cups)

Spaghetti carbonara is a Roman specialty that consists of pasta coated in a silken sauce of eggs and cheese along with a scattering of crispy meat. It’s savoury, salty, satisfying and speedy.

Other elements are flexible, too. We liked a 50-50 blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino Romano, but you can adjust the blend or just use one type. Parsley adds brightness, though it’s not mandatory.

This is the perfect amount for a hungry couple or small family. The recipe scales up easily for larger crowds.

Storage Notes: This dish is best eaten as soon as it’s made. If you have leftovers, you can frizzle it with a little butter and/or olive oil in a skillet until warmed and slightly crispy in spots, but it won’t be the same as when you first cooked it.

INGREDIENTS

One large egg, at room temperature
One large egg yolk, at room temperature
Two tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Two tablespoons freshly grated pecorino Romano
One tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Fine salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Two to four ounces cured meat, diced
One tablespoon olive oil
One tablespoon unsalted butter
Eight ounces (227 grammes) dried spaghetti

DIRECTIONS

Fill a large pot with about three quartz of water, place over high heat and bring to a boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients. Using the large, shallow bowl you’ll be serving the pasta in, combine the whole egg, egg yolk, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino Romano and parsley, if using. Season with a little salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Using a fork, whisk until thoroughly combined but not so much that you beat a lot of air into the mixture.

In a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, combine the cured meat, olive oil and butter and cook until the meat begins to brown but not long enough to make it crisp, four to five minutes. Remove from the heat.

Carefully remove about a tablespoon of the rendered fat and add it to the egg mixture to begin to temper the sauce, quickly whisking again with the fork. When the water comes to a boil, generously salt it until it is as salty as seawater, add the spaghetti and stir until all the strands are submerged. Cook according to the package instructions, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente, or mostly done with just a little bit of bite left.

When the pasta is almost ready, return the skillet with the meat to medium-high heat. When the pasta is done, drain, reserving one cup of the water, and transfer it to the serving bowl, tossing vigourously with tongs or stirring with a wooden spoon until thoroughly coated with the egg mixture. Pour half of the meat into the bowl, toss again, and add pasta water as needed to achieve your preferred sauce consistency. Add the remaining meat without stirring so you have plenty visible on top. Serve immediately.

Nutrition information per serving| Calories: 529; Total Fat: 23g; Saturated Fat: 9g; Cholesterol: 153mg; Sodium: 518mg; Carbohydrates: 58g; Dietary Fibre: 2g; Sugar: 2g; Protein: 18g.

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