Carbonara: pasta, Parmesan, bacon and black pepper. The stuff of legends. Need I say more?
Yet the origins of this legendary dish and its name are obscure. Its genesis has perplexed and eluded gastronomers for over five decades. Avid debates are tearing entire countries apart. The slow implosion of black holes is triggered by the mystery that is Carbonara.
First discovered after WWII, one popular theory speaks of the valiant carbonari, or charcoalmen. Since the dish really only has 5 ingredients, this does seem a plausible explanation. Note, though, that during the 19th century, the carbonari were also members of a Neapolitan secret revolutionary society, not unlike the Free Masons, called the Carboneria. The group took their name from a fifteenth-century Scottish group of rebels who masked their subversive activities by pretending to be colliers. Thus, alla carbonara, by association, also means “in a secretive or subversive fashion”.
It’s riveting. Imagine an entire underground movement devoted to eating Spaghetti alla carbonara (in the associative sense) in remote caves and crumbling safehouses all across the country. Imagine doors stamped with a C, leading to hidden tunnels and ancient treasures. Imagine secret rites and initiation rituals involving the consumption of inordinate amounts of Parmesan cheese and bacon.
Oh, dear carbonari, please please let me into your secret society. I’m the person you are looking for. I was born to work for you. I am a bacon-and-Parmesan-cheese-devouring fiend. I hace been looking for you. I will find you. I will eat all your Parmesan and bacon and pasta.
On a side note, there is also a rumor that the Carbonara might get it’s name from the word carbonata, a term widely used in Renaissance Italy to denote a type of salt-cured and smoked pork, which is, of course, an ingredient in today’s dish, or even that it refers to the pepper we sprinkle on it, which resembles charcoal.
All of these are, of course, ludicrous. The theory involving pasta-adoring revoltionary independence fighters, surreptitous culinary orgies in the dead of night, and, quite possibly, witchcraft drawing from the power of Parmesan eaten at the stroke of midnight, is so much more appealing. Oh, the possibilities. My imagination has put some fruit on its head and is dancing a conga.
The more perceptive amongst you will have noticed, however, that I have not once uttered the sacrilegious word, banned from all Carbonara-related conversations: cream. I did my research. Carbonara does not include cream. Eggs, and plenty of cheese, yes. When beaten and mixed with the pasta they transform into a gloriously creamy goo. Yes. Cream? No. It’s unnecessary, grossly irreverent and utterly superfluous. Extra cheese and bacon? Yes. Cream? No.
I guess you catch my drift.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Prep time: 15 minutes
You will need:
- 400gr Spaghetti
- 200-300gr bacon, prosciutto, pancetta, or similar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1cup grated Parmesan, plus more to serve
- freshly cracked black pepper
Cook the Spaghetti in generously salted water until al dente, or according to package instructions. Before you drain them, remember to reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water.
While the pasta is cooking, sauté the bacon/pancetta/whatever you used in a large skillet until nicely browned and crisp. Leave in the skillet.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs and the Parmesan until nicely blended.
Reheat the bacon-skillet (oh yes… bacon grease), add the reserved pasta water, toss in the drained spaghetti and agitate the pan over the heat for a few seconds, until the bubbling subsides.
Now comes the part where you need to work fast. You need to cook the egg, but not over direct hear or it will scramble. It might scramble anyway, so go ahead and reach into that hidden-superhero-part of you that lurks at the bottom of your mind. Now is the moment to step forth and man up.
Back to cooking. To achieve the creamy-not-scrambled egg texture, remove the skillet from the heat source, pour in the egg mixture and stir quickly and thoroughly until the eggs thicken. Remember, you need to work quickly to prevent the eggs from scrambling. If the sauce seems to thick, thin it out with pasta water.
Dish up, season generously with black pepper and extra Parmesan, if so inclined. If you find you are not so inclined, I recommend that you find that inclination. Fast 🙂