~ Mel's Got Spaghetti "a la Carbonara" on Her Mind (A Simple Recipe w/Fond Memories & Rich History) ~
Carbonara. A word every foodie is familiar with. Not familiar with it? Not a foodie. Don't like the word foodie? Go write your own material. Carbonara is Italian, and, if you have ever eaten it in its city of origin, Rome, or had it prepared for you by someone from Rome, you have little patience with American bastardizations. Carbonara is the definition of "simply extraordinary"!
A bit about carbonara (kar-boh-NAH-rah): (The following is a run-on sentence.) Carbonara is a dish of al dente pasta (usually bucatini or thick spaghetti) tossed into a skillet containing chards of fried "crispy yet chewy" lardo (pig fatback), guanciale (pig jowl), or, pancetta (pork belly), then, tossed to coat with a mixture of whisked raw eggs and finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese. When blended into the hot pasta, the eggs cook to a creamy state (not scrambled), the cheese melts, and, reserved pasta water, NO CREAM or any creamy product, is used to control the consistency. The dish is garnished with a copious amount of freshly-ground black pepper.
A bit about allowable optional additions: In Italy, onion and/or garlic is sometimes added, but in a unique way. The half-cooked pork is moved to one half of the skillet to finish cooking, and the onions and/or garlic are added and sauted on the other half. It's also acceptable to whisk a bit of minced parsley into the egg mixture or sprinkle some on the finished dish. Bucatini is traditional, but flat strands or short non-tubular pasta are allowed too. Raw egg on top?
You can skip the farm fresh egg yolk on top, but, my love of it precludes me from doing that!
v This is a Wedding Cake. Pure and not-so-simple perfection!
A bit about my carbonara recipe: It was 1998. Our middle son (my stepson) got engaged to a gal from Rome. The wedding, a catered affair, was held here in my Happy Valley home. Four days prior to the ceremony the grandmother, mother and an aunt of the bride arrived. They spoke even less English than the bride, but, thanks to my husband's limited grasp of Italian, we communicated pretty well. I have no idea how they did it, but they got through JFK with a small suitcase of olive oil, cheeses and cured meats (as gifts for me), and a couple of bottles of wine (for Joe) -- all the things no two self-respecting Italian cooks could leave home in Rome without -- they came to cook.
Two recipes got taught to me during those four days: Bolognese sauce and carbonara sauce. Over a few glasses of wine, we learned that the bride's mother was a retired actress who had a small part in the movie Ben Hur too. It was a happy time and a beautiful wedding. As for the rest of the story, don't ask (not everyone lives happily ever after). I've got two extraordinary recipes, and, for that I am grateful! (To learn more about the wedding cake, read my Cook's Note below.)
My Favorite History of "Bucatini alla Carbonara", as per
Sophia Loren's Recipes & Memories (page 66, copyright 1998).
"The film Two Women was shot in a mountainous region two to three hours from Rome. Not so far, but like another universe from the lowlands. Unlike city dwellers, especially Romans, mountain people are used to long silences, and, are simple and direct in manner. Their cuisine is similar -- hearty, substantial, and nourishing.
Not far from our location was a small all-male community of charcoal workers. This trade must be almost extinct, because no one needs coal any more, and even country stoves now use natural gas or electricity. There is, however, still some demand for charcoal or wood for some types of traditional cooking in fireplaces and for grilling, roasting, and rotisserie-style cooking.
But to return to my mountain people, they offered the cast and crew this pasta dish "Maccheroni alla Carbonara. The maccheroni -- the pasta -- were homemade, long, rather thick strands, with no hole through the center, irreverently called "strozzapreti" ("priest stranglers"). Our incomparable director, Vittorio De Sica, and I asked for seconds, and I made sure I was invited the next day to stand beside the men at the fire and take notes on the recipe.
By now I've prepared and eaten Bucatini alla Carbonara many times in my life. This recipe is faithful to the way the men prepared it, but it will never have the same flavor as it did then. Whenever I have La Carbonara, I become nostalgic for those people and places.
Carbonara is served with a healthy sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper over it, which some food scholars maintain represents a dusting of carbon powder. There also are those who say the dish was invented because the essential ingredients, bacon and eggs, were supplied by American GIs to cooks using charcoal burners in Rome itself, but my experience would disprove this. Probably the GIs were simply the source of ingredients for a dish that already existed. In any case, Bucatini alla Carbonara remains a Roman specialty that a number of restaurants proudly prepare."
The only thing carbonara aficionados care about is: the end justifies the means.
These are my proportions and my method (as per a trio of opinionated Roman women):
1/2 pound thick-sliced pancetta (unless you can find lardo or guanciale), have the person at the deli-counter thick slice it for you
1/2-3/4 cup finely-diced white or yellow onion (optional) (I use 1/2 cup.)
1 tablespoon minced, fresh garlic (optional) (I use none.)
1 pound bucatini or thick spaghetti
1 tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta water
1 cup of hot pasta water, reserved after pasta is cooked
3/4 cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggianno or Locatelli cheese
4 very-fresh or farm-fresh large eggs, at room temperature
4 additional very-fresh or farm-fresh eggs yolks, at room temperature (optional)
freshly and coarsely-ground sea salt and black pepper or peppercorn blend, to taste
finely-minced parsley, for garnish (optional) (I use none.)
~ Step 1. Slice or dice the pancetta. I cut mine into 1/4" chards because that is what I was taught. When sliced like this, the pancetta will be crispy on the outside with a slightly-chewy center. If you want your pancetta crisp, dice it. Finely-dice the optional onion and/or garlic at this time too.
~ Step 2. Place pancetta in a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan. Over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, saute until the pancetta is golden on the outside and to-the-tooth on the inside, about 8 minutes. If adding the optional onion and/or garlic, after about 5 minutes of cooking pancetta, move it to one side of the pan and add the onion/garlic to the other. Continue to saute, until the onion is softened and the panchetta is cooked as directed above...
~ Step 3. In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add the salt. Add the pasta and continue to cook until the pasta is slightly less than al dente about 9-11 minutes (9-10 minutes for thick spaghetti, 10-11 minutes for bucatini). Test often during the last 2 minutes of cooking.
While the water is coming to a boil and the pasta is simmering:
~ Step 4. Grate the cheese. In a small bowl, whisk four eggs. Whisk in the 3/4 cup of cheese. Place a large colander in the sink and place a 1-cup measuring cup in the colander. This will remind you to reserve the pasta water before you dump it all down the drain! You can thank me later.
Immediately portion into 4 warmed serving bowls. Top each with an optional egg yolk and indulge!
Serve with additional grated cheese, freshly ground sea salt and pepper at tableside:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; large spatula; microplane grater; fork; 8-quart stockpot; 1-cup measuring container; colander; tongs
Cook's Note ("the cake"): Kim Morrison Kim's Website is a personal friend of mine who has been making cakes for my celebrations for years. In 2003 and 2004 she captured the Grand Prize at the National Wedding Cake Competition in Oklahoma city. Upon winning two consecutive years in a row, they "retired" her to judging the competition. She has also been featured on several Food Network shows. PS: Those flowers are all hand-made works of 'sugar art'!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)