If you're from the Philippines, you were probably fed with creamy "carbonara" like most of us, the sauce made from heavy cream or milk, bacon bits or ham, and button mushrooms, topped with shreds of queso de bola (an Edam cheese wrapped in festive red wax and very popular in the Philippines, particularly during the Christmas season) and chopped parsley. That's the kind of "carbonara" most of us grew up with, and once you've travelled to Italy, or have your foreign classmate or worldly foodie friend whip up a carbonara for you, it was probably a mind-blowing experience to discover that authentic carbonara does not use any of the above ingredients, except maybe for bacon -- and only cured ones allowed, not smoked.
Thanks to my friends Paula and Dave Junker, here's an easy recipe for carbonara, a good idea for midweek lunch or dinner. The simplicity of the ingredients belie the technical nature of its cooking. For pasta, you can use either spaghetti, linguini or fettuccine; for cheese, pecorino Romano is recommended, although if you don't have this, you can use grated parmesan. Traditionally, guanciale (Italian cured pork jowl) is the most authentic yardstick for carbonara, but if this is not available at your supermarket or speciality deli shop, pancetta or fresh bacon is ok (although this may be a point of contention and become a mealtime debate topic... I'm warning you ahead. :-P).
Pasta water is also key to achieve carbonara's creamy texture. Instead of draining the pot after spaghetti has cooked, keep a few scoops of pasta water to thicken the sauce to your liking, be it moist, liquid, or creamy. We'll get to that later.
You can opt out of using garlic, but a clove of crushed garlic can be placed in a pan with a little olive oil to release flavour that can enhance your guanciale or pancetta.
And lastly, do not worry about messing it up the first time...hey, we're all "shifting the paradigm" during this unprecedented time, and am not just talking about carbonara. :-D
Update as of 13 November 2020: I've removed the measurement for black pepper, as I prefer a more peppery taste to my carbonara, a la caccio e pepe. You can adjust to taste of course.
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Serves: 4 persons
500 grams spaghetti or linguini (1 pack)
300 grams guanciale, pancetta or fresh bacon*
6 large egg yolks or 8 medium egg yolks
1 cup grated pecorino Romano or parmesan cheese
Generous heaps of ground black pepper
Salt for pasta water (about 10 turns from the shaker)
1 cup pasta water
1 garlic clove, crushed (optional)
*As mentioned, guanciale or cured pork jowl, is the most authentic ingredient for carbonara. If this is not available at your supermarket or local purveyor, you can use pancetta or bacon, as long as it is fresh or cured bacon, not smoked please, and certainly not glazed with honey or maple syrup!
1. Boil a pot of salted water to cook spaghetti. Be generous with the salt, a few heaping teaspoons per litre. Cook pasta for 10 to 12 minutes, according to the package. While pasta is cooking, remove the rind from the guanciale or pancetta or bacon, and cut into strips, about 1 centimetre thick.
Twist pasta and spread in the pot like this, for heat to distribute and for it to cook evenly.
2. Oil the skillet with rind or pork fat. It's optional to put a clove of crushed garlic on it before pan is heated. Slather a few drops of olive oil, then turn on the heat to medium. Distribute the pork pieces evenly on the pan and allow them to brown for about 10-15 minutes, being careful not to make it too fried.
3. Meanwhile, crack the eggs and separate the egg yolks into a separate mixing bowl, carefully transferring them with a spoon. You can store the egg whites in a sealed container inside the refrigerator or freezer, to be used in future for an omelette or other dishes.
In the bowl with the egg yolk, add 3/4 of the grated pecorino on top of the egg yolks, then sprinkle a generous amount of black pepper into the mix. Whisk the yolk, cheese and black pepper with a hand whisk or fork. Set this aside.
To separate egg yolk, you can try this trick: when cracking the egg in half, carefully lower the yolk on half of the egg shell, and let the whites fall into the bowl. Or, use a slotted spoon to separate the yolk from the whites.
Sprinkle grated pecorino cheese on top of egg yolks, then ground black pepper, then whisk with a fork.
You can be generous with the pepper and add more into the sauce.
4. Once the pasta is al dente, turn off heat and transfer them into the skillet using a pair of tongs. The guanciale should finish cooking by now too. Turn off the heat from the skillet as well. Blend spaghetti with the pork and fat, adding a little pasta water from the pot. Then pour the egg yolk and cheese mix into spaghetti. Stir quickly to coat. Sprinkle remaining pecorino cheese or grate more on top, and some more black pepper.
Transfer the pasta into the skillet where you cooked your guanciale or pancetta. Spread and coat with pork fat. Add a bit of the pasta water into the mix too.
Pour the egg yolk+cheese+pepper mix into the pan, and stir to coat.
If you want the sauce to be creamier, just add more pasta water. Egg whites may also act as a thickener, but this can be tricky if you are not used to it, and can coagulate and turn scrambled if exposed to high heat. Better to use the pasta water to give the sauce a little more lift.