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Friday, June 22, 2012

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

For the most part, carbonara sauces are typified by two things: egg, and pancetta (or some other salted pork). 

They can be a little tricky, however, because technically they involve uncooked egg.  Well... sort of.  The egg gets cooked, but only very minimally, and only immediately before serving.  

As long as you're aware of this, a carbonara sauce is actually quite simple and can be quick to make.

I've seen many recipes out there for 'carbonara' sauces.  Most claim to be authentic, and accuse the vast majority of carbonara recipes as being unauthentic.

By and large, from what I've gleaned in my research on carbonara sauces, there are some definite no-nos.  For example... cream (or milk) should not be present in any form here.  I also noticed that almost every recipe out there uses garlic in the mix, but removed before serving.  Which is, interesting.

Anyway... I don't claim that my carbonara sauce is 'authentic' but - judging from what I've seen out there, and from the recipes which influenced it - I'd wager it's not far off.

I've seen a lot of variation out there, and some recipes are certainly more complex than others - particularly concerning the treatment of the eggs.  Some just call for entire eggs, unceremoniously stirred into the pot while still on the fire.  Some call for just the yolks, beaten separately and slowly added.  I saw one which called for leaving the yolks, unbroken, for a topping right at the end.  I even read a recipe which involved a very complicated set of instructions for partitioning and whipping only the egg whites and then carefully folding them in near the end.

The bottom line is that, despite there being a great deal of incensed and insulted Italian cooks, a lot of criticism, and a great saturation of recipes out there, there does not seem to be much consensus on carbonara sauces.

So, this is just my carbonara sauce, and - like every one of my recipes - is pulled from a bunch of different sources.  

Hopefully it doesn't insult any cooks in authority!

The main ingredients are pancetta, egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, and fresh Italian parsley.

There is also a fair bit of white onion, a splash of white wine, and some garlic cloves for sauteing.

Begin by chopping the white onion finely.

Throw that in a large, shallow, saucepan.  

Toss in your pancetta.  

If you don't have pancetta, feel free to use some other type of salted pork like guanciale, or even just bacon.  I even saw a couple recipes which used prosciutto... which I found strange.

Anyway... I recommend pancetta, either sliced very thickly at the deli, and then chopped, or else just big cubes like these:

Add a few cloves of crushed garlic, for flavour.

I like to make little cuts in the cloves, in addition to giving them a good smoosh with the flat of my blade, in order to aid with flavour distribution.

Then it's just a large dollop (I'd say about 2 tablespoons) of extra virgin olive oil, and fry that puppy up over medium heat.

I like to add a generous crackling of black pepper at this point too - there's something about frying pork that just seems to ask for pepper.  :)

Anyway, that takes about 10 minutes, so while that is sauteing, get to work on the other "half" of the sauce.

Separate four egg yolks.  If you don't know a good way of doing this, or never have, I find the hand-sifted method works best.  
I used to do the 'shell-transfer' method (crack egg in half, transfer yolk to empty half of shell, pour out whites) until someone told me you're really not supposed to do that.  Apparently egg shells carry quite a bit of bacteria and this can cause contamination.
So now I do the 'hand-sifting' method.  Basically you crack your egg, and then carefully set the whole thing in the palm of your hand. Once it has been fully 'cupped', gently part your fingers slightly and let gravity 'pull' the whites off.

Take care to not puncture or rupture the yolk, and you'll be left with a beautiful, perfect, egg yolk.

I'm sure most of you know how to do this... but for those of you who don't this could be handy to learn.

So... collect four yolks.  
Many recipes and dishes call for yolks unbroken so it's a good habit to get into trying to preserve them.  For example, one Spaghetti alla Carbonara recipe I've seen involved placing a nice, perfect, raw egg yolk on top of your plated pasta right before serving.  
For this recipe, however, it doesn't really matter if you break a yolk, as they're going to just be mixed up anyways.  I myself accidentally broke one of the four yolks, as you can see:


Anyway, put those aside for now, and start grating your parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano if you're a Parmesan connoisseur like me) - about a cup (yup, a cup).

Doesn't that look so soft, fluffy and inviting?  I could just dive right in there!

Next, chop a good handful of Italian parsley, relatively finely.

You can go ahead and mix the cheese and parsley together, in a large mixing bowl.

Now check on your pancetta, onion, and garlic.  Like I said, it should take only about 10 minutes.  So, before the onion is just starting to soften, and before the pancetta becomes crispy, take out the garlic cloves, and throw in your white wine.

I didn't have any white wine open at this time, and rather than use white cooking wine, I decided to throw in some frozen wine cubes.

A great trick to use up unfinished/unused wine, is to pour it into an ice cube tray.  Once frozen you can take them out and seal them in individual bags if you want, or, if you're like me, and have a ton of ice cube trays, just devote one of your active trays to wine exclusively.  

This is a great way to still have wine available for cooking purposes, even when opening a new bottle is not feasible/desired.

So, add your white wine to the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and deglaze the sides and gribblies.  There shouldn't be too much, but make sure to get it all.

Once you've brought this to a boil, and scraped all the sides and bottom of the pan well, take the whole pan off the heat.  

Let this mutha cooool for now.

Now, with this dish, because we're using the heat from the actual pasta noodles to 'cook' the egg, it is imperative that you not cook your noodles too soon.  If you aren't great with timing then feel free to leave this until last, but the important thing is that you have everything ready for the pasta as soon as the noodles are drained.

I myself had my pasta water ready and boiling for a few minutes before I added the spaghetti, because I wanted to time it right.

Normally, we use a good hearty multigrain or whole wheat noodle, but for this I opted for just some delicious, plain spaghetti.

So, once you're confident that you'll be able to add these noodles to the sauce with little delay, go ahead and start cooking them. They only take about 7 or 8 minutes to reach 'al dente', but keep an eye on them as with this dish more than others, you'll definitely want a little bit of bite or toothiness to them.

So, while that's cooking, get everything in the final stages of readiness.  

I like to put my colander in the sink at this point, and - when I'm wanting to preserve some of the pasta's cooking water, I'll put a small bowl underneath the colander in the sink.

Go ahead and mix your egg yolks with the cheese and parsley, in the large mixing bowl,  stirring the whole thing up with a wooden spoon, just until everything is lightly coated.

Next, making sure that your pancetta and onion are cool to the touch (do not add hot ingredients to the egg at this point), add that to the mixing bowl and stir.  Again just until lightly coated.

Now we're totally ready to add the hot noodles, as soon as they're done.

So... once al dente, drain the noodles in the colander, making sure to save some of the pasta water.  Working quickly, take the drained noodles, and add them to your large mixing bowl, and rapidly mix it all together.

Do you like my photo depicting 'rapid mixing'?  Heh heh heh.  :D

Having a spaghetti fork really helps here.

Make sure you mix well, and get the pasta and sauce well integrated.  You'll notice within seconds the 'sauce' thickens considerably and becomes almost gummy.  Thin this - to your desired consistency - with a spoonful or three of your reserved pasta water.

Once fully mixed, plate, sprinkle with more black pepper, and parmesan if desired, and garnish with a sprig or three of fresh parsley.

You can see the filmy sauce coating each individual noodle, giving it a decadent shine, and a delicious rich eggy flavour.

To me, carbonara sauces are the epitome of richness.  Whenever I have carbonara I can definitely feel it.  As such, I particularly love the juxtaposition of egg with the fresh parsley.  The two balance each other nicely, as the parsley lightens the entire dish. The pepper is also a must.  All the other flavours are there, but subtly; this is still very strongly a 'yolk'-y flavour, but the overall composition is very complex on the tongue.

Anyway... you don't need my analysis... I'm just sayin.

Having a nice rich glass of red wine to go with it is definitely advised!  Not only to help in the digestion of fats, but I find a good dry red can really cleanse the palate of such rich, thickly-coating, kinds of food.

So, that's my Spaghetti alla Carbonara, and like I said, as long as you're careful not to prematurely cook your eggs, it's pretty darned easy.  

Not to mention quick.

As I mentioned above, I found this to be a remarkably diverse and variable dish.  So, if you happen to know of another recipe, a more authentic recipe, or (as always) if you just want to flame my technique or recipe, or insult my parentage or any some such derogatory defamation... please feel very welcome to leave me a comment or twelve!!! 


1 comment:

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