Little could Kay Chun imagine what an outpouring of indignation her New York Times recipe for tomato-infused carbonara would unleash, particularly in Italy – it stands to reason. That said, I follow many non-Italians who know a thing or two about food on Facebook and they were similarly outraged.
Being a professional chef, you’d think Kay Chun would have learned a lesson from the oh-woe-is-me response to Gordon Ramsay’s previous revisitation of carbonara on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5t7JLjr1FxQ), in which he advises the audience to add crème fraiche and smoky bacon to the recipe, as well as a touch of olive oil and, horror of horrors, masses of garlic! Oh and mushrooms too while we’re about it. He mentions milk for some unaccountable reason. Fresh peas to round it off. And all of this in order to make it ‘more exciting’.
Question: what is ‘unexciting’ about carbonara in the first place?
Another question: why do we have to make recipes more ‘exciting’ than they already are? Jokes – countless jokes – have been made about bedroom behaviour and the lackadaisical, if not downright pathetic, once-a-week missionary position sex. Fair enough. It’s good to shake things up if that is indeed the case. The same does not obtain in the kitchen department, however. A good recipe is just that, GOOD. Leave it at that. Do not paint the lily. Do not gild the lily. Leave well alone. However, if your quest for excitement cannot be quenched … well then. Do as you OCD please, by all means. Add cornflakes if you think it will add a je ne sais quoi, or gorgonzola, why not? But in the name of good pasta governance, please, please, please, give it another name. Do not call it carbonara. Because that is an insult to carbonara. And by the way, there are some variations on carbonara in Italy too. I’ve had one with truffles. There is a seafood version. And there is a vegetarian version (courgettes). There cannot be a vegan version because eggs are the whole point of a carbonara.
Actually, in historical or chronological terms, it is the pecorino cheese that has given birth to the main four pasta dishes of Rome and central Italy.
Number one is “Cacio e pepe” – literally, just pecorino cheese and pepper.
Number two is the Gricia (adding pork and its fat to the grated pecorino).
Number three – by adding tomatoes to the Gricia ingredients, you end up with Amatriciana.
Number four is the Carbonara. I place it last on the list because its existence, testifiable existence that is, harks back to just barely after the Second World War and there are all kinds of theories and legends as to how it came to be created.
All you need to know and accept for now is that a Carbonara has only four ingredients: guanciale, eggs, pepper and pecorino. Important to realise, however, and this will indeed gobsmack many Italians and not just foreigners, is that the recipe for carbonara as we now know and rave about it in Rome, i.e. using guanciale instead of pancetta, not a hint of cream, not a whiff of garlic God forbid!, actually ‘came together’ as late as the 1980s. There were all kinds of previous renditions before this gastronomic apotheosis, and they got thankfully relegated to the “never-again” file of the pasta world.
Ramsay opts for parmigiano. Had he resorted to the preferred cheese for this recipe, i.e. pecorino romano, he could have achieved all the excitement he was after and shortened the shopping list by four ingredients. And, most of all, not riled the Italians or people of the world who have a healthy respect for unadulterated Italian cuisine. As for Jamie Oliver, he too should have known better than to add garlic (though he gingerly removes it just before serving, a plus point) but otherwise gets it right (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_2DBLAt57c). Bravo, phew.
I realise it is can be difficult for some non-Italians to appreciate why many Italians are prickly about renditions of their food by foreigners (and it’s not just foreigners, there is much local and regional interfighting too). Why they think that drinking a cappuccino after a big meal is sacrilege. Why, put bluntly, they are so prescriptive about their recipes and the way they eat. It would take a whole book to consider these issues which is obviously beyond the scope of this post. I raise the question, on the other hand, because the matter of “cultural appropriation” is finally getting the respect it deserves and I am personally fed up with segments of society who take the piss out of other people’s values. Case in point, for instance, is The Guardian writer Tony Naylor’s take on Spaghetti Bolognese. The title alone can spark off a heated pasta spat, for in Bologna the sauce is the tried-and-tested traditional accompaniment to egg noodles, “tagliatelle”, and not spaghetti): https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/jan/29/how-to-eat-spaghetti-bolognese. I found his stance truly appalling. I couldn’t get to the end of the article, I found it so annoying. I expatiated hands-on-hips about it on Facebook, I just couldn’t let it go. But now that a few weeks have transpired and I have been able to draw some healthy distance from such nuisances both culinary AND cultural, I feel I too can write a post about carbonara in which I offer a couple of tips that I consider helpful.
As mentioned, Jamie Oliver’s technique and ingredients (except for the garlic) are spot on. I love his passion too, which never hurts when one is cooking. I am a firm believer that our emotions are a vital ingredient in our cooking. We produce better results when we cook with ease and relaxation or enthusiasm. Anyway … yes, Jamie Oliver makes it look very easy but in actual fact his technique could be a little physically daunting for some … and the outcome might very well be curdled-carbonara instead of creamy carbonara.
It dawned on me one day that making the egg sauce for the carbonara could be thought of as a mayonnaise of sorts, with the fat rendered from cooking the pork jowl standing in lieu of an oil. And it went from there.
Recently, it also dawned on me, that if one prepares the carbonara sauce the way I am about to tell you, it can – unheard of!!! – actually be prepared in advance, even 24 hours in advance (perhaps more but let’s not push it). All one has to do is store it in a sealed container n the fridge, the way one does with ordinary mayonnaise. Now, tell me that isn’t an advantage?
The third advantage is … these TV chefs we all admire (and do indeed merit our admiration of course) … who are they cooking for? Meaning how many people are they cooking for? Right? That’s right. Usually one person, maximum two. Now, if you are having people over for lunch or supper and there are going to be six or more of you, say … ha! … what then, eh? What? All that sautéing business with the saucepan, that acrobatic tossing up in the air and catching of pasta – it can be learned, admittedly, I am not bad at it myself. But you try doing that with 600g upwards of pasta instead of just 100g or 200g! Mmm. Not easy. So … my tip obviates the necessity for such flexing of arm exercise.
Ready? Here we go.
INGREDIENTS – ONLY FOUR OF THEM AND NO MORE! (Well, pasta, water and salt too which makes Seven in all if you want to be picky)
Eggs – First of all, nearly all Roman chefs eschew the use of a whole egg – they use only the egg yolk and that’s how I’ve been making my carbonara for the past ten years now. 1 egg yolk per person plus 1 more if it looks like it will help. Especially if your eggs are small ones. (You know how it is with the pot of tea?, same sort of thing. I teaspoon of tea leaves per person plus one for the pot.)
Pasta – 100g per person is a very healthy ‘helping’. If there are going to be 4 of you, you may as well make that 125g per person so that you use up the whole half-kilo pasta packet. Spaghetti marry wonderfully well with the carbonara sauce. I suggest you use short-shaped pasta, such as mezze maniche or rigatoni, when you are making larger amounts. They are far easier to handle.
Pork fat – Think of 30g/40g of guanciale preferably (otherwise pancetta if can’t find any or, yes, even bacon if that’s all you can get hold of) per person. Watch out though: if the bacon or pancetta are too salty, you might be better off using smaller amounts
Cheese – pecorino romano is the ideal. If you find this too strong, you could go half and half with parmigiano. Parmigiano on its own, however, doth NOT a carbonara make. Carbonara is not for the palate of sissies. It is robust. So, think of using 1-2 tablespoons of freshly grated pecorino romano per person. Set a little more aside, just in case.
Pepper – toast the peppercorns until their aroma is released (usually less than 1 minute) then bash them about with a mortar and pestle.
JO’S CRAZY METHOD
(1)The first thing to do, is put the water on to boil. Then slice the guanciale and cook it over a low heat so that it renders all its fat.
(2)While this is happening, place the egg yolks and pecorino in a processor.
(3) When the fat has rendered, allow it to cool a little, and then pour it over the cheese followed by the egg yolks. Set the cooked guanciale aside. If you are going to be eating the carbonara straight away, place it in a large bowl. If you are going to eat the following day, place it in a sealed glass jar in the fridge.
(4) The water should be boiling by now. Add 10g of salt per litre of water. Put the pasta in to cook for as long as it takes to reach a pleasing ‘bite’, what’s known as ‘al dente’ – as opposed to overcooked mush! Follow the instructions on the pasta packet but use your own judgement. And decide when the pasta is indeed cooked to your satisfaction.
(5) Half way during the cooking of the pasta, or when you are 5 minutes into the cooking, remove about 1 cupful of the cooking water. And set it aside to cool down somewhat.
Time to blitz!
(6) Process the rendered fat, egg yolks and cheese. The consistency should be thick. Now add some of the cooking water, a tiny bit at a time. Taste. Does it need a little bit more cheese? Yes, no? If so, add a bit more pecorino. Process again. Until you reach a beautiful creamy consistency. Now add the pepper to finish it off.
Again, just as suggested above with the cooked guanciale, you can use this sauce straight away, or else safeguard it in the fridge in a sealed glass jar for use the following day.
(7) Pour the carbonara cream into the large bowl and place it where it’s handy for you.
(8) Because you still have some water reserved from the cooking water, you can drain the now-cooked pasta into the sink. Alternatively you can add the cooked pasta, a little a time, directly into the large bowl that is ready and waiting.
(9) Use one or two wooden spoons to make sure all the pasta is coated with the sauce (none of that tossing).
(10) Sprinkle a little more pecorino on top and serve.
Here are the photos.
Below … I am slicing the guanciale, and I’ve put the water on to boil.
Above is my mise-en-place. I have weighed 200g of pasta. There are the three eggs that I am going to deal with, separating the egg yolks from the egg whites. And I’ve just used the small food processor to grate some pecorino.
And below is the glass bowl I will use. Mortar and pestle. And a little cup for the cooking water.
On the left I am cooking the slices of guanciale over a low heat. On the right I am lightly toasting the peppercorns.
Once the guanciale has toasted to a delightful crispness, I transfer it to the large bowl in which I shall season my pasta once it has cooked.
I wait for the rendered fat to cool down a little, and then I put it in the processor together with the grated pecorino.
The water has come to a boil, I add the required salt. I put the pasta in the boiling water. (Please ignore the steaks … they have nothing to do with the carbonara.)
The pasta is cooking merrily away. I have bashed the peppercorns to my sastisfaction. I have added three egg yolks and some pepper to the processor. The egg whites will go in the fridge – I might even freeze them.
I have blitzed the egg yolks, fat and pecorino. I taste the mixture and decide it needs a little more pecorino.
Time to add a little of the cooking water. It is still hot, but it’s not boiling.
I add a teensy more cooking water and my crazy mayonnaise-carbonara sauce is practically done! How easy was that?
I pour all the sauce into the large bowl containing the guanciale.
I drained the pasta in the sink. Now it’s ready to go into the bowl.
And here is my daughter mixing the cooked pasta with the sauce. Using a wooden spoon. No tossing with fear of tumbling – just steady stirring.
As you can witness for yourself … it’s as creamy as can be. No dreaded curdling!
Ready to be dived into but not scarfed down (never hurry a carbonara ….).
PS I have ordered a book by Luca Cesari all about the history of pasta recipes and their origin, “Storia della Pasta in Dieci Piatti”. He rages against ‘gastropurists’ who think they know all there is about a recipe without any real proof of how it came about. I can see I am one of those who will get their knuckles rapped if I’m not careful, ha ha!!!