The origins of the carbonara pasta sauce are a bit of a moot point. More and more current researchers believe that it came about as a result of American soldiers’ food rations when they liberated Rome and Italy (together with the other Allies let us please not forget ! Brits, Poles, Indians, Aussies, New Zealanders, French and Moroccans, and the Italian Partisans too). The thread is that the staple bacon and eggs ration of the American GI got morphed into a guanciale OR pancetta and pecorino cheese sauce, liberally sprinkled over with freshly ground pepper. The reason for this conclusion is that the Carbonara recipe is not to be found in any Italian Cookery book prior to the late 1940s. So whether the GI Joes really were behind it or not, it can be indisputably ascertained that the Carbonara as we know it today originated some time during WWII.
And in Rome we think we make the best Carbonara.
The four pillars of the Roman pasta portfolio are: (1) Cacio e Pepe (using only pecorino cheese and pepper), (2) Gricia (pecorino again but this time with the addition of rendered pork jowl aka guanciale); (3) Amatriciana or Matriciana (basically a Gricia cooked in a tomato sauce and served with Pecorino) and (4) last of all the Carbonara. The first two are, historically speaking, the ancients. The third required the use of tomatoes that hailed from the Americas, and that didn’t begin to joyously ‘invade’ Italian recipes until the early 1800s. So our Carbonara is the new kid on the block and maybe, just as with the tomatoes in the Amatriciana, comes with a bit of an American ‘background’.
Earlier I wrote that Romans like to think that they make the best Carbonara. And I like to think that the way I make it is representative of its Roman outlook: I don’t like pancetta, I prefer guanciale. I do not like the mix of both parmesan and pecorino, I prefer to use pecorino only. Also, I do not use the egg whites, only the yolks. Raw egg yolks are good for you, raw egg whites are not. True, the cooked pasta which is still hot will “cook” the beaten egg mixture but I still think that the egg whites are unnecessary and do not add any flavour whatsoever. Last, as with any ‘normal’ Italian Carbonara lover, I am of the idea that adding cream or herbs to this hearty pasta is anathema.
Eggs, pecorino cheese, black pepper. Spaghetti or tonnarelli are all very well and good but short-shaped pastas are easier to handle.
Today, I decided to use Delverde which gets its name from the River Verde. They draw their water for their pasta-making from the River apparently. They are geographically very close to the popular De Cecco and Cocco pasta brands, Fara San Martino in the Abbruzzi Region. http://www.delverde.com/it
I decided to weigh the pasta today: 380g for three people (i.e. 125g each – this is a really BIG helping, and 380g would suffice for four people ordinarily. But but but … Carbonara has a way of being very more-ish).
PLAYING AROUND WITH THE PEPPER
Try this tip if making Cacio e Pepe too. Those who understand Indian cooking know that it is vital to warm up spices before including them in a recipe, and this is the same idea. I actually read about it for the first time what feels like aeons ago, probably in the late 1990s, in a cacio-e-pepe recipe by Maureen Fant (Partner at Elifant Archaeo-Culinary Tours) who has been living in Rome for decades. If it works for cacio e pepe it must surely work for Carbonara, I thought. And it does.
You’ll need a wee pot or pan (the one in the middle) and a mortar and pestle. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, just use a full can/tin of something (baked beans?) or a rolling pin to bash the pepper corns.
Warm the pepper over a low heat and be sharp and keep an eye on the procedure. Just last month, I was heating up the pepper and left it to finish watering my plants on the balcony (we women are always multi-tasking even when we’re cooking). To my horror, when I returned to the kitchen minutes later I could hardly breathe and my eyes began to smart: the essential oils from the pepper had gone beserk. I had to throw them out and stay away from the kitchen until the ‘smell’ dispersed, cough cough.
As you bash the warmed pepper in the mortar, the NICE fragrance from the pepper will make you smile.
And then, since you can’t bash the pepper to smithereens, put it through a strainer/sieve. The end result will be so much more refined and also good for avoiding pepper overload. I saw this tip with the sieve in a Jamie Oliver episode when he was in Rome making cacio e pepe on a roof top.
You can keep any leftovers in a sealed jar. It will always smell and taste more fragrant than unheated pepper.
Pepper prep finished.
GRATE SOME PECORINO
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you’ll know how much I detest grating cheese. I always try and find someone who wants to be helpful and the task today landed on my obliging husband. He does ask silly questions, however: “How much should I grate?”. I don’t know. Enough for four people. As it turned out, he grated just the very amount I was after, huh! (Actually a tad too much but that’s not a problem.)
GUANCIALE (PORK JOWL) AND RENDERING THE GUANCIALE
The rule of thumb – well at least MY rule of thumb – is at least 30g of guanciale per person, 35-40g being even better. But I use my eyes a lot too. As I was slicing, I cut what I thought would be enough for four 100g portions and then added an extra slice – a bit like when making tea in a teapot, you know, 1 teaspoon loose leaf tea per person plus one for the pot.
Think of it this way: 40g guanciale x 100g of pasta per person. I cut it first and weighed it later, and it came to just under 150g – wow, bang on considering I was cooking 380g of pasta!
After you’ve sliced the guanciale in match-stick shapes, turn on the heat and let it cook and the fat render very slowly. I actually started out doing this first, and then got on with the pepper prepping as the guanciale was cooking.
Once the guanciale is thoroughly cooked, you will need a sieve and a bowl or something to catch the rendered fat.
Here we go.
Transfer the cooked guanciale to a large saucepan. Later you will be draining the cooked pasta directly into this saucepan – no heat. You could, if you preferred, use a big fat large bowl instead of a saucepan.
What you see are: 4 tablespoons of grated pecorino on the left (1 tablespoon per person) and the rendered guanciale fat on the right. Which has been left to cool.
Carbonara can go horribly wrong if it the egg curdles over the hot pasta. My way of making carbonara does a great job of avoiding this pitfall. And basically, it’s like making a sort of mayonnaise – only we are using pork fat instead of a vegetable oil, and adding grated cheese.
Here are the cheese and the fat.
Time to add the egg yolks. These were rather small eggs so I used 1 egg per person plus another for good luck.
The egg whites are in that terracotta bowl. (I later put them in a small jar in the freezer. )
So rule of thumb: 30-40g guanciale x 100g pasta x 1 egg yolk per person x 1 tablespoon grated pecorino romano cheese.
When I mixed everything together, however, my mixture was a bit too liquid for my liking so I added some more pecorino.
And also a sprinkling of pepper.
The pasta has been cooking for at least 4 minutes at this point …
I remove some of the cooking water. That ‘thing’ you see in the cooking water is a bit of guanciale that had accidentally fallen into the pot. No problem, if anything it adds flavour.
I now wait for the cooking water to cool.
I add the cooking water a little at a time, a little at a time, until I get a creamy sauce. This is literally minutes before draining the pasta.
TIME TO BRING IT ALL TOGETHER
On the table.
One last thing. As always we must always taste, taste, taste. And the carbonara sauce was VERY tasty. It needed more cheese but I decided to add parmigiano/parmesan at this point rather than pecorino because otherwise it would have been too strong.
Below is a link to some very short videos showing me make carbonara dating back to March 2014 – more than five years ago! I have ‘perfected’ the recipe over time, as outlined in today’s post. There is always something new and wonderful to learn in the world of cookery.
I hope you find my ‘mayonnaise’ approach useful and if you have any other short-cuts and/or tips do let me know, thank you!