October 1, 2014

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

spaghetti alla carbonara

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a request for advice in a Facebook group I belong to for food bloggers. I wrote about how I'm struggling to get my footing with blogging again and how it's been making me feel overwhelmed. I received so many encouraging comments to my post, many of which also included practical advice that had me asking myself, why didn't I think of that? I also received the wise advice to not put so much pressure on myself (hello, Type A). I am incredibly touched that so many people took the time to write a reply and it's given me a renewed sense of energy. The food blogging community is a pretty amazing place and one I am so grateful to be a part of. I wish I could have everyone over so I can make them big bowls of Spaghetti alla Carbonara to say thank you. 

Spaghetti alla Carbonara has been a regular on our dinner rotation for years. I ate it all the time growing up, and Peter had it for the very first time when we started dating and promptly fell in love with it. When we travel back to my home state of Maryland, my friend Linda and her husband, John ask me to make it for them, and it's become a tradition every time we visit. Several years ago when Peter and I vacationed in Rome, we sought out a local trattoria off the tourist trap path (it's the only way you eat well in a foreign city) and started our midday pranzo with a perfectly executed bowl of carbonara. We still talk about that lunch.

Many recipes for traditional Spaghetti alla Carbonara will vary the meat, cheese and pasta, but not drastically. Some recipes call for guanciale (cured pork jowl), which is delicious but sometimes hard to find (or, if you find it, the quality is poor). Some recipes call for slab bacon, which is also delicious and easy to find, but the smoked flavor can be overpowering in the finished dish. Other recipes call for pancetta, which is easy to find and is by far my preferred meat choice.

For the cheese, I've seen recipes call for both Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano. I love pecorino (a sheep's milk cheese), but I don't like it in my carbonara sauce. Instead, I use Grana Padano, which is almost identical to Parmigiano Reggiano. Often referred to as just Grana, it is made from the milk of cow's in northern Italy's Po River valley, and is less salty than Parmigiano Reggiano. It's also slightly less expensive. Like Parmigiano Reggiano, you know you are getting the real deal when you see the Grana Padano stamp on the rind. 

You can also try carbonara sauce on different pasta, but not every shape of pasta. The classic pasta commonly used is spaghetti, but you can also use linguine or shorter shapes such as penne. When choosing a different pasta shape to pair with a sauce, you want to keep in mind the texture of the sauce and the size of the ingredients in the sauce. Carbonara sauce is thinner in consistency and olive oil-based, so the pasta for carbonara sauce can't be too thick, otherwise the sauce will not coat it evenly enough. Pairing pasta with various sauces is an extensive topic (I think I just found a new Flavia's Fundamentals project!), and there are some good pasta and sauce pairing guidelines here.

Despite some ingredients being interchangable in carbonara sauce, all Italians will agree on one thing: use good quality ingredients because it makes all the difference in the finished dish. I hope this classic Italian recipe becomes a favorite that you add to your dinner rotation. Buon appetito!

Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

When preparing Spaghetti alla Carbonara, the hot pasta is added to beaten raw eggs in the serving bowl. The heat of the pasta cooks the eggs completely, which forms part of the sauce. There is no way around this part of the preparation, but if food safety is a concern,  use pasturized eggs.

3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2-inch thick slice pancetta, cut into small dice or into 1/2-inch strips
1/4 cup dry white wine (always use a wine you would drink with a meal)
2 large eggs
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
2 Tablespoons roughly chopped fresh Italian parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 pound spaghetti 
2 Tablespoons Kosher salt
1/4 cup reserved pasta cooking water

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add in the whole garlic cloves and toss them around until they are light golden brown. Remove the garlic cloves from the pan and discard. Add in the pancetta and sautee until most of the fat has been rendered and the meat is lightly browned but not crisp. Add in the white wine and raise the heat to medium-high. Allow the wine to bubble and stir the mixture gently for about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and set the pan aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add in the salt. Stir to dissolve. Return the water to a rolling boil and add in the spaghetti. Stir the pasta often to prevent it from sticking.

While the spaghetti cooks, crack the eggs into the serving bowl. Use a fork or a whisk to beat them thoroughly. Add in the Parmigiano Reggiano (or Grana Padano), the parsley, and black pepper and stir well. Set aside.

When the spaghetti are cooked to al dente, ladle out some of the pasta cooking water into a measuring cup and then strain the pasta through a colander. Immediately transfer the hot pasta to the serving bowl with the egg and chese mixture. Toss the pasta vigorously and thoroughly to ensure the eggs cook through completely. Finally, add in the pancetta and wine sauce and toss once more to distribute the sauce throughout the pasta. If the sauce seems too thick, pour in a little bit of the reserved pasta cooking water to help thin out the consistency. The sauce should look light and creamy in consistency and cling to the spaghetti without much (or any) extra sauce pooling at the bottom of the serving bowl. Serve immediately.

Comments (5)

I am not exaggerating when I say that my stomach started grumbling when I read this post. Spaghetti alla carbonara is such an amazing comfort dish, and the tips that you provided here to help make the perfect version are so helpful! It's funny how certain meals (like yours in Rome) stick in your mind for so long. There's something about a memorable meal that just can't be forgotten!

Posted by Cookin Canuck

So happy you went ahead and posted a recipe! My tummy is pretty happy, too, because it's going to eat this spaghetti ASAP. ;)


My absolute favorite!!!! You know how much I love when you make this. Again...another way you always know how to love me and make me smile... :-) Way to go!

Posted by Peter

The network created by food blogging is truly amazing - such far and wide support that is not expected. It's pretty cool!!

Great recipe :)


Flavia! Oh my goodness...this is the ultimate comfort food! Cannot wait to make it with all of your tips and your recipe!

As for feeling overwhelmed blogging...there's so much information about what you "have to do" and the right way to do things. I say, remember why you started in the first place, and do what you love. ? The rest will follow. :)

Posted by Bridget
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