January 25, 2011

the inside scoop on pasta carbonara

Bacon, eggs, cheese and and pasta - what's not to love?   Unfortunately my photo doesn't do it justice as we were in too much of a hurry to eat it to worry about the quality of the pics!

I learned to make this as a child with my grandfather.   He spent a number of years in Rome as a young man after WWII, which is where he learned to make pasta carbonara, and as we made it he would tell me the legend of its origins.  He passed away 3 years ago and I think of him every time I make it.

Carbonara is derived from the Italian "carbone" which means charcoal and there are many different variations of the story of how pasta came to be named after a lump of coal.  My grandfather's version has the dish named for the copious amounts of black pepper which fleck the pasta, resembling the ash which settles around burning charcoal.  

Whatever its origins, as with most Italian dishes, there are few cardinal rules and breaking one of them will be considered a sacrilege.

First and foremost: NO CREAM!  I was shocked and appalled when I learned that many American recipes add cream to the dish.  Please don't do it - it's really not necessary as the dish is luscious without it and the cream just obscures the flavours in the dish.

Second:  the pasta must be spaghetti.  No substitutions.

Beyond that, it's a simple sauce of egg yolks (or whole eggs if you prefer), pecorino romano (or parmigiano reggiano, as I prefer) and ground black pepper studded with rendered pancetta (or bacon) cubes.

 Step 1:  While spaghetti is cooking, add egg yolks (1 per serving plus 1 for the dish) to a bowl with grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano (approximately 2 tbsp per serving but feel free to be generous) and a generous amount of ground black pepper.  Mix with a fork.

Step 2:  Cube and brown bacon (approximately 2 strips per serving).  Feel free to use pancetta or guanciale if you prefer - they are more classic but bacon will give the pasta a lovely smoky flavour.  When the bacon is browned I like to drain the fat and replace it with olive oil, placing the pan over low heat to warm the oil.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and toss quickly with egg mixture and add hot bacon and oil.  Toss until egg is just cooked through, adding up to 1/4 cup of the pasta water to help thin the sauce and cook the egg.

Serve immediately while it's hot - it's not very appetizing once it's cooled or even reheated but that's never a problem in my house because there's never any left over!

I am participating in Presto Pasta Nights so please head over to Tastes of Home on Friday to be inspired by Jen's first PPN roundup!


  1. How lovely to have to share with your grandfather! I never knew the origins of the name.

  2. Hi, the round-up is done and at my blog! Thanks again for participating 

  3. Very nice - loved your post! This is a favorite go-to dish of mine when I want pure comfort food.

  4. I love Spaghetti Carbonara - one of my favourite pasta dishes. How wonderful that this dish brings back such lovely memories of your grandfather.
    Sue :-)

  5. I enjoyed the back story on this classic, and can't wait to try it with the guanciale I am curing at the moment.

  6. Great post. Thanks for sharing with Presto Pasta Nights.