Pasta alla carbonara in four acts
I am a latecomer to the pasta game. Growing up I hated spaghetti and as an adult have continued to avoid it, but I love Asian noodles and noodle soup, so recently I decided to give pasta another chance. I chose pasta alla Carbonara to begin with. It’s basically a breakfast pasta: eggs, bacon, cheese, and starch. What’s not to like?
Over the past few months this has become a favorite in our house. It’s such a rich, comforting food, perfect for quiet nights in front of the fireplace.
This is the story of Carbonara from scratch in four acts: Pasta, Meat, Sauce, and Finale.
I always regarded making pasta by hand on the same level as making tortillas from scratch or churning your own butter. Maybe the end product was worth the extra work but I probably wouldn’t try it without someone walking me through it.
Last week I decided to try and make carbonara as close to how it would have been made 100 years ago including making the pasta from scratch. I began as I always do- by reading recipes and techniques from several sources (Bon Appetit magazine, Jamie Oliver, Cook’s Illustrated, and a blog about someone’s Italian grandmother).
Many of the recipes only called for two ingredients: eggs and flour. Unfortunately, living in Ecuador I was unable to find the proper “tipo 00” flour for pasta making so I used all-purpose
flour. What I lacked in authenticity in flour I made up for with farm fresh eggs. They are a variety of colors, sizes, and textures and the yolks range from pale yellow to practically reddish depending on what the free range hens ate.
In my research I gathered that the average serving size of pasta per person is made with one egg and 100 grams of flour. I was only cooking for my wife and myself but I decided to make three servings. I measured out the flour on my kitchen scale and then dumped it right on the countertop in a mound. I hollowed out the center to be like a volcano. In the middle, I cracked two eggs and added two more yolks. Instead of three whole eggs I substituted one of the eggs for 2 yolks. Cook’s Illustrated is a great source for finding out the “Whys” of food science: “ Yolks are loaded with fat and emulsifiers that also limit gluten development—but because their proteins coagulate when heated, adding structure, they ensure that the pasta is strong enough to stay intact when boiled.”
I began kneading the dough and it quickly became clear I needed a third yolk. Once the dough was thoroughly mixed and kneaded, I let it rest in the fridge for an hour and a half wrapped in plastic wrap. This makes it more pliable and easier to roll out. I say easier because rolling it out
was the hardest part. I never got it as thin as I wanted, but the thickness was at least consistent so it would cook at the same rate. Once I had a flat sheet of pasta dough I lightly folded it over and over onto itself like an accordion so I could cut thin strips more easily with just one slice. I immediately unfurled the pasta and covered it with plastic wrap so it wouldn't dry out and set a big pot of water with some sea salt to boil.
Traditional Carbonara is made with either guanciale (salt cured pork jowl) or pancetta (salt cured pork belly). In the United States people often use bacon when neither is available. It is surprisingly easy to cure your own bacon. The only special ingredient you need is saltpeter, which is basically sodium nitrate which prevents botulism bacteria from growing on the meat while it’s curing. It’s also what gives bacon and ham its signature pink color. By weight you only need a quarter of one percent of saltpeter, three percent salt and a little sugar to dry cure your pork belly. You can also add other spices and herbs, but it isn’t necessary. Remove the skin from the pork belly, rub it with the salt mixture and store it in the fridge for a week in a tupperware. From there you can smoke it, or just slice it up as-is and throw it in the pan. I cured a pork belly and diced it into cubes just for making carbonara. The crispy browned bits of pork belly in the pasta add a wonderful depth to the creamy rich sauce and some of the fat can be mixed into sauce for added flavor.
The only tricky part of making carbonara sauce is keeping the egg from scrambling. Nothing ruins the silky smooth texture of the sauce like overcooking it and having lumpy scrambled egg pasta. The key is to remove the pan from the heat while you are mixing the pasta and the sauce. I assemble all of the ingredients into a measuring cup next to the stove while the pasta is boiling. For the two of us I used two eggs, two egg yolks, a half cup finely grated parmesan cheese, one tablespoon bacon grease from the pan, a half cup of the pasta water, salt, lots of fresh ground black pepper and I added just a touch of minced garlic and lemon, even though these aren’t strictly speaking authentic.
While the pasta is boiling, you can brown the pancetta/bacon in a wide skillet. You will eventually add all of the ingredients into this one skillet. Remove the pork and most of the fat. Some of the fat can go in the sauce and the pancetta will be added at the last minute. While you are draining the pasta, you can start re-heating the pan. While the pasta is still hot throw it in the skillet and turn the heat down. Pour all of the sauce onto the pasta and then constantly stir to incorporate. Hold the skillet in one hand off of the flame and keeping flipping the pasta. If you leave the sauce in place for too long it will start to solidify and you will get scrambled eggs. You want the sauce to thicken and heat up without scrambling. You can return the skillet to the heat if need be but keep stirring and don’t look away until it has thickened to the point you want. Add the bacon/pancetta and serve immediately.
We ate the pasta with a toasted baguette and a simple brandywine tomato bruschetta made with fresh ingredients from the garden.
While it was much more work to make the pasta from scratch (rather than the convenient dry pasta), it was not as complicated as I had thought. I would definitely try it again, especially if I could get ahold of the correct kind of flour. I would assert that a recipe is only as strong as its weakest ingredient, so when I have access to farm fresh eggs and home cured pork belly it only seems right to do the recipe justice with homemade pasta!