Cal cooking chronicles: An unapologetically American take on carbonara

Photo of a plate of Carbonara
Tamorlan/Creative Commons
(Photo by Tamorlan under CC BY-SA 3.0.)

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Carbonara’s popularity has certainly increased over the years, and with it, so have the number of interpretations of how to properly make it. This recipe is an unapologetically American take; I’m substituting bacon for the more traditionally used guanciale (cured pork cheek) for the sake of convenience and cost. I’m also including garlic because it tastes great in carbonara, despite being a blasphemous addition according to old-school Italian purists.

Ingredients

  • 4 to 6 slices thick-cut bacon
  • About a third of a box spaghetti or bucatini pasta
  • Reserved pasta cooking water
  • 1 egg and 2 egg yolks
  • Wedge of Parmesan and/or pecorino Romano cheese, preferably both
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Heat enough water to cook the pasta, salting generously after it reaches an aggressive boil. Cooking long pasta such as spaghetti is easier if done in a pan instead of a pot. This way, you don’t have to bend the noodles to submerge them and you need less water. The latter results in less time waiting for water to boil and a higher concentration of starch in the pasta water, which works well for this recipe. 
  2. Slice the bacon into bite-sized pieces, place in a cold pan and turn the heat to medium.
  3. While the bacon and pasta cook, combine the egg and yolks in a bowl with a fork.
  4. Add an equal amount of grated cheese (by volume) to the eggs, ideally in a 50/50 ratio of Parmesan to pecorino Romano.
  5. Add a generous amount of black pepper, and mix well to combine.
  6. Finely chop the garlic, and add to the bacon, which by now should have rendered out a significant amount of fat and be almost done cooking. Remove the pan from the heat once the bacon is cooked to your liking. For carbonara, I find a chewy and meaty level is better than completely crisped.
  7. As soon as the pasta is al dente, reserve about a cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta, and move its pot to a cool surface. Immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while constantly and vigorously stirring the pasta. This incorporates air, which not only cools the pasta slightly but also makes the sauce creamy. The heat of the pasta is solely what cooks your eggs here, and if your eggs prematurely hit the bottom of the pot, they will scramble, so make sure you pour the mixture directly on top of the pasta and immediately begin stirring. 
  8. Discard or save all but 1 to 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat, and then add the bacon and garlic mixture to the pasta.
  9. Add a splash of the pasta cooking water (start with about 1/4 cup) to slightly thin the sauce to a creamy consistency. You want a sauce that clings to the pasta but isn’t so thick that the noodles are glued together; sauce pooling at the bottom means you’ve thinned it out too much. If your sauce becomes too thin, you can attempt to rescue it by adding more grated cheese. 
  10. Taste and season again with salt and pepper as needed, then serve. This dish begs for a generous amount of black pepper, so season to your liking.

Carbonara is a comfort food that only requires a few ingredients, making it perfect for college students. The lack of ingredients also means the cooking technique has an outsized impact on your final dish, which is a great introduction to being flexible and adaptable in the kitchen. Most of all, this recipe is anything but traditional — a reminder that home cooking centers around your preferences and not the orthodoxy of any one specific recipe.

Contact Abhi Varma at [email protected].