Every time we come back from holiday we crave this dish and it is the first we cook: Spaghetti alla Carbonara! (or rather Linguine, because we prefer it in this dish to the more traditional spaghetti).
The sauce in this dish is very dense and creamy. The traditional recipe gets its creaminess from the eggs and cheese. There is a nice contrast between the delicate sweetness of the caramelised onions, the saltiness of the bacon and abundant Parmesan cheese, and the strong aroma of the generous black pepper.
It is a simple dish but so easy to get wrong and have a complete disaster as a result! I will share with you all my tricks, so don’t worry.
For the purist of the Italian food, I am sorry but this is not the pure authentic recipe, for many reasons (no pecorino, no pork cheeks, British bacon, the unorthodox presence of onions…you name it!). I was told this recipe over 15 years ago, from an old friend of mine from Rome. It is his mum’s version and it has become my favourite. The only twist I have made to her recipe is the use smoked British bacon which I much prefer to the Italian guanciale (pig cheeks.) You can use streaky bacon or back bacon, each giving a slightly different result but both work great!
Ingredients (for 2 people):
185 grams of spaghetti or linguine (I use Rummo but any quality Italian brand will do)
1 large onion
40 gr of butter
200 gr smoked streaky bacon (or smoked back bacon if you prefer to trim off the fat)
100 gr of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Cooking time 16 minutes
Preparation time 15 minutes
- Chop finely the onion and set aside.
- Chop the bacon and set aside.
- Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. (if you are in hurry to feed a hungry family like I often am, you can boil it more quickly in a kettle.) I use a big pot with 3.5 litres of water: the more water, the better your pasta cooks. If you use a small pot you will just need to stir more to ensure that it cooks evenly, doesn't stick to the pot, and doesn't stick to itself.
- Place the butter and a couple of spoons of olive oil in a pan at medium heat. Once melted add the onion and sweat for 6 minutes, stirring well at the beginning to ensure the onion is fully coated with the butter and oil. One thing that can go wrong here is burning the onion. If it becomes brown and dry the dish will be ruined: you want nice juicy, translucent onions. So keep the heat medium to low, stir from time to time and lower the heat if you see the pan getting dry.
- Separate the yolk (yellow) from the white of one of the two eggs and discard the white (I keep these for making meringues.) Mix this yolk together with the whole of the other egg. Add the grated Parmesan cheese to the egg mixture and mix well until you get a nice golden cream. Adding the egg to the cheese is an important trick to this recipe. It gives you a nice creamy sauce and ensures the eggs don't scramble as soon as you add them to the pot (this isn't a breakfast recipe!)
- Drop a handful of coarse salt in the water. This may sound like a lot but it is not if you have used 3.5 litres of water, in which it will be well dissolved and only some will be absorbed by your pasta.
- Drop the spaghetti in the boiling water (lid off) and stir a couple of times with a wooden spoon during the first two minutes. So long as the water is always boiling, you do not need to check or taste your pasta, or worrying about stirring it further. It will be perfectly cooked, if you have chosen one of the recommended brands above, based on the recommended minutes in the package.
- While the spaghetti are cooking (this might sound like bad grammar to some but spaghetti is the plural of spaghetto ;), add the bacon to the onion and cook thoroughly. Keep an eye on the pan to ensure the bacon does not dry or the onion does not stick to the pan.
- Strain the spaghetti (it is ok if you leave a couple of spoons of boiling water with the spaghetti if you want a less dense sauce, otherwise strain fully like I do for a thick sauce.) Leave the spaghetti in the pot you have cooked them in, and add 2 spoons of olive oil. Add the egg and Parmesan cheese mix and stir quickly and very well as the heat of the spaghetti will melt the cheese. Add the bacon and onion to the dish and stir well again. Plate and add a generous amount of ground pepper on top of the dish. You can add a bit more Parmesan cheese to garnish.
Enjoy this fantastic dish!