It’s a make-or-break sauce for spaghetti carbonara

It’s been a week of rare meals from my kitchen, meals that materialized on the plate just as I saw them in my mind’s eye and tasted them on my mental palate.

I can credit an extra measure of focus, a precise hand with seasoning, uncanny timing and a bit of luck. Because for all the fresh ingredients in the hands of an experienced cook, it’s those tiny details that make or break a meal.

In my repertoire, there’s one dish that’s a make-or-break endeavor — literally. Depending on the forces in my favor (or arrayed against me), the result is either the most soul-satisfying mouthful or the most disappointing plate of food that I’m compelled to eat.

It’s pasta carbonara. I say “pasta” rather than spaghetti because a straight noodle of any width really suffices, although spaghetti probably is as thin as I would attempt.

And attempt it I have, for years. Usually at least once every month, this supremely savory dish beckons.

I’ve adapted carbonara with all manner of ingredients, the common element being the egg-enriched sauce. Prosciutto and American bacon can double for Italian pancetta. I’ve supplemented the noodles with winter greens, asparagus, leeks, zucchini, wild mushrooms and even spaghetti squash. Parmesan and pecorino cheeses can be complemented with smoked mozzarella, Gouda and even Brie.

But for all my fondness of this dish (“carbonara” crops up 10 times in this blog), I’ve never posted an actual recipe. Sure, I explained the technique back in a 2009 post, but my own technique has evolved considerably in the past seven years, coming closest to this recipe from San Francisco’s Boccalone.

One change I made early on is omitting cream. A true carbonara, according to Mario Batali, has no cream. And even he concedes in “Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home” that the dish is “slightly tricky in its execution.”

Anyone who’s ever tasted a top-notch carbonara knows the sauce should be silky, almost custard-like, the eggs cooked just enough by the hot pasta to thicken, lose a bit of their sheen and adhere to the noodles. A ruined carbonara is quite simply pasta surrounded by scrambled eggs.

The key, according to all the experts, is adding the eggs off the heat. Then continuously toss the pasta until it’s coated in the eggs. “Tossing” seems to be the preferred maneuver, but I would describe the technique I’ve perfected for my cast-iron skillet more as continuously stirring and scraping the eggs, using a wooden spoon, so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan while simultaneously folding the pasta into them.

And while saving some pasta water is critical to loosening the sauce, I deviate from many of the recipes, including this one, by transferring the pasta directly from its cooking water to the pan, using tongs, rather than draining it. That extra bit of water clinging to the pasta also keeps the eggs from setting up on initial contact.

I find the sauce also comes together more easily if the eggs are beaten and combined with the grated cheese before adding to the pan. Simply top the dish with more grated cheese.

Although recipe testers for the Detroit Free Press attest that cooking the sauce should take just a minute or two, mine often takes as long as five minutes of continuous stirring and gradually increasing the heat, until just the right consistency is achieved.

Tribune News Service photo

Spaghetti Alla Carbonara

1 heaping tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 ounces pancetta or guanciale, sliced ¼ inch thick and cut into large dice

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound good-quality dried spaghetti

4 large eggs

1/2 cup lightly packed, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup grated Pecorino (or more Parmigiano-Reggiano)

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt.

Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta or guanciale, season with the pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp, for about 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the pasta to boiling water and cook according to package directions but just barely al dente, for about 8 minutes. Dip a glass measure or coffee cup into pasta water, scooping out a good cup of it; reserve. Drain pasta.

Remove skillet from heat and spoon off all but about 2 tablespoons fat. Add a few tablespoons pasta water to pan and scrape any brown bits from bottom.

Add pasta to skillet, set it over medium heat and toss spaghetti with tongs to coat it with fat and finish cooking to al dente, for about 1 minute. If pasta is too dry or starts to stick to bottom of pan, add a little more pasta water. Bottom of pan should be a little wet so eggs won’t scramble when added.

Remove skillet from heat and pour eggs over pasta, tossing quickly and continuously until eggs thicken and coat pasta, for about 1 minute.

Sauce should be creamy, coating pasta. If needed, add more pasta water a few tablespoons at a time to loosen sauce. Stir in the Parmigiano and Pecorino. Garnish with the chopped fresh parsley.

Makes 4 generous servings.

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