conquering carbonara

I am one of those people who has had an unreasonable fear of pasta carbonara.

At first, I just didn’t understand how something made with essentially raw egg tossed with some warm spaghetti could possibly be digestible, if not downright dangerous to eat. Don’t ask me to explain this or justify it, even with the very reasonable assertion that we were all raised not to eat raw eggs (no Gaston am I), because I can’t tell you the sheer amount of raw cookie dough I have willfully consumed throughout my life. And let’s not forget the time I insisted on making a traditional French recipe for chocolate frosting laid out in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 that calls explicitly and uncompromisingly for raw eggs. I ate it, my parents ate it, nobody got sick. We’re fine. ALSO. I’ve seen multiple videos of Gym Bros chugging protein shakes with raw egg in them so OBVIOUSLY it isn’t as big of a deal as we were raised to believe. Salmonella is, in fact, quite rare and now falls into that murky category to which the Bermuda Triangle, quicksand, and freezing your face into strange expressions also belong.

There’s also the fact that millions of people make and have made pasta carbonara for years with no problems or side effects (except perhaps some acid reflux and weight gain) so clearly I jumped on the band wagon way too late out of nothing but carbonara fear and superstition. Shame, shame, shame on me.

I actually had carbonara for the first time at a friend’s house, and she told me it was one of the quick cheap meals that she and her friends used to whip up in college—makes sense. Bacon, Parmesan, pasta…it’s like a five-dollar meal, if that. And it’s super filling, very satisfying, and makes you feel pretty fancy for being able to toss it together. I’ve had it on my list of things to make for a long time, probably since last summer when I started watching this guy in his instructional videos on the four Roman pastas (among other incredible feats of cooking). I’ve made cacio e pepe successfully (it remains my favorite), and several other kinds of quick-cooking pasta meals made from pantry staples, but something about carbonara made it absolutely unapproachable. Like it was the elite of all pasta dishes and should only be attempted by Acolytes who had undergone the Rituals and sacrificed whole pigs under the new moon in their search for the perfect guanciale.

Turns out, it ain’t that big of a deal. I didn’t use guanciale, because it’s near impossible to find even under normal circumstances and we are living in anything but normal circumstances these days. The grocery stores don’t even have chicken breast, much less cured pig jowl. So here’s what happened:

I had no plans for what to feed myself for dinner last night but I had a pack of bacon in the freezer, the last remains of a wedge of Parm in the fridge, and I’m usually well stocked on dried pasta so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give this a try. We’re all in self-imposed quarantine anyway, and if this pandemic has done anything it’s reminded us of how short and precious life really is. Look how much our world has changed irrevocably in just a few weeks. So it’s time to take life by the horns and start ticking some things off my bucket list. I fortified myself with some wine (OK, a lot of wine), and got to cooking.

I decided not to try to follow a recipe. I know the steps and the principles of the dish well enough that I don’t really need one (it’s four ingredients, c’mon) and after a couple glasses of wine I felt like free styling. Besides I had weird amounts of everything and all the recipes are set up to feed four, and I don’t need that much pasta.

First I sautéed three strips of bacon cut into small pieces until they were nice and crispy, and set the pan aside. I wasn’t messing around with egg yolks so I just threw two whole eggs in with a handful of Parmesan that I had grated about two weeks ago and mixed it all up with a ton of pepper. I had about half a box of spaghetti and it looked like too much for the egg mixture so I added one more and that seemed about right. When the pasta was ready I warmed the bacon up again and used tongs to transfer the noodles to the pan so some of the water got in too, and agitated it quite a bit to emulsify everything. I added maybe a cup of the pasta water and cooked that down before tossing the hot pasta with the egg-cheese mixture.

I am still shocked at how well this came out: creamy, rich, not in the least bit slimy or overwhelming. It’s not my favorite dish—I still prefer cacio e pepe or midnight pasta or even puttanesca for its sharp salty flavors—but it’s really damn good. This picture is terrible because I only took it to share in my group family text thread, and wasn’t planning on a post, but here we are.

Leftovers to look forward to for dinner tonight. I restrained myself from eating all of it because I couldn’t spend another night trying to sleep on an overly full stomach.

I still have a long term goal of sourcing guanciale and making this the traditional way. I think the rules even call for pecorino, which is a little saltier and sharper than Parmesan, so that will impact taste as well. Maybe that’s why I prefer cacio, which is also made with pecorino. (Pecorino is the Roman pasta, whereas Parmesan is from a different region and not traditional in the Roman dishes.) I’ll save that project for when the world isn’t crumbling quite so quickly.

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