Cook on a Whim: Pasta Carbonara

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Pasta carbonara. Photo by Anita Parris Soule. Courtesy Cook on a Whim.

This recipe for pasta carbonara is one of the first things my dad taught me how to cook. Now it’s a recipe I make for my kids often, and they love it just as much as I did (and still do). It’s definitely my daughter’s favorite dish; she requests “creamy noodles with bacon” frequently.

Although it comes from my dad, I have fiddled with the recipe just a bit. As a result, I have allowed people to successfully make a recipe they had written off following a disastrous outcome.

Many, many people have told me they have always had bad luck making carbonara. Adding hot pasta to eggs is a recipe for disaster, which is why one day I decided to temper my egg yolks with some of the starchy pasta cooking water. It is the secret to success (well, not so secret anymore).

Since my original post in 2013, I have heard from family members and friends how my recipe and technique have allowed them to successfully make this dish at home. Hurray! My work here is done. Helping people enjoy the cooking-and-eating process is one of my favorite feelings.

“Carbonara” roughly translates to “coal burner” in Italian. This dish gets its name because of the copious amounts of freshly cracked black pepper, which are said to resemble flecks of coal. Pasta carbonara is one of the simplest pasta recipes, but it does require some technique.

What goes into carbonara?

  • Pasta: Any variety of dried pasta, though I really prefer a long noodle for this.
  • Bacon: Or pancetta or guanciale (which is traditional, but can be hard to find). Really, you can use any smoked and/or cured meat you love — or leave the meat out for a vegetarian version, subbing in some roasted mushrooms or other vegetables.
  • Egg yolks.
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano: But feel free to use just one or the other, or use any sharp, aged, salty grating cheese.
  • Black pepper and lots of it.
  • Garlic and onion: This is not in most traditional Italian recipes, but my dad added it and I do, too.
  • Fresh Parsley: Optional, but my dad added it and I like the freshness and color it brings.

Given the current state of affairs and the limited resources many of us are working with, I encourage you to use what you have to create this dish. Don’t worry about what the food snobs and authenticity police would say.

This is truly one of my favorite dishes to make and to eat. It is pure comfort food and always makes me remember being in the kitchen with my dad. When I first wrote this recipe seven years ago, my dad was still here. I could text him, call him, email him if I had any questions about a recipe.

Updating this blog post now, after losing him a little over 18 months ago, is quite an emotional process. I have no doubt he would send me a sweet, silly email when he saw this blog post pop into his inbox — like he did with so many other blog posts. My heart hurts knowing I will never receive one of those emails again, but I am comforted knowing that he is living on through my blog and through the recipes I was lucky enough to learn from him.

I hope you’ll give this recipe a try, and that it will become a much-beloved part of your meal rotation, too.

Pasta Carbonara

Ingredients

1 pound of any long slurping noodle, such as spaghetti or linguine fini

8 ounces bacon (the thicker cut, the better), cut into small strips

1/2 yellow onion, very finely diced

1 or 2 garlic cloves, smashed and finely minced

4 egg yolks (place in a medium-sized mixing bowl)

1 1/2 cups Parmigiano and Romano cheese, finely grated (or just one or the other — whatever you have or prefer)

1 cup of reserved pasta cooking water

Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Handful of chopped parsley (optional)

Photo by Anita Parris Soule. Courtesy Cook on a Whim.

Instructions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, salt generously and cook your pasta according to the package directions (I usually go a minute or so under). While waiting for the water to boil, begin crisping the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally. While bacon is crisping, separate eggs and add yolks to a medium bowl. Reserve egg whites for another use if desired. Add 1 cup of grated cheese to the egg yolks.

When bacon is crisp, remove to paper towel-lined plate to drain and pour off excess bacon drippings, leaving about 2 tablespoons in the pan, along with any brown bits. Return pan to heat and add onions and garlic. Cook until softened, but not brown — about 5 minutes. Turn heat off and leave onion/garlic mixture to cool slightly.

When your pasta is almost cooked, scoop out a cup of the water and very, very, VERY slowly drizzle the hot water into the egg yolks and cheese while whisking constantly. If you pour the hot water in too quickly, or without whisking, you will have scrambled eggs.

When your pasta is cooked, drain it in a colander and add it to the skillet containing the onions and garlic (or scoop directly from pot to pan with tongs). Grind in as much black pepper as you can stand; I like about 20 grinds from my pepper mill.

Quickly add the egg mixture and remaining cheeses, bacon and parsley (if using). Toss immediately with tongs until the mixture clings to the noodles and becomes silky.

At this point, the hot pasta will cook the eggs, but not curdle them, so it is very important to add the egg mixture to the noodles as soon as they come out of the water. Let this sit briefly, 1 or 2 minutes, and stir once again before serving.

Serve immediately with extra black pepper, parsley and cheese on the side.

Photo by Anita Parris Soule. Courtesy Cook on a Whim.
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2 COMMENTS

    • Anita says: “Yes, mushrooms are a great substitute. Either sauteed or roasted.” Thanks for your question!

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