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Scary carbonara

"A dish whose principal ingredients are eggs and bacon was always going to be a shoo-in for the British palate: certainly spaghetti carbonara was a regular in my dad's repertoire when pesto was only a glint in a supermarket buyer's eye." Felicity Cloake

Carbonara, as we in the western world all call it, is one of those dishes that I just can't do. Well I've only tried once I think and it was a disaster - the eggs became scrambled, not creamy - so I have never dared do it again. Elizabeth may have said the eggs should have "a slightly granulated appearance' but everyone else, including me seems to think the sauce should be creamy. Having now looked at all of the ins and outs of this dish I might just give it another go.

(The one above is pretty authentic and comes from Serious Eats by the way).

And it's not just the technique that is scary - for this is one of those simple but easy to stuff up dishes - it's all the almost religious fervour about exactly how it should be made. Even Felicity Cloake who of course has a go at making the perfect version admits in another Italian exercise that required artichokes that:

"I would suggest using tinned artichoke hearts instead, but I’m too scared of Italians."

Further on in this post I will offer you a video of three Italian chefs watching some of the most popular videos in the world on making carbonara. They basically didn't like any of them. Their attitude epitomises the worst kind of attitude, to my mind, a closed mind that will not admit to any variation, which might actually improve the dish.

And what do they base this 'tradition' on? Well highly dubious origin stories it seems. The most common one is that the name comes from 'carbanaio' which means a charcoal maker. The story being that these men who worked out in the forests of Lazio - because virtually everyone does agree that Lazio is the region of origin, made this pasta to sustain them, from those easily carried ingredients - pasta, eggs, bacon, cheese and pepper.

Yes pepper. I sort of knew about the the first four but not the pepper. Indeed that pepper provides another origin story from the word 'carbon' which means charcoal - with the pepper standing in for the charcoal, although some have said that the fried bacon element if fried enough could be the charcoal. This version is from Saveur and amply demonstrates the heavy use of pepper. Jamie uses a lot too - but I will come to him.

Then there's the American GIs story - during and after WW2 the American soldiers would bring their bacon and eggs to the Italians and ask them to cook them something. The Italians dutifully invented carbonara. And it's certainly true that the word carbonara in relation to this dish was first noted in the 1950s.

However, I think Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats probably has the right idea:

"Of all the theories of how carbonara sauce came to be—and there are a lot—the most probable is that it's just an old Roman dish using the kinds of ingredients that have been kicking around the Italian countryside for centuries." Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats

Ok, so having established that there is no real 'authentic' recipe nevertheless we do sort of recognise that there are indeed some things crucial to carbonara - yes - eggs, bacon and cheese plus, apparently - pepper. Actually the Italians get most agitated about all the extras - particularly cream and garlic that go into so many carbonaras found in America, Britain and here in Australia.

"spaghetti alla carbonara, a fine Italian dish that had been interbred with wacky Australian ideas of Italian, until it bore no resemblance to its proper self and became something else altogether." Stephanie Wood - The Guardian

"This dish is a deli egg-bacon-and-cheese-on-a-roll that has been pasta-fied, fancified, fetishized and turned into an Italian tradition that, like many inviolate Italian traditions, is actually far less old than the Mayflower. Because America may have contributed to its creation, carbonara is Exhibit A in the back-and-forth between Italy and the United States when it comes to food." Ian Fisher - New York Times

Above is a picture of a Woolworths recipe which uses a lot of cream and of which the authors say: "This is just a simple base recipe but you can also add veggies or chicken as well." Well you could but then it really wouldn't be carbonara, even to my non purist eyes.

"Creamy pasta dishes are an elemental feature of Australia’s regrettable food history. Once, we did not know there was any other sort. They usually featured mushrooms and ham or bacon, sometimes chicken or smoked salmon, sometimes avocado, the very idea of which should make any reasonable stomach turn." Stephanie Wood - the Guardian

And definitely no butter, or even oil either:

"Cream and butter, obviously, would not have been ideal luggage for charcoal burners setting off for a few weeks in the mountains, so many purists insist they're later additions to the pasta party, possibly because they offer an easier way to recreate the creaminess of barely set eggs for restaurants turning out plate after plate of the stuff, or home cooks chary of salmonella and its unpleasant ilk. If they make the dish better, however, I'm happy to keep them: this is the perfect carbonara, not the oldest." Felicity Cloake

And she does try out the butter and cream but decides:

"Much as I love cream, as soon as I tasted a carbonara without it, I realised it was totally unnecessary: not only does it add an overbearing richness (as if eggs, cheese and fatty pork weren't enough), but dilutes the delicate flavour of the egg itself and leaves a pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl when really all that's needed is something to coat the pasta."

In 2016 the French too came under fire for promoting a dish made with farfalle and crème fraïche. The Italians were horrified and the whole saga filled the newspapers and media for weeks:

"They were appalled to witness farfalle (bowtie) pasta cooked in the same pan as diced bacon and onions, finished with crème fraiche and an unidentified cheese, topped with a raw egg and parsley." Italian Food

Other bones of contention? There are so very many for a recipe that is basically just four ingredients.

"I always use the recipe for carbonara as a kind of manifesto because there’s no bacon, no parmesan, no cream and no extra egg yolks; all the things British people think you put in, but you don’t. The key tastes are pepper, pecorino romano and the porky guanciale." Jacob Kenedy

Let's begin with the pork factor. As I said several times in my post on guanciale this is a big bone of contention. The real purists say it has to be guanciale, but I think you will find that early recipes do not mention it. Elizabeth David, writing in 1954 doesn't even suggest bacon - she uses coppa - an Italian kind of ham, but suggest ordinary ham as an alternative. She doesn't mention pepper either. Now this is very possibly because when she was writing back in 1954 there was certainly no guanciale available and no pancetta either. But even the updated 2010 At Elizabeth David's Table keeps to her original suggestion of ham. Mostly you will find the semi-authentic, even the really authentic books suggesting pancetta. And one of those chefs in the video did tentatively say that guanciale might be difficult to find. Even in Italy it seems.

Eggs - whole eggs, egg yolks or a mix. I think the consensus here is that pure egg yolks are too rich and whole ones too runny, so go for a mix. Cheese - Parmesan or Pecorino. Well this is a Roman dish so it really should be Pecorino, although many think that adding a bit of Parmesan improves things. A matter of taste surely?

Pepper - well Jamie is certainly very lavish with the pepper in his video and lots of recipes do not include it - or just give a bit of a grind at the end. I suspect the pepper thing is really another dish called pasta gricia which is a sort of cross between carbonara and cacio e pepe and probably deserves a post of its own.

However, it is a dish that is crying out for you to mess with it in some way. Just don't call it carbonara without qualifying it in some way. Even some Italians agree that variation is possible.

"Carbonara is a traditional recipe, but we should remain open to interpretations that allow us to tell a global story of diversity. Being such a fantastic condiment, carbonara lets you create different variations to the original recipe. A vegetarian person could have fun experimenting with a roasted artichoke instead of bacon, while a seafood enthusiast may opt for sautéed shrimp. A meat lover might even try to pair it with leftover barbecue, with the added bonus of fighting food waste! You can also make a great variation of carbonara with spices different from black pepper. In a nutshell: carbonara is a truly global recipe which, like all kinds of pasta, can help bring people together.” Luca di Leo - Barilla

You can find plenty of those variations on the net. Here are just a few of the more extreme that I found: Pea Pansotti from Michael White on the Bon Appétit website - the sauce is a carbonara kind of sauce; Donna Hay has 5 versions including two deconstructed ones: Parmesan fried egg carbonara and Instant carbonara; Delia makes Oven baked risotto carbonara; delicious. in the Uk makes a Carbonara frittata and I pick, from Jamie's 8 variations, Carbonara cake as the most extreme and which he describes as: "a delightfully simple, luxurious, yet slightly trashy meal"

There are countless other versions that just add things to the basic mix.

The last thing I should note that they all quarrel over is how to get it all to combine without ending up with scrambled eggs. And they all have their 'foolproof' techniques. I am going to try this again and I think I'll go with Jamie's way because it looks pretty simple and he explains it all - this is his video which I think is the best one I saw. Fundamentally you add the eggs and cheese off the heat whilst lubricating with pasta water.

Rachel Roddy has a rather wonderful article on the whole thing in which she also explains in detail what to do and how she overcame her fear:

"It is simple, but requires practice, which I don’t say in order to be offputting, just honest. The key to carbonara is understanding what happens and when: that if you put drained pasta into a pan with hot pork fat at the right moment, add beaten eggs and grated cheese and enough pasta cooking water, then pull the hot pan from the heat and stir purposefully, you should get a creamy sauce that clings possessively to each tube." Rachel Roddy

She actually has another post in The Guardian on the topic of Classic carbonara (picture above) which may be a different recipe. Apologies, I have not checked.

To end though, you might like to look at this video of those three Roman chefs, watching the world's most viewed carbonara videos and criticising them all - some quite rightly, some not. The guy in the middle was particularly sniffy about them all. It's a longish video - about 12 minutes from memory, but have a look if you've got nothing else to do and you want to see Italian food snobbery at its worst.

I'll let you know if I manage not to scramble the eggs.

POSTSCRIPT - just a further thought on why Ottolenghi is so great. If you make one of his recipes and it works - they mostly do - then you will feel so good about yourself, so clever. Even ordinary cooks like me can feel like a real chef. He's a morale booster as well.


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