Saturday Evening Pasta: Carbonara

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I discovered I had half a box of spaghetti, so I added half a box of fettuccine to make up the difference. We must be flexible.

Now that the thought of food does not turn my stomach inside out, and I can consume more than three bites and three sips at a time, I can get back to cooking.

There has been some bacon in the fridge for a while, and allowing bacon to go bad and be thrown away is something I cannot, will not do. But there are always eggs and Parmesan cheese in the fridge too, and a box of spaghetti in the pantry. Time for Carbonara.

Carbonara’s origins are not clear, but it’s agreed that it first appeared in Italy in the mid-20th century. I dove into my three editions of Joy of Cooking, (1964, 1997, 2006) to get a sense of the dish’s presence in the average American kitchen over time, because what average American kitchen does not have a copy of Joy of Cooking in it?

I found in the 1964 edition the dish was simply called “Spaghetti with Eggs and Cheese”, with no mention of bacon except in the cooking instructions. The 1997 edition had renamed the dish “Spaghetti alla Carbonara”, removed wine from the recipe, added an egg, and offered the cook the option to use bacon or pancetta, probably a nod to the wider availability of the “Italian bacon”. The 2006 edition went with the simplified “Spaghetti Carbonara”, restored the wine, dropped the extra egg, and simply called for bacon, with no mention of pancetta.

The key mark of success, most recipes will tell you, is that your eggs and cheese thicken into a sauce while they cook in the residual heat of the pasta and bacon fat, instead of scrambling. If you’re looking for perfection, okay, sure, but don’t let a little bit of scrambling discourage you from cooking or eating Carbonara. It’s bacon, egg, cheese, and pasta. How wrong could you possibly go? It is one of those sauces that you could coat cardboard with and still be happy. Dried spaghetti is easy and great for it, but I bet fresh pasta would send Carbonara from yummy right into damn sexy. If I try it, I will let you know, when I am done stuffing my face with it.

There are stories that can’t be confirmed, but are quite romantic (from a food history standpoint), that the name “carbonara” comes from the Italian word for coal miners (or their wives) who could make this dish easily with ingredients that would be close at hand. So you may also find it referred to as “coal miner’s spaghetti”. It’s a rustic, nostalgic image, and it’s easy to understand why such a fine story would be passed on, but there’s not much evidence to back it up.

Nigella Lawson features a recipe for Spaghetti Alla Carbonara on her website and in her cookbook, Feast, which includes a reference to a scene from the movie “Heartburn”, about the main characters’ eating a big pot of the stuff in bed together after a lust-filled encounter. I have not seen the movie, or read the Nora Ephron novel it’s based on, and while I will be reading the novel as soon as I get my hands on it, I don’t think I will watch the movie. I love Meryl Streep, and Jack Nicholson is a fine actor, but I don’t want to watch him eat Spaghetti Carbonara naked in bed. I don’t want anything to ruin my love for this simple, yet deeply satisfying pasta. But with its silky, luscious sauce and smoky, peppery flavor, I can imagine slurping up a whole pot of it with the right person and two forks would be lots of fun, indeed.

 

 

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