Sim­ple steps for carbonara

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - By Russ Par­sons russ.par­sons@la­

Spaghetti carbonara is one of the sim­plest dishes to make — it takes only five in­gre­di­ents, not in­clud­ing sea­son­ing, and is done in less time than it takes for the noodles to cook. But some­times the sim­plest dishes are the hard­est to get right, and spaghetti carbonara is def­i­nitely one of those.

Fry cubed guan­ciale, add cooked noodles, stir in eggs beaten with grated cheese. When it’s done well, you’ve made a won­der­fully creamy sauce rich with the fla­vor of cured pork and cooked eggs. But get­ting the mix­ture just so is tricky. If the noodles are too hot, the eggs will cur­dle when you add them. If they’re too cool, the eggs will re­main raw.

Cooks have tried dif­fer­ent tricks to get around that. You’ll find carbonara recipes made with but­ter and cream, and even with cream cheese. Those are just about guar­an­teed not to cur­dle but have lit­tle to do with a proper carbonara.

The one trick I’ve found that works while still re­tain­ing the es­sen­tial char­ac­ter of the dish is adding a lit­tle of the hot pasta cooking wa­ter if the dish starts to go wrong. If the eggs are still a lit­tle raw, the hot wa­ter will fin­ish cooking them; if the eggs have cur­dled, stir­ring in a lit­tle wa­ter will help smooth them out.

There’s still plenty of room for vari­a­tion. Mau­reen B. Fant and Oretta Zanini De Vita, coau­thors of the ter­rific “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Ital­ian Way,” dis­agree on whether the guan­ciale should be cooked in olive oil or started dry in a cold pan, as you would ba­con. (I’m with De Vita and fa­vor a bit of oil to get things started.)

For his carbonara, Gino An­gelini of Os­te­ria An­gelini cuts the guan­ciale in larger cubes — up to 1⁄2 inch — so they’ll re­tain more of their char­ac­ter. Of course, he’s us­ing his spec­tac­u­lar house-cured guan­ciale.

Some cooks use whole eggs, while oth­ers use just the yolks for a richer, creamier tex­ture. For an ev­ery­day meal, I pre­fer the lighter sauce made with whole eggs.

If you can’t find guan­ciale, pancetta can be sub­sti­tuted, though it’s more pep­pery. And while the idea may make Ro­mans blanch, no less an author­ity than the late Mar­cella Hazan sug­gests slab ba­con as an al­ter­na­tive.

Cheese is an­other vari­able. Tra­di­tion­ally, pecorino Ro­mano is pre­ferred, but that can be too salty. A com­bi­na­tion of pecorino and Parmi­giano-Reg­giano is a bit less as­sertive. Use as much or as lit­tle black pep­per as you like, but re­mem­ber that this is at heart a rustic dish and that flow­ery pep­per heat off­sets the rich­ness nicely.

And fi­nally, you don’t need to use spaghetti at all. Some cooks pre­fer the ex­tra chewi­ness of bu­ca­tini — like a thick spaghetti noo­dle with a hole go­ing down the cen­ter. Cream cheese, how­ever, re­mains be­yond the pale.

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