Monday, August 06, 2012

Bucatini alla Carbonara (Warning: Use of cream lies ahead)

I'll get egg on my face by professed purists, evangelical egulleters and strident slowfoodway sticklers (and perhaps a pity membership to alliteration anonymous). But I'll fess up just the same.

I prefer how pasta alla carbonara tastes with the addition of cream, inauthentic and illicit as it is. But also that which elevates it to the incroyable, ineffable. That which words fail.

There. Weight off chest. It doesn't get more terribly bourgeois. And I hereby embrace it.

As with all things of mythic repute, every aspect of carbonara has been, is, and will always be fodder for heated debate.

Like its very genesis. Legend has it that the dish is evolved from the traditional sustenance of the itinerant charcoal workers of Abruzzo and Lazio (carbone means "charcoal"), once a familiar sight in the mountain forests of those regions, who would bring with them the rudimentary wherewithal - long-haul ingredients such as dried pasta, guanciale, pecorino and chickens for laying the eggs - with which lunch could be tossed together on the road. Back in the day, this list, obviously, could not have included cream. Another tale says it is named after the carbonari (the "charcoalmen"), the secret society with a revolutionary manifesto and a player in Italy's unification.

Don't fancy either the pastoral or patriotic version, both of which riff on the etymological origins? There's the version that claims carbonara was concocted relatively recently for the soldiers of the Allied forces at the end of World War II during their occupation of Rome, homesick as they were for Americano staples like bacon and eggs. Add to that formula their newfound love of spaghetti...

And a star is born.

Of course, the patent retort is that pasta alla carbonara was not so much invented but popularized and catapulted onto the world stage during this post-war era.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Everything that should - or shouldn't - go into making a plate of the stuff just seems to raise furore amongst the foodie commentariat.

First, the stuff everyone (virtually) agrees on. Spaghetti is the universally popular choice. Inspired by Jacob Kenedy's recipe in The Geometry of Pasta, I like using bucatini, finding that it cooks to the requisite toothsomeness for standing up to the porcine immoderation which is the sauce - for the carbonara recipe which follows, I like using Giuseppe Cocco's bucatini. Everyone concurs it isn't worth bothering - and may very well be impossible - making extruded pasta shapes at home, unless you're prepared to invest in semi-mechanized industrial equipment. So packaged pasta secca it is. Luckily, it's increasingly easier to be a fusspot of a shopper these days. And even better, the very best dried pasta is actually one of life's most affordable luxuries. 

Artisanal producers make pasta in small (relatively speaking) batches using bronze dies - which don't heat up and melt the pasta - to extrude the shapes. Brands to look out for include MartelliRusticella d'AbruzzoSetaro and Giuseppe Cocco. The pasta that results is prized for its imperfect surface. Because this pasta is not perfect and smooth, it beckons and beguiles sauce into clinging intimately like a besotted beau. Asymmetrically, mass-produced pasta with its perfectly homogenous surface extruded from perfect Teflon-coated dies perfunctorily, nonchalantly even, shrugs on the sauce in the gustatory equivalent of a jaw lock yawn.  

There's the issue of alliums. Taking my cue from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking (the garlic), Anna del Conte and Eric Treuille's Pasta (the garlic), and Heston Blumenthal at Home (the onion), I add both garlic and onions, appreciating the Maillard depth they add when sauteed low and slow till eventually golden and gloriously so.

As for which particular sort of preserved pork product, the jury is still out on guanciale or pancetta, both of which are salt cured and unsmoked. Guanciale is currently next to impossible to acquire in this neck of the woods. As W was recently in Bologna, I had him lug home an alarming lot back from Tamburini - besides having only hitherto used pancetta in carbonara, I also wanted to check out a whole host of recipes in The Mozza Cookbook, a newfound fave, featuring this cured pork jowl delicacy.

The difference it made in carbonara alone blew me away. A richer softer cut with a subtler cure than pancetta, the cheek is stippled with fat in a pattern different from belly. As such, when it meets a hot pan, it behaves differently, surrendering its hammy essence and browning around just the edges without losing its juicy, central succulence. Pancetta, by contrast, demands a watchful vigil when frying, tending as it does to drying out, going from crisp to hard in the blink of an eye. 

Regarding the addition of wine, reduced, to cut the fattiness, I prefer without, finding that the cheese adds just the right type and amount of acidity.

Speaking of which, there's little consensus on whether it should be pecorino, parmesan, or a mixture of both. I like parmesan alone, finding the sharpness of ewe's milk cheese distracting.

And what of whole eggs versus yolks only? Yolks only for me, as I use cream, thereby providing the necessary water content that egg whites represent.

Last but not least contentiously, there's the cream. Seeing as I am neither a mountain roaming nomad but am a city dweller with plenty access to modern amenities like refrigeration, nor live in an age beleaguered by rationing, I really like my cream let's face it. Then there's the fact that, sorry I repeat myself, to my terribly bourgeois palate it just tastes better. I love Anna Teresa Callen's quip in Food and Memories of Abruzzo on the modern addition of cream - as the Romans say, what the heck, it is so good, semel in anno licet insanire ("once a year it is all right to go mad").

On top of which, the presence of cream staves off that congealed-but-inevitable state, the state of egg plus pasta-that-continues-to-cool-on-the-plate equals noisomely claggy. Staves off, mind you, not prevent. As that old chestnut goes, cooked pasta waits for no one; the exhortation "Tutti a tavola!" ("All to the table!") was probably coined specifically with pasta in mind, as any pasta continues to cool on the plate and at the table. Be at table pronto as I am, ingest as hot as my tongue can bear, I just can't wolf it all down at a speed as instantaneous as authentically cream-less carbonara demands. Cream buys me a little extra time to savour carbonara's coronary-inducing, I-can-die-happy-now goodness at a pace more languorous than the three-and-a-half minutes flat in which it would otherwise lump, with a thud. But even con crema, when carbonara is at stake, put on your bossy pants and sit everyone down way ahead, better they wait and not the other way round, they can thank you later for channeling your inner gaytriarch.

(Note: Call me a devil's advocate, but I am curious how admittedly tasty modern improv add-ins like peas and chilli (Heston), peas and pea shoots (Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques), ricotta curds (Judy Rodger's The Zuni Cafe Cookbook) and what-have-yous are any less crimes against the shrine of authenticity than, horrors, cream.  Does the omission of one purportedly inauthentic ingredient cancel out the addition of another allegedly inauthentic ingredient? At the end of the day, does authenticity trump taste or taste authenticity? I suspect the bias against cream is the vestige of a post baby boomer Gen X backlash against old tratt trap travesties perpetrated, such as when bechamel pokes its nose where it doesn't belong, or alfredo cross-dresses as carbonara. )

(Note 2: You may have noticed I am trying to sway you creamwards best I can. But in the name of full disclosure, should you find the seditionary slug of cream difficult to stomach in deference to oldschoolways, may I point you in the mollifying direction of this fantastic Felicity Cloake piece and this wonderful Rachel Roddy post , both excellent expositions as to why cream should be disavowed, amongst other insights and opinions.)

Speaking of dairy, there's the question of butter or olive oil. Adore as I may cream, I cannot say yes to butter as the lubricant of choice. It's certainly not because of taste, for as far as I am concerned butter (and for that matter, bacon) makes the world go round. The impediment is its propensity for propelling the high speed train towards dreaded coagulation on plate into colloidal clump. Olive oil it is (unless you happen to have access to lovely lovely lard, freshly rendered please, and only if).

Anyhow, enough carbonara cogitating.

At the end of the day, all I know and all I can recommend is that which I personally and wholeheartedly enjoy. Administered in a circumspect dosage, cream functions not so much to make carbonara taste creamy as it does to lighten that which teeters on the brink of stodgy.

I think part of the joy of carbonara, besides the eating of it, is in the making.

It never ceases to feel like magic.

Pasta cooked in plenty boiling water aggressively salted. (I go with 10 gm sea salt per litre of water for every 100 gm of pasta. For the quantities in the recipe below, that's 25 gm of salt for 2.5 litres of water. )

Drained and dressed with the catnip that is cured pork heatedly consorting with onions and garlic in their collective caramelized, glistening, umami, tantalizing nectar.

With conjugal bliss defined, all that's left is a deft toss with egg yolks beaten together with cream and parmesan.

And allora.

A voluptuary's undoing.

Anna del Conte's pithy observation in The Gastronomy of Italy that "the eggs should hardly curdle, and the pasta should remain slippery and light" says it all.

It is paradoxical how a dish comprising of such rich ingredients can when made well tread so lightly, feel as ethereal as air, effulgent as the sun. Perhaps it is hardly surprising afterall that cream abstemiously applied should turn out to be such a compliant coconspirator.

The recipe in Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers' The River Cafe Cookbook (a dish so beloved at the Hammersmith institution that it prompted a re-printing in The Prawn Cocktail Years by Simon Hopkinson & Lindsey Bareham, the cult classic cookbook with the ironically louche title) is far and away my favourite.

The recipe below is loosely based on it. Primary differences: I prefer using bucatini to penne rigate, am wont to add onions and garlic, use more olive oil so the allium addition can fry properly, am pretty partial to guanciale currently (but as and when the stockpile situation changes will revert to pancetta), and like cutting the salt pork into proportions more generous than matchsticks.

Bucatini all Carbonara
Yields 2 to 6 servings, depending on appetite and/or number of courses

1 onion, peeled and finely minced
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
5 Tbsp olive oil
200 gm guanciale (or pancetta), cut into 3 mm-thick, 1 cm-wide strips
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 egg yolks, preferably from free range eggs
120 ml whipping cream (about 35 % milk fat)
Sea salt, to taste
150 gm parmesan, freshly and finely grated
250 gm bucatini, or other pasta of your choice

1.In a large heavy-bottomed pan, fry the onion and garlic slowly in olive oil until soft and golden brown.
2.Add the guanciale and continue to fry over low heat until it releases some of its own fat and crisps tantalizingly around the edges. Grind some black pepper over it and set aside.
3.Lightly whisk to blend the egg yolks and cream together and season with salt and pepper. Add 100 gm of the grated parmesan, whisking to blend. Set aside.
4.Meanwhile, cook the bucatini (or other pasta of your choice) in a generous amount of boiling salted water (for proportions, see above). Drain thoroughly.
5.Toss the pasta together with the still-hot guanciale mixture in the pan (off heat), making sure each strand of pasta is slicked in the tasty fat and juice. Now scrape in the yolk and cream mixture, tossing deftly so each strand is evenly coated - the residual heat from the pasta will cook and coax the egg into thickening ever so slightly.
6.Serve without further ado to seated diners, with the remaining parmesan on the side for adding to taste.


Anonymous Stuart said...

Any recipe where there is a "Warning: Use of Cream Ahead" disclaimer is a winner as far as I am concerned!

7:29 pm, August 08, 2012  
Anonymous David said...

"Allied forces at the end of World War II during their occupation of Rome, homesick as they were for Americano staples like bacon and eggs. Add to that formula their newfound love of spaghetti...

And a star is born."

This star going to shine on my table! Very precise written recipe must say.

5:37 am, August 15, 2012  
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5:47 am, August 17, 2012  
Anonymous frost said...


5:38 pm, August 31, 2012  

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