Restaurant-Worthy Carbonara

January 13th, 2014 · 29 Comments · Pasta

“Okay, I think we have a plan,” my friend Jeff said. “Why don’t you and Jenny come over on Friday at six, we’ll have a quick drink at our house, and then head out to dinner. Sound good?”

Given that Jeff and his wife, Kirsten, live in Washington, DC, which is only 20 miles from my parents’ house, and given that we’d been trying in vain to set up a dinner together for two years now, yeah, this plan sounded good. It sounded perfect.

Except Jenny and I got stuck in traffic and showed up half an hour late. And then, it was a beautiful spring night, so we sat out on the stoop at dusk and drank some wine, and that one drink turned into a couple of drinks, and Kirsten was newly pregnant with their second kid, so we heard all about the pregnancy and their plans for moving into a bigger place, and before we knew it, our quick drink had turned into a bottle of wine.* Jeff looked at his watch.

“We’d better go,” he said. “None of these places take reservations and it’s kind of late, so we might be screwed.”

We were screwed.

By the time we’d walked over to 14th Street, that much was clear. We checked a tapas place: hour to an hour and a half wait, crowd spilling into the street, no chorizo for you. We checked an extremely fun-looking oyster bar: yeah right, was basically the message. We checked another place that was so full, they suggested we put our names on the list and go to the bar next door, where they’d come find us when they had a table. We went to that bar, only to realize we were too old (and pregnant) to be hanging out in bars. Were we going to have to stand up the whole time? My back was killing me. And boy, was it dark in there! And was the music ever loud. Did the speakers have to be so big? Jeez. Isn’t that bad for your hearing? I had a sudden flash of how my dad must have felt when I dragged him to my first concert – Judas Priest, Capital Center, 1984 – and he spent the whole time, wedged between a group of biker dudes with long yellow beards, inhaling enormous clouds of second-hand weed smoke and leaning forward every few minutes to shout, ARE YOUR EARS RINGING, TOO and DO YOU THINK WE NEED TO STAY FOR THE WHOLE THING?

We lasted about five minutes. Back on the street, we huddled up to think. I felt bad for Jeff. The pressure was on. “I know,” he said. “There’s a place a few blocks down that Kirsten and I went to for our anniversary,” and when we got there, we poked our heads in and yes, thank god, we were in luck: they had a table! It was a perfectly nice restaurant, but it was also the kind of place with starched white tablecloths and those Reidel glasses that can hold like two bottles of wine, entrees that start at $30 and a kind of hushed, West Elm, serioso vibe. The maitre d grabbed four menus and started to lead us to our table.

“Do we want to do this,” Jeff said, verbalizing what we were all secretly thinking, “or do we wanna just go back to the house and cook in? We can make some pasta and drink wine and hang out.”

The man was speaking our language. “Let’s go home,” we all said.

And so we did. We walked home, cut the babysitter loose, and cranked up some music. As always, we all ended up in the little kitchen, watching as Jeff made his moves behind the stove, and their two-year-old, Billie, slept soundly upstairs. He grabbed some Pecorino and bacon and eggs and whipped up a Carbonara – he’d experimented with many artery-wrecking versions over the years, but the one he made that night, and the one he liked best, was one he found on youtube and had adapted to his specifications. Instead of straight Pecorino, he did half Pecorino and half Parm. Instead of pancetta, he went with cubes of good bacon. Instead of three eggs, he used four – and we showed him how to temper the eggs before adding, which made the whole oh-God-will-they-scramble-or-will-they-not part of the meal much less stressful. Instead of dropping 250 bucks on dinner, we had something that was every bit as good for about ten bucks. It was also a hell of a lot more fun. – Andy

* Chardonnay, actually. Jeff did this to f*ck with me. He thinks it’s hilarious that I enjoy a good glass of chardonnay. He can’t get over it. Like the guy is a Navy SEAL or something. Like he owns power tools. Plus, I don’t like Chardonnay. I like French Chardonnay. Which is even worse.

Restaurant Worthy Carbonara
As simple as this recipe is, it can go to the scrambled-eggs place fast if you’re not careful. As far as we can tell, there are two important steps to take to avoid this. First, the pasta water. Adding a little of it to the eggs is called tempering, and it helps get the eggs used to the idea of heat slowly rather than all at once (which usually results in scrambling). The other crucial step is to remove the pan from the heat completely before adding the eggs. We set the skillet down on a cutting board before adding them. (Some cooks like to do the egg-tossing in the pasta’s serving dish.) If you are cooking this for guests for the first time, we recommend a dry run so you’re not in panic mode. On the other hand, even if the eggs do scramble, it will still taste delicious.

1 pound spaghetti
salt
1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 thick slices pancetta or bacon, chopped into lardons, or cubes
4 eggs
3/4 cup Pecornio, shredded, plus more for serving
freshly ground pepper

Prepare spaghetti according to package directions — don’t forget to salt the water. While spaghetti cooks, fry pancetta in a large deep-sided skillet set over medium heat until crisp. Lower heat and add garlic towards the last minute of bacon-crisping. While everything is crisping, whisk your eggs in a medium bowl.

Drain pasta, reserving about a half cup of pasta water. Add spaghetti to the skillet while it’s still a little wet and, using tongs, toss with garlic and bacon fat, adding a drizzle of pasta water to keep it loose, and to prevent spaghetti from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Remove pan from heat completely. (We set the skillet down on a cutting board on the counter.)

Vigorously whisk in about a tablespoon or two of hot pasta water to your eggs — this is the tempering. Add eggs to the pasta slowly, tossing until pasta looks silky and coated, but not drippy and wet. Toss in cheese. Serve immediately with more cheese and freshly ground pepper.

 

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29 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jesse // Jan 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

    nothing like spaghetti carbonara, especially when made by a dear friend at home.

    http://semiweeklyeats.blogspot.com/2014/01/mornings.html

  • 2 Gina // Jan 13, 2014 at 11:17 am

    You just solve my “what are having as pasta this week” question. We were fortunate enough to travel to Italy this summer and whole family fell in love with carbonara. Of course mine might never live up to that in Italy but I’ll keep trying!

  • 3 Kerry // Jan 13, 2014 at 11:28 am

    One word: YUM! And two more: THANK YOU! Can’t wait to make this!

  • 4 Erin // Jan 13, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Ha, I live in DC and can name all these places. Sounds like you made the right choice.

  • 5 Robyn // Jan 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    I love nights like these!and actually- our nights usually end up with carbonara too!

  • 6 Nerissa // Jan 13, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    I also live in DC and can name all these places. My husband and I celebrated an anniversary at the Italian joint a few years ago. I agree. You made the right choice. But, I must correct you—the tapas joint you mention (on 14th) is not owed by Jose Andres. His restaurant is in Penn Quarter. Love the description of the Judas Priest concert…

  • 7 Jessica // Jan 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    This looks delicious. I’ve never made carbonara and I think I’ll give it a try soon :)

  • 8 Shayne // Jan 13, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    One of my faves! This recipe is very similar to the one published in Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, which is the first and only I’ve ever used. Now I’m craving it!

  • 9 anna // Jan 13, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    ahhh!! we love carbonara. my son calls it noodles with bacon and peas. yep, i put peas in it. makes me feel better that i make it every other week. not exactly the healthiest…but a surefire winner. ;)

  • 10 andy // Jan 13, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks re Jose Andres, Nerissa. All fixed.

  • 11 A Life From Scratch // Jan 13, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Yummmm! This sounds like my kind of night and my kind of recipe.

  • 12 Julie // Jan 13, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    I love a simple pasta, so this one is right up my alley!

  • 13 susie // Jan 13, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    You know those nights when nothing sounds good? Well, this just might fit the bill! Yum! Can’t wait to try.

  • 14 Zelda // Jan 14, 2014 at 5:06 am

    “We checked another place that was so full, they suggested we put our names on the list and go to the bar next door, where they’d come find us when they had a table.”
    That’s what I hate about going out in London sometimes. Worst thing is, people are prepared to queue on the street, in the cold, to eat not very nice food.

  • 15 Catherine @ Chocolate & Vegetables // Jan 14, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for the tip on tempering eggs, I’m going to have to file that one away for future use!

  • 16 Libbstriss // Jan 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Another tip from a Cooks Illustrated issue a while back: apparently if you cook your pasta in less water (to concentrate the starch) and use this starchy salted water to make your “sauce” at the end, it helps the eggs retain that silky, lovely consistency that restaurant carbonara gets for longer. The starches do something sciency with the egg proteins; I’ve tried this and it seems to work great!

  • 17 Rachel // Jan 14, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    This looks so quick/affordable! Not to mention delicious. Too bad my husband hates pasta….
    My grandma loves pasta so maybe I will make it for her! :)

  • 18 Mommy Lisa // Jan 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Keeping this for the once or twice a year I let hubby have carbonara. :) Hmmm, pepper bacon ends from the meat market might make it interesting.

  • 19 kristina // Jan 14, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    But where is the Parmesan?

  • 20 Liz K // Jan 14, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    We had been trying to come up with something to do with some leftover ham, extra eggs, and my husband’s pasta craving. Surely I can use ham and bacon grease, no? Anyway, as long as the sauce is smooth it will be fine and since I am already being a philistine and using ham I may throw in some peas too. Thanks for the idea!

    PS. I promise not to be one of those jerks who changes the recipe entirely and then comes back to complain it wasn’t good.

  • 21 Steph // Jan 15, 2014 at 12:39 am

    I’ve been working on perfecting carbonara for years, and just posted one on my blog that I think comes pretty close. Making it tomorrow and I’ll definitely try the egg-tempering, thanks!

    http://homecookingeveryday.com/home/2013/10/1/pasta-carbonara

  • 22 Carlinne @Cook with 2 Chicks // Jan 15, 2014 at 6:38 am

    Classic Carbonara tastes so much better than the cream sauce version that was so popular in the 80s. This post is classic, too. I loved how you described the bar (and the Chardonnay). Both parts made me laugh out loud. My 26 year old niece asked me to teach her to cook and I think we will start with this recipe.

  • 23 anna @ annamayeveryday // Jan 15, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Carbonara is a dream supper, cosy and restoring – I love it, got to be in my top 10. Yours looks fab.

  • 24 Barb the Clown // Jan 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    I am with you the whole way, except I would have skipped the whole attempt to go out. I have a frugality problem that is vague kin to anorexia: even when finances dictate that we can go out I will always find a way to cook at home. When a recipe is this simple and this satisfying and indulgent and good, there is no need to pay someone else to do it for you. (I have lots of respect for the restaurant dish, used to do desserts for an upscale place, but once the child was born I became my mother :-) .

  • 25 Bea // Jan 17, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Thank you. Words are insufficient to describe the happiness I felt after making this dish for me and 11 yo last night. We were home relatively early (6pm) from makeup tennis lessons and I knew this would be a quick choice. I was always afraid to make this dish because of the raw eggs but your detailed instructions alleviated my fears. The smell of the garlic with the crisping bacon was heady and I knew then that this would be a keeper. It was insanely delicious – to the point where I wondered whether a restaurant had really dropped it off at my house and I had simply imagined cooking it myself. Too bad for my husband who was at a client dinner last night. Guess we’ll just have to make it again (and again!)

  • 26 Ronald Joseph Kule // Jan 22, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    You had me at tempering the eggs with hot pasta water. No, on second thought, you had me at “…make pasta, drink wine and hang out…”.

    I opt for pasta almost any time, especially spaghetti.

  • 27 Marian // Feb 3, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    I made this the other night and it was fantastic . . . problem is my fiancé was so freaked out by the thought of eating the raw eggs he’s asked me not to make him the dish again (even though he enjoyed it). I can’t figure out how the eggs cook but it was so good I’m willing to eat it again. Any thoughts?

  • 28 Jason // Mar 3, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    This looks great – I love carbonara, but have yet to find a recipe to make at home that I really enjoy. Will definitely have to try this one!

  • 29 Susie // Mar 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Just wanted to comment to say that this recipe is fantastic, and as usual, your instructions were perfect. I don’t even want to tell you how many times I’ve made it this week alone (3). Hey, my husband’s out of town, and when the cat’s away, apparently the mouse will have carbonara. A simple recipe that’s also delicious and company-worthy? Going in the permanent files for sure.

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