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Bring out the big guns

Turns out summer’s free 14-day trial has come to an end. No more bonus features like sun or picnics in the park. It’s back to the basics.

Which is why I’m bringing out the big guns this week: pasta alla carbonara

Arguably the world’s most famous dish, it’s one that works so well. A few ingredients come together to produce something rich, creamy, and delicious.

This week’s album

Parklife by Blur

One of life’s big questions: Blur or Oasis? Alex James of Blur said: “Blur won the battle, Oasis won the war, then Blur went on to win the whole campaign.” I prefer to sit on the fence although this is my favourite Blur album and my first intro to them. When it was released I wasn’t even three but growing up it had all the best singles on it.

The most authentic way to cook carbonara

Pasta alla carbonara is often poorly executed. Much like the first ever Eat My Words recipe for ragù alla Bolognese, many people don’t really know the true way to cook it.

Fortunately, I used to work with a good Roman lad (where the dish comes from) who’d cook carbonara every week when he made staff lunch. He took great pride in showing me the authentic way to do it, and now I pass the baton over to you. Don’t drop it.

The traditional carbonara recipe is deep rooted in the history books. It’s named after the ‘carbonai’ or charcoal burners of Rome who used to spend months in the Apennine mountains. As they were spending long periods away from home they’d only take ingredients that would last them a long time.

These included eggs, pecorino, and guanciale (more on that later) which were all brought together with some dried pasta to create carbonara. They’d then add a serious amount of black pepper (it’s said that a decent carbonara should look as though it’s been seasoned with charcoal).

One serious ingredient no-no? Cream. Never. It’s not allowed (if you insist on using it then you just have to call it something else). The creaminess of the sauce should only come from the lightly cooked eggs and cheese, along with some pasta cooking water.

Putting cream to one side (the bin), there are a few negotiables with the recipe.

1. Some only use egg yolk as it produces a more intense and rich sauce. Great, but not my preference. Traditionally you’d use the whole egg so as not to waste anything. This makes a lot of sense, but I prefer my fence-sitting so go somewhere in the middle and use a combo of whole eggs and egg yolks.

2. I use a mixture of pecorino and parmesan. I feel this produces a more rounded dish, compared to using solely pecorino, and doesn’t overpower the guanciale.

On that one… Guanciale is THE meat to use for carbonara.

Guanciale is pork cheek cured with salt and spices such as pepper, thyme, and fennel.

Guanciale is similar to pancetta but the flavour is a bit stronger, and more interesting, while the texture is slightly more delicate. It has a high fat content that melts away when cooked to give us a fundamental part of the sauce.

What you need

The below serves 2. It takes 10 mins to prep and 15 mins to cook.


75g guanciale or pancetta (cut into lardons of similar size)

220g dried pasta (spaghetti or bucatini)

1 whole egg

2 egg yolks

30g parmesan (finely grated)

30g pecorino romano (finely grated)

Sea salt & black pepper

Ready, steady, cook

1. Place a large pan of seasoned water on to a high heat. This is for the pasta.

2. Next, add the diced guanciale/pancetta to a large cold frying pan. Put the pan on a medium-high heat. The fat will start to render and the meat will begin to colour. The aim is to gradually colour the meat and get it crispy (don’t rush otherwise it will colour too much before the fat has fully rendered).

3. While the meat is cooking, add the whole egg and two egg yolks to a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork until completely combined and broken down. Pop in the grated parmesan and pecorino, along with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine again and set aside.

4. Check on the guanciale/pancetta. When coloured and crispy (all the fat should be rendered) turn off the heat.

5. Add the pasta to the water and set a timer according to the packet instructions for ‘al dente’. 

NOTE: Usually I recommend cooking the pasta for a couple of mins less than the packet suggests as we normally finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. However, for carbonara we’ll finish the pasta off the heat and won’t cook it in the sauce for so long (otherwise we end up with scrambled eggs).

6. When there is a minute left on the timer, start to heat up the pan with the guanciale/pancetta in. At the same time, take half a ladle of the pasta cooking water and add it to the bowl with the egg and cheese mixture. Stir it in until fully combined and a loose sauce is produced.

7. When the pasta is cooked, transfer it directly from the pasta pan, using tongs, to the now hot frying pan. Toss through the crispy lardons and rendered fat until the water and fat has emulsified.

8. Turn the frying pan off and leave it to sit for 30 seconds. Now pour in the egg and cheese mixture, stirring so the sauce coats the pasta. Continue to stir, or toss the pan, vigorously until the pasta and the sauce stick to each other.

The residual heat from the pasta should be enough to just cook the egg without scrambling it, but you can place everything back on a very low heat and cook briefly if required. If the sauce looks too thick then add a small amount of cooking water until you get a wonderful creamy consistency.

9. Divide into hot bowls (making sure to spoon over all the sauce and guanciale/pancetta).

Final thought

Guanciale is available in the UK from Italian delis, some butchers and supermarkets, or online. If you can’t find it then pancetta is the best substitute. Avoid using bacon as the fat content isn’t high enough and it’s too thin to create ‘lardon’ sized pieces.

Enjoy your time in the kitchen,


Last week’s results

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Eat My Words · Kew Gardens · Kew, TW9 · United Kingdom

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