Luscious and wonderfully indulgent, Spaghetti alla Carbonara is an Italian pasta dish based on eggs, pecorino romano, guanciale and black pepper. The key is to toss and thoroughly mix the cooked pasta off the heat with the cheese, eggs, pepper and pasta water, to create a creamy yet not overly thick sauce. A true carbonara has no cream, but although purists may shudder, I do sometimes add a little cream depending how I'm feeling. Like most recipes, the origins of the dish are obscure but there are many legends. As 'carbonara' literally means 'coal miner's wife', some believe that the dish was first made as a hearty meal for Italian coal miners. Romans use guanciale — cured pig's jowl — which is more delicate than pancetta — unsmoked Italian bacon — and also leaner. If you can find it, by all means use guanciale, otherwise pancetta or bacon work just as well. For the sheer wow-factor, I do like to drop an egg yolk into each nest of pasta, which guests stir to form an even creamier sauce. Garnished at the end with a flurry of coarsely grated Parmigiano, "Coal Miner's Spaghetti" must be one of the great pastas dishes of all time.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
1 lb spaghetti
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb guanciale or pancetta
4 large eggs, separated
1 1/4 cup fresh coarsely grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp fresh chopped thyme leaves
1/4 cup heavy cream, optional
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta and cut the pancetta into 1/2 x 1/4 inch lardons. Combine the olive oil and pancetta in a large sauté pan set over medium heat, and cook until the pancetta has rendered its fat and is crisp and golden. Remove from the heat and set aside, being careful not to drain the fat.
Cook the spaghetti in the boiling water until just al dente. Scoop out 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta.
Add the reserved pasta water to the pan with the pancetta, then toss in the pasta and heat, shaking the pan, for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, and add 1 cup of the Parmigiano, the egg whites, thyme, pepper to taste, and the cream, if you're using it. Toss until thoroughly mixed and serve with a little extra grated cheese on the side.