Introduction: Simple Carbonara

Growing up in an Italian-American family, I've always eaten pasta with fresh, homemade sauces.  I never quite understood the appeal of buying overpriced jars of pre-made sauce from the supermarket, until a friend recently told me that they just didn't have time to make their own!  What most people don't realise is that most Italian sauces are ridiculously easy to make, and can usually be made from scratch in less time than it takes to cook a bowl of pasta.  Here, I'm going to show you how to make one of my favourites - carbonara!

Carbonara is a delicious, rich, creamy sauce with cheese and pancetta (or bacon, if like me you can't be bothered to go out and buy pancetta).  What makes this sauce a bit unusual is that it isn't thickened with cream (although this is a nice addition) or a roux like you would expect, but with egg.  This makes it even easier to prepare, and adds a bit of extra protein (so you can even pretend it's healthy!).

Step 1: Ingredients

Here's what you'll need:

-pasta (I typically use dried, although fresh is even better!)
-grated parmesan or other hard cheese
-pancetta (or bacon, or prosciutto, or guanciale, whatever you can get your hands on really.  Alternatively, you could leave this out entirely for a vegetarian version.)
-black pepper
-cream (optional)

I don't usually measure my ingredients, which is why I haven't given any quantities.  As a rough guide, I usually use about 100g of pasta, one egg, a bit less than a tablespoon of butter, and one thick slice of bacon if I'm making this for myself.

Step 2: Getting Things Started

Dice up your bacon or pancetta, and toss it in a frying pan over medium-high heat.

As soon as that's going, start boiling your pasta in water with a bit of salt added.  (If you're using fresh pasta, you may want to wait until you've done the next step before starting it, as it will cook much more quickly.)

Step 3: Getting Ready to Make the Sauce

While those are cooking, put a knob of butter and a bit of your grated cheese in a large bowl - you want something big enough to mix your pasta in.

When the bacon is finished cooking, put it in a small bowl (or teacup, as the case may be), and set it aside for now.

(Warning: There might be a bit of thumb-twiddling at this stage.  This is a really easy recipe.  I had time to wash a sink full of dishes while waiting for the pasta.  Just try not to eat all the bacon cubes just yet.)

Step 4: Time for the Pasta!

When your pasta has finished cooking, drain it, and immediately put it into the bowl with your butter and cheese.  It's important that it's still hot at this point.

As soon as the pasta is in the bowl, crack your egg into it.  That's right, directly into the pasta.  Then mix it!  You want to get the egg distributed as evenly as possible, since if you let it sit it will curdle.  Keep stirring until the egg, butter, and cheese are mixed, and the sauce starts to thicken.

The heat of the pasta cooks the raw egg, but does so slowly enough that you don't need to worry about it scrambling and making your sauce all lumpy.  The mixing distributes the egg so it cooks completely, and forms an emulsion with the butter and cheese that makes it nice and creamy.

This sauce won't look quite as thick as the stuff you buy in the store - they bulk it out with cornflour - but trust me, it's tastier.  Adding cream in the next step will get you a bit closer to that store-bought taste.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

Now, you can mix in your bacon, cream (if you're using it), and pepper.  Maybe sprinkle a bit of extra cheese on top.

Step 6: Eat!

That's it!  You're done!  Go enjoy your delicious pasta.

Once you're happy with this, you can try all sorts of interesting variants.  Maybe try adding vegetables to the basic sauce, or different kinds of spices.  I had a particularly tasty batch last week while cleaning out my fridge that used smoky bacon in place of pancetta, and some stilton cheese instead of cream.  Be creative!
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