Carbonara a la Gra, or: Upscale (Yet Somehow Reeeally Dirty) Shells & Cheese

Sometimes I have a grand plan to blog about a particular food item/concoction prior to its actual creation in the Nest Kitchen. And sometimes I make (or revisit) something so incredible, something that makes me so happy, something that, in its various incarnations, has pleased so many friends, that I realize, as I cross my eyes in sheer glee at the first forkful, that this is Seriously Something That Requires A Tribute. (And, apparently Something That Requires a Really Long Post Title.)

I first made pasta carbonara in my old, old apartment down on Waveland (perched one floor above the notorious Daddy Donut and his smelly dog[s?] and truculent children), and have been refining my own version ever since. The traditional version is very simple– pasta (usually spaghetti), some kind of cured pork item (guanciale is preferred; pancetta is usually what is in my fridge.  Assignment: somebody go find me some guanciale and I’ll make an even more glorious carbonara for us), and a sauce/glue of cream, raw eggs, parmigiano, and pepper.  I say “glue” because once the eggs hit the warm pasta, the heat cooks the sauce and it all turns into a lovely, rich, quasi-stuck-together symphony of, well…
But whatever.  As I recently told a friend, I do eat normal-person food most of the time (or,  glorified normal-person food [see: every SFMF]), but the things I end up wanting to talk about are just… kinda dirty.
The trick, though, with carbonara, and what makes it (at least in my mind) especially impressive despite its meager yet solid ingredient list, is pure ninja magic:  you pretty much have to have your eye on two things at once while your hands do another thing, and the final maneuver of the recipe requires sophistication and a good eye for consistency– that is, you walk a fine line between the noted symphony of fats and, well, something like scrambled eggs.
So last night, somewhere between a desperately needed 2-hour nap, residual tears of joy (shut up, I’m a sucker for a good montage), and drinks with a new pal, I decided to bow down even further to the gods of indulgence and revisit carbonara after about a two-year hiatus.  The last time I had made it I was standing in a kitchen about 20 feet from the brown line, trying to impart the wonders of Dago cooking to a theretofore innocent babe.  This time, only the ingredients were the same… I was about 50 feet above street level, armed with a new, enormous, stainless pan, and cooking to impress only myself (and my tupperware) (if it wasn’t clear before, let it be said: I’m an old lady and Nana likes her tupperware).
As I mentioned, I usually use pancetta because that’s what’s around.  I skip the peas that you might find in other versions and add portobello mushrooms instead.  Because seriously– adding peas “for color” or “nutritive value” to a pasta dish is a pretty f*cking stupid thing to do if your sauce consists of nothing but heavy cream, egg yolks, and cheese.  I have news for you: The peas will not make a damn bit of difference.  Also, and on a less expletive note, I only really ever want carbonara in the fall & winter months, which is THE time to hug it out with your deep, woodsy mushroom cravings.  The other ingredients– eggs, cream, parmigiano, pepper– are pretty standard.  (Side note: You should stop reading now if you have a green Kraft canister anywhere in your house.  We are not friends.)
Once you’ve amassed these things, there are three separate concoctions you must prepare.  Each thing takes roughly 10 minutes to do once the pasta hits the water (and they all have to be ready at the same time without overcooking), so a gra’s gotta be quick on her feet:
  1. Pasta in (heavily) salted, boiling water.   This time I used just a half-pound of pasta, and went for the dark horse candidate… shells (a fact to which we will return shortly).
  2. Pancetta– I prefer it thinly sliced and then roughly chopped from there– and some portobellos hissing away in a really big pan with a little bit of olive oil, over medium-low heat.  I skipped the garlic this last time and sort of loved the milder result.
  3. One whole egg and two egg yolks, a hefty splash of cream, as much parmigiano as I felt like grating (it ended up looking something like 1/2 cup), black pepper, and– in a surprise move– a little red pepper flake, all whisked together in a bowl.
(Incidentally, and before we go too much further, this sort of thing is where a big old skimmer thingy comes in serious handy.)
Once the pasta is done, get it into the pan with the pancetta as soon as possible (see?  Skimmy thing).  You’ll want a little bit of the pasta water to get in there too (see?  Skimmy thing) so that it can break up/unstick the bits of pancetta & mushroom goodness on the bottom of the pan.  Once the pasta is all in there, QUICKLY give ‘er a good toss to make sure everything– bits included– is combined.  You want to lose as little heat as possible in the process.  Grab your bowl of fat (spade = spade), give it a final whisk, turn OFF the heat below the pan, and pour the mixture onto the pasta.  Stir for a while:  Everything will get coated rather quickly, but you want to make sure you make use of all of the residual heat in the pan to get the egg cooked.  If it’s still a teeny bit runny after a good stirring, that’s okay– remember you’ve got cream in there and the whole thing is still warm, so liquids are still acting like liquids.
When I finished this meisterwerk and tried it, it was another one of those situations where I sort of couldn’t stop just eating it straight out of the pan.  (Remember this?)  And as I stood there, thanking the sweet lord above that I lived alone so no one could see my ludicriously, if rapturously contorted face, I realized that the richness of the sauce, though made from entirely natural ingredients, reminded me a whole lot of something very decadent from my childhood.  Something reserved only for very special Friday nights when the order of the evening was TGIF and dress-up.  That’s right:  Kraft (Super Dirty) Shells & Cheese.
Oh stop it.  You know you ate it and you know you LOVED IT.  Flicking your tongue through a pasta shell to root out entire colonies of pasteurized processed cheese food.  Hearing that weird Martian translation of snap-crackle-pop as you drove your fork through the bowl.  Wondering exactly what sort of cow made a cheese so smooth, so radioactively yellow-orange, and so devastatingly delicious.
So the good news with carbonara is that it’s all that, but better (and minus the weird cheese).  It’s savory and deep, thanks to the pancetta and mushrooms, but heart-wrenchingly (literally?) silky due to the eggs and cream.  The familiar black pepper gives it a comfortable dimension and the red pepper flakes, as I’m finding more and more, give it the sort of mysterious afterglow that I always associated with restaurant food but couldn’t, until recently, figure out what it was.
The bad news, of course, is that it’s something that should probably only be consumed once every other year.
See you in 2010.


  1. Bad news. Apparently we’re no longer friends because there is a green kraft canister in my refrigerator. Mike likes it on his dirty st. louis style pizza (and I, quite frankly, don’t believe that my hunk of whole foods good cheese should be grated onto something so nasty). Tis a sad truth.

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