It’s always interesting to look at a recipe for a very different version of a very familiar dish. Will it be as good as the way I make it? Will it be better? My newest cookbook acquisition, Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, offers several opportunities for those comparisons, since I love Roman cuisine. The first recipe I ventured on was pasta alla carbonara, a dish especially dear to Romans and a staple at my house.
As the authors – young American food journalists who live in Rome – say, this is a dish whose exact ingredients and technique give rise to passionate argument among Roman cooks (among whom I like to think myself an honorary member). My own recipe, published in Tom’s and my 1988 cookbook La Tavola Italiana, is of course the version I like best, so I looked at theirs with a critical eye. They offer two versions, both with differences from mine, most notably one that makes the sauce in a double boiler. I’d never heard of that, so it’s the one I decided to try.
The book’s recipe begins by having you sauté small strips of guanciale in olive oil, drain it and let it cool.
My recipe starts there too, but it calls for pancetta, because it used to be hard to get guanciale here and pancetta is an accepted alternative in Rome. I dice it smaller and sauté it with onion and a peperoncino, in both olive oil and butter. (Nowadays, I often use bacon, which some say is the original meat ingredient of the dish, created post-WW II, when American GIs brought their bacon and powdered eggs to Rome.)
According to Tasting Rome’s recipe, while the pasta is cooking, you beat together eggs, grated pecorino Romano, black pepper, and water in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, whisking continually until the cheese melts and the mixture thickens.
My recipe calls for simply beating the eggs in a bowl with pecorino and parmigiano, salt, pepper, and parsley.
Back to Parla and Gill: Off heat, you stir the guanciale and the cooked pasta into the sauce in the double boiler; transfer it to individual bowls, and sprinkle each portion with more grated pecorino and black pepper.
That last step was also a very significant difference. In my version, I add slightly underdone pasta to the warm pancetta-onion mixture in its sauté pan, toss over low heat to coat the pasta with butter and oil and finish its cooking; then, off heat, stir in the egg-cheese mixture and serve. That procedure creates a sauce with a very different mouth feel, and one I like a lot better.
For me, the double-boiler sauce was too glutinous, and since I couldn’t coat the pasta first with the mixed fats, it absorbed too much of the sauce and came out tasting flat and floury. And despite how smooth the sauce had seemed in the pan, on the pasta it was somewhat grainy – not pleasant to the tongue. Oh, well – de gustibus.