#22 "this is the best spaghetti carbonara I've ever had"
Welcome to A Newsletter #22, also the name of a Taylor Swift song worse than champagne problems. A BIG WELCOME to all new subscribers, I am VERY happy to be in your inbox. If you’ve found your way over by some miracle but are not yet subscribed, here, let me help you with that:
In honor of this week's Terrible But Cozy Weather, I had a day that began with a Zoom call at 9 a.m. and ended promptly about an hour after that (i.e. I went directly back into my bed). The luxury of working seven days a week is that occasionally, you can decide to take off a random weekday when it suits. See also: “Who fucking cares anymore?”
So, instead of putting away the summer clothes that are STILL piled on my couch or writing back to my accountant or paying any attention to the several projects I had hoped to wrap by year’s end, I decided to watch Heartburn for the first time. (I held off watching it, because the book meant so much to me, but how long can someone resist the Nora Ephron-Meryl Streep-Jack Nicholson-Mike Nichols-Carly Simon combination? Idk, I’m only human.) Since I am a woman of a certain age, of course I enjoy injecting all things Nora Ephron directly into my veins, but there are a few scenes in this 1986 movie in particular that really speak to me. None more than the one early on, where Meryl Streep aka Rachel Samstat aka Nora Ephron is eating post-coital spaghetti carbonara in bed with Jack Nicholson aka Mark Feldman aka Carl Bernstein. “This is the best spaghetti carbonara I’ve ever had,” he declares. “When we’re married, I want this once a week.” Cut me to the core, why don’t you.
Press play now:
The pasta they’re eating doesn’t look especially luscious, creamy, or delicious, but the moment itself does. Front and center on my “ROMANCE FOR ALISON'' vision board I’ve got: “razzing, complementing, and giggling in bed,” and this scene, well, it’s got it all folks. Swoon! Through this delightfully intimate clip, we can infer that Rachel’s love language is acts of service (she writes cookbooks!) and Mark’s is words of affirmation (he’s a political columnist!), and we see them both playing to their strengths. Her: Feeding him something casual yet impressive, effortlessly and perfectly executed (“You’re making fun of me,” is her slightly caustic and definitively defensive response to his compliment—telling!); Him: Using his signature melodramatic, effusive complimenting style to praise her food (avoiding intimacy while appearing to dive in headfirst! I see your bullshit, Mark). In this moment, for better or worse, they are telling each other exactly who they are. They fall in love, get married, and then predictably, things fall apart. Anyway, even though I knew how the whole thing ended, it didn’t stop me from wanting all of this for myself (the razzing, the complimenting, the giggling, the pasta).
That said, of all the iconic pastas, spaghetti carbonara has never even cracked my top three. Why carbonara when you could gricia? Why gricia when you could cacio e pepe? All valid questions worth asking. But I’ve got to give it up to spaghetti carbonara for combining “raw eggs, pork fat, cheese, and cloudy pasta water” to create something so undeniably desirable that it’s a thing people try and cook on purpose.
I woke up the next morning after a full 24 hours of not making that pasta and my desire, my NEED for romantic intimacy I mean spaghetti carbonara was so strong, I had to make it for breakfast. Despite the limited ingredients involved, carbonara feels annoyingly complicated to nail (since I fear failure, I couldn’t imagine making it for a first date, after sex at 4 a.m. no less– another reason we absolutely MUST STAN Rachel Stamsat) and figured the first meal of the day was as good a time as any to cook a bowl of something I might totally fuck up. Let me mention I am not the kind of person who says, “There’s fruit in this cake, so it can be breakfast lolz,” just like I don’t think that the inclusion of eggs and salted cured pork product in pasta means it’s “basically an egg sandwich lolz.” Spaghetti carbonara is not an egg sandwich. Spaghetti carbonara is not breakfast. I repeat, unless I am so cripplingly hungover I have to eat leftover shallot pasta to keep my body and soul from falling apart, then pasta is not a breakfast food to me (that movie clearly left me in an extreme state of emotional vulnerability which, in many cases, is worse than a hangover, so leave me alone!).
I remembered the hunk of pancetta I had stashed in my freezer from the last time I tried to convince myself I enjoyed bolognese (no dice), and I always have pasta, eggs, and Parmesan on hand, so I was “in business,” as they say. I explored a few contrarian thoughts found in books and on the World Wide Web as to whether or not garlic “belonged” in this dish but decided I wanted it whether it “belonged” or not. I did a shitty job of slicing the pancetta into even pieces (see: “Who fucking cares anymore?”) and started rendering the uneven bits in a medium skillet (the beauty of pasta for one) over medium-low heat (it’s the fat we’re after, not the meat, so low and slow is better than hot and fast, a thing I almost never believe in). I put a medium pot of salted water on to boil and cracked one egg and one yolk into my favorite bowl, grated one clove of garlic, SO MUCH black pepper and an indeterminate amount of Parmesan (½ cup?) over the eggs, and whisked it all together. While I waited for my water to boil I thought to myself, “Am I even hungry? Will pasta for breakfast make me feel like shit for the rest of the day? Do I think this pasta will be ready before therapy in 17 minutes? Did Ted read my last newsletter?”.
Once my pancetta was as rendered as it was going to be, I removed the crispy-ish bits with a spoon and transferred them to a small bowl, leaving the fat behind. I ate several pieces of the very salty meat with my hands and then thought, “Save some for the rest of us!” JK (pasta for one). As soon as the pasta was about halfway cooked (more al dente than usual), I used tongs to lift the noodles from the water and placed them into the skillet with the pork fat and splashed in about half a cup of pasta water, swirling to release all those sticky bits on the bottom of the skillet. The noodles simmered furiously for about a minute or so, and can I just say what a delight it is to look down at a skillet full of squirmy pasta and know that it’s *all for you*?
While that happened, I whisked in about another ¾ cup of hot pasta water into the eggs and added the pasta to the bowl. Using tongs, I tossed, tossed, tossed again (boy, did I toss), THEN I returned the whole thing back to the skillet over medium heat to finish cooking the pasta, letting the eggs and starchy water do their thing (“their thing” = creating a thick, glossy, creamy sauce made from emulsifying the eggs, fat and water. This experience is not unlike, say, making mayonnaise/aioli/hollandaise). The tossing continued in the skillet– I truly did not stop tossing for one second (you don’t want to give the eggs a chance to “scramble,” not even a little bit).
Generally, I think of making and eating pasta as like, a group activity, but I can say with full confidence, spaghetti carbonara is the perfect pasta for one. It’s a little fussy (couldn’t be me!), time-sensitive (the sauce comes together within literal seconds, and the dish itself must be eaten immediately), and unlike most pastas that could be described as “pantry-friendly,” executing it isn’t without an assumed level of risk (scrambled eggs!). Making it for any number of people greater than one feels like something I just don’t want to do, and until I find my Mark (the kind that won’t cheat on me while I’m pregnant!), I see no reason for that to happen.
SPAGHETTI CARBONARA FOR ONE
I don’t plan on offering this disclaimer every time I write a recipe (although sometimes I think I should), but I am in no way saying this is the definitive way to make spaghetti carbonara. It might not even be “the right way?” But, this is the way I make it. It makes sense to me, it felt right, and wow, have I mentioned that creamy, silky sauce? I’m sure I would be absolutely SCHOOLED by somebody’s Italian aunt (or worse, mansplained by somebody’s boyfriend who “spent a summer in Italy and just absolutely fell in love with the food”) for doing it this way, but all I can say is that it works and, well, I love it.
The amount of sauce produced here could absolutely go the distance for double the amount of pasta, useful to know if you find yourself in bed with someone needing some LNP (late night pasta).
1 tablespoon/13g olive oil
A slice of guanciale or pancetta (if you want to use bacon, sure, you can), about ¼” thick, cut into ¼” pieces (about 2 oz/55g)
A personal palmful of spaghetti (about 3 ounces, but who is weighing spaghetti)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 garlic clove, finely grated (optional, but it is my preference)
About ½ cup (1 oz/30g) finely grated parmesan and/or pecorino cheese, plus more for grating on top with reckless abandon
Freshly ground black pepper, lots of it
1. Heat olive oil and guanciale or pancetta in a medium skillet over medium heat until most of the fat has started rendering out and the meat starts to brown (this is not a traditional step, but I like when the meat gets browned and starts caramelizing on the bottom of the skillet), 4–6 minutes. Remove from heat and using a spoon, transfer the meat to a small bowl, leaving the fat behind.
2. Meanwhile, whisk egg, egg yolk, garlic, and ½ cup cheese in a medium bowl. Season with a little salt and LOTS of black pepper. Like, really go for it. Okay, now add a little more.
3. Cook pasta in a medium pot of salted boiling water about halfway through (it should be malleable but still just before al dente).
4. Return the skillet with the fat to medium heat and using tongs, place the pasta in the skillet (this means I don’t have to drain the pasta and worry about “reserving” the pasta water, it just stays in the pot), and add in about ½ cup pasta water, swirling to scrape up all the sticky, porky bits. Cook here for a minute or so.
5. Whisk in ¾ cup pasta water to the egg/cheese mixture and then add pasta to that bowl, using your tongs to toss, toss, toss.
6. Return the pasta and all the sauce to the skillet over medium heat (it will look watery and soupy and tbh, not all that great, just wait!). Cook the pasta and continue to toss, moving the skillet and the pasta, letting the sauce come together and become totally emulsified and creamy. If you notice any bits of scrambled eggs, your heat is too high-- remove it from the heat and let it cool before continuing.
7. Just before it looks thick enough, remove it from the heat, and yeah, keep tossing. Toss it! Add more pasta water if it’s looking a bit dry (this pasta goes from saucy to sticky very quickly, pasta water will keep you saucy).
8. Transfer it to a bowl or eating vessel of your choice. Top with more black pepper, parmesan cheese, and a sprinkle of the meaty crispy bits (save any meaty crispy bits for “meat snacks” later).