Updated: Jul 7, 2018
It's quite hard to write about Carbonara without offending anyone. A true Italian will tell you Carbonara with cream is cheating (which I tend to agree with) but I'm also sure in many part of the world, Carbonara is made with addition of cream. So why is something so simple but so debatable?
Carbonara is made traditionally of eggs, pancetta, hard cheese and pasta, that I'm sure every Italian will insist on that. This is a classic Italian family dish undocumented until after second world war.
So why cream? Of course we know in many parts of the world, people are not shy about adding extra ingredients even though there's no specific reason, however after my extensive test of different recipes, besides a richer, creamier taste, the addition of cream is for 2 reasons: 1. easier to cook and 2. cheaper to cook. The essence of Carbonara is the richly creamy egg sauce with rich tasting cheese and pancetta flavours coated on the pasta indulgently. But eggs are very tricky to work with because it doesn't thicken if the temperature is too low or it gets scrambled if the temperature is too high. As a chef, your experience and control on temperature is very critical as once the egg is scrambled, there's no going back. So the easier way out is to add cream which will solve the above problem. Also a yield of cream/eggs/cheese mixture is higher than a eggs/cheese mixture cost-wise, so most restaurants serve cream in their Carbonara.
But if you want to try it at home, all you need is a double boiler or "bain marie" filled with hot water in which you can cook your egg and cheese sauce over in the same way as you melt your chocolate. The heat will thicken the sauce while preventing the eggs from overheating and becoming scrambled.
Another tip that adds great flavour to your Carbonara is to choose the right pancetta or bacon. You may wonder why some of us are very particular about this piece of processed meat? A lot of supermarket bacon is soaked in salt water to speed up the curing process, so when you cook it the salt water leaks and creates a pool of water in your pan. Furthermore because the meat is soaked in salt water it doesn't have the rich flavour of a meat that is cured slowly. So whether you buy bacon or pancetta, make sure you check the label says 'dry cured'. Most gourmet shop pancetta will be dry cured, but when you are in supermarket, double check the label. When making Carbonara, don't be afraid to use fattier pancetta as we want to slowly render the fat of the pancetta in our pan so when the pasta is cooked and drained, we can toss the pasta in the pancetta fat instead of olive oil. It is decadently delicious.
Lastly a note about your cheese. I prefer 24 month-aged Parmigiano-reggiano as I love the rich nutty flavour it has. Some might find it too strong so you can mix with pecorino which is a lighter flavoured cheese, but there is no firm rule. This dish is composed of 3 major flavours - eggs, pancetta and cheese, so the cheese will have to be the one you enjoy eating.