A Legacy in the Kitchen

My Grandpa Vern passed away just this past October and at his service, each of his three kids (my mom and two uncles,) my brother and I were all asked to speak.  Inevitably, we shared stories about his career, international travels, vacations to Tahoe, strict rules (eating bacon with a fork?)  and love of the water.  But I was also reminded of his love for gourmet food and cooking.

He and my Grandma Eloise – along with my Uncle Kirk – lived in Naples, Italy for five years during the late 1960’s.  It was there that my grandma discovered the secret to cooking simple Italian food.  It was also there that she discovered and perfected her spaghetti carbonara recipe – a recipe my grandpa would later adapt to his own tastes.

Years ago I participated in my first recipe exchange.  (In fact, it was so long ago that this particular exchange took place using the US MAIL!  Can you believe it?)  One of the recipes I received in the mail was from my Grandpa.  It was his recipe for margaritas (he was a master cocktail maker, yet hardly ever drank himself,) and “just to keep me from becoming a total boozer,” his carbonara recipe.

The recipe sat unused in my scrapbook/cookbook for years, until one day I stumbled across it, re-read it and figured, what the heck?  I substituted bacon for the pancetta, but otherwise stuck strictly to the recipe.  The result:  deliciousness!

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that good spaghetti carbonara is all about timing.  Let the noodles cook a little too long and you’ll have a rubbery mess.  Allow the bacon and pasta mixture to sit too long before adding the egg mixture and you’re screwed.  And if it sits on the table for even a minute before it’s put on the plate forget it.  You might as well be eating glue.

(Side note: one of Madison’s responsibilities is setting the table for dinner.  Like most eight-year-olds, she has a tendency to dilly dally.  On spaghetti carbonara nights she’s usually assaulted with the cacophony of my yells, “Dinner will be ready in 3 minutes!  Set.  The .  Table.  Now!  “Dinner will be ready in 30 seconds!  Get. Your. Butt.  Out.  Here!)

Through trial and error I finally perfected the timing of the dish (and can even compensate for table-setting time) and now it’s something I whip up when we’re not really hungry but hungry enough to eat a little something.  I also make it for brunch (it’s great with scones and berries with cream,) or late at night after a drinking many beers, cocktails, wine or whatever.  Rarely are there any leftovers.  I also love making it because I usually have all of the ingredients on hand and it’s a pretty quick dish to make.

Just this past week, I was suddenly bombarded by everyone’s take on spaghetti carbonara.  (Okay, not really, but I did get several tweets and received this blog post via email.)  I hadn’t made it for awhile and over the years I’d modified my grandpa’s recipe to include more cheese and heavier cream, but I was still using bacon.  So I penciled it in for Tuesday night and I decided that this time I was going to use pancetta.  There’s this great Italian deli in town where Madison and I go after getting our hair cut, (she orders the tuna, I get the Italian Combo,) and I’m always reminded that they have a great cold cut case and grocery.

When dinnertime arrived, I was excited to unwrap the pancetta.  I sliced it up thick and began frying it in olive oil while the water for the pasta began to boil.  My timing was right on and both the pancetta and pasta were done at the same time.  I tossed the spaghetti in the pan with the cooked pancetta, drizzled the egg mixture over the top and tossed it some more.  The result:  pure deliciousness!


Heather’s Spaghetti Carbonara, serves 4

4 egg yolks
1/3 cup heavy cream
½ cup finely shredded parmesan
3 tbsp olive oil
¾ lb pancetta (you can substitute 1lb bacon like I did for years)
¾ lb spaghetti

In a medium sized bowl, beat the egg yolks and add the heavy cream, parmesan and pepper.  Set aside.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet.  Slice the pancetta into 1 ½ “ pieces and add it to the pan.  Cook, stirring to coat the pancetta and making sure it cooks evenly.  Bring a pot of water to boil and add spaghetti.  Cook the pasta al denta and drain.  When the pancetta is firm but not too crispy, drain all but a few tbsp of oil/grease and add the pasta.  Working quickly, mix the pancetta and spaghetti together.  Pour the egg mixture over the top and mix again.  Serve immediately.

2 comments on “A Legacy in the Kitchen

  1. joshdaddy
    March 1, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    There’s definitely two camps here: the cream-based and the cream-free carbonara. I’m very much in the cream-free camp, mostly because that was the way I had it first. I also tend to believe that the older, most rustic (read poverty here) version didn’t use cream. I didn’t go into this in the blog post, but one (Roman) history of the dish dates it to late WWII when American troops in Italy started to distribute to citizens their US food rations, which included bacon & powdered eggs.

    I’m a fan of traditional interpretations, but I’m drawing the line at powdered eggs!

    • Heather
      March 2, 2011 at 10:20 am #

      Ugh, I agree – powdered eggs? I don’t think I’ve ever purchased them! Basically I’m a fan of anything that makes the dish tastier (read: more fat) so I’m not opposed to the cream. Your version does sound good though!

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