Ask 100 people what their favourite thing to eat is and the chances are almost all of them will say at least one of the following; Pasta, cheese, bacon or egg.
Unless, of course, they’re vegan, in which case their fave food would be an alternative to one of these choices. Or chocolate. Or those little biscuits you get with coffee in hotels. I miss those.
Anyway, this is all hypothetical, of course. It’s the best and only way to introduce this bit of writing, so please don’t go sending mishmash studies on the nation’s favourite food to prove me wrong.
Pasta, in its own right, is arguably one of the greatest food creations ever established. But add in meat, dairy and black pepper and out of your pan comes Pasta Carbonara - one of the dishiest things to come out of the kitchen since Nigella, and THE recipe which shaped how I cook.
I remember as a kid, before I knew the difference between tagliatelle and farfalle, spooning a lukewarm pot of Dolmio Carbonara sauce onto a pile of steaming hot pasta, thinking I was the king of haute cuisine. In reality, what I was doing was unknowingly committing an ungodly sin against the cooking gods. For this was not carbonara, this was an imposter, hiding behind E numbers, bits of dry bacon and cream.
I still remember the taste and texture - smooth, kind-of salty, cheesy. But ultimately, in my memory, very very bland, even for my raw childish taste buds. I’d regularly eat this for my lunch when I was at home, or the tomato flavoured one (which was also bland, but tomato bland). This was obviously better than turkey twizzlers; kind of healthy, filling, fuelling me for hours of playing football outside. So it wasn’t that bad.
During this time in my life, I was interested in food, but I was yet to put it into practice. I relied on my mum’s cooking for sustenance, then it was back outside to play with my mates, or on my own, or to the Playstation to play FIFA.
I’d also watch Jamie Oliver, or Saturday Kitchen, or River Cottage with my dad. I didn’t know it yet, but that triggered my love for food, even if it was years before I boiled an egg. Just watching those chefs, particularly Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, with his bouncy bonce of curly hair and love for foraging, made me realise that food was more than just cold fake carbonara in a plastic pot.
But I didn’t have time to start learning to cook. I had football to play, school to go to, puberty to battle wholeheartedly against.
Fast forward to an age where I was trusted with a frying pan and a knife - I wanted to cook everything from scratch. I’d had enough of jars and plastic pots of sauce. I wanted to make my own fresh sauce, from fresh ingredients.
I remember making a pasta bake with a sauce I made from tinned tomatoes, onion, garlic and basil (classic). But, even though I showed enthusiasm, my patience hadn’t yet developed, so I was left with a bitter, loose sauce which barely coated the pasta and literally just tasted like tinned tomatoes. So I covered it in cheese and ate it with an annoyed face. ‘Why does Jamie make it look so easy?’ I muttered, eating the whole thing begrudgingly.
I refined my skills and got a little more confident in the kitchen, but I maintain that perfecting Pasta Carbonara taught me much more than any cookbook, recipe or BBC Good Food binge ever could.
Until I knew my way around the kitchen a little, I hadn’t realised how ‘proper’ carbonara came to be. On the surface, it’s so simple, with just a few ingredients - the likely favs of the public which I mentioned before - eggs, parmesan cheese, bacon or pancetta (or guanciale if you’re flexing), spaghetti or pasta, garlic, oil.
So when I was on the search to refine my cooking skills, I naively thought this could be a dish I’d nail first time.
To talk it through in the most basic of terms, this is a quick recipe:
Put pasta on the boil, crack eggs into a bowl and mix with grated parmesan, fry some bacon, add garlic, remove bacon from the pan, keep or discard the garlic (up to you), drain the pasta BUT keep some water, take pan off the heat, add all the ingredients to the pan and toss the pasta so everything emulsifies, fresh parmesan, salt, pepper, serve.
Easy right? I thought so too. The first few times of trying, I was left with breakfast spaghetti - scrambled eggs and bacon with parmesan-y pasta. Very frustrating. Still delicious, but in an annoying way.
But once you’ve figured out the ratio of pasta water to egg and cheese, and when to take the pan off the heat, it’s one of the most satisfying dishes to cook.
Carbonara taught me four key skills that are essential for the kitchen - patience, timing, understanding heat and the classic pan toss for perfect emulsification:
Patience - Waiting for the bacon to perfectly crisp up, otherwise it’s floppy and underwhelming. Also being patient when it comes to the sauce coming together - it’s easy to give into scrambled egg at this point.
Timing - Boiling pasta and frying bacon THEN adding garlic all at the same time? Carbonara taught me to keep an eye on different pans at the same time.
Understanding heat - Probably the most important one. Too hot and you have breakfast, too cold and it’s harder for the sauce to come together. You need to understand the heat in the pan once it’s taken off the heat.
Classic Pan Toss - A key skill, tossing the pan to make sure all ingredients get to know each other. Sometimes a spoon or kitchen tongs just can’t replicate a good toss.
Obviously there are so many more skills required in the kitchen to be considered a ‘good’ cook. But for me, learning and refining this recipe and these skills helped me understand food a lot more.
And after a lot of trying, I evolved from the plastic pot of pasta sauce to a proper Carbonara tosser. It’s my favourite dish to cook when I can’t be bothered, but still want to make a bit of an effort.
Thinking of changing my name to Dan Farrbonara. Thoughts?
I love carbonara so much that I have a t-shirt of the ingredients, made by the amazing Quite Nice Clothing. Check out their other food-related clothing here.