Of legend, World War II & Hollywood
In order to tell you how I came up with this dish, I have a confession to make. I can count the number of times I've eaten 'Fettuccini Alfredo' (a staple on many Italian-American restaurant menus) on one hand, and truly enjoyed it maybe twice. The same is true for Carbonara. The best Carbonara I've ever had was in Nantes, on a balmy Friday night outside on a terrace, and the only reason I know it was the best is because that night I had a taste from my husband's plate. He loves Carbonara. I seldom order it. I've never seen him order Fettucini Alfredo. But we do love cream sauces. So, when he asked me one day to make Carbonara, I came up with this recipe quite on a whim. I won't lie. It is scrumptious. One might say sinful.
Writing up my self-invented 'fusion' recipe for this post, I was curious about the history of the two original dishes that inspired me. "Fettuccini Alfredo" seems like such an American thing. And because it's such a staple on French restaurant menus, "Carbonara" seems more French than Italian. As it turns out, both dishes have Italian origin, and both are quite legendary in their own right.
Alfredo di Lelio (1882–1959) was a Roman restaurateur who is said to have created fettucine Alfredo in 1908 to entice his wife to eat. For some time after the birth of their first son (Alfredo II), Alfredo's wife appeared to be quite faint. Have you ever met any old school Italian people? I have. They are wonderful and warm, and food is the answer to everything. Everything! Mr. di Lelio created fettuccine noodles tossed in heaps of fresh butter and aged Parmasan cheese. Mrs. di Lelio loved the meal so much she suggested they add it to their menu. Alfredo did just that, naming the butter and cheese pasta after himself. In 1919, newlywed silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks spent part of their European honeymoon in Rome where one night they dined at Alfredo's restaurant, ordering his signature dish. It must have been a real coup de foudre... Upon their return, the famous couple introduced Fettuccini Alfredo to all of their Hollywood friends.
Carbonara was famously created by Renato Gualandi, a young chef of Bolognese origin. He was hired on September 22nd, 1944 to prepare luncheon for an official meeting between the Eighth Army Division (UK) and the Fifth Army Division (USA) which took place in the only recently liberated town of Riccione. It was a head-scratching task. Toward the end of WWII, rations were scarce! Mr. Gualandi cleverly make use of the American's 'fantastic bacon, delicious heavy cream, cheese, and powdered egg yolks'. By simply putting it all together and finishing it off with freshly cracked black pepper, the meal was not only a hit, but it earned Gualandi a position to cook for the allied troops in Rome from September 1944 to April 1945!
All of this history brings you to my kitchen and to Carbonara-Alfredo fusion with a French twist!
Ingredients and preparation
For 6 - 8 people (I typically cook for leftovers, and this is especially good the next day when the pasta has spent the night absorbing the sauce, it deepens the flavours)
- 2 medium to large onions - chopped
- 1 large shallot - chopped
- 5 cloves of garlic (or as you wish) - minced through garlic press or very finely chopped
- pepper (salt if you wish to ad)
- 14 - 16 slices of smoked bacon, as lean as possible - cut into small pieces (I use Herta poitrine fumée from Super U, and cut it with scissors)
- 1 glass of (dry) white wine - in this case I used Château de la Preuille, a Vendée chardonnay which leans towards dry. TIP: never cook with cheap wine, but rather always cook with a wine you can serve with the meal.
- 2 bottles of heavy cream
- 1/2 pack of Boursin Ail & Fines Herbes
- 2 egg yolks
- freshly cracked pepper
- Fresh parsley and/ or chives - finally chopped (use dried herbs in a pinch)
- a little butter, to use only when needed
- salt only when needed
- To boil the pasta: large pot of water, 1 beef bouillon cube (pot au feu), a good heap of salt and a stream of olive oil
- 1 box Cappelini (or fettuccini)
- Dial the heat on the stove to maximum to let a deep skillet or sauté pan pre-heat. When it feels medium to hot add a bit of butter or olive oil. This is optional. I use a small amount of olive oil, for flavour.
- Add the bacon
- Season with black pepper
- Sautee until edges are golden to crisp - or as you wish
- Add the onions and shallots and separate them well with a wooden spoon to divide over the skillet.
- Sauté. Taking your time, sweat the onions without stirring, about 5 minutes over medium heat or until slightly caramelized.
- Stir and repeat for about 5 minutes without stirring
- Stir in the garlic and caramelize again for about 2 or 3 minutes (do not give the garlic a chance to burn or it will be ruined)
- When the onions are a slight caramel color overall (see image) add the white wine
- Season with pepper, cover to simmer for about five minutes
- The wine will evaporate slightly and the mixture will thicken a little bit on its own
Now comes the more difficult part - making the sauce and getting it to thicken on its own. Patience and timing is key!
- Set the water for the pasta to heat (add bouillon cube, salt and a swirl of olive oil). Cover.
- Gently stir in the cream! Start with a little bit, stir it in, and then stir in the rest. This will ensure the sauce doesn't curdle.
- Crack more pepper into the sauce.
- With patience, bring back to a good simmer until the sauce thickens on its own. This will take around 5 minutes or so. If you boil the cream to hard and too long, the sauce will "break". Stir once in a while, don't walk away.
- When the sauce begins to thicken stir in the egg yolks - pour them into the sauce and stir immediately to prevent the egg yolk from solidifying.
- At this point you will see the sauce thicken up nicely and should stick to your spoon. If it doesn't, add about a table spoon of butter. This should help too.
- Lower the heat - it doesn't need to simmer anymore.
- Stir in the Boursin until it has melted away.
- Taste for pepper and salt. Add if needed.
- The sauce is ready.
- Meanwhile the water to cook the pasta is hopefully boiling.
- Cook 1 box of capellini or fettuccini pasta per the instructions to al-dente. Taste after the instructed amount of time on the package, add a minute at a time, testing again after 30 seconds until tender but firm. Do not overcook the pasta as you will be adding the pasta to hot cream sauce.
- Scoop the pasta directly into the sauce and stir well.
- Serve in a swirl onto a plate.
- Garnish with freshly chopped parsley (and/or chives)
- To honour Mr. Gualandi's carbonara, crack some extra pepper across the plate
- To honour Mr. di Lelio provide some shaved, aged parmesan.
- Serve the same white wine as you used in the sauce.
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