Carbonara for the in-laws

Spaghetti carbonara

Spaghetti carbonara

 

WHEN MY ITALIAN in-laws come to visit, I am usually too embarrassed to give them pasta as I’m sure I’ll botch it up or create something horrendously unauthentic. I usually stick to stews, shepherd’s pies or anything with potatoes; in other words, comfort food that smacks of home cooking, but also things I reckon they don’t eat much of in Milan.

However, spaghetti carbonara has to be one of the most delicious things you can eat, so it inevitably gets an outing because of its popularity with big and little people alike. It combines the best of comfort food and home cooking. It wouldn’t be the type of thing I’d ever order in a restaurant – even an Italian one – but something I love eating at home. It’s also a dish my eldest daughter loves making and has added to her repertoire.

Purists argue that cream has no place in carbonara and I agree. But equally, I used to be a terrible sinner and rinse pasta and then toss it with a little oil. This is fine if you need to pre-cook pasta and cool it down so that it just needs a brief plunge into water at a later date to heat it up. But making something like carbonara just needs to be done in one fell swoop and the pasta cannot be rinsed.

Bacon lardons, or pancetta ones, just need to get fried until super-crisp. This is helped along by adding a sprinkle of brown sugar to the pan. Not enough to sweeten things unnecessarily, but just enough to get some extra colour and chewiness to the edges of the bacon pieces, without having to cook it for too long.

Just before you drain the cooked pasta, reserve a good few ladle-fulls of pasta water. About 200ml for this recipe, but a few more won’t hurt. Then you can just drain the pasta and not suddenly panic that you’ve forgotten to keep back some pasta water.

Put the pasta back into this saucepan and then pour the carbonara sauce on top – to which you will have added some of that pasta water. The pasta water is not only is well seasoned – because you will have added a good bit of salt to the boiling water you cooked the pasta in – but also contains starches that will help emulsify and bond the sauce so that it coats and covers the strands of pasta.

If you wanted to bulk it up, you can consider adding peas, or even some chilli flakes to give it a kick. But I really like this version best.

The chocolate, almond and coffee cake is rich, delicious and delightfully easy to make. When it cooled down, it became a lot fudgier so please do make this the day before you want to eat it and serve it cold as a kind of moussey chocolate cake.

In my haste, I forgot to buy cream or ice-cream to serve with this and out of desperation, sweetened a bit of yoghurt with vanilla essence and icing sugar. Don’t. Yoghurt – even slightly sweetened yoghurt – is not nice with chocolate and my in-laws wasted no time in telling me so. The verdict was that this cake is delicious on its own, so no need to adorn it with anything except a spoon and strong coffee, or small bit of whipped cream if you really must. Raspberries are a good addition, too.

Spaghetti carbonara

Serves 4

6 egg yolks

Splash olive oil

260-300g diced bacon or pancetta

Pinch brown sugar

1 x 500g pack spaghetti

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed.

200g Parmesan cheese, very finely grated

Salt and pepper

Knob butter

Approx 200ml pasta water

Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium frying pan, fry the bacon in a little splash of olive oil until starting to crisp. Sprinkle the sugar on top and add the garlic. This will speed up the caramelisation. At this stage, I like to drain the bacon on paper to remove excess fat. It tastes good, but there’s a lot of fat going on in this recipe and you need to leave some room for the chocolate cake.

Put the drained and crisp bacon back into the bowl with the egg yolks. Set aside while you cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling water that has been well salted. Before you drain the pasta, ladle out a few ladles-worth of pasta water (at least 200ml) and add this to the egg yolks and bacon. Also add most of the cheese and whisk.

Put your drained spaghetti back into the saucepan and add a good knob of butter. Pour the carbonara sauce on top. It should be liquid enough to coat generously, but it will start to thicken once it feels the heat of the spaghetti. Mix it around with your pasta fork or tongs.

You can leave it on a gentle heat for 20-30 seconds if you’ve spent a bit too much time faffing around. But not too long, or things will start to scramble. Season and add the rest of the cheese and serve.

Italian chocolate and coffee cake

Based on an Angela Hartnett recipe.

Easily serves 8 as it’s so rich

200g dark chocolate

200g butter, soft

200g caster sugar

4 eggs, separated

200g ground almonds

1 tsp vanilla essence

2 tsp instant coffee

Line a 23-centimetre spingform tin. I just did the base and let it come up a tiny bit higher than the joints to stop any leakage as my tin is a bit wonky. But I didn’t line the sides.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of boiling water. Beat the butter and caster sugar until creamy. Add the egg yolks and beat or whisk. Add the melted chocolate, vanilla essence and instant coffee and stir until smooth and silky.

Beat the egg whites until soft peak stage and fold them into the chocolate mixture along with the almonds. When well combined, pour into the tin and bake at 160 degrees/gas 3 for about 45 minutes.

Let the cake cool fully, preferably overnight, and serve.

Domini recommends: A pasta fork. I know it sounds silly, but these really are great instruments to use when trying to serve up all types of pasta. I’ve struggled with tongs, spoons and all sorts of nonsense and finally gave in and bought one. They make pasta portioning very easy