Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Test Kitchen: Bucatini Carbonara

For this month’s Test Kitchen from the pages of Food and Wine Magazine, you guys overwhelmingly voted for me to try the Bucatini Carbonara recipe (more than 51 percent) over the other contenders.

This was also my favorite to try, so I was looking forward to making it.

The recipe comes from Chef Linton Hopkins of the Holeman and Finch Public House, a gastropub in Atlanta. Hopkins was one of 10 people featured as the Best New Chefs 2009 for the cover story. (Bay Area locals included Nate Appleman of A16 in San Francisco, who’s having a fantastic year coming off a James Beard Award win; and Christopher Kostow of Meadowood-Napa Valley in St. Helena.)

Each chef was asked to publish a quick-and-easy recipe. Chef Hopkins offered up his Bucatini Carbonara, which he supposedly adds a Southern twist to this Italian classic by using house-cured pork and local farm fresh eggs from Georgia.

Click here to find the complete recipe. But below you’ll see me tackle this super easy dish.

Your biggest challenge might be finding the bucatini pasta. It’s not normally found at your supermarkets. I actually went to a gourmet store, specifically my neighborhood Pasta Shop at Rockridge’s Market Hall. They have an assortment of fancy dried pasta, but I couldn’t specifically find bucatini. Thankfully, the recipe says you can also look for “perciatelli” and I found a packet of that at the Pasta Shop. It’s like perciatelli and bucatini are interchangeable because on the packet of perciatelli, I saw the instructions sometimes refer to it as bucatini. To be honest, it really just looks like thick spaghetti. The only difference I found is that the perciatelli (or bucatini) had a hollow center, almost like a thin straw.

Pancetta, or Italy’s version of bacon, is another key ingredient. I rarely cook with pancetta because I generally don’t cook with bacon-like products, but pancetta is my favorite of the bacon family because it is more silky and milder in flavor than American bacon. Pancetta can often be found in Italian delis or in the specialty meat sections of your grocery store. (I found it pre-packed in the deli section of Whole Foods.)

As you’re cooking your pasta, you start off by cooking the pancetta to render off the oil. It really creates a lot of oil, so this dish is not for cholesterol-minded people (which I generally am but I’m just cooking what I’m told!). It takes about 10 minutes to render off the fat over medium heat and then you add diced onions and a clove of finely diced garlic.

Another key ingredient to carbonara is the raw egg yolk. Yes, like several Italian specialties (i.e., tiramisu and Caesar salads), you have to add a raw egg, and specifically just the yolk. (I still have the whites wondering what to do with them.) The yolk adds to the creaminess of the dish. Of course, the heavy cream and parmesan reggiano cheese makes it luxurious as well.

Once you add the pasta to the cooked pancetta and onions, you add the heavy cream and cook for a couple of minutes to let it thicken. Then you take the skillet off the heat to add the cheese and yolk (you don’t want scrambled eggs) and then finish the dish off with some chopped Italian parsley. That’s it!

Because it’s such a rich dish (I literally could hear my arteries hardening), you definitely need to eat this with a nice red wine. I happened to have a California merlot in my cabinet, which went nicely. But you can pair with any medium Italian red or even an Argentine malbec. Of course, I also made some garlic bread to go with it.

Chef Hopkins suggests serving these in small bowls as a starter to a dinner. So the recipe makes about four servings. But I bet you could combine two portions and make it a quick weeknight dinner. Here’s how my bucatini carbonara turned out. How do you think it compares to the photo of the one in Food and Wine?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. If you can’t find bucatini or perciatelli, I think thick spaghetti will do just fine.
  2. The recipe called for four egg yolks, but I felt like that was a lot. You could probably get away with just three or even two if you’re not a fan of raw eggs. In fact, I made the recipe a second night with just the heavy cream without the yolks and it tasted just as good. (The yolk gives your bucatini dish a pastel yellow color, though, if you like that look.)
  3. I know this is probably not very authentic for carbonara, but I think this dish would be helped by adding frozen peas for more substance.
  4. The idea of serving this up in a bowl is smart because the sauce settles to the bottom. I like eating my pasta with sauce partially clinging and not drowned in the sauce. This recipe makes a lot of sauce so it’s nice to just find it at the bottom of your bowl. That’s where the garlic bread comes in!
Ease of cooking: This was super easy like promoted. What I liked about it was that it’s an all-in-one pan dish because you combine the pasta with your sauce (although you still have to wash the pot you cooked your pasta in) and then serve it up. Cooking time is less than 20 minutes.

Taste: You mostly get the flavoring of the pancetta as an underlining smoky flavor in this pasta dish. I enjoyed it but I have to say that how fresh your egg yolks are will really make a difference. My eggs weren’t super fresh, so I could really taste a raw egg flavor in my final product. (Also, cutting back on the egg yolks like I mentioned earlier might also help.) This is an extremely rich dish to eat and is probably not something I’d eat all the time. I do like the simplicity and ease, but it’s not going to do my heart any good.

Overall Grade: B+ (good but not spectacular)

Don’t forget to vote in the poll on the top right column on what recipe from Food and Wine’s August edition you want me to try!

Previous test kitchens:
Mini Corn Cakes with Seared Salmon
Spicy and Sticky Baby Back Ribs
Cabbage, Kielbasa and Rice Soup


foodhoe said...

I like those thick noodles, but definitely would need the egg in the sauce. Haven't found a good carbonara sauce, is this it?

JulieK said...

Thanks for the "eggless" tip. The thought of raw eggs makes me feel ill!

Hungry Dog said...

This is a great post--so thorough and thoughtful! And incredible photos. I love carbonara, it's worth shortening my life for.

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks everyone!

Foodhoe, I don't know if this is the best carbonara recipe. I like it because it's simple and easy, but I'm not a big carbonara expert. It turned out pretty good like I said, but not amazing. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Vatsala Wijekulasuriya said...

Thanks. It was wonderful!!! My very fussy 11year old ate two helpings :))