Food

Chef Adrian Cuenca's Creamy Carbonara Recipe

Purists may scoff at this quick recipe for carbonara. Frankly, we don’t care, because it tastes great and goes well with our beer.
IMAGE Milo Sogueco
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When I was a young boy in the ‘70s, my foodie uncle made me try spaghetti carbonara for the very first time—cue angelic choir; revelation. The premise was simple: bacon, cheese, eggs, cream and mushrooms on spaghetti. How could a kid not like this dish? 

After I pestered my mom as any good son would, she started making it using quick-melt cheese, evaporated milk and canned mushrooms—certainly rudimentary, but it did the job of pacifying me.

At around 12, my interest for cooking took form, and I decided to give my mom a break and do the handy work myself. We had a whole bookshelf full of cookbooks, which I rummaged expectantly through to find an Italian one and a pasta edition (both pretending to be authentic). The books’ recipes for carbonara included pancetta, cream, parmesan and egg yolks. These being the days before Santi’s, we were limited to a wasteland of processed American goods: Kraft and all-purpose cream. Yum. It’s because of this ingredient oppression that most restaurants still get the dish wrong.

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My thirst for information was quenched and my eyes opened by the advent of the Internet. However, I was shocked to find out that the use of cream in this dish is a sin that the pork element is guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon from the pig’s jowls and not the belly) and that cheese was optional. Oops.

After several attempts, I’ve made a version that will probably leave the purist feeling insulted. Adding 1 to 2 teaspoons of cream per yolk gives the sauce the extra slurp, and let’s face it, pasta without a slurp isn’t worth the effort. If you can’t find guanciale or pancetta, don’t bother making the dish, as it will not retain its flavor profile. However, the real stars here are the eggs—the yolks are used to bind the sauce and ingredients together, which is why it’s important to opt for the richer and thicker organic egg yolks.

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This is my go-to dish after a grueling night behind the stoves at the restaurant: it’s simple, straightforward, and pairs great with the bitter flavors of a Cerveza Negra. Beer and Pasta is the new Beer and Pizza.

Quick Carbonara

Chef Adrian Cuenca, Elbert’s Steak Room, Makati

Serves 2

Ingredients 

  • 200 grams uncooked DeCecco Spaghetti (I won’t use any other brand)
  • 4 organic eggs, yolk and white separated
  • Around 100 to 200 grams pancetta (or guanciale if available)
  • Lots of freshly grated Pecorino Ramno or Parmegiano Regiano (around 3/4 cup)
  • Minced garlic (optional)
  • 4 tsps of whipping cream (I’m cheating)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to season
  • Chopped flat-leaf parsley to garnish

Instructions 

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  • Bring out the eggs, cream, and cheese from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature. 
  • Slice the pancetta to desired thickness. I prefer mine not too thin, to keep the texture and flavor of the bacon.
  • Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente.
  • While the pasta is cooking, sauté pancetta in medium to low heat. Leave the fat that is rendered in the pan. Set aside.
  • Beat the egg yolks with the cream. Add a bit of salt (remember, the cheese and the bacon are already salty so take it easy, chef). You can add the optional crushed/minced half garlic clove.
  • Add the freshly cooked pasta to the pancetta and the fat (off fire). Beat two of the egg whites and the grated cheese and add to the pan. The remaining heat of the pan and of the pasta will slightly cook the egg whites and melt the cheese.
  • Add the egg yolks. At this point, you may have to turn on the heat just a little bit if the yolks don’t start cooking ever so slightly. This is why it is important to bring the eggs and cream to room temperature. If they are cold, the dish will not cook properly. Do not overcook, or the sauce will dry out and you’ll be left with a pasta omelette.
  • Serve and garnish with more cheese, parsley, and black pepper.

Food styling by Angelo Cosmti

This article originally appeared on the November 2011 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Adrian Cuenca
Chef, Elbert's Steak Room
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