Ah, Pasta Alla Carbonara. A hearty and thoroughly fulfilling meal claimed to come from the hills outside of Rome, which has probably risen to become one of my favourite pasta dishes. Far better than any spaghetti with a meat or tomato sauce.

But... what is pasta alla carbonara? We already have four dishes above that claim to be it, and they're all quite different. None of them are the way I make it. How come?

Well, my friend, pasta alla carbonara is a relatively young dish (or, at least, it was historically relatively unknown), with numerous variants. It didn't gain popularity in Italy until the end of WWII, when it became a sort of smash hit that all the yanks brought with them home. The G.I. recipes seem to differ a bit from the Italian dish, frequently adding cream to the basic recipe.

Taking all these factors into consideration, I will now try to create a modular recipe for the dish. Oh, yes, I am typing not one but several recipes, all packed neatly into one.

The basics

Pasta, usually spaghetti
Bacon (unsmoked works best, I've heard. Pancetta or guanciale are considered the peak choices for the dish)
Parmigiano Reggiano1 (Pecorino is commonly used as well)
Egg yolks
Salt and whole black pepper

Obviously, you're going to boil the pasta and fry the bacon. This is common sense. The bacon should only be lightly fried, and should not become crispy (I believe the term is render). At a guess, I'd say 200-300 grams of dried pasta and 6-8 slices of bacon should work well for two persons.

You then have to finely grate the Parmigiano. Please don't use pre-grated stuff. Thank you very much. My experience tells me half a cup should be quite perfect for two people (I use a fairly standard medium-sized coffee cup here). Mix this with egg yolks, approximately 1 per person (though adding an extra yolk on top of this never hurts). This will give you a really thick mixture which doesn't look much like a sauce.

Drain the pasta, and make sure to save a bit of the pasta water. You're going to add this to the cheese-and-egg mixture shortly. Mix the pasta with the meat (make sure to remove the pan from the heat first). Once the pasta water has cooled down slightly, add about 1/4 of a cup, or slightly less, to the egg yolks, and mix. It is important to let it cool a few degrees so that the eggs don't end up scrambled. Pour the sauce over the pasta, season with lots of freshly ground black pepper, as well as salt to flavour, and mix it all well. Your basic carbonara needs only be arranged on a plate, and it will be ready to serve.

As a side note, I personally prefer the peppercorns to be coarsely ground for this dish, and frequently use a mortar and pestle instead of a pepper mill, just crushing them.

Variant Ingredients

A common variant ingredient is onion. I would suggest shallots instead of normal onions, on the ground that shallots are very good.

Cream is commonly used instead of the pasta water in American versions of the dish. I haven't tried this myself, but I do make a very good pasta dish with egg yolks and considerably greater amounts of cream, which I find pleasantly eatable. American versions of carbonara is also often saucier, which probably comes from the adding of somewhat larger amounts of this ingredient.

Chopped parsley has been mentioned as good in this dish. I am honestly a bit skeptical, because I fear it can upset the taste balance.

The same goes for pine nuts. I love pine nuts, but I don't know how well they go in this dish. This needs to be tested experimentally.

Some people use the whole egg instead of just the yolk. I suppose this is less wasteful.

Mushrooms are a popular additive in america, I believe. The above-mentioned recipe of mine with cream includes mushrooms, with great success.

Well, that's a pretty good listing, I think. I have no vegetarian versions, as I prefer my veggie dishes to be served with a side dish of fried meat, and also since the eggs and the cheese, both non-veggie ingredients, are strictly necessary.

I note FastEddie suggest a dry white wine to this dish. Personally, I've always imagined it more as a red wine dish.

1The usage of the Italian name for parmesan is done as a service to any american readers, so that they can avoid the god-awful pre-grated Kraft fake stuff. Get some real Italian parmesan, please!