Sunday, December 16, 2007

Better Living Through Science

One of my true guilty pleasures is homemade pasta carbonara for breakfast. I am not a big breakfast person--I will have an occasional bowl of cereal, but mostly, breakfast sort of leaves me cold. But pasta carbonara, while not really a breakfast food, is...oh, baby.

If you've never had it, traditionally, pasta carbonara is spaghetti with pancetta and beaten eggs. I don't generally keep pancetta around the house, though, and I like bacon better anyway. I also some kind of pasta other than spaghetti. My favorite is homestyle egg noodles--the longer, sort of fettucine-like ones. They have big 5-pound bags of them at Costco. They are a little firmer and more substantial than spaghetti, and I like the slightly eggy taste of them. I also add lots of parmesan cheese to the egg mixture as well--I like the earthy, salty taste of good aged parmesan against the smoky bacon.

The drawbacks to pasta carbonara, besides the obvious health drawbacks, are that it's a pretty substantial amount of work and it requires timing and precision. What I do, is cook the bacon first. When the bacon is maybe 3/4 of the way to well-done, I start the pasta water. While the pasta water comes to a boil, I beat together four eggs, a lot of black pepper (I don't really measure it, but it's a lot) and about 3/4 of a cup of real parmesan cheese--don't use that stuff that comes out of a green can; if that's all you have, forget the carbonara, get yourself a bowl of Frooty Pebbles, and move on.

A couple years ago for Christmas, my mother-in-law bought me a Magic Bullet. You've seen the infomercial, right? Let me just say that many of the things it claims to do well, it doesn't do well at all. Salsa, for example. But when it comes to beating the crap out of eggs, for an omelet or for anything else, it can't be beat. The eggs come out of the thing light and aerated and perfectly homogeneous. I use the Bullet for the eggs and cheese for carbonara. I let the bacon drain on paper towels while the pasta cooks.

Here is where science comes in and determines whether you're having pasta carbonara for breakfast or an expensive, greasy plate of noodles and scrambled eggs: you need a really hot bowl. I use a metal mixing bowl, and when I drain the pasta, I actually put the strainer inside the bowl so that the hot water drains into the bowl, and then I dump out the water. The bowl ends up with lots of boiling pasta water in it, and as a result, it is really, really hot. Then I dump the drained, hot pasta into the bowl.

It's important to work fast. Things will start to cool off almost immediately. Pour the egg-and-cheese mixture over the noodles, and, using tongs, start tossing it all together. Mix it really well, making sure the pasta is well-coated. Throw the bacon on top and mix that in too. The heat from the pasta will lightly cook the eggs into a thick, unctuous sauce. I am one of those heathens that is horrified by the thought of even soft-boiled eggs; I like my scrambled eggs cooked to the consistency of well-seasoned concrete. This is my one exception.

One of two things will happen at this point: you will end up with pasta covered in grainy, stringy scrambled eggs, and the fat will separate out and form a pool of oil in the bottom of the bowl. That happens to me maybe one out of ten times. The carbonara, at this point, is an unretrievable failure, and I am a very sad and hungry girl. Either the bowl's not hot enough, I'm not mixing fast enough, or some other mysterious thing just doesn't come together for me.

The other thing that might happen is that you might end up with a bowl full of perfectly cooked hot pasta napped in a velvety, rich sauce and crisp, peppery bacon. It is luxurious, rich, and absolutely delicious, as well as being deceptively simple. I finish the whole thing with a sprinkle of coarse-ground black pepper over the whole thing--the heat from the dish releases the oils in the pepper and gives you little shocks of heat in each bite.

Sometimes food is art and sometimes it's science. I am not a science person; I find science to be disturbingly unreliable at times and at other times, unforgiving and rigid. Pasta carbonara is a case in which the result of science is art, and when it comes together it can't be beat.

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