The Recipe That Kick-Started My Culinary Career


Spaghetti Carbonara I don't know what other people do when their spouses are out of town but as for me, my first thought leads to pasta and not just any pasta: spaghetti carbonara. This is a dish I cannot make for my husband as he prefers a low-fat diet and because the way I like it best it has just about every edible fat I adore: bacon, butter, olive oil, heavy cream, egg yolk and Parmesan cheese. (If you prefer you can replace the butter with extra olive oil and it will still be delicious.) Naturally, when something you crave is denied, it grows larger in temptation so when Elliott announces that he won't be home for dinner, I mentally start getting out the ingredients for the carbonara, which I always have on hand. I like to use the best of each ingredient as this is a once in a great while treat so I want it to be all it can be. Most important is using egg yolks from pasteurized eggs as the yolks don't cook to a high enough temperature to be considered safe for young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those whose immune systems are impaired, and egg yolks are a critical component of the recipe to coat the strands of the pasta to give it an unctuously creamy consistency and luxurious flavor. Next is the right kind of bacon.

My favorite is corn-cob smoked which I mail order from Harrington's in Vermont (1-802-434-4444) and then freeze in 2 ounce packages and thaw in under 15 seconds in the microwave.

I also keep on hand the finest Parmesan cheese (Parmesano Reggiano), refrigerated loosely wrapped so that it doesn't mold. (Once dry enough I wrap it tightly in both plastic wrap and a freezer weight zip-seal bag.)

Heavy cream that has not been ultra-pasteurized and therefore does not have that cooked flavor is the best kind of cream.

Of course I choose fruity-mellow extra virgin olive oil and unsalted butter for purity of flavor, and fine sea salt for its mild sweetness.

My favorite spaghetti, Lattini, is imported from Italy and made with durum wheat which is firm to the bite. (Barilla is also a good choice and more easily available.) And when fresh porcini mushrooms are available, their woodsy, almost meaty flavor and plush texture elevate this recipe to its highest point.

This recipe has evolved through the years. It all began 40 years ago when I was interviewing for my first official job after graduating from 7 years of night school. Over 100 people vied for the job as test kitchen recipe developer at Ladies' Home Journal. I had mis-understood the directions to bring a prepared recipe that could be made using ingredients that were usually available in a home kitchen. I understood it to mean that I should bring a recipe to prepare in the magazine's kitchens. But to prove how easy it was to whip up and how perfectly it fit the requirement of using readily available ingredients I offered to make it on the spot. I got the job for three reasons: The recipe was great. I didn't know that I possessed the skill at the time but the editor noticed and was impressed by my ambidexterity. (I thought everyone cooked with both hands.) The interview fell on my birthday (good karma). I lost the job for one main reason: I'm not great at following other people's directions. I held on for about a year and it was the best training grounds possible. But then I yielded to the advice of my new husband who said: "You can't work for other people; you should work for yourself." The rest is history.

Here is the recipe that will serve 4 friends on special occasions.

bacon, preferably corn cob smoked: 8 ounces/227 grams
Optional, fresh porcini mushroom: 8 ounces/227 grams
extra virgin olive oil 1/4 cup/59 ml
unsalted butter: 4 tablespoons/2 ounces/56 grams
2 large cloves garlic, very thinly sliced (1 tablespoon)
4 large egg yolks, preferably Safest Choice Pasteurized: 69 ml/2.6 ounces/74 grams
heavy cream: 1/4 cup/59 ml
Parmesano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated: 3/4 cup/1 ounce/28 grams + extra if desired for serving
salt (preferably fine sea salt): 2 tablespoons + ½ teaspoon , divided
black pepper, freshly ground: 1/2 teaspoon
a sprinkling of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup minced parsley, preferably flat-leafed
spaghetti: 1 pound/454 grams
1/4 cup water from the boiling pasta

Place 4 large pasta bowls or dinner plates in the oven with a pilot light or heat set to very low. Fill a large saucepot with at least 4 quarts of cold water; cover it and bring the water to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a large wok or 12-inch Dutch oven, fry the bacon in batches of single layers until medium crisp. Drain it on paper towels and break it into 1/2 inch pieces. Drain all but a thin film of the bacon fat from the pan.

If using the porcini, remove any dirt with a wet paper towel and cut off the very ends of the stems. Slice them into 1/4 inch slices and then cut them into 1/2 inch pieces. Add the olive oil and butter to the pot with the bacon fat and heat over medium-low heat. If using the porcini, add them and cook covered for about 10 minutes or until tender, stirring once or twice.

Add the garlic and sauté for about a minute or until wilted, stirring constantly. Do not allow the garlic to brown or it will be bitter. Turn off the heat and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cream. In another small bowl, stir together the Parmesan cheese, the 1/2 teaspoon of salt, black and cayenne peppers.

When the water for the pasta boils, add the 2 tablespoons of salt and the pasta. Cook it until al dente, 11 to 15 minutes, or until no white appears in the center when a strand is cut. Shortly before the end of cooking, remove 1/4 cup of the boiling water with a ladle and whisk it into the egg yolks and cream. Turn the heat on under the wok or Dutch oven to medium-low.

Drain the cooked pasta and add it to pan. Sauté, stirring with a large silicone spatula until it is evenly coated with the butter/oil mixture and add the reserved bacon, the cheese mixture and the parsley. Using 2 large forks, toss to blend.

Empty the pasta into a large bowl. Add the egg yolk mixture and toss quickly to blend it in without scrambling the yolks. Transfer at once to the serving bowls. Pass extra grated cheese, salt and a pepper mill.