Thursday, May 27, 2010

When Your Road Doesn’t Lead to Rome

This is about love. This is an admission of failure. I love, I mean really, really love spaghetti carbonara. I have tried many, many recipes, including Marcella Hazan’s. The results have ranged from reasonable to greasy pasta with scrambled eggs.

I have ordered spaghetti carbonara in many restaurants, sometimes with disturbing results. The strangest (to me) in Aigues-Mortes where it was served with a raw egg yolk on the half shell nestled in the middle, as if it were pasta tartar.

The Platonic ideal of this dish is available to everyone, well everyone in Rome anyway, at the Grotte Del Teatro Di Pompeo. This is reputedly the site of Mark Anthony’s oration over the aerated body of Julius Caesar. The restaurant has been there since Pompey’s Theatre, on the ruins of which it is built, closed – so don’t worry, it will still be there when you go, but what to do about the carbonara in the meantime?

Here is what I do. This is not spaghetti carbonara, but it is a satisfying approximation. I read this recipe in an article about what chefs make for themselves after a long night in the kitchen. I have made it with Philadelphia cream cheese when I couldn’t get mascarpone. It works in a pinch.

Set a pot of salted water to boil for your pasta. In a heat tolerant bowl whisk an egg together with about three tablespoons of mascarpone, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. While your pasta cooks hold the bowl just in or above the boiling water and continue to whisk. You want the cheese to melt and the egg to thicken, but not scramble. As the sauce cooks throw in some grated parmesan. When the pasta is cooked reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water and add it to the sauce. Toss the pasta in the bowl with egg and cheese mixture. Garnish with more parmesan and, for “true faux” carbonara, some bits of crispy bacon or pancetta. Alternatively, it would be nice with half a cup of cooked and drained peas.

Friends, would-be Romans, it isn’t spaghetti carbonara, but to mix up my Shakespeare, ‘tis enough, t’will serve – as many as you like, just use an egg per person and scale the pasta and cheese accordingly.

Hardy’s luck
Dickens is often faulted for his reliance on coincidence. And I must say my life’s been short on serendipitous encounters with benefactors, but I have experienced at least one distinctly Dickensian coincidence. A few years ago I was telling Naomi I had stumbled on a book that I was really enjoying. “It’s just like Dickens,” I told her. She said she was reading something she just hated because, “It’s just like Dickens.” We were both reading Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.

Now that I’ve told you that story, I’m reminded of the incident in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where two drunken friends share a hotel room. In the dark they climb into the same bed. Each man thinks he is in his own bed with a stranger. “There’s a man in my bed.” “There’s a man in my bed too.” A fight ensues. They both end up on the floor. “My man chucked me out.” “So did mine.” It’s not a very good hotel they conclude.

That sort of thing happens a lot. The other day at the gym I was trying to divert Steve from our next set of torture. I said I loved Thomas Hardy. Steve made a face. I feared pinky-only dead lifts would follow. He’d been made to read Tess in high school and hated it. What a shame! The place to start with Hardy is Under the Greenwood and Far from the Madding Crowd. Then, I know you won’t, but honestly, he’s a tremendous poet.

Hardy wrote cinematically before there were cinemas. I am thinking of the scene in Madding Crowd when Bathsheba and Gabriel struggle to save Boldwood’s hayricks from the rain and can only see each other by flashes of lightning. I am thinking of young Jude considering life, flat on his back in a field on a hot day looking through the interstices of his straw hat.

I know what you are thinking. It’s warm kidney salad all over again. And it’s a fair cop. Still, I hope you will take a wander through Wessex, in Hardy's early summer it is particularily fine.

P.S. We are all full of contradictions and to prove my own case, having said I don't make cakes that require icing, I made the cake pictured in the banner for Naomi's birthday. (She asked for 'elaborate' and it was more photogenic than spaghetti.)


  1. I can hardly wait to try the spaghetti carbonara. Ah the cake ...

  2. Spaghetti carbonara is also my favourite and lord knows I'm all for any and all shortcuts to culinary fulfillment to be had. And if subjected to Thomas Hardy I would need all the soul-healing comforts pasta, cream and bacon could offer. Repeatedly.