I like to play with classic recipes to see what I can, and what I cannot, get away with. I like to push the culinary envelope, if you like. Sometimes it works out really well, and sometimes it fails spectacularly and the husband and I have something to laugh about for weeks – sometimes years.
I often make pasta carbonara for my husband because, frankly, he’s in love with this dish. He can’t get enough. I think he’s more than addicted to it. So, sometimes I change it up so he has some variety. He indulges me. He will try anything I put in front of him as long as it resembles and smells like traditional pasta carbonara in the end.
One part of this classic dish I like to mess with a lot is the béchamel sauce. I like to try different sources of dairy that I have on hand from time to time. It may be lactose-free or skim milk, 5% or 10% table cream, 18-35% table cream or whipped cream (very decadent, I know), plain almond milk, or even liquified coffee creamer (I have a post about this I’m still working the kinks out of – hang tight for that one).
Tonight, I tried (simple because I had it in the fridge and it needed to be used up) buttermilk. I wasn’t too nervous about this ingredient experiment because I already had a good idea of how the buttermilk would react with the roux, so I poured it into the pot and stirred like mad like I didn’t have a care in the world. And you know what? It worked out beautifully. I may never use another dairy ingredient but buttermilk in my pasta carbonara again.
The reason? Buttermilk lends a very stable thickness to a béchamel when mixed with the roux and cheese that my egg yolks agreed with. I haven’t really thought out the science of it all yet, but I can report what I saw and tasted, and it looked as it should, and tasted better than cream in the end. It was a perfect storm of dairy. Honestly, I couldn’t have planned this any better. Try it yourself.
Buttermilk Pasta Carbonara:
3/4 C Pasta noodles per person being fed (shape and size – your choice)
1 Tbsp Salt (for the pot)
4 Egg yolks (sit aside in a small bowl)
4-6 Pancetta slices (about 1/8″ thick, cut into small cubes)
2 Tbsp Butter (unsalted to keep sodium low)
1 C Yellow Onion (thinly sliced, and diced if you like or leave as 1″ long strands)
2 Tbsp Flour (I used all purpose)
2 C Buttermilk
1 C Parmesan cheese (finely grated so it melts fast) (I used mozzarella instead)
2 Tbsp Parsley (1 Tbsp if using dried herb instead)
Pasta & Pancetta: Start the pasta water in a large pot. When it comes to boil, add the salt, give it a quick stir, then add the pasta to cook. Meanwhile, start the pancetta in a bare small to medium non-stick pan on a lower than medium heat to cook and render off its fat.
Béchamel Sauce: In a medium to large-ish sauce pot, melt your butter and add your onions. Cook them till they become soft and translucent. Add the flour and stir constantly so it doesn’t burn, but rather cooks to a lovely amber colour. When it hits that target colour, add your buttermilk and stir like mad for about 3 mins so it all combines into a thick, soft cream mixture. Take the sauce pot off the burner and add your cheese. Stir till it melts. It won’t take long since the cream will be piping hot. Scoop a few tablespoons of the hot béchamel sauce into the bowl with the egg yolks and stir quickly so the yolks don’t cook to a scrambled consistency as they temper. Now you’re ready to add the silky egg yolks to the rest of the sauce in the sauce pot. Set this aside to tend to the pancetta and pasta.
When the pasta is al dente, strain it out from the pot to cool down a bit. Remove the pancetta from the pan and drain on some paper towel. Pour the béchamel over pasta in a serving bowl and toss to coat the noodles. Plate the pasta carbonara, topping each serving with parsley, freshly cracked black pepper and pancetta.
Yields roughly 6 servings.
Buon appetito! (My husband had two servings. I think that means he really liked it.)
Note: The béchamel (by way of the buttermilk and cheese), pancetta and pasta (by way of the salted water) will all be plenty salty, so there should be no need to add more to this dish as you cook or plate it.