The Trouble with Nigella Lawson's Carbonara

July  6, 2017

There’s a gentle storm brewing on Nigella Lawson’s Facebook page, where critics are calling her Tuesday recipe of the day “a train wreck,” “the death of Italian recipes,” “an outrage to Italian cuisine.” Folks, it’s time to meet what Nigella Lawson calls her spaghetti alla carbonara.

It’s a recipe lifted from her 2004 book Feast, that achingly gorgeous piece of food writing I return to frequently. "I think spaghetti carbonara is what Meryl Streep cooks for Jack Nicholson in the film version of one of my favourite books, Heartburn,” she writes in her preamble to the recipe. “And it is so right, for that chin-dripping, love-soaked primal feast, the first time someone actually stays through the night."

The recipe itself is simple, really. It calls for spaghetti, cubed pancetta (not guanciale), olive oil, large eggs, parmesan cheese freshly-grated, black pepper, white wine (hm), grated nutmeg (interesting choice), and double cream.

The dish sounds wonderful, frankly, but it's the inclusion of that last component—a whopping 60ml of double cream, blended with the parmesan, eggs, and pepper—that Lawson's critics believe screws with the fundamental calculus of carbonara, diluting its taste and, more crucially, the dish's soul. Lawson's disclaimer that the recipe is "not entirely authentic" wasn't enough to assuage the ensuing torrent of anger. “Using cream is not being revolutionary,” one aggrieved Facebook user claimed. “It’s just the most traditional way to kill a dish.” There’s a fine line between improvisation and disrespect to Lawson’s critics. What one might consider a gesture of culinary experimentation can be perceived, especially to purists, as murder of a dish that's pretty clear-cut.

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There's a pretty compelling question at the heart of this, at least to my mind: How much can you futz with the makeup of a dish before you must call it by another name? And what burden falls on figures like Lawson, with such devoted and wide followings, to honor a dish's history through the language they use?

I'm of mixed minds here, so let's address a simpler matter. Do you put cream in your carbonara and still call it carbonara? Please let me know.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • JoyGim
  • M Stuart Itter
    M Stuart Itter
  • shirlene
  • icharmeat
  • Susan Hooey
    Susan Hooey
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


JoyGim July 11, 2023
I recently reread Heartburn and that book has not aged well. It’s problematic
luvcookbooks July 12, 2023
In what way?
M S. July 20, 2017
I always disliked Marcella's idea of wine. Not authentic. What does it provide?Meanwhile, found Alfredo Viazzi's carbonara recipe using cream. Had it way back in the late 60's. Never understood its goodness. Thought I must have remembered the name of his dish wrongly. May try it one of these days: 1/4 pound pancetta, 1 pound spaghettini, 6 tbl butter, 1/2 tbl white wine, 2 egg yolks, 1/3 cup cream, 3/4 cup parmesan, salt, and pepper.
shirlene July 19, 2017
Interesting that in her recipe for spaghetti carbonara Marcella Hazan sautés a split garlic clove in olive oil and then removes it and deglazes the pan with white wine... Enjoy.
icharmeat July 15, 2017
I'm kind of surprised by all the noise on this. Folks that know that carbonara is very simple (and doesn't include cream) would normally ignore Nigella's recipe. Others, that are trying to duplicate something that they had at a restaurant are probably going to be thrilled making the recipe with cream. What is the big deal? Restaurants have been preparing pasta dishes this way since C.C. published his recipe so i guess we are talking about at least three decades. Let's not argue over the authenticity of the recipe-we can leave that to the italians since they love that kind of argument (and I love them for it). in USA, if you ordered carbonara at a restaurant, i'd bet you are at least 3/5 likely to get a cream enhanced dish. Ages ago, our restaurant offered a "cajun carbonara" with tasso in place of guiancale. it was liberally dashed with cream before serving and if you did not tuck in quick, it would turn to a brick on your plate. That was when i (personally) quit adding cream to many pasta dishes that did not need it. However, i have no problem subbing pancetta or (gasp) american bacon to carbonara because it tastes great (and there is only one place in my town where there is a possibility of getting guiancale and it is only a possibility, not a certainty). It all tastes great- lets focus on the delicious factor and and relax a bit on the name. rant off.
carol July 15, 2017
Yeah-it reminds me of caesar salad -- most often when you order one out
(which I rarely do because of this issue) you get this creamy dressing that barely resembles the salty, tangy,garlicky, briny taste of the original recipe.
Susan H. July 14, 2017
This would have been a better piece had you made Nigella's recipe and tasted it rather than just saying it "sounds wonderful" and extolling her writing.
Susan H. July 14, 2017
This would have been a better piece had you made Nigella's recipe and tasted it rather than just saying it "sounds wonderful" and extolling her writing.
Fred R. July 14, 2017
It seems kind of romantic for any dish, anywhere in the world, to claim its inheritance on "what the locals" had on hand. But, let's be honest, there must have been a long weekend when "Luigi the Charcoal Maker," an inquisitive type, told his pals in Rome that he was going up to Venice to see what the spice merchants had brought to town. Luigi, never having seen them before, but being a great cook, bought saffron, anise, and maybe a different kind of black pepper from the Malabar Coast in India. Having some extra time he decided to take the northern route back to Rome, and so passed through Aosta (my grandparents) and said "Holy Smokes, look at all the cows, butter, milk, and cream around here," packing up some of each to take home. Arriving back safely, the town celebrated with a giant pasta feed which included all of the items he had brought back. The Mayor really liked this new dish and said "what shall we name it?" Luigi replied, "hey, we are still just simple charcoal makers, using local products, and maybe a bit extra, so this is still Pasta Carbonara....just a new variation. And, all in the village sleep well that night. The End.
Jo M. July 14, 2017
Frankly I have never been a Nigella fan. She is not really a cook and never was. She pays people for recipes and then 'gussies' them up. She is a journalist who looks good and back in the day was asked to write restaurant reviews and some food journalism. Her real fame came from her winsome ways in front of than e TV cameras.
The name "Pasta Carbonara" tells you the provenance of this much loved Italian pasta dish. It was what the charcoal burners in the area of Rome would make. In their knapsacks they would have some pasta, a wedge of Pecorino Romano, an egg or two and a hunk of pancetta or similar. Those very basic ingredients, plus the water in which the pasta was cooked were all that was needed. Charcoal burners did not have cream or white wine to hand - obviously. The only acceptable additions to this classic recipe are salt and ground black pepper.
Nigella should call her dish by a totally different name because it is NOT Pasta Carbonara, it is something else.
icharmeat July 15, 2017
I've worn a backpack both by necessity and by choice for at least six years in my past and I have never attempted to carry a raw egg in my knapsack because it seemed like certain folly. Suggesting that the creators of the dish used to carry a raw egg with them to prepare lunch or dinner doesn't sound realistic.
AI July 20, 2017
charlot July 14, 2017
Do italian cooks add cream to a cheese based sauce? wrong country...wouldn't you say?
Typically, a little of the pasta water at the end ot the boil, is thick enough to make a sauce creamy...especially with eggs.. & cheese...but no fancy ingredients to clutter it up.
Carbonara does not contain I think you must call it something else. ..'' my pasta with cream sauce...and white wine...and a surprise spice''
perhaps.....& it might be best to not mention Carbonara at all on this occasion.
Big P. July 14, 2017
Spaghetti deragliamento treno?!
Margaret L. July 15, 2017
Perfect! Thank you so much for that!
Sveva July 14, 2017
Ah, I forgot a good ground of black pepper just before to bring it to the table!
Sveva July 14, 2017
Hi, I am from Roma, and my family is roman since centuries... I love Carbonara, and the real one is with eggs, just the red, Pecorino romano and not Parmigiano Reggiano, also if I like more with Parmigiano, Guanciale and not Pancetta, and a touch of Olio Extravergine di Oliva. You have to blend the eggs ant the Pecorino in a bowl and put some hot water from the boiling pasta to make it creamy. Cut the Guanciale in little pieces and cook it with a drop of Oil. Make it crispy but not burned, and when you put the pasta in the bowl with the eggs and Pecorino, you mix it, you put the Guanciale and if it's too sticky you have to add some water from the pasta; must be creamy. Absolutely FORBIDDEN to use CREAM, NUTMEG and WHITE WINE. This is the real one, otherwise you can do what you want but you can't call it Carbonara, call it "Carbonara My Way"!
icharmeat July 15, 2017
thanks Sveva for an "italian authentic" recipe. I'll make it your way one day soon when i can get guanciale. I know it will be great but the recipes that are not authentic can also be really tasty. best regards, chuck
bijou L. July 14, 2017
Sure! it's a matter of interpretation, that's all. . . the nutmeg touch is more disturbing than the cream. . . nutmeg is a French touch ~ not Italian.
AI July 20, 2017
Perhaps it is not so French after all. The continental spice trade came largely through Venice. As well as that Italy was under the reign of the Bourbon French for centuries and the cuisine of the provinces in the northwest, near France, is quite unlike that of the rest of Italy. Nocce moscato is often found in older, traditional recipes, from gnocchi to sauces.
Julie M. July 14, 2017
Not only do I ALWAYS use cream in my carbonara, but I also add garlic. Nothing better.
EM L. July 13, 2017
Done right, and with the purest form of ingredients, you do not need mozzarella, cream, or wine...#sowrong
EM L. July 13, 2017
You lost me at "white wine"...I cannot read more of the article on that alone. NOT Carbornara...
meg July 13, 2017
What I'd really like to know is why the dish is called parmigiana (a different dish than you are discussing here) when it is made with mozzarella?
LesleyVivien July 13, 2017
I imagine it's used in the sense of being made in the style of Parma, rather than with the cheese of Parma.
charlot July 14, 2017
where did the mozzarella come in?
GayPDXCooks July 13, 2017
Mindy R. July 13, 2017
My father's recipe for "carbonara" is made with cream, bacon, onions, and mushrooms. It's really more inspired by a carbonara, but the recipe is beloved in my family nonetheless.
Julie M. July 14, 2017
Awesome - although I like it with garlic better.
Io F. July 13, 2017
tons of recipes (and first page of Google results) told me Carbonara is with cream,and that was what made me try it first; calling it Carbonara and making it with cream is 'the trend' and I don't really see how you could change this 'trend?!'
it may be that traditional Italians don't include cream, or it might be they did not write so much about their 'traditional' recipe so people did not know exactly what that was
in my country cream meant 'fermented cream' as the standard, so I guess we unknowingly changed so many 'traditional' recipes using the ingredients we knew, not knowing there could be differencies
charlot July 14, 2017
Who said that making up a new dish while keeping the original name, is a trend??....A trend isn't something you ''change'''s ''trying to change... and upstage, tradition''...and a trend is by definition a passing stage or fashion...
& usually recognized as an experiment...In the best event, someone is trying to take tradition in a new direction...away from what made the tradition become the Tradition. Sometimes that's sort of interesting. The nutmeg is a bit contradictory...