I’m kind of obsessed by pig cheeks. It might be because people seem to think of cheeks as offal and find them disgusting, although they don’t seem to have a problem with eating ass cheeks. I think it’s important to prove them wrong. A cheek is a muscle, not an organ. Unlike beef cheeks, however, they have an abundant layer of fat on the outside. I tried braising them once and wound up with a very tender slab of fat with tiny strands of lean running through it. You’ve got to embrace the fat. In this case by curing the jowl like pancetta and making what Italians call Guanciale. What you wind up with is something like Lardo (cured back fat) and pancetta joined together.I’ve heard that this is the cut they use in a traditional carbonara. I’m not going to wade into what is or isn’t a traditional carbonara but I will go out on a limb and give you my recipe for carbonara.
First up we need to make our guanciale. I put a little twist on my normal method this time around and cold smoked it before I dried it. I was very happy with the results. Perhaps it will bridge the gap between the ‘authentic’ version made with guanciale or pancetta and the carbonara your Dad made you with bacon when you were growing up. It was only my Dad who made this dish for me. Packed full of cream and carbs, I guess it has bachelor written all over it.
4 pig cheeks, skin off
70g Sea salt
12 black peppercorns, roughly crushed
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 large handful of thyme sprigs
The first thing you need to do is clean up your jowls. There are little pockets of glands on the inner surface of the jowls. It’s not super easy to differentiate between the glands and the small pockets of muscle tissue, so be careful. The glands are decidedly grey and have a shiny, kidney-like appearance. Be careful and take your time.
Next, thoroughly rub the jowls with the remaining ingredients and either pack them into a zip lock bag or vac pack them. Label and date them and stash them in a corner of your fridge. Give them a flip and a massage every couple of days.
Judging when they’re ready is a little tricky due to their squishy texture. There is usually a corner of the jowl that will feel firmer than the centre. I use this edge as my test spot. When it feels firm, you’re good to go. My last batch took 12 days, however they were on the small side.
Remove them from the vac pack, rinse them under the tap and then pat them dry.
Use a paring knife to make a small hole in the corner of the guanciale and then thread a loop of string through it. This is your hanging-loop for drying. Weigh them and then label them with the date and their weight and hang them in your drying chamber or in a cool vermin free cellar or meat safe to dry. My latest batch of rather small jowls took 1 month.
The curing process is identical to pancetta, so for more detail see my pancetta post.
If you want to try the smoked variation, take them out of the drying chamber after 2 days and cold smoke them overnight. Put them straight back in the chamber to finish drying. Simple.
Now for my version of Carbonara:
Serves 2 large, hungry men
100g of guanciale lardons
2 tbsp of EVO
Sprig of thyme
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Pinch of chilli flakes
2 egg yolks
½ cup of cream
Put a large, perhaps even huge pot of water on to boil. Season it excessively.
Sauté the guanciale in the oil over a medium heat until much of the fat has rendered and its edges are turning a golden brown. Add the thyme, garlic and chilli and sauté for a scant minute, or until the garlic has just ceased being raw. Take it off the heat and scrape every last skerrick into a bowl.
If the water is boiling at this point, add the pasta. Using tongs work it, worry it and fiddle with it till you’re sure it’s not sticking together. Continue to be vigilant with your tongs over the following eight minutes until it’s perfect. “perfect” is outlined very clearly in this post by Stephanie Stiavetti on Michael Ruhlman's blog.
To the bowl of sautéed guanciale, add the egg yolks, cream, black pepper and about 1 cup of grated Parmigianino. Stir it all together with a fork.
Drain your pasta and put it back in its cooking pot. Add the cream and guanciale mixture and toss vigorously. Check the seasoning, adjust and continue tossing. Serve it in a generous mound accompanied by a hunk of reggiano and a microplane. Don’t try to go to bed for at least three hours.