Make Ahead

Penne alla Vodka

August 20, 2011
7 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

Every once in a while we spike the tomato sauce.

You should try it sometime. What is better draped over pasta perfectly al dente than a tangy, velvety vodka sauce? Our friends and family tell us that no vodka sauce is as intoxicatingly delicious as ours, and we believe them.

Onions and pancetta sautéed in butter is part of the secret. The mild sweetness of the cream juxtaposed with the heat of crushed red pepper is another. A perfectly smooth tomato sauce is a must, but there is another ingredient yet that makes our vodka sauce special – brandy.

We have our sister-in-law, Valentina, to thank for the brilliant decision to add brandy to vodka sauce. We’re not sure why she has always added it, but we know that it makes the difference between a good vodka sauce and a great one.

Most of us are attracted to vodka sauce because of the sophisticated, slightly risque image it solicits (pasta sauce risque??). There is functionality behind the fashion, however. Tomatoes have flavor compounds that are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they are released by alcohol. While the sauce simmers, the vodka and brandy tease these intense flavors out of the tomatoes. The alcohol cooks off (mostly) in the process, leaving just a hint of boozy undertones.

So, go ahead and add some hooch to your tomato sauce from time to time. You’re sure to become addicted. —DueSpaghetti

Test Kitchen Notes

WHO: DueSpaghetti is a food blogger who lives in Minneapolis.
WHAT: A perfect version of the Italian-American classic.
HOW: Sauté onion and pancetta; add tomatoes, vodka, and brandy; stir in cream; toss with pasta.
WHY WE LOVE IT: It's really difficult to not like penne alla vodka -- and DueSpaghetti's version is one that we'll make over and over again. The addition of brandy gives it a depth that's not usually found in the vodka-only versions, and taking the time to simmer results in a sauce that's rich and tangy in all the right places. —The Editors

  • Serves 4
  • 1 pound package of penne or pennette
  • one 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 of a medium onion
  • 6 ounces pancetta
  • 1/2 cup panna da cucina, crema mexicana, creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • Salt
  • Parmesan
In This Recipe
  1. Cut the onion into large pieces that can be removed once sautéed.
  2. Dice the pancetta into small cubes.
  3. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
  4. Add the onion and pancetta and sauté until the onions are translucent and the pancetta is crispy.
  5. Place the food mill on top of the saucepan and pass the tomatoes and their sauce through it, producing a smooth tomato sauce.
  6. Add the vodka, brandy, crushed red pepper and salt. Allow to simmer for 45 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat, and add the panna da cucina and stir well.
  8. In the meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil. Add a handful of salt to the water, and add the pasta.
  9. Cook to al dente according to the time on the package.
  10. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and pour the sauce over it. Serve immediately topped with grated Parmesan.

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