Published November 1, 2006.
Splashes of vodka and cream can turn run-of-the-mill tomato sauce into luxurious restaurant fare—or a heavy, boozy mistake. We set out to fine-tune this modern classic.
Penne alla Vodka isn't a time-honored classic; it's the result of a 1970s recipe contest promoting vodka. Despite the limited number of ingredients—vodka, cream, red pepper flakes, and tomatoes—we found recipes with results that varied widely. Many were absurdly rich (with more cream than tomatoes) and others were too boozy.
We wanted to fine-tune this modern classic to strike the right balance of sweet, tangy, spicy, and creamy.
To achieve a sauce with the right consistency, we pureed half the tomatoes (which helped the sauce cling nicely to the pasta) and cut the rest into chunks. For sweetness, we added sautéed minced onions; for depth of flavor, we used a tablespoon of tomato paste. We found we needed a liberal amount of vodka to cut through the richness and add "zinginess" to the sauce, but we needed to add it to the tomatoes early on to allow the alcohol to mostly (but not completely) cook off and prevent a boozy flavor. Adding a little heavy cream to the sauce gave it a nice consistency, and we finished cooking the penne in the sauce to encourage cohesiveness.list of recipes