Penne alla vodka is an interesting dish. The exact origins of the dish are unknown, though legend has it that it's actually an Italian-American dish (supposedly invented by Columbia University graduate James Doty). Other versions of the story claim that it came from Italy - perhaps Bologna or Napoli. The supposed Neapolitan inventor, Luigi Franzese, apparently called it penne alla Russia because of the addition of vodka to the tomato and cream sauce. Regardless of who created penne alla vodka, there's no denying one thing...it's delicious!
Funnily enough, I only just discovered penne alla vodka a few years ago during a trip to Venice. We were having a tough time finding non touristy restaurants, and the one that we had dinner at on our last night was no different. I'd always heard of penne alla vodka but never tried it and was delighted that at this particular restaurant, the dish was made tableside. The tomato sauce was cooked, vodka was poured and flambéed (to please the tourists I guess...it worked on me!), cream swirled in and then the pasta added. The resulting dish was creamy, slightly sweet, slightly bitter, slightly spicy...in other words, definitely something that I had to recreate ASAP!
This version, adapted from a recipe found on Epicurious, is really tasty thanks to a ton of garlic (10 cloves!). I use at least a tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes and sometimes more, though you can of course adjust to your own taste. Though it's not traditional, I like to add some wild mushrooms to the sauce just to give it some texture. Penna alla vodka definitely isn't a healthy dish, but you can use light crème fraîche to make it a tad lighter. As for which vodka to use, I would say that anything goes...no need to bust out the Grey Goose or anything fancy. I used the Wyborowa which we snuck into Thailand in our shipment from France and it was just perfect. And if you feel like pouring yourself a vodka tonic to sip on while the sauce finishes up, go right ahead!
PENNE ALLA VODKA
Makes 6 servings
1 pound (about 500 grams) penne
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
10 large garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed with the back of a knife
3-4 shallots, sliced
1 1/2 cups sliced wild mushrooms
2 cans (400 grams or 14 ounces each) of crushed/chopped tomatoes
1 generous tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1-2 tablespoons sugar
Salt, to taste
1/2 cup vodka
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
Grated fresh parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
1. In a large pot, bring salted water to boil. Add the penne and cook until just al dente (about 8-10 minutes). Keep a careful eye on it and taste to make sure the pasta doesn't get mushy, as that will really ruin this dish.
2. In the meanwhile, make the sauce. In another large pot, heat the olive oil over low-medium heat. Add the smashed garlic cloves and the sliced shallots. Cook until they are nice and fragrant and just beginning to brown. Add the mushrooms and cook until they are softened, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes to the pot, bring to a boil and season with the crushed red pepper flakes, sugar and salt, to taste. Mix well.
4. Pour in the vodka and reduce the heat the low. Simmer until the pasta is ready. Taste and add more red pepper flakes/sugar/salt if necessary.
5. Just before adding the pasta, stir in the crème fraîche and the basil and remove from heat.
6. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Mix well. Serve with fresh parmesan if desired.