On my last night in Vienna, I slowly made my way back to the hotel after one final walk around the Burg Ring. And just as I turned down the narrow street that led to my hotel it hit me: an overwhelming urge for pasta. Now where did that come from? Vienna gifted with me with so much good food. I was stuffed beyond belief. And yet there I was, at 10:00 p.m. on a Monday night, craving pasta. And not just any pasta, but penne alla vodka.
To explain my fondness for this pasta dish, I must give you a bit of Cream Puff history. When my closest friends and I reached university, we didn’t embrace the usual activities that young people that age usually turn to. I wasn’t particularly interested in drinking as I’d been drinking since … oh … about the age of 4. Both my brother and I were regularly given wine with water or ginger ale at dinner. I wasn’t into clubs or bars so those activities never really intrigued me. And having gotten my fill of poetry reading in class, try as I might I just couldn’t get into poetry readings on Saturday nights. Instead, my closest friends and I began to explore what really interested us: the restaurant scene.
Having grown up in an Italian Canadian family, I ate very well but I ate very well at home. While my parents enjoyed going out to restaurants and would take us with them, we didn’t do this sort of thing often. So now that I was young, free and employed on a part-time basis, I reveled in my newly found interest.
We went to lots of different restaurants. Some good, some bad and some really bad. But without question, if I had to pick one dish that defined those years, it would be penne alla vodka. To my inexperienced self, the very first taste of creamy tomato sauce flavoured with pancetta was enchanting. At home, we didn’t eat a lot of cream-based sauces as they didn’t feature prominently in the regional cooking of Calabria (my mother’s birth place) or Le Marche (my father’s birth place).
I thought I was in heaven and I just couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Everywhere I went, if I saw penne alla vodka on the menu, I’d order it. Mostly what I was eating was really bad pasta. But that didn’t seem to phase me at the time as there was something about that sauce and that faint hint of booziness that had me hooked.
I tried many times to recreate the dish at home, but it just never worked. At the time I didn’t know that if you added cold cream to hot sauce it would curdle so mostly I ended up with a very unappetizing dish. The recipes I tried would end up too salty, too cheesy, not boozy enough or just plain bad. I gave up my attempts to create penne alla vodka at home and eventually … thankfully … I realized that there are actually other pasta dishes. I left my first love behind and moved on. There are, after all, many other fish in the sea.
But do you ever really forget your first love? I guess not. So as time passed, I would occasionally find myself searching this brand new thing called the Internet for that elusive recipe. One day, I came across a recipe that was very different from any other that I’d tried because the base for the sauce was, of all things, tomato paste.
I was intrigued, but also a bit put off. Isn’t making a sauce with just tomato paste cheating … sort of? Eventually though, I was more intrigued than put off so I tried the recipe.
An Internet search and a recipe later, I had managed to recreate the penne alla vodka that I’d come to love so many years earlier. I still felt a bit guilty about making a sauce out of cream and tomato paste, but what can I say … I got over it.
That original recipe, which I have since lost and am unable to find on-line anymore, called for onions, pancetta, vodka, brandy, tomato paste and cream. Over the years, I altered the recipe and paired it down to the basics of vodka, tomato paste and cream. Oh yes and I kept the brandy. I also began adding hot pepper. The onions were unnecessary and the pancetta always seemed to dominate the dish so I just took it out.
This recipe became the comfort go-to dish whenever we needed a quick pasta fix. Then one night, in a rush, instead of adding brandy I mistakenly added cognac. Realizing what I’d done, I shrugged my shoulders and added the brandy as well. The resulting dish was so good that we then renamed it Drunken Pasta.
I still make my Drunken Pasta. While I’ve actually documented the recipe for the purposes of this post, I usually don’t measure any of the ingredients. Sometimes I add a bit more vodka and sometimes I go really heavy on the the pepper. It all depends on my mood.
I still feel guilty about the tomato paste, but then as soon as I put the pasta in my mouth, the memories of my first pasta love wash all the guilt away.
- 1/2 pound (250 g) dried penne pasta
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. chili pepper flakes or 2 small fresh red chili peppers, finely chopped
- 5 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 1 tbsp. brandy
- 1 tbsp. cognac
- 1/2 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
- 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
- salt to taste
- Put a large pot of water to boil. Once it comes to a rolling boil, add a few tablespoons of salt and stir to dissolve. Add your pasta and cook according to package directions.
- While the pasta is boiling, heat the olive oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
- As soon as the butter has melted, add the chili pepper flakes or fresh chili pepper and saute for 1 minute. If using the pepper flakes, be careful that they don’t burn.
- In a bowl, combine the tomato paste and warm water and stir to loosen the tomato paste.
- Pour the tomato mixture into the saucepan and stir. Turn the heat to high and let the mixture come to a boil. Stir it constantly to ensure that the tomato doesn’t stick and burn. If it appears to thick, add a bit more water.
- Once the tomato mixture comes to a boil, let it boil for 1 minute.
- Add the vodka, cognac and brandy and stir. Let the mixture come to a boil and cook for 1 minute.
- Lower the heat to medium, and add the cream. Stir and let come to a gentle boil. Let the cream simmer while your pasta continues to cook. About a minute before your pasta is ready, add half the Parmigiano Reggiano to the tomato/cream mixture and stir to combine. Taste the sauce and if you feel that it needs salt, season accordingly. (But remember, you’ll be adding more Parmigiano Reggiano to the sauce.)
- As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain it (reserve some of the cooking water) and add the pasta to the sauce pan. Begin mixing the pasta into the sauce, adding the rest of the Parmigiano Reggiano to be incorporated as well.
- If the sauce appears too thick, add a bit of the reserved cooking water and continue mixing until the pasta is coated and you have a rich, creamy sauce.
- Serve the pasta with a bit more Parmigiano Reggiano on top.
Note: This recipe will yield two generous pasta servings. It can easily be doubled to serve 4 to 6. I like to use dried penne pasta for this recipe because the sauce gets trapped in the small tubes of pasta. But you can use whatever pasta you like. If adding salt to the sauce, keep in mind that the recipe calls for a whole cup of Parmigiano Reggiano so don’t over salt your sauce.