Penne_alla_Vodka_IMG_9273Rose requested Penne alla Vodka for her night-before-back-to-school dinner. How could I say no?

You might recall that I’ve posted about Faux Penne alla Vodka a lot (here, here and here, for a start). For a night as special as this, I decided to make the real deal. After all, you only start first grade once (if all goes well).

Real Penne alla Vodka is super-quick and easy. I rely on the faux version for times when I only have 10-15 minutes to get dinner on the table, instead of 30. The real deal is totally worth the extra 15-20 minutes, if you have it to spare. All you need is a simple salad to complete the meal.

• Penne alla Vodka •
from Lidia Bastianich

One 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their liquid*
1 pound penne
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
Crushed hot red pepper
1/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil for finishing the sauce, if you like (we like to finish it with butter)
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (optional**) 
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for passing if you like

Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat.

Pour the tomatoes and their liquid into the work bowl of a food processor (if using whole instead of crushed, see note below). Using quick on/off pulses, process the tomatoes just until they are finely chopped. (Longer processing will aerate the tomatoes, turning them pink.)

Stir the penne into the boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Whack the garlic cloves with the side of a knife and add them to the hot oil. Cook, shaking the skillet, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Lower the work bowl with the tomatoes close to the skillet and carefully — they will splatter — slide the tomatoes into the pan. Bring to a boil, season lightly with salt and generously with crushed red pepper, and boil 2 minutes. Pour in the vodka, lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer, and simmer until the pasta is ready.

Just before the pasta is done, fish the garlic cloves out of the sauce and pour in the cream. Add the 2 tablespoons butter or oil, if using, and swirl the skillet to incorporate into the sauce. If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring to coat the pasta with sauce. Check the seasoning, adding salt and red pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the parsley over the pasta (if using, see note below) and boil until the sauce is reduced enough to cling to the pasta.

Remove the pot from the heat, sprinkle 3/4 cup of the cheese over the pasta, and toss to mix. Alternatively, you can leave the cheese out and serve it on the side, at the table. Serve immediately, passing additional cheese if you like.

* The type of San Marzano tomatoes I like comes in a 28oz. This works just fine. You can simplify this recipe further by buying the crushed tomatoes, which eliminates the need for the food processor.
** I sometimes serve the parsley on the side. Mixing it in would be a deal-breaker for my kid.