Turning twenty-one is a milestone birthday I’ve since passed. In all honestly, I looked forward to the cooking aspect much more than the shots in a bar part.

I’ll never forget one summer afternoon back in high school, I was watching Everyday Italian. Giada was making a dessert that had me glued to the screen. I had to make it. However, there was one caveat: the main ingredient was limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur. That dessert wasn’t the only recipe I was restricted from making. My birthday card should have shown tiramisu, beef bourguignon, beer cheese soup, crepes suzette, and my all-time favorite Italian dish: penne alla vodka.

Cooking with alcohol seems intimidating. Would flames shoot into the air once I added the vodka to the skillet? Thankfully, they don’t. Unless you add the fire.

I’ve made this recipe several times now. I crave it. Timing the sauce and pasta to finish simultaneously is a bit tricky. I begin by boiling water immediately simply because it takes forever on my stove. Then I prep the onion and tomatoes. The sauce cooks quickly. In eight minutes, the boozy flavor of the vodka cooks off leaving a hint of tang. I also love that this recipe isn’t overly rich. It strikes the perfect balance showcasing plenty of tomato sweetness, zest, and tang.

Penne alla Vodka

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1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained, juice reserved

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 small onion, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

salt

1/3 cup vodka

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound penne

grated Parmesan, for serving

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Puree half of the tomatoes in a food processor until smooth. Dice the remaining tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding the cores. Combine the pureed tomatoes and chopped tomatoes in a liquid measuring cup. You should have about 1 2/3 cups. Add reserved juice to equal 2 cups.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is light golden, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant about 30 seconds.

Stir in tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vodka. Return the pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol flavor is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes. Lower the heat if simmer becomes too vigorous.

Stir in the cream and cook until hot, about 1 minute.

Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a large pot. Cook pasta until just shy of al dente. I cook until one minute short of the box instructions. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta and add the sauce to the pot.

Toss and cook over medium heat until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Adjust the consistency of the sauce with the reserved pasta cooking water. Serve immediately. Sprinkle with Parmesan.

Serves 4

Source: America’s Test Kitchen

What’s your favorite recipe that requires alcohol?

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