Did Someone Say Vodka? Spicy Vodka Sauce Cavatappi [hic!]


Every time I make this I think of our friend’s wedding where the hubster got an internet reverend’s license to perform the ceremony (the mother of the groom was too weirded out that the bride wanted her own best man too), followed by a dragon dance, a Persian Elvis impersonator, and a delectable cavatappi with vodka cream sauce. Seriously, this was an actual wedding itinerary, not just a vodka-fueled hallucination. While this tastes delicious in the summer when your garden and farmer’s markets are bursting with juicy tomatoes, it also warms the cockles around my withered heart in the winter too. Since I always seem to end up with more Sungolds than I can finish before they start looking wilty I usually end up popping as many pounds into my overworked freezer as possible to dole out over the course of the year to perk up my soups and sauces and this recipe is no exception. The tangy sweetness of the cherry tomatoes helps cut through some of the richness of the cream and adds brightness to tired canned tomatoes. This is such a simple sauce that these piquant, berry-like tomatoes can really shine and the recipe is so quick and easy to make that you’ll find it sneaking its way into your repertoire, Elvis impersonators notwithstanding.

Quick and dirty tips: (some of you may have noticed that I’m repeating some of my tips and while I’m definitely decrepit enough for dementia to kick in, I also don’t want to assume that you’re reading my recipes in chronological order :))
1) Besides improving your night vision, the sweetness of the carrot gives a luscious smoothness to tomato-based sauces so while you won’t taste carrot! you will notice a mellow note that will have you looking at the humble Daucus carota in a different light.
2) If you don’t have cherry tomatoes, don’t worry. Just add 1 tsp sugar and 2 tsp of a mildly acidic vinegar like cider vinegar. This will give you the tangy sweet note that the cherry tomatoes would have provided. I wouldn’t use balsamic or white vinegar as these will taste too acidic making the sauce too harsh and sour.
3) Are San Marzano tomatoes the end-all, be-all in canned tomatoes? Celebrity chefs and epicures universally sing the praises of San Marzanos claiming a superior ability to withstand the canning process, retaining flavor and texture better than other tomato varieties. Is this true? Perhaps not. For you fellow culinary nerds, Cook’s Illustrated did a great taste test of San Marzano and other varieties basically coming to the conclusion that they’re not all that. Apparently tomatoes with the trifecta of sweetness, tangy acidity and a firm but not rubbery or mushy texture were prized and the SMs did not fit the bill. So save your money & toss in a few of those succulent cherry tomatoes that you froze from the garden or cheat with a little sugar and cider vinegar. I won’t tell 😉
4) Do not boil pasta and then rinse it off in water so it can sit in the colander until you’re ready for it if you can at all avoid it. Why? Cuz rinsing the pasta also gets rid of all that sticky starch on the outside that lets your delicious sauce adhere to and flavor that lovely pasta. That’s also why it’s best not to add oil to pasta water because while it may keep the pasta from sticking together it will also coat the pasta and prevent the sauce from sticking to it as well resulting in a bland slightly greasy carb bomb.
5) Save a cup of pasta water before you pour everything into the colander. This will save you pain and hardship if your sauce is too thick or gummy without making it watery like water or broth would or making your veggies grey lifeless from having to cook down the additional broth. I find that dipping a ceramic mug into the water gives me sufficient pasta water and then I don’t have to worry about being able to aim a 10 lb molten hot pot as I’m draining it.
6) I like to undercook my pasta by about a minute or two, so chewy that it’s not even al dente yet (literally “to the tooth,” such that the texture is firm to the bite), allowing me to finish cooking it in the sauce so that the delicious flavors can stick to the starchy outside of the pasta giving you savory pasta with yummy sauce instead of bland pasta with a savory sauce.


2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 shallot, finely diced
4 tsp crushed garlic
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
2 tsp + 1 tsp salt
1 c cherry tomatoes
24 oz crushed tomatoes
1 tsp tomato paste

1 medium-sized carrot, cleaned and unpeeled
1/4 c vodka
1/2 c heavy cream
1 tbsp fresh (or 1 tsp dried) basil, finely chopped or chiffonaded
1 lb cavatappi or other pasta that holds a thin sauce well like ziti or penne
1/2 c shredded parmesan

In a large, at least 3 1/2 quarts, pot heat olive oil on medium heat till fragrant but not smoking. Sauté shallot till golden and soft ~ 3 minutes. Add garlic, crushed red pepper and salt and sauté for another 2 minutes. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, cherry tomatoes, and carrot then simmer for 15-20 minutes till cherry tomatoes have burst open. Remove pot from heat and discard carrot (or give to your favorite pup as a yummy treat). Using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor pulse tomato sauce till smooth ~ 5-7 pulses. Return to pot and add vodka and cream, mix well and bring to a boil then remove from heat. Stir in basil.

While tomato sauce is simmering boil water in a large ~ 8 quart pot with remaining 1 tsp salt. Set timer for 2 minutes less than recommended cooking time. Scoop out ~ 1 cup pasta water and reserve. Drain pasta and add to tomato sauce, mixing well. Simmer for 2 more minutes or until al dente. Add 1/4 c pasta water if the sauce is too thick and mix well. Adjust as needed with additional pasta water. I like this pasta with a medium consistency, like a thin spaghetti sauce so 1/2 c pasta water usually works for me. Serve in pasta or shallow bowls and sprinkle with parmesan to taste. Makes 4 servings.

About Cam

Enjoying the hippie life in Portlandia :)


  1. Sophie

    This is my favorite pasta sauce but Gary has only made it for me 2 (maybe 3 times) in the 5 years we’ve been married. Now he has no excuse not to make it! It’s so easy even I can do it!!

  2. Sophie

    Tell me about it!! He’s just been fired!!!!!!

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