I posted a while back about the who-what-where-when-why-how of hand-cranked homemade pasta. In a subsequent post I tackled the topic of a fittingly tasty sauce, Bolognese Ragù. That’s all well and good, but what about vegetarians? And what about a sauce that doesn’t take like six hours to create? I’ll cover that here.
Who, where, and when
In terms of “who,” it would be great if I could say this is a family recipe handed down from generation to generation, over which I bonded with my dearly departed Italian grandmother. But my grandmother was Dutch, and didn’t teach me how to cook a damn thing (probably because the Dutch don’t really cook, other than fries, as far as I can tell).
To be honest, I don’t remember where I got this recipe, if I ever had one. I think I just tried stuff practically at random until I found something that worked. (The fact is, when you’re adding butter, cream, and cheese to pasta, it’s hard to end up with something you’re not willing to eat, no matter how badly you screw up.)
I’ve been making this for decades. The current incarnation dates from at least 1994, when my wife and I did a cross-country bicycle tour and this was our go-to splurge whenever we gained access to a kitchen. Needless to say this dish isn’t feasibly prepared on a little camp stove.
According to Wikipedia, fettuccine Alfredo is the same thing as fettuccine al burro (i.e., with butter). They go on about this Italian chef who invented the recipe by using more butter than those before him. There’s no mention of cream, which means that what most Americans call Alfredo is really a bastardization. This is fitting, because Alfredo himself was, literally, a bastard. (Note: I made that up.) Suffice to say, every recipe I’ve looked at online calls for heavy cream so it’s hard to say how authentic any of it actually is. But when it’s so heart-achingly good, who cares?
Why would you eat this? Because it’s delicious, duh! The better question is, why make it yourself?
First of all, because you can—it’s not exactly easy, but it is quick. You could get it at a restaurant, but if you’re paying somebody to cook for you, why not order something like a Bolognese that’s much more labor-intensive? Also, even though this dish is quick, it can’t be made in advance—it has to be made to order—so it’s hard for restaurants to get it just right. You can actually make it better at home.
Why not buy it in a jar? Please. I just looked up the ingredients for Barilla brand jarred Alfredo. The first ingredient is water; the second is sunflower oil. There’s no butter in it at all, though there are “dairy product solids.” That’s almost as enticing as the “enzyme modified egg yolk,” the xanthan gum, and the gum arabic it also features. You also get “natural flavors” (i.e., artificial flavors). I had this sauce once and it was just as disgusting as it sounds.
Classico brand Alfredo is slightly better (on paper, at least) but still has xanthan gum, along with modified gum arabic, whey protein concentrate, and modified food starch. The first three consumer reviews listed are all one-star: “If you are putting up new wallpaper this will be handy but not for eating”; “Bland and tasteless” (both!); and “Watery bland.”
The fettuccine is the easy part. You can buy De Cecco, which is great stuff, or make your own according to my instructions. It should look like this:
Part of what fettuccine Alfredo is touted for is its golden color. Well, with proper pasta you’re halfway there!
Beyond this, I have to confess: fettuccine Alfredo is a bit tricky (as opposed to my Bolognese, which takes forever but which is so easy a rhesus monkey could probably make it, and I wish it were legal to keep them as pets because I’d consider getting one just for this purpose). Some batches of Alfredo come out great, but others not so much. I once made it for my dad, and it was a lousy batch—the sauce separated and got greasy—but he pronounced it “excellent.” (A sucker for saturated fats, I guess.)
The hardest thing is figuring out how much butter to use. I originally started with a stick of butter and a pint of cream, just as a shock-and-awe kind of brute-force approach. That wasn’t very good. I’ve gradually dialed back the butter, but haven’t figured out exactly how much should go in. The idea is to permeate the sauce with as much fat as possible without it getting greasy. Perhaps I’ll tinker with the butter quantity and update this post, if I can remember (and if my heart and arteries hold out long enough). For now, start with 2 or 3 tablespoons.
The other difficult part is melting in a maximum amount of Romano and Parmesan cheese without the sauce clumping up. The cheese needs to meld perfectly with the cream and butter, and this isn’t a perfect science. I think the trick, as is so often the case, is not to cut any corners. This means grating the cheese with a zester.
A zester? Yep. The hard cheese needs to be grated as fine as snowflakes. (Note that the powdery stuff you get in the green cardboard can melts beautifully, but tastes terrible—because it is. Totally off-limits here.) Below are three type of graters you might use (along with some recommended ingredients):
The one on the far right is a classic, though I don’t know why. It grates the cheese too coarsely, so it doesn’t melt well enough (and meanwhile that curved surface just makes things awkward, increasing the chance that you’ll grate part of a finger or thumb into the sauce). The Zyliss grater on the left is efficient, and injury-proof (other than carpal tunnel I guess), but it still doesn’t grate the cheese fine enough. I used my Zyliss recently for a batch of Alfredo and wasn’t thrilled with the results. What you really want is that one in back, the zester. And for absolutely best results you probably want to grate it right over the pasta in the pan instead of into a bowl. You’ll need strong hands for this. (Tip: be a professional bicycle mechanic for at least ten years before you turn to cooking. This will give you the strength you need, and the psychological mettle. It is said that “bicycle mechanic bleed on the inside.”)
Use equal parts Romano and Parmesan. Once grated, they should be finer than what’s shown here (which was grated with the Zyliss):
The other tricky thing is to get the right about of nutmeg. I don’t know the precise amount because I don’t measure it with a teaspoon. How could I, when I grate it right into the sauce? This is a much more aromatic form of nutmeg than what you get in a jar (though honestly it might be the height of culinary affectation to insist on it).
If you use too little nutmeg, you won’t taste it at all so why did you bother with that fancy tool shown above? But if you use too much, it’s too strong and dominates the sauce. I’ve definitely screwed up entire batches this way, which is a shame when each plate of this food probably knocks a few months off your life.
The final challenge is the peas. You don’t have to add peas, but it imparts a nice bit of color, and just a touch of sweetness to offset the saltiness of all that cheese. If you add too many peas, that reduces the decadence and overwhelms the subtle flavors. Also, if you overcook the peas they’re mushy and only the English can get away with that. A final pitfall is if it turns out you grabbed that bag of frozen peas somebody had used to ice a knee every night for a week, so they’re powdery and inedible.
Okay, so here’s what you do. Get the pasta water boiling, salt it, throw in the pasta, and in a very large copper-bottomed pan (a paella pan works great), melt the butter (not too much!) and add the heavy cream. (Use organic—it tastes better. And find some without any thickener.) Salt and pepper that a bit. Add the nutmeg (not too much!). Now—wait! Stop! Don’t add the peas yet!
When the pasta is almost done (it should be just this side of al dente since it will continue to soften a bit from here), strain it and add it to the butter & cream. Stir that all around. You should be surprised at how thin and watery this mixture seems.
Okay, now add the frozen peas. Stir well. Don’t worry, they’ll be cooked by the end. Perfectly, as it turns out. Now sprinkle a thin, even layer of
grated zested cheese
on there. It should look like this just
before you put the lid on.
You want this on just the lowest heat. You know what? I used to use an ad hoc double boiler by putting the pan atop the pasta pot (with the burner off, but plenty of heat radiating up from the water because you’ve used a pot with a built-in colander insert). This works great. (Why did I stop doing this? Because I forgot about it, until I unearthed the below photo.)
(Why the pink tinge in the above photo? I can’t remember. Maybe that batch had salmon in it.)
Next, wait two or three minutes—with the lid on—until that cheese has basically melted, then mix it in. It will, ideally, blend right in with the cream without clumping.
Now repeat this step with another layer of cheese. You might repeat it several more times. How many? Depends on how thin your layer of cheese is (the thinner the better) and how finely grated the cheese is. When the sauce is on the verge of not even being creamy anymore, it’s time to stop. Here’s the finished product:
(No, it doesn't change color. I was monkeying with my camera flash.)
Now’s the scary part: plate it and hope it turned out.
- A so-so batch will be well worth eating, and everybody will want seconds, but it might be under-creamy, or greasy, or perhaps just a bit meh (which would be the result of too little cheese). If you over-nutmegged it, this is when you’ll curse silently. Someone might pronounce it “excellent” but you’ll know better.
- On the other hand, if it’s a good batch, you’ll actually hear people’s eyes rolling back in their heads, unless this is drowned out by all the yummy-noises and actual whimpers of pleasure.
I really need to point out that this dish is very, very bad for you. Refined starch, three kinds of saturated fat, only the smallest smattering of peas (which health nuts will tell you aren’t nearly as salubrious as leafy greens) … isn’t this totally irresponsible? Well, yeah. That’s practically the point. (If you’re not comfortable with this, maybe you should become a cyclist.)
Can you make Alfredo healthier, by adding broccoli, or using half-and-half, or making it a side dish? Yeah, you could, if you want to bring your joyless, priggish discipline to yet one more aspect of your puritanical life, you gastronomic prude.
What about salmon? Okay, now we’re talking … that’s actually pretty good (see the first photo in this post). I’ve thrown in smoked salmon, at the very end, to great effect. (No, don’t use canned. But farmed is totally fine.)
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