Chicken and Penne in Vodka Cream Sauce Recipe

A simple, creamy pasta dish is upgraded with chicken and Parmesan-crusted garlic bread for a hearty and satisfying meal.

Overhead of a serving dish of chicken and penne in vodka cream sauce. Two pieces of cheesy garlic bread lie to one side.

Serious Eats / Yvonne Ruperti

Why It Works

  • Vodka adds a spicy bite to the sauce, which balances and enhances the flavor of the tomatoes and cream.
  • To save time, chicken breast is thinly sliced and briefly poached in the finished vodka cream sauce. Similarly, the garlic bread can be assembled and baked as the pasta simmers.

I'm not a seasonal eater at all. I'll eat anything, any time of year. But when it's freezing outside, a meal of pasta in a creamy sauce does go down especially easily (and rapidly). There is not one creamy pasta that I'll ever refuse, including pasta in vodka cream sauce.

The sauce's mild color may fool you into thinking it's a vapid sauce, but it's not. It's a vibrant mix of sautéed garlic, shallots (or onions), tomatoes, and vodka, tempered with cream and blended until satiny smooth (it doesn't have to be blended, but I like how the silky sauce clings onto the pasta). This Italian-American sauce is usually tossed with penne, but I'd be happy to mix it with any shape that's got a lot of nooks and crannies (wagon wheels would be killer). Vodka sauce is mostly served with pasta and no other adornment, but I thought I'd make a heartier meal of it by stirring in slices of boneless chicken breast.

This is an extremely simple pasta sauce to prepare, making it ideal for a hearty weeknight dinner. For inspiration for my sauce, I looked to Daniel's penne alla vodka recipe for inspiration. According to Kenji, vodka "[alters] the flavor of the sauce in a pleasing way. It adds a touch of heat and a bit of a sharp bite that help balance out the sweetness of the tomatoes and the cream." Sounds good to me.

I figured the best way to get the chicken in there was to gently cook it in the completed sauce. I thinly sliced boneless chicken breast against the grain so that it would cook quickly and stay tender. Probably the best part about this dish is that it gives me a good excuse to whip up cheesy garlic bread drenched in butter.

January 2013

Recipe Facts

4.4

(5)

Prep: 5 mins
Cook: 60 mins
Active: 45 mins
Total: 65 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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Ingredients

For the Garlic Parmesan Toast:

  • 1 baguette, cut in half then halved lengthwise

  • 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter

  • 14 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1/4 cup)

  • Kosher salt

  • 3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves 

For the Pasta:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 4 small shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup)

  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 4 teaspoons)

  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes packed in juice

  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes

  • 6 tablespoons vodka

  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced crosswise against the grain into 1/2-inch thick strips

  • 1 pound dried penne pasta

  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

Directions

  1. Prepare Garlic Bread (see note): Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Line rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place bread on sheet, cut side up.

  2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter with garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant and has softened slightly, about 4 minutes. Spoon garlic butter over bread and season with salt. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Set aside.

  3. Make the Pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add shallots and cook, stirring, until softened and just beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

  4. Transfer shallot mixture to a blender. Add tomatoes (with juice) and tomato paste. Blend until smooth.

  5. Transfer tomato mixture back to skillet and stir in chile flakes, vodka, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened and flavors are melded, about 15 minutes. Stir in cream and season to taste. Stir in chicken and cook until just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Keep warm while pasta cooks.

  6. Cook pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, place garlic bread in oven and bake until cheese is starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with parsley. Drain cooked pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. Toss pasta with sauce, adding pasta water as necessary until sauce reaches desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper if necessary. Stir in basil. Serve pasta and bread immediately, passing additional cheese tableside if desired.

Notes

The garlic bread can also be prepared as you are boiling the pasta in Step 6.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
1632 Calories
61g Fat
191g Carbs
79g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 1632
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 61g 78%
Saturated Fat 34g 169%
Cholesterol 241mg 80%
Sodium 2116mg 92%
Total Carbohydrate 191g 69%
Dietary Fiber 11g 39%
Total Sugars 21g
Protein 79g
Vitamin C 40mg 201%
Calcium 407mg 31%
Iron 13mg 72%
Potassium 1523mg 32%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)