This silky, smooth and extra creamy Spicy Pesto Pasta Alla Vodka is the perfect cozy winter recipe we need most. Fresh pasta tossed in a spicy tomato pesto vodka sauce that’s creamy and so delicious! The secret to this one-pot pasta? Basil pesto and plenty of cheese on top. The pesto adds a vibrant layer of flavor and richness to this silky, smooth, and creamy pasta. Serve this 30-minute dinner up any night of the week. It’s delicious and looks pretty on any table…not to mention that everyone LOVES a GOOD creamy vodka pasta. This dish will be your new go-to when serving family and friends over the holidays.
We’ve made it to Thursday, and this week, that means creamy spicy pesto pasta alla vodka for dinner. Like clockwork every December I begin thinking about my family’s favorite vodka pasta. I have made so many versions over the years, but this recipe is my favorite. It’s more classic, but with the small twist of basil pesto, which of course only makes this vodka pasta that much more delicious.
I don’t know what it is about December days, but they always leave me craving some form of pasta in red sauce. I have to say, this pasta alla vodka feels like the most fitting December recipe. Not only for its simplicity and deliciousness, but the pretty red and green colors feel extra festive. Perfect for this time of year.
I know, I know, there she goes again with all the holiday talk. But I’m really grabbing onto anything and everything that adds even just a little holiday happiness into the world this year! And pasta always makes everything better. Especially a creamy vodka pasta.
So what does the vodka actually do?
The vodka adds a sharp bite that helps to balance out the sweetness of the tomatoes. When used in small amounts, the vodka will boost and intensify the aroma of the sauce. The key is to slowly simmer vodka into the sauce. This will release its flavors and cook out the alcohol.
If you prefer to not cook with alcohol, swap the vodka for chicken broth, vegetable broth, or even just water. That will be totally fine and your sauce will still be great.
All the spicy details…
This pasta is simple. I didn’t go over the top with it but instead wanted to really focus on the traditional flavors of a great vodka pasta…garlic, tomatoes, and cream. The key is to slowly cook the garlic in oil. I learned this trick when I first started cooking from a friend of our family’s, Mrs. Mooney, as I called her, and actually still call her to this day.
She’d make this dish simply called penne pasta. It was always a favorite. Thinking back on it, it’s actually really similar to an alla vodka style pasta sauce.
Mrs. Mooney taught me to slowly caramelize garlic in olive oil to really infuse flavor into a recipe, especially within an Italian-style red sauce. So, don’t skip this step! Once the garlic is extra fragrant and turns golden, I like to stir in the tomato paste and chili flakes. Then cook those for a bit to really help intensify the flavors in the sauce.
Once that’s cooked for a bit, stir in lots of cream. Then let the sauce simmer while you boil the pasta.
For the pasta, I just used short cut rigatoni (to be honest, it’s really the best kind of short cut pasta I can find in my area). But use any short cut pasta you love or have on hand.
You’ll want to first boil off the pasta, then just before draining reserve some of the pasta cooking water. This step is so important, so be sure to not dump the water before reserving a cup. The pasta water is used to finish the creamy vodka sauce.
Now add in some of the pasta cooking water and simmer the sauce until it has reduced down a bit and thickened. At this point, your kitchen is going to smell amazing. There should be hints of garlic and butter throughout…it’s the best of Italian scents.
Once the pasta is cooked, toss it with the sauce and that pasta water. Add some butter and toss until the sauce is very creamy. Stir in the parmesan and basil. Immediately the heat from the pasta intensifies the smell of the basil…leaving you with nothing but excitement for dinner.
And trust me, you should be excited. Every bowl of pasta is creamy, just oh so slightly spicy, with a subtle pesto touch, and just the right amount of butter and cheese.
It’s is so very good. Roll your eyes back, go for that second bowl, and finish the pasta all in one sitting, GOOD. Dramatic, but true.
Perfect dinner to serve up this holiday season, even if it’s just the two of you this year! The leftovers are just as delicious! You can prepare the dish in advance, keep it fully assembled in the fridge, and then bake before serving. I love dishes like this for holiday entertaining…they make life so easy!
You can even prepare the sauce way ahead of time, then just add the pasta before you’re ready to serve. This would make a great dinner party meal with a side salad and some bread. Usually, I keep it simple with my 5 Ingredient Beer Bread or Salted Butter Parker House Rolls. But when the whole family is in town for December, I’ll bake this Pull-Apart Garlic Butter Bread Wreath. Either way (or day) you serve this pasta up, it’s going to be good. It’s one of those pasta dishes that’s easily loved by all.
Looking for other simple winter pasta dishes? Here are my favorites:
Lastly, if you make this Spicy Pesto Pasta Alla Vodka, be sure to leave a comment and/or give this recipe a rating! Above all, I love to hear from you guys and always do my best to respond to each and every comment. And of course, if you do make this recipe, don’t forget to tag me on Instagram! Looking through the photos of recipes you all have made is my favorite!
Pesto Pasta Alla Vodka
Calories Per Serving: 590 kcal
Nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of the nutritional information for any recipe on this site is not guaranteed.
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- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1-2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 3/4 cup basil pesto, homemade or store-bought
- kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 cup heavy cream or canned coconut milk
- 1 pound short cut pasta
- 3 tablespoons salted butter
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- 1/4 cup fresh basil roughly chopped
- 1. Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat. When the oil shimmers, add the shallot, garlic, and oregano. Cook until the shallots begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato paste and red pepper flakes, cook 4-5 minutes, until thickened. Stir in the vodka, cook another 2 minutes. Stir in the pesto and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat. 2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Just before draining, remove 1 1/2 cups of the pasta cooking water. Drain.3. To the vodka sauce, add the pasta, 1/2 cup pasta cooking water, and the butter, tossing until the butter has melted. Add the parmesan and basil. If needed, thin the sauce with additional pasta cooking water.4. Divide the pasta among plates and top with basil and cheese. Enjoy!
To Replace the Vodka: use an equal amount of chicken or vegetable broth. To Make Ahead: prepare the alla vodka sauce through step 1. The sauce can be made 4 days ahead of time and chilled in the fridge. To serve, warm on the stove, follow the directions through step 2. To Freeze: the alla vodka sauce can be made, then frozen in a freezer-safe container for up to 3 months. Thaw, then use as directed.