Italian Sauces III: Alfredo

 Knights in White Satin

Knights in White Satin

Welcome back.  I hope you all are enjoying the recipes that we've covered so far, and are using them creatively!  Grilled pesto chicken with salsa cruda garnish?  That's some good stuff for a classy summer barbeque.  But as most of us are starting to notice, the leaves are falling and the days are getting shorter.  The colder days mean heavier, warming, comforting food.

That brings us to our Knight in White Satin.  Alfredo it is.  Stay with me, now.  I know it gets a terrible rap.  I know it frequently comes in grody bottles of thick white goo that oozes over overcooked noodles in crappy Italian restaurants, both in this country, and unfortunately, in Italy.  Just because it's hideous in most places doesn't mean it has to be hideous. 

We're gonna make it right.  We're gonna make it like Alfredo himself made it.  Yeah, you didn't know?  Fettuccine Alfredo is named after a famous restaurateur, Alfredo Di Lelio, who opened restaurants in Rome in 1908 and 1914.  By the 1940s, the dish had become an international phenom.  You can still do as the Romans do today at "Il Vero Alfredo" and pay €19 for buttered noodles.

The dish was not invented by Alfredo, despite what the pasta-industrial complex may like you to believe.  The first appearance of the dish was in a 15th century cookbook, Libro di arte coquinaria.  To this day, average Italians seem to stick with Martino da Como's recipe, as it is widely known by the much-less flashy moniker pasta al burro e parmigiano, that is, away from the touristy places that want to capture uninformed Americans...

The dish's medieval roots cut out the flash and got to the simple goodness of the ingredients, each in appropriate proportions.  Unlike what the restaurant chain named for an oil-yielding berry may have you believe, you don't need to drench anything.  You shouldn't drench anything.  Like all good Italian food, we're aiming for subtlety.  The goal is to get in, get out, and get happy--preferably by keeping butter fat to a minimum.

At the same time, however, that doesn't mean I'm going to give you all any voodoo nonsense.  We're having Alfredo.  It's fattening.  But jeez, you're not going to have it everyday.  Just indulge this one time, okay?

Fettuccine Alfredo

  • One bulb garlic
  • Four tablespoons unsalted butter
  • One cup of heavy cream
  • At least three-quarters of a cup of Parmesan cheese
  • One pound fettuccine
  • Generous amount of black pepper
  • One-eighth teaspoon nutmeg (or more, to taste)
  • Salt to taste
  • Chopped parsley garnish

Here's the classic preparation, with a slight modification which I think you'll really like.  Don't freak out about the whole bulb of garlic.  Through the magic of chemistry, it'll quickly become roasted garlic.  Take your head and take a little off the top.  Not too much.  We just want to expose the cloves within.  Rub it down in a little oil, plop it in some tin foil, wrap it up, and pop it in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

Turning up the heat is doing more than just softening the structure of the cloves.  Heat is mellowing out all of those sulfurous compounds in the garlic, known as "thiols", which give the cloves their bite.  Heat is also caramelizing the sugars within the garlic, bringing up its sweetness.  We have an ingredient that is a kinder, gentler version of its raw cousin, which will give our sauce a subtle note of garlic, without blowing anyone's face off:

 Provocative, yet tasteful.

Provocative, yet tasteful.

Roasted garlic pairs perfectly with dairy.  Squeeze the whole delicious bulb into a frying pan, and plop your half-stick of butter in the pan and turn on the heat.  The butter will melt, but keep going.  Stir with a wooden spoon, mashing the garlic as you go.  We want a touch of color on the butter, until about this point:

 Pour this mix over a split loaf of bread, and you've made garlic bread. ;)

Pour this mix over a split loaf of bread, and you've made garlic bread. ;)

Now, slowly add the cream to the pan.  It'll look like there's a grease-slick.  You might get worried and/or grossed-out.  Add your Parmesan cheese.  It'll look like this:

 The horror, the horror.

The horror, the horror.

But not for long.  As the cheese melts, and the fats start to mix, the sauce will become creamy and thick:

 "Smooth" by Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas, 2000.

"Smooth" by Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas, 2000.

Now we're in business.  Hit it with the black pepper and salt and nutmeg.  You can use pre-ground, but it's kind of fun to get the actual nuts and shave 'em down to get your delicious little powder. 

 In large amounts, nutmeg is a hallucinogen.  Perhaps that's why people in Elizabethan England loved it so much.

In large amounts, nutmeg is a hallucinogen.  Perhaps that's why people in Elizabethan England loved it so much.

You could call it a day right here, and pour your pound of fettuccine into the sauce, stirring for a while.  As you toss, based on what we discussed before, the starch will further help to emulsify the sauce and fuse it to your noodles.  Garnish with parsley for freshness, and boom goes the dynamite.

You fine people seem to be to have sophisticated palates.  I'll bet you're bored with the same old fettuccine Alfredo.  Bet you want a little culinary challenge. 

Me too.  Mushroomization is the way to go.

Mushroom Duxelles

  • One pound of mushrooms (cremini or chestnut)
  • One shallot
  • One pat of butter
  • One-eighth to one-quarter teaspoon thyme
  • Three tablespoons of white wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mince your shallot and place in a pan with your butter.  Cook until soft, but not brown, about four minutes.  After washing the mushrooms very well--they grow in dirt, after all--beat the crap out of them.  Crush 'em with your hands into a really fine mash, and dump them into your shallotey pan and hit them with the thyme.  Add a couple pinches of salt to the mushrooms now.  It's critical to get the water pulled out of the mushrooms.  We don't want a wet gravy.

We'll go from this:

 From Rainforest Café.

From Rainforest Café.

To this:

 To the rainforest.

To the rainforest.

When the mushrooms look dry, hit them with some wine to deglaze the pan.  The wine is an excellent solvent for the sucs on the bottom of the pan.  Get them all part of our delicious mash.  When the pan is dry again, or at least, when the wine has largely evaporated, dump it into our Alfredo:

 This is good smelling salts for when you faint from anticipation.

This is good smelling salts for when you faint from anticipation.

Be still, my heart. ;)

If you want to approximate American-Italian interpretation, add some grilled chicken and broccoli.  But Alfredo is really quite versatile.  Today, we mushroomized the basic sauce, but one could easily pesto-ize to create a beautiful light-green sauce, or add some mashed up roasted red peppers or blend in some marinara for a blushing rosa sauce.  Alfredo allows us to make pastels from bright swatches of flavor, like a French impressionist or Brooks Brothers.

I hope today's post inspires you to rehabilitate this week's White Knight, Fettuccine Alfredo.  It's just misunderstood.  And only we can save it from its horrible fate as "The Creeping Unknown", and instead, place it firmly in the pantheon of good, delicious, and wholesome, Italian eating.  Now switch on the Moody Blues, roll up your sleeves, and get jousting.