Swapping out penne for gnocchi, our Baked Gnocchi with Vodka Cream Sauce and Pancetta is as creamy as we remember, sweet from the tomatoes and rich from the pancetta, and baked with mozzarella for cheesy and stringy perfection.
I can vividly remember the dishes served in my high school cafeteria. An all girls, Catholic school in Toronto, we had the classic sandwiches, chicken fingers and fries, and warm chocolate chip cookies served by the coolest lunch ladies and gents. And while the movies depicted the disgust of school lunches, we couldn't wait to stand in line and order our favourites, especially on Tuesday's when it was Penne alla Vodka day.
A creamy pink sauce tossed with bacon and tiny tubes of pasta, Penne alla Vodka was everyone's favourite not just because it was incredible, but mostly because we all thought we were cool because of the vodka (teenagers, huh?). And for Philip, during the same time, across the city in College, Penne alla Vodka was also on his school menu. It was one of three dishes he knew how to make while away and became a staple in his dorm.
For both of us, Penne alla Vodka was a teenage nostalgia dish and cannot believe it's taken us this long to share our homemade version on the blog, especially considering we have other pastas like Classic Carbonara, Spaghetti Puttanesca, and Pesto Carbonara. Swapping out penne for gnocchi, our Baked Gnocchi with Vodka Sauce and Pancetta is as creamy as we remember, sweet from the tomatoes and rich from the pancetta. And putting a Chef Sous Chef spin on it by topping it with mozzarella and baking until melted.
What is Gnocchi?
The gnocchi definition is thought to come from the Italian words nocchio, which is a knot in wood, or nocca, which translates to gnocchi. But, in Italian cooking gnocchi is small dumplings made from potato, semolina, or flour, and usually served with sauce.
How to Make Our Gnocchi Recipe
Our baked gnocchi with vodka sauce is about as easy a dish you can make, and like all great Italian recipes, the quality of ingredients is key. If time permits, homemade gnocchi will produce the best results, but for a weeknight recipe, just use store bought. There are three areas you can find gnocchi in the grocery store; fresh pasta section, dry pasta section or frozen aisle.
Gnocchi, pancetta, onion, garlic, canned tomatoes, vodka, basil, heavy cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano, buffalo mozzarella, salt, pepper, red chili flakes.
Start our by preparing all your ingredients: dice 100g of pancetta and a small onion, mince 2 garlic cloves, then start a large pot of water to boil with 2-3 tablespoons of sea salt. Whenever you make pasta, you want to ensure the water you are cooking in is extremely salty. It should taste like the sea.
How to Make the Best Vodka Sauce
One of the keys to any good tomato sauce is time, so you want to start this as soon as you start the water. The more time the sauce cooks, the sweeter the tomatoes get and the more the flavour develops. Our vodka cream sauce is very simple to make. We start with a cold pot or deep skillet, and add the pancetta. Place on medium-high heat and cook until browned and crisp.
Chef's Tip: Starting with a cold pan allows the fat from the pancetta to render and prevents the meat from seizing. The result is tender little bites of pancetta in your sauce.
Once the pancetta is done, add the onions and garlic. Cook just for a few minutes until tender before adding the tomatoes. You want to allow this to simmer for at least five minutes to start to develop some flavour. Next, we add ¼ cup of vodka, but you want to remove the pan from any heat before doing so. This is not flambé and with the amount of vodka in the recipe, it will easily ignite. Once the vodka is mixed in you can return the sauce to the heat. Add some seasoning in the form of salt, pepper, chili flakes, and basil. Allow to simmer until the pasta water comes to an aggressive boil.
How to Cook Gnocchi
This step is simple. Once the water is boiling, add the gnocchi. Once it floats to the top, it's done. For fresh gnocchi this usually takes 2-3 minutes, and for frozen about 5 minutes. The best part about this recipe is that you can be fancy and make your own gnocchi or save a lot of time and purchase your own.
Finish Making the Vodka Cream Sauce
While the gnocchi is boiling, pour the cream into the sauce. Mix this constantly for a minute or so until combined. Once the gnocchi is cooked, drain the water and add it directly into the sauce. Top with a handful of grated parm and mix.
Make it Baked Gnocchi
You can definitely serve the gnocchi as is, but we're going to take it to another level. Preheat your oven to a high broil. Transfer the gnocchi to a casserole dish and top with slices of buffalo mozzarella and an additional handful (or two) of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sprinkle with some additional chili flakes and place in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and golden brown. Serve with additional Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and a chunk of bread to soak up all that extra sauce.
When the Baked Gnocchi comes out of the oven it fills your home with all the comforting aromas of your favourite pastas. Tomatoes cooked with onion and garlic, rich cream and cheese, and then the subtle scent of vodka. Spoon a plateful of baked gnocchi onto a plate and be sure to get a round of the stringy mozzarella. Sprinkle on additional Parmigiano-Reggiano and a few leaves of basil. While rich, the baked gnocchi is light and pillowy, making for a light pasta dish.
Baked Gnocchi Recipe Video
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Baked Gnocchi with Vodka Cream Sauce
- 2 lbs gnocchi
- 4 oz pancetta diced
- 1 small onion diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 can tomatoes (28oz/796ml)
- ¼ cup vodka
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp red chili flakes
- 1 sprig basil finely chopped
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 3 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano grated
- 4 oz buffalo mozzarella
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
- Place the diced pancetta in a deep skillet or pot. Turn the heat to medium high and cook until crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, and cook an additional 3 minutes, stirring every 30- 40 seconds. Pour in the tomatoes, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the vodka. Season the sauce with salt, pepper, chili flakes and basil. Return to heat and continue to simmer, stirring every couple minutes.
- Once the pasta water comes to a rolling boil, preheat the oven to a high broil. Add the gnocchi to the water. Once the gnocchis float to the top, they are ready.
- While the gnocchi is cooking add the cream to the sauce, stirring constantly for about a minute. Return to simmer. Once the gnocchi is done, add it to the sauce. Grate half the parmesan on top and stir to combine.
- Transfer the gnocchi to a baking dish and top with slices of mozzarella and parmesan. Place in the oven to broil for 5 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling.
- Serve with additional garnish of chili flakes and basil and a chunk of bread to soak up the extra sauce.
- Gnocchi can be found in the freezer, refrigerated, or dry pasta section of your grocery store.
- Start the pancetta in a cold pan so the the fat renders out slowly. This creates a more tender pancetta for the recipe