Note 1: Feel free to skip the long introduction if you like. It’s OK, really. You won’t hurt my [sniffle] feelings.
Fettuccine Alfredo is a wonderful dish, an interesting bit of pop history, and a frustrating problem of linguistics (linguistics, not linguine.) We actually know how Alfredo came about. Unlike most origin myths we can be pretty certain about this because of its close relationship with one of the best covered events in world history – Mary Pickford’s and Douglas Fairbanks’ honeymoon.
Let’s start with the backstory. A few years before the Pickford/Fairbanks honeymoon, it seems there was this guy, Alfredo, who owned a little restaurant in Rome. His wife got pregnant, and couldn’t keep anything down. Not even her favorite dish, pasta al burro. Alfredo made her a variation which involved “creaming” the butter until he almost returned it to a cream-like state (now the word “creaming” makes sense, doesn’t it?), and beating very finely grated cheese into it so the butter and cheese formed a tight emulsion. So tight in fact, that even when the butter melted the cheese stayed emulsified.
Alfredo took the dish to his restaurant, Alfredo’s, and jazzed up the presentation by tossing the pasta and sauce tableside.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks got married. A few years later they went on their honeymoon, which in addition to being the most closely covered event up to that stage of the 20th Century, included the Grand Tour of Europe.
In turn, their particular version of the Tour included spending a couple of months in Rome. While in Rome, they did as Romans do and discovered a charming little restaurant owned by a charming little guy. You’ve already guessed which restaurant and which guy. They fell in love with Alfredo’s special version of pasta al burro, which he called (get this) “Fettuccine Alfredo.” When Mary and Doug left Rome, as a token of their appreciation, they presented Alfredo with two golden spoons.
Of course, all of this was covered in the newspapers and fan magazines in great detail, including the recipe. So, we know exactly who Alfredo was, and what Alfredo sauce was – at least when it immigrated.
Anyway, it got off the boat, went to work in Italian restaurants over here, and got altered. People started making it with cream because it held better for restaurant service; with egg, to hold the cream and cheese together; as a Mornay (a Bechamel with cheese), for all the same reasons plus cost; and God knows how using God knows what for God knows which reasons.
The variations rather than the original Alfredo came to dominate the American culinary landscape, and still do to this day. Are they Alfredo? Certainly not in the way Alfredo, Doug or Mary thought of it, or in the way it’s still made at Alfredo’s and its progeny. As a curmudgeonly cook who is pretty damn conservative about which is dish is what, the desire to say “no” is strong. Yet we’re talking about a name as much as about a dish, names are language, and at some point usage becomes determinative. At the end of the day, Who knows? Who cares?
This is the real recipe as is and was made at Alfredo’s in Rome. Other than attention to technique – a thorough emulsification – it’s just an al burro sauce, same as everywhere in Italy. If you don’t emulsify, the cheese will become grainy. If you try melt the cheese into cream without taking other measures the cheese will become stringy.
Butter, cheese, salt, pepper, lots of beating. The dish is about two things, freshness and texture. It is not sticky or gooey. Rather it is creamy, comforting, and rich to the point of decadence – yet surprisingly digestible by pregnant women.
The One, The True, The Real, The Original
Quantity: 3 or 4 main course plates; 6 to 8 appetizers
Difficulty: A lot of work and attention to detail, but easy.
• 1 lb best quality dried or fresh fettuccine or tagliatelle
• 8 oz very good butter (2 sticks), or 6 oz if using fresh pasta
• 8 oz parmigiana reggiano cheese, or 6 oz if using fresh pasta
• 1-1/2 tbs table salt per gallon of pasta water
• Pepper grinder (white pepper is truer, but black pepper is fine)
Note 2: Remember, good dried pasta is better than mediocre fresh.
Allow the butter to come to room temperature.
Bring a large pot of salted water (about 1-1/2 tbs table salt to each gallon of water) to a hard boil.
Note 3: Some people like to add about 1 tbs of olive oil per gallon of water, on the theory that the oil will make the cooked pasta less sticky and easier to handle. Some people say it does nothing. Who’s right? Who knows? But what can it hurt?
Meanwhile grate the cheese to a fine, soft, fluffy powder.
Cream the butter with an electric beater or a French whisk to cream it. Cream the butter some more. More than that, even. That is, about four minutes with an electric beater, six minutes with a whisk if you’re powerful, and eight minutes with a whisk if you’re normal.
Note 4: A piano wire, pear shaped whisk is marginal. Don’t use a balloon whisk, it will wreck the tines and take forever. You can use a wooden spoon if you wish, but it will go slowly and the lousy handle shape will exhaust your hand.
Cream the cheese into the butter in three additions. Continue creaming until the butter and cheese are totally emulsified. About two or three minutes with an electric, and about four or five more minutes by hand. It’s the thorough incorporation which make it so luscious.
Put about two-thirds of the sauce in the bottom of your mixing/serving bowl. Set the remainder aside in an attractive dish, near the dining table.
Cook the pasta al dente. A typical, dry fettuccine, takes about 9 minutes. Look at the pasta directions and start taste testing the pasta at 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time. As a rule, pasta package directions are usually right on (at least at sea level).
Working quickly, ladle 1/2 cup of pasta water into the mixing bowl. Drain the pasta. Add the drained pasta to the mixing bowl on top of the sauce and water.
Carry the mixing bowl to the table, along with a nice, long-handled pair of serving spoons or spoon and fork. Add the reserved sauce to the top of the pasta. Toss rapidly until the sauce melts and the emulsion clings to the pasta. Dress with salt and pepper. Pass the salt cellar, pepper grinder, and extra cheese around the table.
Restating the obvious: Once you get the pasta out of the water, it’s important to work very quickly because the sauce melts and emulsifies with the reserved heat from the pasta and pasta water. That’s the only heat there is. So have everything in place and ready to go. If you try to melt the “sauce” over direct heat, the emulsion will break and you’ll be left with a mess. Don’t do it.