Fettuccine Alfredo: Too Easy to Get Wrong
I recently wrote about the worst meal I have ever had in any restaurant, anywhere. The more I thought about it, the more incensed I became at its horrors. While ordering, we intentionally chose simple, easily executed options, in the hopes of shielding ourselves from the slip-ups expected of a kitchen designed as a table-turner. You don't go to a restaurant like that expecting to get a properly prepared Lobster a l'Americaine, or anything requiring much skill. You go for meat and potatoes, maybe a simple pasta dish. That's exactly what we ordered, and you all know how that worked out for us.
So I decided to redress these wrongs on my own, preparing each of the items we ordered at home. Descending order of difficulty seemed as good a way as any to prepare the items, so I set about gathering the (ridiculously few) ingredients necessary to prepare a decent Fettuccine Alfredo.
That's right, Fettuccine Alfredo is the most complex item we ordered. With Alfredo, it's not a matter of the number of ingredients, or the number of steps involved in combining them, that creates the complexity. It's all a matter of finesse, and even that's not rocket science.
No doubt you've experienced a few ham-fisted plates of Fettuccine Alfredo, so you know what I'm talking about. The sauce is gummy and thick, the noodles either over- or undercooked, the dish completely lacking in complexity. When done right, Alfredo should be light (for a sauce composed of butter, cream, and cheese, that is) and elegant. It should cling lightly to the pasta rather than weighing it down. It should have a complex flavor, with the richness of butter and cream acting as a base, the nutty complexity of good Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the intriguing hint of spice offered by fresh nutmeg. It should be sprightly and fresh tasting, not dull and heavy.
The thing that gets me the most is how simple it is to prepare. There are only four ingredients involved, six if you count salt and pepper. The sauce takes about as much time to prepare as it takes to boil water and cook pasta. With a little bit of help and instruction, my 7-year-old could probably make it. In fact, I think I'm going to let her take the helm next time.
Process-wise, all you're doing is heating cream, swirling in butter, adding a few swipes of grated nutmeg and letting it steep. Then you cook pasta, drain it, toss it with the cream mixture and add grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Toss to combine, and the sauce more or less brings itself together in the process. It literally takes about five minutes to make the sauce.
The dish is improved significantly if you make and use fresh pasta, but certainly works with dried. A few other tips for improving your Fettucine Alfredo:
First, you must use good cheese. This is not an occasion for emptying out the last, nearly petrified grains from the green canister languishing in the back of your pantry. Buy good cheese, and grate it fresh.
Second, the nutmeg is a must. Most of the crappy restaurant versions I've stupidly tried over the years ignored this completely, and it adds so much to the dish. It brings out the subtle sweetness in the cream, the nuttiness of the cheese, and adds another dimension to the dish in its own right.
Process comes into play with the third item on our Alfredo check list. Do not overcook the cream. Bring it to a bare simmer, season it (salt, freshly ground pepper, a bit of fresh nutmeg), then swirl in the butter, a chunk at a time. This will help you emulsify the fat into the liquid, and prevent both curdling of the dairy, and breaking the emulsion you've carefully created. When the butter is fully incorporated, take it off the heat. You should have your pasta in the pot at this point, and toss it directly into the cream as soon as it's cooked and drained. This will allow the pasta to finish cooking in, as well as subtly thicken, the sauce. Add your cheese at this point, and toss thoroughly to combine. The residual heat from the pasta will melt the cheese gently, and the tossing will combine it with the sauce.
That's it. Almost too easy to believe, but so damn good when done right. There's no excuse for doing it wrong.