Dairy-Free Penne Alla Vodka

Dairy-Free Penne Alla Vodka


I like to describe myself as "casually" lactose intolerant. I won't become violently ill if I consume dairy every once in a while, but my body does feel better when I avoid it. What's especially rough on my belly is heavy cream, which is sad for me because so many delicious things are made with heavy cream — including penne alla vodka, which I crave on a fairly regular basis, much to my stomach's chagrin. And though I'm all for dairy-free substitutes, it's actually been kind of tricky to find a sufficient dairy-free heavy cream alternative that's reasonably affordable. (Like, cashew milk is great, but I will never not gag at the pricetag per ounce, you know?)

I thought my quest was for naught, and I would just have to settle for feeling a little sick every time I ate penne alla vodka until I came across this recipe for a heavy cream substitute made from roasted onions on Food52. Yes, onions — which, it should be noted, are way cheaper than cashews — when roasted then blended, can approximate the creaminess of milk, from either nuts or cows. It also makes a wonderful savory base for a vodka sauce that has all of the flavor but none of the dairy, which means I'm able to eat it without feeling that heaviness in my stomach, and that makes this casually lactose intolerant lady very happy.

Dairy-Free Penne Alla Vodka

About 4 servings


Onion "Heavy Cream"

  • 2 yellow onions
  • 1 lemon
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Vodka Sauce

  • 1 yellow onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 cups onion "heavy cream"
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1-pound penne


Make the onion "heavy cream"

(Note: You can do this the day before you plan on making your vodka sauce.)

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 400°F.
  2. Wash your onions, then drizzle whole onions with olive oil.
  3. Place olive oil-coated whole onions, outer skin and all, in cast-iron skillet or baking pan, and roast in oven for 45 minutes, or until the inside of the onion is mushy. You'll be able to tell my poking at it with a fork. The insides will give, even if the outer skin is brown and crispy.
  4. Take out, and let onions cool until you can comfortably handle without burning your fingers.
  5. Chop off the ends and remove the crispy, outer layers of the onions. Take the soft insides, and blend with lemon juice and salt, until smooth. That's your "heavy cream," and you should have about 2 cups of the stuff.

Make the vodka sauce

  1. Dice the onion, and mince the garlic. Place a pot of salted water on the stove and heat until boiling; this is for your penne.
  2. Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and sautée until the onions are translucent, about 5-8 minutes.
  3. Add garlic and red pepper flakes to the Dutch oven, and stir for about 30 seconds until it's all incorporated.
  4. Add tomato paste and stir until everything is coated.
  5. Pour in vodka to deglaze the pan, stirring the bottom with a wooden spoon until all the delicious brown bits are in the sauce. Turn down heat to low, and let the sauce reduce, about 5 minutes or until it doesn't really smell that strongly of vodka anymore. At this point, your pot of water should be boiling; add in the penne, and let her cook. (You know how to make pasta, right?)
  6. Add onion "heavy cream" to your vodka sauce. Stir until everything incorporated, and the sauce looks smooth and sufficiently thick, about 2 minutes, then turn off the heat until the pasta's ready. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  7. Take drained, freshly cooked penne, and add to the sauce, lightly stirring until all the pasta is coated.