Fettuccine alfredo is one of those dishes that is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Of course, when those parts are primarily butter, cream, cheese, and pasta, it's extremely hard to go wrong.
There are dozens of slightly different ways to make this dish. Parmesan and butter all on their own are traditional, but a splash of cream does have the advantage of making the alfredo extra delicious (not to mention indulgent). Also traditional is letting the heat of the just-cooked pasta do the job of melting the butter and cheese. Most cream-based recipes will call for cooking the sauce at least partly in the pan to both warm the cream and ensure optimal coating of the fettuccine.
No matter how you cook it, alfredo sauce is one of the quickest and easiest sauces out there. So quick and easy that it still amazes me when I see packages of pre-made alfredo or, even more strange, powdered alfredo mix at the grocery store. If you have butter, parmesan, cream, and pasta in your kitchen, you can have a bowl of fettuccine alfredo on the table in ten minutes flat.
And, of course, alfredo sauce need not be limited to pasta. Use it with everything from steamed broccoli to chicken. You really can't go wrong.
However you make it and whatever you use it for, alfredo sauce is meant to be eaten on the spot. It's a delicate thing and won't hold or re-heat very well. Scale this recipe up or down depending on how much you need, and make it just before you serve it. If you get delayed and the pasta starts to look grainy, a splash of starchy water from cooking the pasta can help revive it.
Got it? Good! Let's make some pasta.
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course
(4 oz/1 stick) unsalted butter
(6 oz) shredded Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a tablespoon of salt and cook the fettuccine until al dente, 6-8 minutes. Scoop out one cup of the starchy pasta cooking water and set it aside.
While the pasta is cooking, get your sauce situation in order. Cut the butter into several big pieces and combine it with the cream in a small saucepan. Warm it over medium heat just until the butter has melted and the cream is hot to the touch, 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle about half of the Parmesan cheese in the bottom of your serving dish.
Pour the pasta, just drained and still warm, into the serving dish with the cheese. Pour the warm cream-and-butter mixture over the top and begin tossing the pasta with tongs. (If, like me, you realize your serving dish isn't quite big enough, it's totally fine to transfer the pasta back into the cooking pot to toss it with the sauce.) Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and continue tossing until all the cheese is melted and the pasta is uniformly coated with sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired.
If the sauce seems very thick, add 1/4 - 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water to loosen it up. You can also add a little of the pasta cooking water to revive the pasta if it's been standing for too long and has started looking grainy.
Serve immediately. Be sure to have a black pepper shaker on the table for your dinner guests to add the amount they enjoy.
If you have leftovers, they will keep for about a week. The sauce will separate on reheating; stirring a little more cream into the re-warmed noodles will help bring it together again.
(Images: Emma Christensen)