When we lived in China, there was this family, the Nichols, who invited us over to dinner after church one Sunday.
the Nichols family who this pasta is named after

For us, invitations to Sunday dinner were pretty fantastic, especially near the beginning of our stay when we were still trying to figure out which way was up. For real.  Loved getting to know all those good people, hearing their stories, and also, loved any tips I could gather about travel and food and schools and life in China.

This particular Sunday we were treated with this pasta that all of us fell head-over-heels in love with.  I was pretty sure I could drink that sauce it was so good.  So I took this horrible picture of the recipe:

And we have made it countless times since then.

Nichol’s Pasta

Or Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola (adapted from The Barefoot Contessa)

We dubbed it “Nichol’s Pasta” because the Nichol family introduced us to that dreamy stuff.

I cannot believe I haven’t written up this recipe here yet, especially since every time I make it I’m trying to decipher the instructions from that dumb picture I took.  It’s a family recipe we’ll want to have forever so I figure I better put it here in the blog for easy look-up.

So, here we go.

I’m going to have “mini” Claire show us how it’s done (I obviously was going to try to write this up a long time ago, and took these pictures with good intentions back when Claire was like three feet shorter and practically a baby, but really probably only a year or so ago…that girl has grown like a WEED lately!)…there are some guest appearances of Grace as well.

Nichol's Vodka Pasta Sauce

Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 8


  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 1/2 c. chopped Spanish onion (or whatever you have on hand)
  • 1 Tbs. garlic (about 3 cloves)
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (more or less depending on how spicy you like it)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 c. vodka anyone worried about using vodka for cooking, cooking wine works great
  • 2 (28-oz.) cans whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained
  • 3/4 lb. penne pasta
  • 2 Tbs. chopped fresh oregano leaves (I don't often have this, darn it, and although it's definitely better with it, it's also fine without
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese (I often omit this as well if I don't have it on hand)


  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  • Heat the oil and saute onions and garlic over medium heat until onions are translucent (about 5 minutes).
    Claire cooking Nichol's pasta sauce
  • Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for a minute or so more.
    Nichol's pasta sauce onions saute
  • Add the vodka or cooking wine and simmer for 5-7 minutes to let the flavors seep in.
  • Using clean hands, crush each tomato from the can into the pan. (Extra fun for kids to crush food with their bare hands 🙂
  • Add 2 tsp. of salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • Bake this mixture in the oven to let the flavors deepen. You're supposed to do this in an oven-proof pot (see below, as well as my initial substitute).
  • Bake at 375 degrees for an hour and a half. That's an awful lot of time that sometimes I have, and sometimes I don't. But do your best and it still works out fine!
  • While it is cooking, cook the pasta according to package directions and set aside.
  • Once the pasta is cooked, blend that cooked tomato mixture in the blender. Or use an immersion blender (see notes below).
  • Add the blended mixture back to the pot.
  • Add the heavy cream, fresh oregano, 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper and simmer for a few minutes.
  • Then you're ready to serve it up! The recipe calls to pour the sauce over the pasta, add parmesan cheese and a little more fresh oregano to garnish if you have them.


Some notes on baking the sauce in the oven. You're supposed to use a pot like this: 
But I didn't have that for years. I used this concoction: a casserole dish on top of a cookie sheet:
Covered with tinfoil:
And honestly it worked just fine.
A note about blending the tomato mixture:
For years I blended the sauce in the blender, which can be messy!

Over the years I have learned a much better way to blend…use one of these little puppies:

This little Cuisinart Smart Stick makes it so easy and takes away all the mess!

This stuff freezes really well so I usually make a huge batch and freeze some in Tupperware so I can have it on hand for friends in need who may need a meal, or US who may need a last-minute meal too!

Some day I’ll come back and add a beautiful finished-product picture right here 🙂

Thank you Nichol family for gifting us that recipe we love so much!

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    1. Yes, that's what the recipe calls for and I wish I had a picture of the presentation because it's so pretty…BUT if we're having a smaller meal and I want to save some I just mix the amount I think is right for the amount of people we have for dinner and save the rest.

  1. I just have to share because this is such weird timing for this post. We recently hired a new babysitter who happens to be mormon (which I guess wouldn't be that unusual if we lived in Gilbert but where we live, it is!). I was thinking I would make spaghetti for dinner that she can serve/eat when she sits this weekend but all I have is jarred vodka sauce… and the thought actually crossed my mind, do mormons eat vodka sauce? I was thinking about going out and getting another sauce and lo and behold you post a vodka sauce recipe today! Crazy!

  2. You should get an immersion blender it would make that step a lot easier. This looks delicious can’t wait to try it! I made your tropical pork tenderloin last week and it was a hit!

  3. Ok, one of THOSE questions 😉 – is it uncomfortable to be at the grocery store buying hard liquor, as someone who is a somewhat-known member of your faith living in predominantly LDS area? To be clear, I don’t think it’s wrong at all for you to be purchasing and cooking with it! I just know that I – a secular person living in a pretty secular area – might worry about others’ judgements buying vodka, so I imagine it could be even more so for you. I love the way people can connect and learn from each other via this blog – thank you for sometimes answering even nosy questions like this one 🙂

    1. Hey I’m just editing this post from ages ago and realized I never got to answering this question. Sorry! Yes, there’s part of me that just doesn’t want to create the wrong impression if someone saw me buying vodka! But another part of me that realizes maybe it’s good to shake things up a bit:) If I were to see someone else I know who is quite religious buying alcohol how would I feel? I hope I’d give them the benefit of the doubt and be curious rather than judgmental. All part of this learning thing we call life!

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