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Audrey Hepburn’s Penne alla Vodka [and why I owe her a major apology]

Yes, it’s a cliché, but the fact is: when I was a young girl, I adored Audrey Hepburn movies. Just as many young girls did, I was swept away by how beautiful she was, how exquisite her clothes were, and how fun the movies were. Funny Face was the only movie I watched that entire summer of 1996 (an easy feat since the American Movie Classics channel showed films on endless repeats), and after that came My Fair LadyCharade, How to Still a Million, and of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When I got an Audrey Hepburn handbag during High School, it became my absolute favorite possession.

It was, in retrospect, a highly superficial relationship. And it’s without doubt why, later in life, particularly as I started to really explore cinema and write about it, I rather dismissed those movies from my teenage years.

Swayed by critics who criticized Hepburn as more of a pretty face than an actual actress, I wrote her off without even once returning to her movies to see for myself. On face value, I agreed with their cocky arguments about Hepburn being a “merchandise” machine, taking my old high school Hepburn handbag as proof that she was more product than artist, and developed a superior attitude against anyone who answered the question “who’s your favorite actress” with the name “Audrey Hepburn.”

Friends? I will never forgive myself for being so easily swayed by arrogant armchair critics and their ill-gotten influence. I’m wrong about a lot of things, but even for me, this was a monumental error. (And I’ve been especially distrustful of online armchair critics–and my own judgment– ever since.)

I know, I know. I deserve ALL the shade, Audrey. ALL the shade.

It wasn’t until my late 20s that I really sat down and began watch Hepburn’s films in earnest; with fresh eyes and without agenda. What I found waiting for me, beneath that exquisite face and frame, was an actress of remarkable control, skill, and something that simply cannot be taught: sincerity.

There is not a false bone in her body, and that kind of emotional purity is a constant in every frame Hepburn ever filmed. Her genuine kindness, goodness, and bright spirit come shining through those beautiful brown eyes every time she so much as glances at a camera.

A few years back, Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti published Audrey at Home: Memories of my Mother’s Kitchen, a loving compilation of Luca’s memories of his mother, scrapbooked together with rare photos, Hepburn’s own writings, sketches, and of course, recipes.

In case you can’t tell by this column, I adore reading up on old Hollywood star’s favorite recipes, not just because they’re a unique window into who we were as a country, but also because they reveal a great deal about the person behind the marquee. Sophia Loren’s spaghetti? There’s a no-nonsense, straightforward gal if ever there was one. The Brown Derby maitre’d’ s Cobb Salad? A masterful Hollywood showman if ever there was one. And Elizabeth Taylor’s chicken and mushrooms? Well, her cognac and white wine sauce is about about as decadent as the woman herself.

In Audrey’s case, her cooking is every bit as genuine, elegant, and kind-hearted as she was. Genuine, because her ingredients are simple and prepared without pretense. Elegant because they are perfectly balanced; the flavors compliment each other perfectly…much like Audrey herself. And they’re kind-hearted, because these recipes were cooked for her friends and family. And if there’s one thing you Audrey loved more than anything, it was helping others.

Audrey Hepburn during her first UNICEF field mission in Ethiopia (1988)

And so, on the occasion of what would have been Audrey’s 89th birthday, I decided to give one of her recipe’s a try: Penne all Vodka.

The recipe is extremely easy, making this a perfect midweek meal. On this busy Friday night, with my husband and I both getting home after 7, I was able to whip it up in less than 30 minutes.

 

Here’s Audrey’s recipe as printed in Memories of my Mother’s Kitchen:

  • 1/2 onion or 1/2 scallion, peeled and finely chopped
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup tomato puree
  • 1/2 cup good-quality Russian vodka
  • 1/2 heavy cream
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1 pound penne piccole lisce
  • 1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  1. In a large skillet, saute the onion and the pepper flakes in the butter over medium heat.
  2. Add the tomato puree, reduce the heat to low, and cook for a few minutes, then stir in the vodka.
  3. Cook down for 15 minutes and add the cream. meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil.
  4. Add a handful of coarse sea salt and add the pasta.
  5. Cook the pasta until it is al dente, drain in a colander, and add to the sauce.
  6. Turn the heat to high, and pan-fry for one minute, tossing to thoroughly coat the pasta with sauce.
  7. Sprinkle with the Parmigiono-Reggiano and serve.

Happy birthday, Audrey!


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