Better than Buttered Noodles

Make a delicious homemade pasta dish the kids will love in the same amount of time it takes to make a box of mac & cheese.

My kids love buttered noodles and I started making this recipe to add some protein to the mix. It’s a little more work than buttered noodles or yet another box of mac & cheese, but it’s done in the same amount of time and tastes way better. The picture above is a variation where I added some shrimp and tomatoes that I had on hand. That’s another thing I love about this recipe. The variations are endless.

The concept came from the merging of two things. A box of Pasta Roni and the recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara. The basic recipe flavor profile mirrors Pasta Roni’s Angel Hair Pasta with Herbs. Changes from a true Carbonara include swapping butter for bacon fat and using the whole egg.

One of the goals of any go-to recipe I make is to use the ingredients I have on hand. No special shopping for that one thing I don’t have. In that spirit, here are some variations you can think about when making the recipe.

  • Pasta: Use whatever shape you like. I prefer Fusilli or Bowties with shrimp, but I didn’t have any on hand so I used Angel Hair.
  • Water: The usual recommendation is 1 quart (4 cups) of water for every 2 ounces of pasta. The main reason given for this is that it reduces the amount of pasta that sticks together. Sometimes I follow the rule and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t I just stir the pasta with a fork about halfway through cooking and separate any noodles that are sticking together. Sometimes I forget and do it when I’m adding the sauce. It’s better to do it while it’s boiling for strand pasta than shapes since strand pasta has more surface area able to stick together.
  • Salt: I use kosher salt. Just halve the amounts if using table salt. Mario Batali is always talking about how it should taste like the sea as if everyone has tasted the fresh salt water. I use 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of water. Feel free to exclude the salt from the pasta water if you need to watch your salt intake.
  • Butter: I only buy unsalted. You only buy salted. No problem. Use it and cut back on the amount of salt you add to the dish.
  • Eggs: Don’t have Large? Extra large eggs make a little more sauce. Medium eggs make a little less sauce. Use what you have and see how it turns out. Next time adjust the amount of milk to make more/less sauce.
  • Parmesan Cheese: I buy small wedges of Parmesan Reggiano because I like the nutty flavor. It’s pricey and it’s one of my few food splurges. It’s a personal preference. Use what you have. Pre-shredded, shelf stable, whatever. Don’t have parmesan? Add the same cheese you use on tacos or pizza or grilled cheese. Hell, if it’s the taco cheese that has the seasoning in it you’ll spice this dish in a whole new way.
  • Milk: I use whole. Unless I’m out. Then I use 2%. Or none. It adds some creaminess to the dish but isn’t a deal breaker if you don’t keep milk on hand.
  • Spices: Use what you like. Red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, Mrs. Dash, seriously, whatever you like.

Once you have the basic recipe down, it’s all where you take it from there. Like my lunch pictured above. I defrosted some shrimp and pan fried them in butter with salt, pepper, and chipotle powder. I wanted some heat.

This recipe allows for a lot of variation. One way to add variety is by changing out the type of fat used. I tend to use butter because of my kids. You can use any type of fat to make this dish. Bacon fat is an obvious choice since the dish mimics Carbonara. I’ve used the renderings from roasted chicken which impart a great chicken flavor to the dish. I actually prefer the dish with Extra Virgin Olive Oil especially if I have fresh parsley on hand.

Let’s talk Extra Virgin Olive Oil for a minute. It’s sold at a variety of price points and I’ve seen a lot of recipes calling for it when it’s not really needed. I only use Extra Virgin Olive Oil when there is no heating is required. That’s when the full flavor is imparted. Once you start heating Extra Virgin Olive Oil the intense flavor you are paying for starts to fade. The only time I heat it is when I’m sauteing garlic for 30 seconds or so. That’s it. Most recipes that call for it don’t need it. Rachel Ray seems to use it in every recipe and I think it’s a waste of money. A simple Olive Oil or canola oil will suffice.

Look for a dark bottle when shopping and the Extra Virgin Olive Oil should have a green hue. The more yellow color, the lower the quality and flavor. I go for sales and two of the brands I like are Colavita and California Olive Branch.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: There is no need to heat it on the stove since the pot and the pasta will have enough residual heat to warm it and bloom the flavor. You can heat the oil if you are using fresh garlic in the recipe. Saute the garlic for about 30 seconds before removing the pot from the heat.
  • Bacon: Start the bacon when you put the water on to boil and you’ll have rendered fat by the time the pasta is done. Crumble the cooked bacon and add it to the pasta.
  • Chicken Fat: Whenever I roast chicken there are always leftovers. I’ll save a tablespoon or so of the rendering from the roasting process and use that the next day when making this pasta dish. Throw in the leftover chicken at the end and you have a tasty chicken and cheese pasta dish.

Better than Buttered Noodles (base recipe)

  • 4 ounces pasta
  • 1 quart of water
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley

This recipe makes 2 small main servings of pasta or works as a side dish for about 4 people. The recipe is easy to double if more portions are desired.

Start off by putting 1 quart (4 cups) of water on the stove to boil. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt (or 1-2 teaspoons if using table salt) to the boiling water before adding the 4 ounces of dried pasta.

While the pasta boils whisk 1 large egg, 1/2 cup shredded parmesan, 1 tablespoon milk, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon if using table salt), 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley. A couple upgrades to think about. If you want to use fresh garlic and/or fresh parsley, leave those out for now.

Important step I sometimes forget. Once the pasta is ready (I eat a noodle to check for doneness), reserve 1 cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta into a colander. The water will add some saltiness to the flavor and the starch will help achieve the consistency of the sauce that you want.

Leave the cooked pasta in the colander and return the pan to the stove. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter on medium heat and allow it to brown slightly. Should only take about a minute or so. If you are using fresh garlic that can be added once the butter melts. Once the butter is slightly brown remove from the heat, add the cooked pasta, and stir to combine. Once the noodles are coated with butter, add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water and stir. Forgot to reserve some pasta water? Me too, add some plain water and a pinch of salt.

Now that the pasta and fat are combined we can move to making the sauce. Stir the pasta while slowly pouring the sauce into the pot. Add the reserved pasta water a little at a time until you achieve the desired thickness of the sauce. If you are using fresh parsley add it now and the dish is ready to serve.

Reheating: I add a little bit of milk to the noodles before reheating. I prefer reheating on the stove since that allows me to stir the noodles while they are reheating. You can also microwave in a covered dish for 30 seconds, stir and then microwave for another 30 seconds.

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