You may prefer this pasta unbaked – and save a dish to wash, too. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post/Rey Lopez for The Washington Post

My best friend and I used to joke about hosting a show where people bring us their problems and listen to us overthink them. They wouldn’t have to say a thing! We would do all the analyzing for them. (I mean … I’d watch it!)

To say I excel at overthinking would be an understatement. Even the simplest thing – say, a pasta dish – can inspire a cascade of thoughts. Which brings me to this recipe. I overthought it so you don’t have to.

I originally intended for this to be a baked pasta dish, like baked ziti but with penne vodka (plus some spinach to make it a more complete meal). Doesn’t that sound good? I thought so! So I went ahead and made a simple vodka sauce, stirred it together with cooked penne and some frozen spinach, tasted it, loved it, then piled it in a baking dish with tons of cheese, because how could that not make it even better? I baked it. I took it out of the oven. It looked gorgeous and irresistible.

Then I went to eat it and thought it tasted … fine. But it somehow was not as good as it was before I baked it.

I thought about continuing to wrestle the recipe so the pasta remained as al dente after baking as before, and so I could retain all the vibrant flavor of the sauce that had somehow gotten lost in the oven. But, in the end, I decided to just simplify. The recipe was so good before I baked it – like really, really good. So why not let it be that? A delicious, simple pasta with sauce and spinach, no baking required.

Making this shift not only made the recipe faster and easier (and eliminated the need to wash a baking dish), but it also reminded me that it’s OK to change my mind. It’s OK to not keep stretching my brain to make something work that doesn’t have to actually work.


Sometimes, I have to know when to stop or edit, to remember when it’s time to leave the party, so to speak. There are times I try so hard to make something happen that doesn’t need to happen. Grace, my spouse, refers to this as “over-kneading the dough.” And sometimes, you just have to step away and let the dough, or your idea, rest. You might realize that you don’t need to keep adding to it; it’s what it needs to be. That thing could be pasta with a tomato-vodka sauce, but with a bit more excitement.

That said, if the idea of a baked pasta sounds like exactly what you want, I’ve got you. As a consummate overthinker, I thought you might also want that option, so I figured it out. Just skip the final 2 minutes of cooking on the stovetop, and place half the sauced pasta in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, sprinkle over ¾ cup of grated mozzarella and ½ cup of grated parmesan (it gives the pasta the salt it needs to get through baking), then repeat the layering once more. Bake, uncovered, at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until it is gorgeously browned and the edges are bubbling.

Penne with Vodka Sauce and Spinach. Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post

Penne with Vodka Sauce and Spinach

Servings: 4-6 (makes 9 cups)

Total time: 45 minutes

A classic dish of penne alla vodka gets a nutritional boost from frozen spinach, which keeps the dish pantry-friendly. Cookbook author Julia Turshen turns to this recipe when she wants something as easy as pasta with tomato sauce, but with a bit more excitement. If you’d prefer to make this without alcohol, just leave the vodka out.


Storage note: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.


1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/4 cup vodka


One (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 cup heavy cream

Fine salt

1 pound penne (or any short pasta)

One (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry

Grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese, for serving



Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil until shimmering. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring, until incredibly fragrant and the tomato paste has darkened slightly in color, about 2 minutes. Add the vodka and bring the mixture to a boil. Let it boil vigorously to cook off the harshness of the vodka, less than 1 minute. Add the crushed tomatoes and heavy cream, reduce the heat to low and season to taste with salt. Cover the saucepan to prevent splattering, and let the sauce simmer while you cook the pasta.

Generously salt the boiling water, add the pasta and cook it for 2 minutes less than the package instructions for al dente. (It finishes cooking in the sauce.) Transfer 1 cup of the pasta cooking water to the sauce mixture, then drain the pasta and return it to the now-empty pot. Pour the vodka sauce over the pasta and add the spinach. Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring to combine the pasta with the sauce and spinach, until the pasta is al dente and has absorbed some of the sauce, and the spinach is warmed through, about 2 minutes.

Divide among bowls, top with cheese and serve hot.



Gluten-free? Use your favorite gluten-free pasta.

Vegan? Use unsweetened nondairy creamer in place of the heavy cream, and add 1/4 cup nutritional yeast over the sauce instead of cheese.

Instead of spinach, swap in frozen kale or frozen peas.

Can’t have alcohol? Leave out the vodka.

Variation: To turn this into a baked pasta, skip the final 2 minutes of cooking on the stovetop, and place half the sauced pasta in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, sprinkle over 3/4 cup grated mozzarella and 1/2 cup grated parmesan, then repeat layering once more. Bake, uncovered, at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until it is gorgeously browned and the edges are bubbling.

Nutritional facts per serving (1 1/2 cups, based on 6) | Calories: 574; Fat: 26 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Carbohydrates: 71 g; Sodium: 281 mg; Cholesterol: 54 mg; Protein: 15 g; Fiber: 8 g; Sugar: 9 g

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