When I was growing up, my mother used to make gnocchi in the basement kitchen (don’t all Italians have a basement kitchen?). The table would be covered in trays containing dozens and dozens of gnocchi that she made with love for her family. My mom was a great cook, whose spaghetti sauce was the best, whose eggplant parmesan was beyond wonderful, but her gnocchi? Well, let’s just say that they weren’t her strong suit. Gnocchi should be light, almost melt in your mouth when you’re eating them, but it’s not easy to get that consistency. Many times they’re leaden bombs rather than fluffy pillows. There are a couple of pointers you need to know in order to achieve those light-as-air gnocchi. By the way, gnocchi is the plural, and gnocco is the singular. But whoever ate just one gnocco? Well, maybe if they’re the leaden bomb type you did.
The first thing to do is not to boil your potatoes, but to bake them in the oven – no foil or anything else covering them. This will help eliminate some of the moisture in the potato. And that leads me to the second point – not too much flour. The more flour you add, the heavier the gnocchi will be. If your potatoes are too moist, then you’ll have to use more flour to make a dough that will stick together properly. And that will make for heavier gnocchi. So bake the potatoes, rather than boil them, to eliminate some of the moisture.
Peel them while they’re hot – as soon as you can handle them – and press them through a potato ricer. If you don’t have one of these, try using a cheese grater. Spread out the “riced” potatoes on a cookie sheet and let everything cool.
I put the potatoes on a board and make a well for the egg, just as if you’re making pasta. But you can use a bowl if you prefer. Mix in the egg, salt and pepper, then add the parmesan cheese and part of the flour. Don’t add the full amount all at once. Using your hands, just keep incorporating a bit of flour until you have a soft dough that holds together. If the dough is stiff, you’re going to have heavy gnocchi, so just add a little flour at a time. (Do I sound like a broker record here?) You might need only one cup, you might need 1 1/2 cups. A lot depends on the size of the potatoes, and the flour and the humidity of the day.
Don’t overwork the dough. Just work it long enough to shape it into a fat log, then cut the log into smaller portions. Take each portion, one at a time, and roll into a long “snake.”
Cut the “snake” into small pieces – 1/2 inch thick or so – an roll it over a gnocchi paddle. If you haven’t got one, do as my mom did and use a fork to create the ridges.
Some restaurants don’t make any ridges at all, but rather serve the gnocchi as is. I think the ridges serve to help the sauce cling better, but also they make for a prettier appearance.
At this point, if you’ve followed the recipe below, you should have a couple of cookie sheets of these cute little dumplings – maybe 120 – 150 or so. They’re best when eaten fresh the same day, but you can freeze them too, plopping them into the boiling water from their frozen state. I’ve even served the frozen ones to company – they’re perfectly acceptable, but they’re more fragile and do have a tendency to disintegrate more easily in the cooking water when you boil them. Like most things, fresh is best.
You can serve them with tomato sauce, as my mom always did, or try something different, like the accompaniment below, of butternut squash, caramelized onions, swiss chard and mushrooms.
3 large brown-skinned baking potatoes
1 large egg
1 t. salt
1/4 t. white pepper
pinch of grated nutmeg
1/4 c. parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups flour (or more if needed)
Bake the potatoes uncovered in a 375 degree oven for about an hour or until done. Remove from oven and when you can handle them, peel them. Put chunks of the potato through a ricer and spread on a cookie sheet. Let it cool completely, then mix with the egg, salt, pepper and nutmeg and cheese. Add flour, 1/4 cup at a time. You may not need all 1 1/2 cups flour, just add enough until the dough comes together and you can roll it out in a “log.” Cut the log into four or five pieces, then take each piece and roll it out like a snake, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch thick. Take each gnocco and make an imprint on it, using either a fork or a gnocchi paddle. The recipe makes from 120 to 150 gnocchi.
Butternut Squash, Mushroom and Swiss Chard “sauce” for gnocchi
butternut squash, about two cups diced into small pieces
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
5 or 6 large leaves Swiss chard, chopped roughly, stems eliminated
about 1/4 cup olive oil
4 or 5 sage leaves, minced
2 small sprigs rosemary, minced (about 1 t.)
Take 2 T. of the olive oil and sauté the onions with it in a saucepan, until they’re golden and caramelized, about 1/2 hour or so. Remove from pan and add a couple more tablespoons of oil and the squash. Saute until cooked through, adding a little water to the pan to keep the squash from sticking. Remove from pan. Do the same thing with the Swiss chard, and remove from pan. With the remaining olive oil, sauté the mushrooms at high heat. When they’re cooked, put the onions and squash back into the pan with the mushrooms and season, with salt, pepper and the herbs.
Cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water. They’ll need only a few minutes to cook. When they rise to the surface, they’re done. Gently strain them from the water with a slotted spoon or “spider” and place them in the saucepan with the butternut squash, onions and mushrooms. Mix everything gently, drizzling more olive oil on top and sprinkling with parmesan cheese.