These luscious little potato pillows melt in your mouth and can be combined with a variety of sauces and flavourings. Potato gnocchi were introduced in the 16th century, and the variations make your head spin. [Source] I make these using a recipe from an Emily Richards cooking class I attended many years ago. In case you didn't know, "Richards" is her married name, but she is Italian and this is her grandmother's recipe. Her latest cookbook, Per La Famiglia is a great tribute her experience of Italian home cooking, and includes this recipe. (Footnote: Emily Richards teamed with Elizabeth Baird and Daphna Rabinovitch on the Canadian Living TV Show. Elizabeth shares a recipe from Emily - but... it uses baking potatoes and much less flour - hmmm... I'll explain in a sec)
I have made these successfully more times than I can remember and twice have made them with KB cooking friend LC - so I recommend them with confidence. Nonetheless, I am aware of gnocchi-making phobias and disasters - they fall apart when being boiled, resulting in "gnocchi soup", or they turn out to be chewy, tough, gummy etc. It is mind-boggling how many contradictions and issues I stumbled upon while researching for this post. I have summarized them under (longer than usual) Notes and Tips. If you just want to make them and skip the next bit - scroll down for the recipe.
It is not uncommon to find that there are countless versions of ethnic specialties. In the case of gnocchi (and other iconic "Italian dishes") one is up against not only variations from one nonna to another, but history. Many people forget the centuries of political machinations between "Italy's" independent city states that eventually united as a Kingdom in 1871. That kingdom did not become a republic until after WWII in 1946 - so "Italy" has not yet marked it's first centenary. It is "a young country with an ancient food history". [Source: Fool #4]
"Regional" differences are both historical and culinary. You may want to take a peek at this overview of Regional Italian Cuisine for a refresher on the specialties of each. Some areas may not even make gnocchi, and those that do, debate questions such as - eggs or no eggs. Emily Richards stressed that her grandmother's recipe is from Piedmont (north-west Italy) = no eggs. "Broadly speaking, gnocchi with eggs are made in Veneto (north-east Italy), while in Piedmont they don't approve. (Marcella) Hazan, born in Emilia-Romagna, is very much in the west-coast camp, announcing that eggs are not a traditional ingredient, but a crutch to make up for an inferior potato – or indeed, an inferior chef." [Source]
I'm going to be (red-faced) honest here. Marcella Hazan (sometimes described as the Julia Child of Italian cuisine) was not on my radar until just a few years ago. She died in 2013. Her son Giuliano is a cookbook author of some repute. Her husband Victor finished her last book, Ingredienti, just published in July.
So Emily Richards, her nonna and Marcella are in the same camp. Researching the gnocchi opinions of various Italian chefs was like a roller coaster ride - and I refer to this in Notes. Who did I include in my reading? (in alpha order) Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, Antonio Carluccio (seen with Gennaro in Two Greedy Italians), Andrew Carmellini (restos include The Dutch and Lafayette), Tom Colicchio (of Gramercy Tavern fame), Gennaro Contaldo (friend / mentor of Jamie Oliver). In June 2016, Massimo Bottura received the honour of his Modena restaurant being named #1 in the "World's Best 50 Restaurants". He is featured in an episode of Chef's Table and recently published "Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef" - but... I discovered nothing about his views on gnocchi...
Getting Ready: You'll need
- a potato ricer (there is no other way to ensure that there are absolutely no lumps in the potato mixture)
- a counter / work-space
- a bench scraper - useful for so many things
- two rimmed baking sheets and parchment - assuming you are going to freeze these as I do. Some experts criticize freezing right away, but I find that the kitchen becomes messy and I am left in no mood to also make a sauce and eat right away. With butter and sage, or some tomato sauce, frozen nuggets of gnocchi are like homemade fast food!
2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes (choose potatoes that are all about the same size.)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus about 1 more cup)
1 tsp salt
Best to not cut out any potato "eyes" or little impurities before cooking - they create "portals" for water entry - not ideal. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the potatoes. Once the potatoes are added, the heat can be turned down to medium high - no need to maintain a rolling boil. Cook until tender - about 30 minutes. When ready, a thin knife blade should slide in and out easily. Take care to not poke/ test them too often since they may absorb too much water.
While the potatoes are cooking, get everything else ready - measure flour (a 1.5 cup measure and a 1 cup measure); prep baking sheets. (The additional cup of flour will be used to add to the dough if necessary, to dust the work surface as needed and to sprinkle on the prepared gnocchi to keep them dry, separate and not sticky.)
Drain the potatoes when done. You want to peel and work with the potatoes as soon as you can handle them. They will be hot, and you may not be able to hold them in your hand as usual. This video from Mario Batali shows how you might peel them - it continues to show how to use the ricer, spreading the potatoes over the counter. Remember, I am sharing Emily's nonna's recipe - so in the video, ignore the use of Idaho potatoes and the egg, and the 2 minute cooling period.
As illustrated in the above video, sprinkle some of the (1.5 cups) flour on your counter work-space and rice the potatoes over that. Sprinkle over the potatoes what's left of the first 1.5 cups of flour, as well as the salt. At first, the bench scraper can help you mix things - moving things around aiming for an even distribution of the flour with the potatoes. Then using your hands, begin to work it all together, adding more sprinkles of flour to the counter top, or over the dough, or on your hands if things get too sticky for optimal handling. The dough comes together quickly and yet there may be a moment at the beginning where you are thinking - this is never going to work! Suddenly the dough becomes somewhat smooth and silky and only slightly sticky. Experts warn not to over-work the dough, yet blame disintegrating gnocchi on not working the dough enough... so there's a sweet spot. You will recognize it. Shape it into an oblong loaf.
Divide the dough into 6-8 pieces. (You are about to roll each chunk into a "rope" and it's easier to do that with smaller chunks of dough.) Lightly sprinkle the work surface. There's a delicate knack of rolling the dough into a rope. Too much pressure and it goes flat instead of round. Use a gentle touch, back and forth, letting your fingers slide to the right and left as the rope gets longer. Stop when the rope is evenly 1/2" round. (Mario offers a nice video on this - which also demos grooves.) Use the bench scraper to cut the rope into 1/2" pieces.
In a perfect world - maybe the second time you try this - aim to work quickly. The longer the dough sits waiting to be rolled, the softer (and stickier) it gets. Add a wee bit of flour as needed, but remember that too much flour can make it dense and chewy. No pressure...
If you do not plan to do "the grooves", (see Notes below) toss the gnocchi lightly in flour and space them out on the baking sheet ready for freezing (or cooking, if you plan to do that right away.) Put the trays of gnocchi into the freezer until they become hard little nuggets. Then, store them in the freezer (in a freezer bag) and use as needed.
Cooking. Must be said, that even if all goes well up to this point, a cooking disaster can make you weep. If the gnocchi falls apart it could be because the dough was not worked well enough - or you may be cooking them for too long. Keep in mind that the potatoes are already cooked, so the boiling / cooking step need not be too long.
- Fresh gnocchi - drop some into a pot of boiling, well salted water; give a quick gentle stir to prevent them from clumping together; cook for only 1-2 minutes. They will rise quickly and float around at the top. Important - remove with a slotted spoon or a spider - never dump them into a colander.
- Frozen gnocchi - drop some into a pot of boiling, well salted water; do not cook too many at a time - they are frozen and adding too many at one time will lower the water temperature and the boil will drop off - be careful; they will drop to the bottom, so give a gentle stir to prevent them from clumping together; cook a few minutes (hard to predict) until they rise to the top - they are done - take them out.
- Then what? With some sauces - for example, tomato - you can drop the gnocchi right into the sauce. If you plan to dress them in butter and sage - you can gently place the cooked gnocchi on a clean tea towel until the sauce is ready. (I note that some experts briefly drop the gnocchi into ice water to stop the cooking and then fish them out and onto a tea towel. Odd... I'd never do that...)
Notes and Tips...
- Potatoes: Type - the first "controversy"... There are many who say these must be made from Russet / Idaho / baking potatoes. Why? The claim is that the potatoes should be more "dry" than "wet", and Russets are more dry and starchy (not waxy). Even those who use Russet point to the few moments after ricing when steam rises up - all good they say... Not everyone uses baking potatoes. As mentioned above, Marcella Hazan swears by what she calls "boiling potatoes" - these are waxy, and locally often called Yukon Gold. In UK recipes they are sometimes called "Desiree". Agreeing with Marcella is Emily's nonna, and Gennaro. The rest all say Idaho, aka baking potatoes. Interestingly, that camp also uses egg. I have no time to check if their regional roots differ from Hazan, nor do I know whether waxy potatoes work better without the egg. BTW, research in this area can make one crazy. In more than one primary source Hazan insists on waxy potatoes and no egg. Yet on a high profile website, I found a recipe labelled "Adapted from Hazan" and it uses Russet potatoes and two egg yolks! Am thinking Marcella would not approve.
- Potatoes: new or old? Never use new potatoes for this. They say the older the better - and in fact some claim that making gnocchi was a great way of making yucky old potatoes into a favourite meal.
- Potatoes: Size - whatever kind you use, choose potatoes that are similarly sized so they will cook at the same rate.
- Cooking Potatoes - If cooking in salted water, I have found experts who put the potatoes in cold water, bring to a boil etc., and others who say to drop the potatoes into already boiling water. Some are obsessive about moisture. Why? Because more moisture demands more flour, and more flour supposedly equals "more dense and chewy". They stay away from water entirely, and bake the Russet potatoes in the oven. Whereas the recipe I am sharing advises against making holes in the potatoes, the oven-making group advises pricking the potatoes - creating holes where moisture can escape during baking.
- Flour - most recipes suggest all-purpose; some specify "00" flour (refers to how finely it is ground) and I notice it's now available where I shop - will try this recipe with that one day.
- Egg: Yes or No? - everyone in the Russet potato camp uses egg, sometimes more than one, sometimes two egg yolks. I have no experience with this method. They say it delivers a more rich flavour. Though they also claim the dough is easier to handle, this "no egg" recipe dough is IMHO easy to handle so not sure what that is all about.
- Grooves - "To groove or not to groove". Tom Colicchio does not bother - and so I am emboldened in saying "neither do I". His article is worth a read, but... ignore his claim that Yukon potatoes do not work. He also permits only senior chefs to make this in his restaurant - fear not! You can do this! Why grooves? When properly done, the gnocchi ends up in the shape of a "C" with grooves on the outside - lots of little nooks to hold sauce. I find it unnecessarily time-consuming, and there are experts who say that too much handling of the gnocchi can ruin them. I do have a little board that I can use to make the grooves. You can find online videos showing how to make them with a fork, and guess what - people disagree about whether to use the back vs. the front of the fork! Traditionally a gnocchi basket was used.
- Flavourings / Variations - there are none in this recipe as you can see, but many add a sprinkling of Parmesan, and/or a pinch of nutmeg, or even black or white pepper. Seems to me those additions might be nice, but have not tried them yet. You can also easily find versions that add spinach or mushrooms to the dough itself, or make the dough from sweet potatoes - and of course sauce variations are endless - sage and butter, or tomato sauce are classic.
- Various recipes - Carmellini, Lidia (whereas every other recipe stresses to work quickly while the potatoes are still hot, she says to rice them and let them cool completely - hurts my brain...) Daniel Gritzer / Serous Eats (reviews some of the controversies, tries using different potatoes etc.) Mario and Mark Bittman make gnocchi with a tomato/squash sauce. (Have ten minutes? Watch this Italian video - ends with a Parmesan sauce - of course I don't understand Italian, but this looks appetizing.)
- The KB favourite tomato sauce from Mark Bittman (which he says he adapted from Marcella Hazan) is super easy and quick. If you have more time, try Scott Conant / Scarpetta's basil and garlic infused tomato sauce - easy for me to love since it is always made by Mr. KB!
- Gnocchi for Dessert? Not sure if Italians do this, but borrowing from Hungarian customs with potato dough, you can drop them right from the cooking water into a pan of toasted, sugared bread crumbs - and serve them just like that or with anything else yummy that is at hand. (Melt 4 T salted or unsalted butter in a fry pan; when totally melted add 1 cup regular bread crumbs, and 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar - toast until it has a nice colour. Remove from heat.)
- Frozen gnocchi - some sources say they freeze well for up to a month - mine have lasted longer, but once they are staring up at you from the freezer - temptation rules! Remember - think of this as gourmet fast food!
- Ricotta gnocchi - I have it on good authority that many restaurants prefer to make gnocchi from ricotta - saves them all the trouble of cooking, peeling, ricing potatoes etc. Ricotta gnocchi? I have made them but for now cannot find the recipe I used... [Here's one from a recently featured FBC Blogger - Melissa of Books, Love and Lattes. I have not tried this yet.]
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