How to Make Gnocchi like an Italian Grandmother Recipe
The other night I took delivery of two huge, fragrant garbage bags full of basil thanks to Julia of Mariquita Farms. I gave half of it away at my book signing, the other half we plucked and pureed into a grassy, green pesto. Earlier this year a friend came to visit from Genoa Italy, her mom taught us her homemade gnocchi recipe. I posted about the pesto we made to go with it earlier in the year, and as promised this post is the gnocchi how-to followup. The basil delivery was exactly the inspiration I was waiting for....
Gnocchi recipes aren't for the faint of heart. Many, many things can go awry. I'm not trying to scare you off or dissuade you, I just want you to know what you are in for. Gnocchi-making takes practice, patience, and persistance. At their best potato gnocchi can be light and delicate. At their worst, dense, rubbery, and/or soggy. The very worst are the gnocchi that come apart in the boiling water before they even reach your plate.
The platter of petite, potato pillows coated with glistening flecks of basil pesto that Francesca's mother made was beautiful. The gnocchi recipe she taught us had just three ingredients - boiled, starchy russet potatoes combined with a minimal amount of flour (too much flour and your gnocchi are going to be heavy), and a bit of salt - no eggs. I've tweaked her version to be a little more user-friendly here, because to be honest, eggless gnocchi are very tricky to get the hang of, very delicate to handle. I speak from experience at this point. I'm afraid if I post the eggless version here, there will be a number of you who will try it, get frustrated, and curse me.
So in the version below, I incorporate just enough egg to act as a bit of a binder. We still aren't using an excessive amount of flour, and the resulting gnocchi are deliciously light. They can also stand up to a toss with your favorite sauce.
If you are committed to trying the eggless version, try this version first. the next time around use half the egg, and the time after that go for no egg. By that time, you should have all the other steps figured out and you'll have a better vantage point and level of experience from which to work You'll also have a better sense of how to handle and work with the dough.
So, here it is - the long awaited gnocchi recipe. Give it a go, and let me know what you think.
Francesca's mom seemed disappointed we didn't have a potato ricer or potato mill on hand, but said that mashing the potatoes by hand would be fine. I've done it many times by hand now, and it is fine. For those of you wanting to do some of the preparation in advance, in one test I cooked and mashed a batch of potatoes a day ahead of time, put them in a covered bowl overnight, and incorporated the egg and flour the next day when I was ready to cook the gnocchi - no problems.
Scant 2 pounds of starchy potatoes (2 large russets)
1/4 cup egg, lightly beaten
scant 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
fine grain sea salt
Fill a large pot with cold water. Salt the water, then cut potatoes in half and place them in the pot. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender throughout, this takes roughly 40-50 minutes.
Remove the potatoes from the water one at a time with a slotted spoon. Place each potato piece on a large cutting board and peel it before moving on to the next potato. Also, peel each potato as soon as possible after removing from the water (without burning yourself) - I've found a paring knife comes in handy here. Be mindful that you want to work relatively quickly so you can mash the potatoes when they are hot. To do this you can either push the potatoes through a ricer, or do what I do, deconstruct them one at a time on the cutting board using the tines of a fork - mash isn't quite the right term here. I run the fork down the sides of the peeled potato creating a nice, fluffy potato base to work with (see photo). Don't over-mash - you are simply after an even consistency with no noticable lumps.
Save the potato water.
Let the potatoes cool spread out across the cutting board - ten or fifteen minutes. Long enough that the egg won't cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes. When you are ready, pull the potatoes into a soft mound - drizzle with the beaten egg and sprinkle 3/4 cup of the flour across the top. I've found that a metal spatula or large pastry scraper are both great utensils to use to incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes with the egg incorporated throughout - you can see the hint of yellow from the yolk. Scrape underneath and fold, scrape and fold until the mixture is a light crumble. Very gently, with a feathery touch knead the dough. This is also the point you can add more flour (a sprinkle at a time) if the dough is too tacky. I usually end up using most of the remaining 1/4 cup flour, but it all depends on the potatoes, the flour, the time of year, the weather, and whether the gnocchi gods are smiling on you. The dough should be moist but not sticky. It should feel almost billowy. Cut it into 8 pieces. Now gently roll each 1/8th of dough into a snake-shaped log, roughly the thickness of your thumb. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4-inch (see photo). Dust with a bit more flour.
To shape the gnocchi hold a fork in one hand (see photo) and place a gnocchi pillow against the tines of the fork, cut ends out. With confidence and an assertive (but light) touch, use your thumb and press in and down the length of the fork. The gnocchi should curl into a slight "C" shape, their backs will capture the impression of the tines as tiny ridges (good for catching sauce later). Set each gnocchi aside, dust with a bit more flour if needed, until you are ready to boil them. This step takes some practice, don't get discouraged, once you get the hang of it it's easy.
Now that you are on the final stretch, either reheat your potato water or start with a fresh pot (salted), and bring to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in batches by dropping them into the boiling water roughly twenty at a time. They will let you know when they are cooked because they will pop back up to the top. Fish them out of the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon ten seconds or so after they've surfaced. Have a large platter ready with a generous swirl of whatever sauce or favorite pesto you'll be serving on the gnocchi. Place the gnocchi on the platter. Continue cooking in batches until all the gnocchi are done. Gently toss with more sauce or pesto (don't overdo it, it should be a light dressing), and serve immediately, family-style with a drizzle of good olive oil on top.