Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A gnocchi little Christmas

Because of an misunderstanding indirectly precipitated by my birth, I didn't meet my mother's extended family until 2005. Since meeting them, a Christmas without gnocchi has become like a Christmas without snow. This year, since I spent 98.6% of Christmas Day in San Francisco, I knew that a Christmas without snow was pretty much inevitable. However, I had a choice as to whether I would spend a Christmas without gnocchi, and you know what? I chose gnocchi.

I looked up a bunch of recipes on the internet to try to figure out how to make the best gnocchi I possibly could, but, stubborn Capricorn that I am, I pretty much already knew what I was going to do. Sam's Mom makes gnocchi with three ingredients: potatoes, flour and salt. So that's how I make gnocchi, and anything else is pretty much heresy. Ricotta cheese? That's not gnocchi, that's cheesy poofs or something. Eggs? Only if you're a wuss and you suck at rolling dough. Nutmeg? What the hell is nutmeg? Finally I found this recipe by Marcella Hazan, cited by a secondary source, which uses only potatoes and flour, not even salt. Obviously that is the correct one, because it conforms to my preconceived definition of gnocchi.

I did incorporate a few of the suggestions of other recipes into my method, though. Following Lidia Bastianich's lead, I took about three and a half pounds of russet potatoes, boiled them, skinned them one at a time, ate the skins, and then pressed them through a medium sieve while they were still almost too hot to handle. This apparently gets rid of lumps and makes for a lighter texture. I've never used a potato ricer but I don't know if it could possibly achieve a better texture than pressing through a sieve would--then again, it would probably only take 5 seconds per potato instead of 5 minutes.

I put the potatoes in a giant pile on the table and let them cool for an hour or two until they reached room temperature. While I was waiting for that to happen I emptied out my freezer. Luckily at this point I have sufficiently established myself as a crazy person to my roommate John, so when he saw all the counters in the kitchen covered in piles of yogurt containers and heard me say, "Hey roomie, I need THE ENTIRE FREEZER for the next six hours", I think he thought: "Okay, par for the course!"

I measured out four cups of flour, mixed in a little salt, sprinkled some of it over the potato pile, and got to work. Lidia's recipe says to basically mix it without touching it and try to incorporate all the flour in three minutes or less. Here it is after one minute. Then I sprinkled more on and kept going.

And here it is all incorporated. I think I took about five minutes, but, you know, I am not the Michael Phelps Johnson of gnocchi or anything. I took this big log, cut off about a tenth of it at a time, floured it, and rolled it into a log about a half-inch log. This little flouring really helps it stay together, and I think I could have gotten away with a dough that was a little stickier (making gnocchi that were a little lighter) had I realized that before I started.

I made a bunch of these logs, cut them into half-inch pieces, then took each piece and made a little sauce-catching indentation in it. I had a lot of gnocchi.

I had a lot of gnocchi.

Seriously, a lot.

No, a lot. 387 in total.

As a process-minded chemical engineer, I now realize that the rate-limiting step in gnocchi production not kneading, not shaping, not cutting, but this little dimpling process. I was only able to do one at a time, pressing down with my index finger while I squeezed the corners up with my middle finger and thumb. One of my relatives three generations back was apparently able to make eight dimples at a time, one with each of her fingers (the thumb is not a finger, right?), every time she pressed down. So she must have been able to make gnocchi about eight times faster than I can. Also she didn't have to blog about it when she was done.

Lidia wants you to do some complicated thing rolling each dumpling against your fork at a 45-degree angle or something, and girl, no way.

Then I lined all these gnocchi up on four different baking sheets, as close as possible without touching...

...and put them in the freezer. The entire freezer. When you freeze them on sheets like this, you make sure that they freeze really fast and without sticking together. Once the outside of each gnocco is frozen and not sticky, you can throw them all into a bag and store them for a couple months. I actually like freezing gnocchi before cooking anyway for two reasons. Well, three reasons: 1) that's how Sam's Mom does it; 2) they stay together a little better in the boiling water; 3) you don't have to go through the arduous hours-long process of making gnocchi on the same day that you're going to enjoy eating them.

Then they're actually really easy to cook--throw them in boiling water and then when they float to the top they're about done. If you're doing them in a butter sauce like this let them cook for a few more seconds after they float, but if you're doing them in a tomato sauce or other wet sauce you can just scoop them directly into there as they pop up. Here I'm sauteing some cooked gnocchi in brown butter, although you can't really tell that it's brown butter because the brown butter is in black pan.

Then I added some rosemary and ate them. This was just a test run to make sure that everything went smoothly on Christmas because, well, it was Christmas Day and everything needed to be PERFECT. On Christmas I made Marcella Hazan's buttery non-garlicky tomato sauce with some fresh tomatoes that Jeff canned earlier this year. It was great, although honestly not that much different than normal tomato sauce with olive oil.

But maybe you grew up thinking buttery tomato sauce is normal. Sorry, I'm being tomatonormative!


  1. How did you count them - separate them into groups of 10? As you were dimpling? After you took the photo?

  2. Good question--while cutting.