Gnocchi Odyssey

Over the past week, I've baked more potatoes than I have in several years. My sudden interest in baked spuds lies within the crackly skin rather than as a complete edible package to accompany sour cream and bacon bits; it's part of a mission to get something right, a dish that has eluded me for years.

The dish in question is gnocchi (say nyoh-kee), the famed Italian dumplings that taste light and fluffy when done right -- and like a gum eraser the rest of the time.

Potato gnocchi: third time's a charm? (Kim O'Donnel)
With basil in season, my thoughts turned to pesto, which sparked a food memory from a trip to Monterosso, a small village in Italy's Cinque Terre. The five interlinking villages are located in Liguria, on the southeast handle of the northwest coast, which hugs the Ligurian sea. In addition to outrageously seductive foccacia and the most beautiful lemons you'll ever lay eyes on, Liguria is home to the renowned Genovese basil, which of course makes sublime pesto.

So, while in Monterosso, I did what I was told by Recino, the meddling innkeeper, and supped on a bowl of pesto with potato gnocchi at a local trattoria called La Cambusa. What I remember is two things -- well, maybe three: Not only did the gnocchi melt in my mouth, they swam freely like little tadpoles in a pond of pesto, which was delicate and sweet, effectively replacing all previous pesto associations. It was dreamy.

According to Clifford Wright in his book, "A Mediterranean Feast," gnocchi was originally a form of dried pasta in the Middle Ages, way before the arrival of the potato, which probably came by way of Spain in the 17th century. You may see also recipes for gnocchi made from semolina and on occasion for "gnudi" -- which means naked -- made from ricotta cheese and spinach. Interestingly, the singular of gnocchi is "gnocco," which literally means "idiot." Nobody seems to know why, but maybe it's for all those poor souls who feel molto stupido when trying to master these pesky little dumplings.

Earnest in gnocchi pursuit, I pored through many cookbooks, including titles by the very reliable signora Marcella Hazan. The problem was, nobody seemed to agree on how to make a light, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi. While some recipes call for boiling potatoes, others insist on baking, and even squabble over what kinds of potatoes to use. There's a debate over the addition of a beaten egg and of course, over how much and what type of flour to use. Leave it to the Italians, passionately opinionated and subject to creative whimsy, making it difficult for Type-A Americans to follow the gnocchi letter of the law.

While shopping for books last week, I stumbled upon "Lucinda's Rustic Italian Kitchen," a new title by Lucinda Scala Quinn, whose book about Jamaican cookery has served me well. I liked the smaller size of the book and the simplicity of the recipes, so I took it home and got to work, beginning with those baked potatoes.

A few hours later, my enthusiasm turned dark as I took my first bite. Gummy is putting it lightly. Cement is more like it. I reviewed the recipe and discovered that Quinn's recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, which is more than double the amount than what I was seeing in several other recipes.

So I went back to the Web for further gnocchi insight, and stopped at "In Praise of Sardines," a lively blog written by "Brett," a chef in San Francisco. Brett, my boy, you set the stage for Gnocchi, Round 2, and I've got to give you props for your detailed account of gnocchi making.

With Brett's advice under my belt, I embarked on the next gnocchi adventure, this time using only 3/4 cup of flour and the consideration of a beaten egg.

As I gently mixed the flour into the riced potatoes (which means passed through a ricer or food mill to get a smooth puree), I already could see a difference in the dough -- and that was a good thing. I did notice, though, the dough was too dry, and would need the help of the egg, the subject of much debate in gnocchi circles.

Last night's gnocchi, served with garlic scape pesto, were infinitely better, but felt slightly undersalted, not doing the swimming action of my Monterosso reverie.

I had a bunch of leftover dough and decided to wrap in plastic and store overnight in the fridge, for further research. The sauce thing was still bothering me, so I thought what the heck, I've finished my first cup of coffee, I could now have gnocchi for breakfast.

I put a pot of water on the fire while the gnocchi warmed up on granite work surface. It had turned a strange color, almost black, which was worrying, but as I kneaded it, the dough started to return to its original oatmeal-esque shade.

So, with the sauce ratio in mind, I added a few tablespoons of cooking water into the serving bowl and lo and behold, my gnocchi started to swim! I just needed a little more liquid to make the sauce a sauce; this should not be an issue if you serve gnocchi with marinara sauce. And yes, finally, I got there -- well, not Monterosso, but pretty darn close.

Below, the recipe details from my exploits. Please share any gnocchi pearls of wisdom in the comments area below.

Potato Gnocchi
Adapted from the blog, "In Praise of Sardines"

2-3 medium baking potatoes, like Russet or Idaho, which are floury, higher in starch and lower in water content
1 teaspoon salt (Brett suggests 1/2 teaspoon, which was not nearly enough, so I increased it to 3/4 teaspoon, which still was inadequate)
pinch nutmeg, if you've got it on hand
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten
ground black pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash potatoes and with a fork, prick all over to create ventilation.

Bake potatoes until fork tender, at least one hour, up to 75 minutes.

Place on counter and with a knife, slice in the middle, lengthwise, to allow steam to escape. When cool enough to handle, scoop out potato flesh with a spoon and place in a bowl. Pass potatoes through a food mill or ricer, until you have 2 cups' worth.

Place potato puree onto a baking sheet and allow to completely cool.

When cool, place potato puree into a mixing bowl and add salt, nutmeg (if using) flour and beaten egg. Mix very gently; some cooks suggest using a fork and avoiding the use of your hands. Either way, mix just until combined and turn dough out onto a floured work surface

Cut dough into four sections; set one aside and cover the remaining three with a dish towel.

Roll the dough into a cigar, about 6-8 inches long. Cut into 6-8 pieces and place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Continue with the rest of the dough accordingly.

Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil.

When water just begins to a boil, add salt and add 8 gnocchi at a time, cooking somewhere between an active simmer and a boil. In about 2 minutes, gnocchi will rise to the top. With a slotted spoon, remove gnocchi and place in a covered bowl. Continue with the rest of the gnocchi, in small batches, and keep all cooked gnocchi covered in the meantime.

Add sauce of choice and gently stir; serve immediately.

Serves about 3 people.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 25, 2007; 12:25 PM ET Discoveries , Vegetarian/Vegan
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Oh, Kim! It sounds lovely. I looooooove the Cinque Terre, and I am going to visit (and stay in Monterosso) in October - will definitely need to look into their gnocchi!

The Neptune room in NYC has a great gnocchi dish - almost like gnocchi alla Romana (which are done like a gratin), but uses the potato gnocchi in a parmesan cream sauce. It is delicioso. Molto, molto bene!

Posted by: akmitc | July 25, 2007 3:06 PM

I heartily agree with eating whatever grabs your fancy for breakfast. Your appropriately colored gnocchi sound heavenly to me.

One question: What is a garlic scape? I have a vague recollection of a scape being a wild onion. Thanks for the education.

Posted by: minniwanca | July 25, 2007 3:20 PM

Never mind. I just read the piece you linked to. They sound great. I'll have to look for them.

Posted by: minniwanca | July 25, 2007 3:37 PM

When do you add the egg? With the flour?

Posted by: Natalie | July 25, 2007 3:49 PM

Is a ricer/food mill essential to this recipe? I'd love to try it but don't think my kitchen can accommodate another utensil/tool.

That blog is great -- I already told my S.F. friends who live in that neighborhood to check out Olallie when it opens!

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | July 25, 2007 4:22 PM

Natalie, I neglected to add the egg part in the recipe. Thanks for letting me know -- and yes, add in with flour.

Alexandra: Yes, a ricer or food mill is essential, as it gently purees the potatoes without freaking out the starch. A potato masher won't take the potatoes far enough, I'm afraid.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 25, 2007 5:24 PM

My sister-in-law used to make a gnocchi from scratch but now she uses a frozen brand from South America. It tastes good but it is missing something, probably her touch.

Posted by: ipanema | July 25, 2007 6:56 PM

Hello Kim,
I've lived in Italy for almost 20 years and must say that the best gnocchi I have ever eaten, the only ones I have found digestible, are those made by my wife's grandmother, Angelina. Angelina claims that the water content is a crucial issue, including the weather conditions on the day the gnocchi are made. A damp or even humid day, rather frequent in Rome, means that the gnocchi will become little bocci balls in one's stomach. You are right that the type of potato is important, as well. Again, it is the water content; the floury potatoes are the only ones to use. She also prefers grating the potatoes, since a ricer will not help reduce the moisture content.

Passing along Angelina's wisdom is difficult because she describes the process with the hand movements that indicate the amount of water and how to adjust it. If you come to Rome, I'll beg her to make them for you, and perhaps, perhaps, she will let you watch. That will depend on the weather.

Posted by: Peter in Rome | July 26, 2007 4:13 AM

Peter in Rome, mille grazie! What great tips. Now I must come up with a plan to come to Rome -- all in the name of research, of course...

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 26, 2007 9:11 AM

My Irish husband makes great gnocchi. He learned from his great aunt who was married to a Sicilian mafia boss. I think his success lies in letting our kids actually form them. They're tiny, with just slight fork dents. Mmmmm.

Posted by: 'sghetti eater | July 26, 2007 11:19 AM

In the spring I blanched and froze lots of the extra kale our CSA sent with plans to puree and add in to gnocchi this summer. Does anyone have advice about how well this works? I'm guessing the extra moisture may be an issue. Thanks!

Posted by: Gnocchi Gnovice in Arlington | July 26, 2007 1:54 PM

In Cuneo, Italy we ate gnocchi (in a cream sauce) for the first time. When I get to heaven I hope that chef will be there. In Cuneo in northern Italy there ia a small hotel Caballo Blanco. Our room was small but the gnocchi was great. The surrounding are beautiful very old villages on hills and in vales. Go!!!!

Posted by: suzy | August 7, 2007 6:27 AM

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