Sunday, April 7, 2013

Enlightened Gnocchi

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

Let's say it all together: Nyoh---kee. Nyoh---kee. Nyoh---kee. It's Italian, yes, but if we can say linguini and lasagna, why is gnocchi so difficult for English-speaking Americans? I am a language teacher, and despite the fact that I teach Spanish (not Italian), I have a deep love for language and an inability to not teach people things. So here is the phonetic breakdown of gnocchi in a layperson's terms:
  • In Italian, the gn is like a Spanish ñ or the ny in the English word canyon. Same in French, actually. Think about lasagna or cognac and you'll get it.
  • The letter combination ch is always pronounced like a hard k sound. Think of Pinocchio or Chianti.
  • The appearance of a double c simply means that we linger on the sound of that letter for an extra beat. This lingering or lack thereof can make a difference in the meaning of a word, though, so speak carefully. When you are in the mood for pasta, for instance, I highly recommend ordering penne and not pene (look it up).
So there we have it: gno=nyoh and cchi=kee. Nyoh-kee. If you stuck with me, you earned an A+! There is a lot to know about Gnocchi. I memorized a master recipe for Gnocchi this week and will present it to you here along with a million little things that you never knew you never knew about potatoes, flour, and the Italian delight that they produce.

About Gnocchi
I bet you feel so much better reading this now that you can pronounce the word, huh? Aside from the pronunciation, there is a good amount to know about Gnocchi. Gnocchi (the plural form of gnocco) are dumplings most commonly made of potato, flour, and salt. The dish originated as a peasant food in Italy due to its hearty and inexpensive ingredients. Variations have arisen to include vegetables, cheese, alternative flours, and other goodies in the dough. Some recipes, like American's Test Kitchen, even add egg into the dough for light fluffiness. Gnocchi can be found on menus in soups, as a primi (first) course, or as a main pasta dish. In Rome, Thursday is traditionally Gnocchi day, but I didn't let that stop me from making them a day early (I just made extra so I could enjoy leftovers on Thursday).

Choosing the Recipe
Gnocchi should be fairly small (like the top of your thumb) and extremely fluffy. Dense Gnocchi are not properly made, so my test this week was to ensure that my Gnocchi were perfect baby clouds. To do that, each part of the recipe had to be perfect. I did my research and found a few experts to guide me. The most concise set of instructions came from Paula Wolfert's contribution to Food & Wine: "Six Steps to Reaching Gnocchi Nirvana." I don't know a ton about Buddhism, but I do know that nirvana is the enlightenment that comes (to some) after much trial and error (aka: life). I trusted Wolfert to lead me there. Since there are so few ingredients in Gnocchi, perfection had to come in three different forms: potatoes, flour, and mixing them together.

Perfect Gnocchi Potatoes

  • Use mealy or all-purpose potatoes, not waxy ones. The same potatoes that make excellent baked and mashed potatoes lead to beautiful Gnocchi. This is because when a potato is going to lose its form, a mealy potato (less water content, more starch) is ideal. The most common mealy potato is a Russet or Idaho potato. Yukon Golds are moderate, and Wolfert recommends them for their nutty flavor. Trying to fight against the firmness of a waxy potato (more water, less starch) like a Red Potato will lead to splitting the potato's cells and releasing a starchy gel that makes the potato gummy and gross. Jeffrey Steingarten has an essay in his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, dedicated to preventing potato gumminess. He suggests testing potatoes for mealiness or waxiness by making a brine at home (9.5 cups water to 1 cup salt) and placing your potatoes in it. Those that sink are mealy (higher in starch) and those that float (lower in starch) are waxy. This is a great trick if the potatoes at your store aren't on this list.
  • Bake the potatoes instead of boiling them, and peel while hot. As Wolfert says, "Water is the enemy of good gnocchi dough." While Wolfert recommends investing 1.5 hours to bake the potatoes, I took a tip from America's Test Kitchen and parcooked them in the microwave before baking them in the oven on a thick bed of salt. That saved me an hour of prep time. Peeling the potatoes while hot (using a towel to protect your hand and a paring knife to remove the skin) helps facilitate steam escaping from the potato.
  • Use a ricer or a tamis to break up the potatoes, not a masher. Remember, we want light, fluffy, airy Gnocchi. Mashing will push out all the air from the potato, making it dense and tough to incorporate into the flour. Also, the little potato pieces from the ricer have more surface area, therefore allowing more water to evaporate from them. America's Test Kitchen's Gadget Review highly recommends the RSVP International Potato Ricer, which also happens to be one of the cheapest ones out there.

Perfect Gnocchi Flour
  • Use 2/3 all-purpose flour to 1/3 cake flour. Cake flour is lower in protein, meaning the Gnocchi will be less dense. Also, it is finer, so it will mix in better with the potato. Italian 00 flour should work wonderfully also.

Mixing them Together like a Pro
  • Be aware of your measurements. After baking and ricing the potatoes, they will have lost almost half their weight. The ratio is 1 cup flour mixture to 1 lb riced potato. When grocery shopping, this means 1 cup flour to 2 lb uncooked potatoes.
  • Mix the dough with a scraper, not your hands. We have fairly heavy hands, which-- you guessed it-- leads to dense Gnocchi if we knead the dough. Using a bench scraper (aka: pastry scraper) will keep things-- you guessed it again-- nice and airy.

  • Test the Gnocchi. Doing a test run helps ensure that the Gnocchi are not too light (so they fall apart) or too dense (so they taste store-bought). You can always fix the dough after cooking one gnocco.
Memorizing the Recipe
I don't know if it's because of all the research I did or because the ingredients are so simple and the steps are logical, but this ranks among one of the easiest recipes I have memorized. 2 lb potatoes: 1 cup flour: 1 pinch salt and take it from there. Handle with care, and there isn't a huge way to mess it up.

The Verdict
Funny enough, these Gnocchi were so light and fluffy that it actually took me some time to get used to them-- I'm not accustomed to eating clouds! They truly were enlightened in two senses of the word-- they were light, and they had reached a level of nirvana. Tossed in with some pesto and some marinara (separately), they were a great alternative to standard pasta.

As light as the Gnocchi were, the meal could have been heavy if it weren't for the Panzanella Salad I made to go with it. The bright flavors of tomato and cucumber with a little vinaigrette made the whole meal cool and fresh.

While making Gnocchi is time consuming, there is something that everyone can help with-- if you have a family and want to get everybody involved in cooking dinner, I highly recommend this recipe.

The Recipe
Enlightened Gnocchi
adapted from Paula Wolfert's Potato Gnocchi in Food & Wine with help from America's Test Kitchen
Yield: 4-6 servings

  • 2 lb. Yukon gold potatoes
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cake flour
  • salt
  • Preheat the oven to 450°F. Pour a 1/2 inch layer of salt into a baking dish just large enough to fit all of the potatoes. Set aside.
  • Prick the potatoes 8 times each with a fork and cook in the microwave for 10 minutes, turning halfway through.
  • Move the potatoes to the salted baking dish and place in the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a skewer can poke through the potato without resistance. Remove from the oven and split potatoes open lengthwise. Let cool a bit until they can be handled.
  • Line a large baking sheet with paper towels. Carefully scoop the potato flesh into a potato ricer and pass through onto the paper towels. Repeat with all potatoes, making sure you create a single layer of riced potato. Let cool completely.
  • Measure 1 lb. riced potato (about 4 cups, but use a scale) onto a clean, dry work surface.
  • In a medium bowl, sift the flours together with a large pinch of salt and sprinkle over the potato.
  • Using a pastry scraper, incorporate the potato with the flour until thoroughly mixed. Form into a firm ball.
  • Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil. Remove a 1/2 inch oval of dough (the size of the tip of a woman's thumb) and drop in the water. Boil for 1 minute, until the gnocco starts to float. Remove from the water, let cool, and taste. If the gnocco falls apart, add a little more flour to the dough (1 tbsp at a time) and test again. If it is too dense, cut in a little of the leftover riced potato.
  • Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Divide the dough into fourths. Roll each piece of dough into a long rope 1/2 inch wide and cut into 1/2 inch pieces with a sharp knife or the pastry scraper. Scatter the gnocchi around the baking sheet.
  • Place a fork upside down on your work surface. One at a time, roll the cut side of a gnocchi along the tines of the fork, leaving ridges and creating a soft fold in the back that will help the gnocchi hold onto their sauce. Fast forward to 5:20 in this video for a visual.
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add half of the gnocchi at a time and boil fifteen seconds beyond when they rise to the surface (about 60-90 seconds total). Remove with a slotted spoon and add to a skillet containing the warm sauce, or read on for freezing instructions.

  • To freeze, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water and add to a bowl of ice water. Drain on paper towels and pat dry. Coat lightly in olive oil and freeze in a single layer. Once frozen, the gnocchi can be put into an airtight container and frozen for six weeks. Reheat by placing them in boiling water for a minute or so.
About My Sources
While this post may seem like it was sponsored by America's Test Kitchen or that I was given something in exchange, it actually wasn't. I honestly just love their website and all the research that they do for home cooks like me. Don't get me wrong-- I would happily accept bribes from them in exchange for saying how cool they are-- but unfortunately they haven't offered.

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