Gnocchi are the small dumplings commonly prepared in Italy. Whilst they can be made from various ingredients, those prepared from potatoes, gnocchi di patate, are the most common. With a sack full of suitable potatoes in the shed, we have been enjoying plenty of freshly prepared gnocchi of late. Gnocchi can be rather heavy and chewy, but with a little care, the home made version is ever so light and absolutely delicious. They are simple to make, and the results should be exceptional, once a few critical notions are appreciated that will ensure a good flavour and light texture.
The secrets to good gnocchi lie in the selection and preparation of the potatoes, the choice and amount of flour, and the delicacy of preparation. I like to use a potato that is mid way between floury and waxy in texture. We usually grow quite a few Wilja, which is a white skinned second early variety, with eating and storage qualities more like a main crop. This is a good all round potato that crops reliably and happens to make excellent gnocchi.
Although many recipes suggest boiling the potatoes, I prefer to bake them in their skins. This has three advantages. First, moisture is the enemy of light gnocchi, as more flour is then needed to make a workable dough. Baking produces a nice dry flesh. Second, baked potatoes have a stronger potato flavour. A bland potato does not make tasty gnocchi. Finally, one gets a pile of potato skins as a by-product, which are delicious filled with some fried onions, chillies, bacon, cheese, and such things, then roasted and browned under the grill.
The potatoes are processed with a ricer. This is an essential piece of equipment for gnocchi. A masher is not at all suitable as it will produce dense potatoes. The baked potatoes are processed just as soon as they are cool enough to handle, as they will produce a lighter result if riced when still hot. Use a cloth, if need be, to hold them whilst the flesh is scooped out.
For the flour, I use ‘00’ pasta flour. This is very finely milled and readily absorbs the moisture from the potatoes. Recipes vary greatly as to how much flour is added. The more flour the more likely the gnocchi are to be heavy and chewy. For 1kg of riced potatoes I use only about 100g of flour. Depending on the potatoes, one might need to add a little more as this is a rather small amount of flour compared with most recipes. The result is just a little on the sticky side, but when rolled out on a well floured work surface they are perfectly fine to work with.
Much like pasta, gnocchi may be made with or without eggs. I use a couple of medium sized eggs per kilo of riced potatoes. They are said to be a little more tricky to make without egg, but possibly lighter, though with the small amount of flour that I use, and delicate preparation, these gnocchi come out so light anyway, lighter in fact than any I remember eating anywhere else. The egg certainly does a good job of bringing the dough together and keeping them that way when they are cooked.
The final secret to light gnocchi is to work the dough as little as possible. The flour and egg are carefully combined with a fork or by hand, by gently lifting and turning the ingredients rather than stirring, avoiding any action that would compress the mixture. The mixture does not need to be perfectly uniform, just approximately so. The dough is then brought together, again being as gentle as possible, using the minimum effort needed to form a ball. Although I have seen people knead the mixture a little at this stage, I do not like this idea at all. Kneading will encourage the development of the gluten in the flour, which will produce a chewy result.
The dough can be prepared directly on a clean work surface, but I prefer to use a large bowl. Portions of the dough are then rolled gently into sausage shapes on a well floured surface, cut into suitable sized pieces, according to taste, and then shaped. They can be used just as cut, rolled into balls, or shaped with a fork. The latter is somewhat traditional, and results in ridges on one side of the gnocchi and a hollow on the other, both of which are great for catching sauce. Use a well floured fork, press a gnocco onto the back of the tines and then roll it away. Gnocchi are at their best made fresh, cooked and dressed soon after they have been shaped, but I suppose one could store some dough or shaped gnocchi in the fridge for a day or two.
Gnocchi are fairly versatile and may be served with a wide range of sauces. They can be enjoyed simply with a little butter and grated parmesan. One of our favourite preparations is to fry sage leaves in the butter until they are crisp, toss in the just cooked gnocchi, stir well and sprinkle with grated parmesan. They also pair very well with a rich tomato sauce. Details for both preparations are included below. I imagine they would work equally well with cream sauces but we tend not to make those so often. For something a little extravagant, they are superb with butter and some finely shaved truffle.
The recipe below calls for 1kg of riced potatoes. With my potatoes, which are of average size, and leaving a little of the flesh behind to prepare some potato skins, I need about 2kg of fresh potatoes. Scale the ingredients as needed; if the amount of riced potatoes is a little over, then just add a little more flour. If it is under, then perhaps remove one egg and a little flour from the mixture.