Maybe it is the “Dutchie” in me; growing up in a family that made frugality a science meant simple things ruled the supper table. Looking back, I am hard-pressed to remember a meal without some form of potatoes. Spuds were cheap and plentiful; I grew up only miles from a farm that was a major producer and supplier of the tuibers.
Pasta was also a staple on our table, but until i started experimenting with making my own sauces, jarred spaghetti sauce filled the void. As a kid, i had my favorite and never felt a need to complain — or change — because Mom made our meals with love and that was all that was needed.
One day, in my early foray into creating the meals for our family, I was watching one of the pioneers in television chefs and cooking programs. The feature that day was “gnocchi”; little dough balls created from — drumroll — potatoes! As I picked my jaw off the ground, I was determined to try these little pillows of happiness. The ingredients were simple pantry staples.
As I watched the chef toss, mix, roll, cut, and shape the potato gnocchi against the times of a fork, I though, “How hard can these be?” Turns out, as hard as a rock — sadly, i am not talking about the technique but rather the gnocchi themselves.
After following the recipe and instructions to a “T”, I scooped the gnocchi from the pot of boiling water and placed them on a serving plate. The family gathered ’round practically salivating at the steaming bundles of dough tossed with tomato sauce in front of them. And then, the bubble burst. I mean, it outright exploded.
For supper that night, ‘i had presented the family with little balls of rubber. Chewy, tough objects that even the dog spit out. Epic fail, epic embarrassment. Dad made an emergency trip to bring us home a take-out pizza. And so, i swore off making gnocchi.
Throughout the years of ordering gnocchi in restaurants, I came to realize not all professional chefs can turn out a decent potato gnocchi — far from it — although, admittedly, i never had any as bad as the ones i made that time.
The moment of enlightenment between myself and gnocchi came when a friend from a very traditional Italian family in The Coal Region presented me with a plate of homemade gnocchi. My mind reeled; how was I going to handle these rubber blobs without hurting my friend’s feelings? Turns out, it was an unfounded fear. These gnocchi were light, tender, and tasty. Her secret? She made ricotta-based gnocchi, not potato.
Turns out ricotta gnocchi is easier to make and lighter than their potato-based counterparts. My friend also shared a couple other tips about making ricotta gnocchi; use freshly grated ‘Parmesan cheese — the kind you buy in a wedge from the market. Pre-grated cheeses almost always contain an anti-caking ingredient that affects the final product in which you use them, and absolutely, positively do not use the grated Parmesan that comes in a jar or bottle and is more equivalent to sawdust that real cheese. Just don’t.
The ricotta itself also plays an important part in the quality of the finished gnocchi. Many mass market ricotta cheese available off the supermarket shelf contain stabilizers. When buying ricotta for this (or any) recipe, look for one that lists only milk, an acid (vinegar or lemon juice), and salt. Avoid ones with fillers, gums, or stabilizers. Just read the label.
My recipe uses store-bought ricotta and the directions are based on that. If you want to make your own, Ina Garten has a simple recipe for Homemade Ricotta.
My recipe also uses a fast and easy method of draining the excess moisture from the ricotta that involves lightly pressing it between layers of paper towels using the palms of your hands, a technique I discovered on Serious Eats. If you prefer the longer, more traditional way, use cheesecloth to drain the ricotta then proceed as directed.
Dress your pillow-y ricotta gnocchi in your favorite marinara or spaghetti sauce, browned butter, or your favorite alfredo sauce to serve.
NOTE: This recipe uses weight to measure ingredients. One of the best tools a baker or cook can have is a food scale. You can get them in many places, including some grocery stores, and they are not expensive. So get one! A shape knife, or one of my favorite kitchen tools — a bench scraper (I love them so much I have several) — does a great job at cutting the ropes of ricotta gnocchi dough.
“Gnocco” literally translates to “lump” and is a colloquial term for dumpling. Versions of gnocchi can be made with all-purpose flour, “00” flour, semolina, cornmeal, or even bread crumbs. Gnocchi is just one of the versions of “dumplings” enjoyed throughout many cuisines, including those in The Coal Region, for example; kartoflane kluski, Hungarian farina dumplings, strapachka, and PA Dutch pot pie squares to name just a few. This recipe uses common pantry ingredients. I encourage my fellow “dough-lovers” to give it a try.
Ricotta GnocchiCourse: EntreeCuisine: Coal Region, ItalianDifficulty: Intermediate
12 ounces (no-filler/thickeners) quality ricotta cheese (approximately 1 1/2 cups)
1 ounce finely freshly grated Parmesan cheese (approximately 1/2 cup), plus additional for serving
4 to 6 ounces all-purpose flour
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Semolina flour or more all-purpose flour for dusting when cut
Your favorite sauce or enough browned butter to coat well
- Line a large plate or casserole dish with several layers of paper towel. Spread the ricotta on the towels then add several more layer of paper towels on top. Using your palms, press down firmly allowing the paper towels to soak up excess moisture that comes from the ricotta. Remove top layer of towels and scrape ricotta into a bowl using a spatula.
- Weigh out 8 ounces of drained ricotta and place in a mixing bowl; discard excess or refrigerate for later use elsewhere. Add Parmesan, 3 1/2 ounces of flour, the whole egg and the egg yolk to the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. ‘mix with wooden spoon 1 minute to combine. Mixture will be sticky but not gloppy. Add additional flour a tablespoon at a time if needed to obtain workable dough for rolling into logs. Do not over-mix or add excess flour. Amount needed will vary depending on the moisture content of your flour.
- Lightly flour board, turn out dough onto surface and dust top of dough lightly with flour. Cut into quarters using a sharp knife or bench scraper. Roll each quarter dough into a 6 inch long rope. Cut in half crosswise and roll each of those two pieces into a rope about 12 inches long by 3/4 inch in diameter.
- Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut each rope into 10 pieces. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet lightly dusted in semolina or all-purpose flour. Shake to lightly coat gnocchi to prevent sticking together.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat or prepare your favorite sauce. Add gnocchi to boiling water, stir gently, and cook until gnocchi float, about 3 minutes. Drain gnocchi, toss with sauce and serve hot.
- Recipe adapted from Serious Eats