Gnocchi Gnotes

The Holiday of Eating came and went, and with gut officially busted, I am collecting my thoughts. We didn’t go turkey+stuffing+sweet potatoes+broccoli casserole or creamed spinach or whatever this year. Instead we did rack of lamb+butternut squash gnocchi+spinach salad with pomegranate vinaigrette+crostini di fegatini. Treasonously Continental in the eyes of those Teabagging types, but plenty good and festive to us.

Not much to say about the rack of lamb besides “Hard to screw up” and “I screwed up anyway.” (Note to self: Now will you buy a damn digital thermometer, you asswipe???) But the gnocchi was a success/failure of a different color. A nice lively orange color.

I took a class a few months ago, taught by the chef/owner of Seattle’s La Spiga Italian restaurant. Though we covered four or five dishes, the only real challenge was the gnocchi, something I’d been afraid to eat until two years ago (seemed offensively bland and mealy), and afraid to make until that very day.

Gnocchi isn’t as firm as pasta, and it’s not as straightforward as spaetzle (which goes directly from bowl to pot by way of some kind of grate or strainer). With gnocchi, you are rolling out a very insubstantial dough into long strands, then chopping it into the “pillows” for which it is named. Then you have to shift that to the pot without losing the pillow shape, or do what I did: Freeze the little mofos to make them easier to handle.

Mark my words: From now on, I will never make gnocchi unless I can prep it in advance and freeze it. That is the only way this shit works.

Gnocchi is egg, flour, salt, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses plus some kind of starchy vegetable matter. Potatoes are the constant, squash is a common variant. I cut up and roasted a butternut squash for an hour or so and scraped out the most done, least stringy bits, then beat it in my mixer to break it up before adding the rest of the ingredients.

When that’s done, and all the beeswax is gotten together in your mixer bowl, this so-called dough is really just a paste, little more than batter. When you go to roll it, you will need a healthy layer of flour down on your cutting board or prep surface, and you need to scoop it out with a spoon and sprinkle on even more flour before you can even touch the shit, or it will stick to you, stick to the board, stick to anybody walking past at that moment. Once stuck, it will refuse to participate in any kind of rolling. As I discovered, the first couple of attempts at this should just be considered practice.

When you do finally manage a nice long roll, you have to cut it up and quickly transfer the bits to a floured cookie sheet for freezing, or a boiling pot of water for cooking. Do it fast, before they lose shape, cling to each other, and generally ruin your afternoon. Dinner wasn’t for a few hours, so the boiling pot wasn’t an option. As I learned in my class, gnocchi should never be cooked early.

The decision to freeze my gnocchi was initially based on this, but it carried another advantage. I had a massive amount of batter/dough/paste (even though I 2/3rded the recipe), and instead of quitting when I had three good portions, and ditching the unused, I decided to plow through it all.

Just a quick word about the picture above: It may be pretty, but it’s very bad to get them this close together. Keep ‘em spaced and floured as well as you can–as I learned in that class, if you freeze, you can always shake off excess flour.

As I filled my two cookie sheets, I grew wiser. The latter gnocchis were much handsomer than the early specimens. The fact that they even looked like pillows I owe entirely to the stainless steel dough scraper I was so convinced to buy during that class. (See top picture.) I am a sucker for kitchen gadgets, but this is one device I am glad to own. Can you imagine cutting down then scraping a knife sideways across a cutting board? You’d dull the blade in three fell swoops. This thing is already dull. Plus, it’s got a ruler on it, in case I ever want to make sure my gnocchis were all exactly .875″ in width. The scraper served its ultimate purpose as the taxi cab between the cutting board and the cookie sheet. I could transfer four or five pillows over without the disfigurement my fingers all too easily could cause.

Within 30 minutes, I had two cookie sheets in the freezer, and had not broken much of a sweat. There were still unknowns, however:

• How the hell do I fit cookie sheets in the freezer? Answer: Up above the ice maker, in my Frigidaire side-by-side.
• How long would it take to freeze? Answer: Two hours or so, but not all of them froze completely.
• How long would they take to cook? Answer: A few minutes, but it doesn’t matter because they sit on the bottom of the pot while cooking, and pop up only when they’re done.
• Would they look and taste like edible Italian members of the International League of Comfort Food, or were they doomed to be chewy and misshapen? Answer: Well…

Let me get out of the way that the taste, though a tad doughy, was pretty much exactly what I expected. Gnocchi is a little bit sweet, and a little bit chewy, and starchy but in a good way, and these worked for the most part. They were fugly sons of guns, though.

I blame the fact that the lumps didn’t really have a classy look to them on three factors:

1. Because I was an idiot at the outset, when I totally made up the ratios of egg, flour and cheese based on the amount of squash I totally just eyeballed, because I haven’t replaced the batteries in my kitchen scale. (I also left out semolina flour entirely because I have no clue where I hid the bag.)

2. As you saw in the middle picture, I clumped one pan full together before freezing them. Because of this, I had to break many of them apart when I took them out again, inflicting too much violence on these tender dumplings.

3. I took them out too damn early, and let them basically thaw fully before dropping them into the pot. Yes, all my prior bumbling would still have produced a reasonable looking product if it weren’t for the fact that my evil goateed alter ego stepped in at the last minute and delivered this golpe fatal.

(Regarding that clumpy white stuff atop the misshapen gnocchos, I whipped up a quick butter sauce with fresh rosemary and thyme–because I had it for the lamb, and because I am a Simon & Garfunkel fan, I won’t lie–along with some wine and shallots. It was way too buttery, but it worked, and is all I can do until I overcome my paralytic fear of sauces, and take some kind of a class.)

The final verdict on the gnocchi venture is that the success outweighed the stress, and that I would have no problem doing it again. However, I may change my mind when we are finally finished eating the giant bag of frozen pillows that remains in the freezer. Want some?

2 responses to “Gnocchi Gnotes

  1. W. How do you make Gnocchi? All time favorite dish and I love butternutsquash…share your secret.

  2. Those look good, but if you just brown them in some butter after boiling and sprinkle on some fresh sage, you’d have this:

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/butternut-dumplings-with-brown-butter-and-sage-recipe/index.html

    Seems like a shape to stop halfway through a recipe like that. :)

    Of course everything is better fried in butter, but these babies benefit more then most: they have crunchy browned spots on the outside, chewy tender middles. And the sage adds yet another holiday flavor to the mix. Note: do not stir them too much when browning because they will fall apart and the paste will stick and burn.

    These dumplings are more fussy than I usually bother with, but once you have them in the freezer they are not that much trouble to finish. We’ve made them several times lately, partly because they’re damn good, but also because my 16 month old son will eat an adult sized portion and we’re trying to fatten him up.

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