If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might remember this post about gnocchi. Well, my friends, that was a while ago. I am still not Italian, nor am I your Grandmother, but I don't think those are reasons I shouldn't be able to make some tasty potato dumplings and share them with you on the interwebs. Since that post I've been around the culinary block a few more times (okay fine, like once) and have a new method that works quite well. The following account is from a few months ago, during my culinary "externship" at an amazing restaurant. Don't be confused- I am no longer there, but in fact back in St. Helena, CA finishing up school. The five months I spent on my externship were amazing, and I learned an incredible amount about food and working in the restaurant industry. So, without further ado, my thoughts on gnocchi:
I am currently working the "Pasta Station" at work, which means that I spend all day making pasta that the restaurant will use during lunch and dinner, as well as for our private parties.
I arrive at 7 am (or 9 am weekends) and begin my set-up in the pastry kitchen upstairs. It's dark and quiet when I arrive, before I flip on the many machines that provide a constant whirring background noise. I throw pots on the stove, set up my equipment and set to peeling a mound of potatoes for gnocchi. We go through hundreds thousands of gnocchi every week, and it is a constant task keeping us stocked with the little bastards. There is a special wooden table in the pastry kitchen for pasta, an oasis in the midst of stainless steel surfaces. Working pasta can be tedious and a bit isolated since there is usually only one dedicated person, but it has it's own benefits. I enjoy the benefit of focusing on one area of expertise and really having the chance to make it right, even through a bit of trial and error. I will freely admit that my first batch (and the many that immediately followed) was not very beautiful... in fact, they were kind of fat and tough. Every batch of gnocchi has improved since I started- it's one of those things in which practice truly does make perfect. You can use a basic foundation of "the right way" to get started, but in the end it's all about the senses. Exactly how the dough feels, the color of the dough, the taste of the potatoes, the salt in the cooking water- the understanding of the right texture, etc all truly come through the taste and touch of a few dozen batches of gnocchi.
In my previous post (and above) I admitted that I was not an Italian grandmother. Looking back I feel the need to explain why I felt self-conscious about those particular attributes. An Italian grandmother has presumably looked at, tasted and touched gnocchi for many decades. With her eyes closed she can whip out a few batches of fluffy, flavorful and perfectly shaped little potato dumplings because she knows what the cooked potatoes should feel like and exactly how the dough feels when it has received enough flour. By an internal clock and a quick taste, she knows when the gnocchi have cooked long enough in the water that has been salted by muscle memory. It's repetition, repetition, repetition that has cemented this knowledge in her very being. In a restaurant, or even our own home kitchens, it is hard to come by enough time and need to repeatedly produce something like gnocchi- the menu changes or you have ninety million other things to do and so someone else does it, or whatever the case may be. So, for the time being I'm enjoying the opportunity to put gnocchi into the old muscle memory bank for years to come.
2.5 lbs yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
3.4 oz butter, softened to room temperature
5 egg yolks
7-10 oz "00" flour (buy it here if you can't find it in your market)
Ground nutmeg to taste
Sea salt to taste
White pepper to taste
First, peel and quarter your potatoes. Place them in a pot of cold water, covered by a couple inches. Salt the water lightly. Bring to a boil, until potatoes are tender throughout. Don't overcook- you're not making mashed potatoes. While the potatoes are cooking, set up the rest of your equipment. You need a pot of salty, boiling water to cook the gnocchi in and an ice bath for when you take them out. Also, you want your butter to be room temp- stir it up until it is about the consistency of aoli. Mix in yolks, nutmeg, salt and white pepper. Set aside.
Drain potatoes in a colander and spread onto a sheet tray. Put them in a warm oven, about 350 degrees. At this point you just want the extra water in the potatoes to evaporate, you're not trying to cook them any more. Take them out after a few minutes and stir them around to release some steam and throw 'em back in for a few more minutes. When they are dry to the touch, take them out and run them through a food mill or potato ricer. In a large bowl, mix together the potatoes with your yolks/butter/spices and add about a third of the flour. Begin to knead the dough, adding the rest of the flour as you go. You'll know when it has enough when the dough down't sort of slouch over on it's own, it can stand up without moving. Cut the dough into seven pieces and roll them into little snakes about 3/4 diameter. This depends on how big you want your gnocchi to be- bigger snakes equal bigger gnocchi. Cut the snakes into about 1/4-1/2 inch long pieces. Here enters the gnocchi board. I love this tool. It's simply a small wooden paddle with grooves carved in it, specifically designed for rolling gnocchi. This is what it looks like:
To achieve that shape, roll the gnocchi from the end with the handle torads the open end with your thumb, applying gentle pressure. It will create that distinctive grooved look and a divot in the center to catch sauce and help it to cook evenly.
Using a bench scraper or other flat tool, scoop the gnocchi into a pot of boiling, salted water. When they pop up to the surface they are almost done- give them about 30 seconds to one minute more time in the water and test them to make sure they are firm. They should be firm but giving- no mushy gnocchi! Shock them in ice water, drain and set aside. They are now ready for whatever use you can dream up for them (but are best when used as soon as possible). Saute them in brown butter, or pesto; briefly simmer them in a creamy sauce with herbs and cheese; brown them in oil until they are a little crispy on the outside and pair them with a pork chop and brussels sprouts. The possibilities are endless!