Somewhere, on one of the blogs about the place that I frequent, someone asked something to the effect of, “And who makes their own gnocchi anyway?” As I commented, actually, I do. (Which makes me think of nothing so much as the “You’re all individuals” scene from The Life of Brian.)
My dad taught me how to make gnocchi. Nearly 20 years ago (I think) we had gone to my parents’ place for the weekend. When I woke on Sunday morning there was a delicious smell spreading through the house, which turned out to be nothing but a pot of peeled potatoes boiling up. I think they were speaking to my Irish ancestry. It turned out that Dad was making gnocchi, which in their most simple form are just potato and flour dumplings. The particular dish he was making is called, “Strangolapreti” or “Priest choker.” The legend goes that once, a priest gorged so much of it that he choked to death in his haste to eat more and more. The name seems to be applied to a variety of gnocchi dishes; we (as in, Dad and I) apply it to gnocchi served with a tomato and basil sauce.
To make your gnocchi, start with about a kilo of floury old potatoes. Stephanie Alexander says you should leave the skin on, but Dad and I always peel them. Wash and peel them, cut them into chunks, put them in a saucepan and cover them with water, and boil them until they are soft. You may want to add some salt to the water, depending on your tastes. Then mash them, without any additions at all – no butter, no cream, not even any of the cooking water. Just make plain mashed potatoes. Don’t be tempted to cook the taties early in the day, and then set them aside until just before you are ready to make the gnocchi. Mash them straightaway, so that you release the moisture from the mash. Then leave the mash to cool.
Once the mash is cool, add about 450 grams of flour, and mix it in to form a dough. Very roughly, the proportion of potato mash to flour is about 1 to slightly less than half. So if you use say, 500 grams of taties, then you might use about 225grams of flour. These days, I mix up the dough in my trusty Kenwood mixer, but before I had this marvellous machine, I used the potato masher to mix the flour in and form a smooth dough.
Then you need to roll and cut and roll again. Sprinkle flour over your worksurface, and don’t hold back. You’ll need plenty, to prevent the dough from sticking to the bench (or countertop). Get a handful of dough, and shape it into a long roll, slightly fatter than your thumb – maybe 1.5cm in diameter. Then using a sharp knife, cut the roll of dough into little dumplings, about the size of the first joint of your thumb. Not too big! But not too small either.
The next step is fun, but it’s only possible if you have a gnocchi paddle, which can be obtained in the Adelaide Central Markets, or at least, they could be 11 years ago, when my Dad got one for me. For many years, Dad used my mother’s butter paddles (my mother can make butter, and she has an excellent glass-sided churn, so perhaps I should ask her to make some when we are there over Christmas, and blog the process…), but he has a proper gnocchi paddle now too, dating from the same excursion to the markets about 11 years ago. It’s just a small wooden paddle, with grooves running down it.
Sprinkle the paddle with flour (plenty!) and run each dumpling down it, using a fork, to create a ribbed surface. Put the rolled gnocchi onto a floured plate, trying to leave a bit of space between each one, so they don’t stick together. If you start with a kilo of potatoes, you will need to use several plates, or layer your dumplings on one plate, with waxed paper or baking paper between each layer. If you don’t have a paddle, just roll each dumpling into a rough ball, and then press your thumb gently into the middle of it to make a small round dimpled dumpling. You could press each one with a fork, to get the grooves, which will help the sauce to stick.
While you are doing all this, you will have also been cooking up your tomato and basil sauce. It’s just a basic pasta / pizza / anything tomato sauce, but with plenty of fresh basil. Peel and finely dice one onion, and fry it gently in olive oil until it is soft, together with some crushed garlic, and maybe a little bit of grated ginger, and possibly even a tiny touch of chilli. When the onion is soft, add a can or two of tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Leave the mix to simmer gently until it has thickened slightly. At some stage, nick out to the garden and get about 10 big basil leaves, then wash and chop them, and add them to the tomato mix. Earlier is better, so the flavour has time to develop. Ideally, you will want your sauce to be ready at about the same time as you start cooking the gnocchi.
Get your biggest saucepan (I use my stockpot) and fill it with water and bring it to a rolling boil. While it is coming to the boil, lightly grease a large oven proof dish, and start the oven heating to about 200 degrees celsius.
To cook the gnocchi, drop the dumplings into the water, one at a time. Once you have 20 or so, or maybe 25, depending on how big your pot is, stop adding dumplings, and wait for the ones you have thrown in to start rising to the surface. When they are floating at the surface, they are done. Using a slotted spoon, fish them out and put them into your oven dish. I often put a spoonful of sauce in the dish before I start putting cooked gnocchi into it, and stir them around gently so that they are covered by the sauce, again to stop them from sticking together.
Rinse and repeat, until all the gnocchi are cooked. Stir any remaining sauce through the gnocchi, and then sprinkle plenty of grated parmesan on top. Put the dish into the oven for five to ten minutes, long enough for the parmesan to get all bubbly and melty.
And that’s all there is to it. Serve with a fresh salad.
You can, apparently, make all sorts of complicated gnocchi, with eggs, and pumpkin, and spinach, and so on, but I don’t. I just make plain potato gnocchi, which is very simple, and very cheap! This is a great meal to make if your housekeeping budget for the week is a bit stretched, and you’ve got guests coming for dinner. Also, people seem to be terribly impressed if you make your own gnocchi. I don’t see why… it’s time consuming, but not difficult. You can make other sauces too, of course; I have a vague recollection of making blue cheese and cream sauce many years ago, which was absolutely divine, but oh so rich. These days, I prefer tarter flavours, so it’s always tomato sauce. These little potato dumplings can also be very good for children who are fussy eaters; they may eat the dumplings without any sauce, or with a sprinkling of grated cheese on top, or maybe a drizzle of olive oil. Or…. Watties Tomato Sauce.
Who else makes their own gnocchi?