There are some things that I am completely afraid to attempt to cook, but as of last week, there is one less of those things. Since forever, I was terrified of gnocchi, and it had nothing to do with the process of making the dough and cutting the pieces. I was afraid of the result. I remember an episode of Top Chef in which someone, and now I can’t remember who it was, made gnocchi. One of the judges, can’t remember which judge either, held one little dumpling on a fork above his plate and let it drop. It thudded to the plate like a heavy ball of paste. That’s what frightened me. If I was going to cook potatoes, rice them, make dough, cut it into little pieces, boil them, and make some kind of sauce for them, I wanted them to be light and pillowy and delicious. So, for my first foray into gnocchidom, I gathered several sources of information and learned that every cook seems to have a different opinion about what makes perfect gnocchi. Marcella, in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, recommends boiling potatoes, and she boils them, skins them, and purees them in a food mill. Mario, in Malto Italiano, uses russet potatoes instead, but he also boils them, skins them, and purees them in a food mill. Anne Burrell, who calls her recipe "Light as a Cloud Gnocchi," uses russet potatoes, bakes them, skins them, and purees them in a food mill. Last, I had the good fortune to watch David Bull make gnocchi right in front of me at a Central Market cooking class that I attended earlier this summer, and his potato choice and cooking method were the same as Anne Burrell’s. So, three of them used russet potatoes, and it was split two to two for boiling vs baking. I nervously looked from one recipe to the next, comparing notes, biting my nails, and finally jumped in and made my first batch of gnocchi.
It killed me a little to ignore Marcella’s advice, but russet potatoes seemed like the fluffier choice, so that’s what I used. And, again, since baking seems to produce a fluffier cooked potato than boiling, I ignored Marcella and Mario and baked rather than boiled. I don’t own a food mill, so I used a ricer to smoosh the cooked potatoes. Then there are the eggs, if you’re adding eggs that is. Marcella recommends that you don’t, but everyone else was for eggs. Marcella explains that gnocchi from the Veneto are cloud-light and are made with no eggs. She goes on to say that gnocchi dough with eggs is easier to handle but can easily become rubbery. For my first time with this, I felt like I needed eggs if this was going to become a dough, so to the four big, riced potatoes, I added two eggs. David Bull used semolina flour while everyone else added all-purpose flour. I used all-purpose. You should start with half the suggested flour and work in the rest as needed. Two other last ingredients were parmigiano which Anne Burell added and I didn't and chopped chives which David Bull added to his dough and so did I. Everyone says to knead the dough gently and don’t over mix it. Anne Burrell leaves all the ingredients on a board and folds in the eggs and flour with a bench scraper. That seemed like a good idea, so I did that. Last, when you have a cohesive dough, you break off pieces, roll them into ropes, and cut the ropes into gnocchi. You can leave them like that or roll them on the back of a fork or along a cute gnocchi board to make grooves in them. You press with your finger as you roll so each piece has a dent one side and ridges on the other. I have to explain that I bought the cute gnocchi board months ago as a way of convincing myself to make gnocchi. It worked eventually. Once you have your finished gnocchi, you can cook them immediately or freeze them. I left mine in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before boiling, draining, and adding sauce.
For the sauce, I went back to Marcella and followed her instructions precisely for basil pesto. It’s pretty much what you would expect for pesto except that she adds three tablespoons of softened butter after she stirs in the cheese. It was a lovely pesto. She recommends it as one of the best sauces for potato gnocchi, and I’m a believer now too. In an attempt at balancing the meal, I sauteed some sliced summer squash and mixed that with the boiled gnocchi before topping it all with pesto. After all of that, was there a thud when a piece was dropped onto a plate? No, believe it or not, they were truly tender and delicate although not quite perfectly formed. I actually wondered if I didn’t knead the dough quite enough. I’ll work on that next time, since there will definitely be a next time, and I might even try boiling the potatoes and not adding eggs.