Some dishes take you by surprise and leave you with a memory – and a longing – that never goes. It was the mid-1980s and my hometown had a wonderful catering college that did pop-up ‘restaurant nights’. On one of these evenings, I was so busy chatting, I hadn’t checked the menu being served before the starter arrived.
It looked bronzed, pillowy, possibly cheesy. I dug my fork in and tasted. It was a bit like eating that twice-baked cheese soufflé that became popular at around the same time, except it was less eggy and more airy. Each mouthful melted and was gone. I couldn’t work out what it was made of, but there was clearly some culinary sophistry going on in the kitchen.
‘Gnocchi Parisiennes,’ said our trainee waiter, ‘made with choux pastry.’ I’d never heard of the dish – and many food-loving friends, I’ve discovered, still haven’t. It’s a French version of gnocchi – the little Italian dumplings, the name of which is thought to derive from nocca, meaning knuckles.
‘Dumplings’ suggests heaviness, but the point of all gnocchi, if they’re good, is they’re light. They can be made from ricotta and spinach, potato, semolina, chestnut flour or pumpkin. They’re poached and served with melted butter and cheese or in a tomato sauce, or tossed with other ingredients – wild mushrooms in the autumn or broad beans in the spring, for example.
Over the years, travelling in Italy, I’ve eaten what must be forerunners: bread and speck canederli in the Dolomites, and their beetroot and horseradish cousins, knüdel, on the Italian-Austrian border. If gnocchi were on the menu, they would end up on my table.
The only ones that aren’t dumpling-like are gnocchi alla romana. These are made of semolina cooked with milk, mixed with eggs and cheese, spread out to cool, stamped into rounds and baked. They sound stodgy, but, again, can be light. The eggs make them puff up and their surface crisp. At their simplest, you can serve them with just a side salad (though I doubt a Roman would).
I became a bit obsessed with gnocchi because of their softness, their downy comfort, that they seemed so frugal. I loved the fact that they could be fresh-tasting, with a tomato sauce, or incredibly rich – make a creamy gorgonzola sauce for potato gnocchi and you’ll see what I mean.
I spent years trying to perfect them, especially potato gnocchi. The basics are potatoes, flour and, optionally, egg yolks. Adding eggs makes the mixture more robust, so your gnocchi are less likely to fall apart on cooking, but leaving them out produces a lighter result. I’ve tried different varieties of potato – Desirée seems best – and quantities of flour. The less flour you use, the lighter the gnocchi, but I’ve gone too far with the ‘less is more’ idea and watched them disappear in a cloud of murky water as they disintegrated in the pan.
One of the recipes I’m giving you below includes egg, in case you’re a beginner, but you can leave it out and use just potato flesh and flour. It’s hard to be very specific about the amount of flour, as it depends on the age of the flour and the moisture content of the potatoes, but you’ll get to know the feel you’re looking for the more you make them.
If you’ve only ever eaten those ready-made potato gnocchi from the supermarket chiller cabinet, you’ll think I’m mad for raving about them at all. That’s because you don’t yet know how good homemade gnocchi can be. Try them.
Everyone has one dish they find hard to resist when they see it on a menu. For me, it’s gnocchi, in all its manifestations. And it always will be.
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