Well into my 30s, and after I had learned how to cook pretty well, I asked my mother to teach me to make gnocchi--especially after learning that her mother, Nonna Mariantonia, had taught her. When I asked why she never made them when I was a kid, she just shrugged and said, "Sure, with all the free time I had raising five kids plus working all day?" She's right. She worked in a factory as a supervisor her whole adult life, yet somehow still managed to put dinner on the table for us after she got home. Better late than never, and I was eager to learn...
So, she set out to teach me on her kitchen table, where all miracles of Italian cuisine take shape. Her secret? "Not too much flour and use yellow potatoes", similar to what we call Yukon Gold today. Apparently, these mimic the starch and low moisture content of the typical yellow potatoes they use in Italy. The old Nonnas in Italy warn of using perfectly smooth-skinned, "pretty" yellow potatoes, but recommend using the "wise, old" potatoes. The more sporco (dirty), the better. In fact, even my Mother told me that they would buy large bags of potatoes and store them in the cellar. Then waiting until most were gone and only then, they would use the older ones to make gnocchi. Older means drier and more starch turned into sugars, adding to the lightness and flavor of the finished results. The drier the potato, the lighter the gnocchi.
4 pounds of Yukon Gold or similar yellow potato--stored 1 week in a dark place before using
1 egg yolk
2 whole eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons sea salt
"00" Italian style flour - 1/4 cup per pound of potatoes (or more, depending on humidity)
("00" makes a more tender gnocchi.)
a Gnocchi board, or fork, fingers, or the back side of a cheese grater
(each makes a different shape/texture)
2 half sheet pans
(For drying and for freezing half the batch)
Potato ricer (Do not use a masher)
cotton kitchen towels or parchment paper
- Preheat your oven to 400 F.
- Place the 4 pounds of potatoes on a half sheet pan, piercing each with a fork to allow moisture to escape while baking. An alternative method is to place them on a rack on top of your sheet pan, or even to slice them in half for baking (this might require less baking time).
- Bake the potatoes for 45 minutes to 1-1/4 hours, depending on size and moisture content. They are ready when you piece with a fork or paring knife with no resistance.
- When finished, cut the potatoes in half and let them cool just long enough for you to handle them--about 5-10 minutes. You don't want them to cool off--ricing needs to be done when they are hot or warm.
- Scoop the potatoes out of their skins with a spoon onto a baking sheet or waxed paper.
- Dust a work surface with some flour and start ricing the potatoes onto it. When done, cover with plastic wrap and let the riced potatoes cool for at least 20 minutes.
- When cooled, make a well in the middle of the potato pile and drop one egg yolk into it. Mix with a fork and then with your hands for a moment to incorporate the yolk.
- Sprinkle the salt on top of the potatoes.
- Now, make another well and pour the beaten eggs into the middle of the potatoes. Mix with a fork, then with your hands until well blended, but do not overmix!
- Next, start dusting the flour all across the dough mixture, while kneading the dough, just until it starts to form into a dough. Use only enough flour to create a dough ball that will stay together. Unlike pasta dough, you do not want this dough to be overworked and smooth. Mold it with your hands... if if stays together without crumbling, that's enough flour. If for some reason, you think your dough has gotten too heavy and thick, misting with a spray of water, then reworking a bit should loosen it up.
- Because this is a double recipe, you may want to half the dough at this time, forming each into a ball and covering with plastic wrap.
- Wait for 15 minutes or so--the dough relaxes and incorporates itself during this step.
- Take one of your dough balls and, using a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut off a piece and with floured hands, roll a snake out--about 1/2 - 3/4" thick.
- Start cutting gnocchi from about 1 - 1/2" long. Working in batches of 10 gnocchi or so, start forming your final gnocchi shape with either the back of a fork, a ridged gnocchi board or even the back side of a cheese grater (as seen below).
As you shape your gnocchi, place them (not touching) on a cotton kitchen towel spread on top of a half sheet pan. Let them dry for 15 for about 1 hour before cooking. Then place them into a large pot of well-salted, rapidly boiling water, give a couple of gentle stirs, then cook until they all float to the top.
After all are floating, cook for another minute, then drain in batches using a spider, placing them into either a saucepan containing your preferred sauce, cooking and turning gently for a minute or two until the gnocchi have absorbed the sauce's flavors. Turn out into a pasta bowl, and top with your favorite cheese--Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, cacciocavallo, etc.
After the first half of your dough is finished, repeat and fill a second sheet pan, then let dry as with the first batch. The second pan can then be placed immediately into a freezer for a future meal. (If a half sheet pan won't fit, place the gnocchi on smaller trays that will fit).
After they are frozen rock solid (at least 10 hours), immediately place them into a large zip-lock plastic bag, squeeze to remove all the air and zip it closed. To prevent against freezer burn, place it into a second bag.
Once you hone your gnocchi-making skills, you can experiment with all sorts of different types--pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot, ricotta and more. Gnocchi are great with both simple sauces (like butter & sage or olive oil, garlic and pepperoncino) or complex sauces like bechamel, pestos or even ragu Bolognese.
Enjoy, and don't forget to let me know how yours turned out!