Gnocchi. You think you know what it is, but you really don’t. At least I didn’t. Or, I knew one version of gnocchi (or two, if you count Chef Pisghetti’s cat on the Curious George cartoons). That (non-cartoon) version was the sometimes ethereal, sometimes leaden potato version, ridged with the tines of a fork. My mother remembers watching her grandmother make those by hand every week, and I’ve always wanted to try it out, but have always been deterred by the prospect of spending so much time on something that could turn into a gluey mess.
But I learned that making (some kinds of) gnocchi doesn’t have to be time consuming or unpredictable. It turns out that “gnocchi” is just the Italian – Venetian, actually – word for “lump,” and that the little dumplings can be made from just about anything; regional versions include the well-known potato version, as well as those made with ricotta, breadcrumbs, or even cornmeal. There’s even a French version that boils pate de choux (the base for gougeres and other baked puffs) that really intrigues me.
This very easy version hails from traditional Roman cuisine, and uses semolina flour – the same hard wheat flour used to make high-quality pastas, cooked up in milk much as you would polenta, mix in some cheese, spread it out on a cookie sheet to firm up, and then cut it into squares and bake it with some butter and cheese.
The result is mild yet rich, and in no way resembles the potato version you might be used to. It’s comforting in the way that macaroni and cheese is comforting – slightly creamy, with the tang of the parmesan that keeps you nibbling on what remains in the pan as you’re clearing up after dinner. I personally found that the dumplings benefited from being paired with a simple tomato sauce, but that was just my taste.
Gnocchi alla Romana (Semolina Dumplings)
Saveur, March 2010
4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups semolina flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill Semolina Flour, which I found at a local grocery store)
1 1/2 cups finely grated parmesan
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Kosher salt, to taste
In a large pot over medium-high heat, bring milk to a simmer, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and slowly whisk in semolina. Cook, whisking, until tender and thickened. (This took me less than five minutes, but the recipe said it could take up to 10 minutes.) Whisk in 1/2 cup parmesan, 4 tablespoons butter, and the egg yolks. Season with salt and remove from heat.
Wet a rimmed baking sheet with a soaked paper towel. Pour semolina mixture onto baking sheet and spread it out to about a 1/2-inch thickness, smoothing the surface with spatula. Let cool at room temperature until firm, about 40 minutes.
Heat oven to 450-degrees F. Cut gnocchi dough in 2″ squares; transfer half of the squares to a buttered 9″ x 13″ baking pan. Sprinkle gnocchi with 1/4 cup Parmesan and dot with 2 tablespoons butter. Layer remaining gnocchi on top and sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese and remaining butter.
Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Serve with remaining cheese, and tomato sauce, if you choose.