A lot of people are intimidated by gnocchi. With good reason, too – it’s hard to get gnocchi right. We’ve all had leaden, chewy gnocchi, and chances are we’ve even had them at Italian restaurants. Chances also are we’ve made them. I know that my first few attempts at making gnocchi were failures – either I overworked the dough, or I added too much flour, or I didn’t add enough and the gnocchi fell apart in the water. Yet that Platonic ideal of gnocchi has always been out there, tantalizingly: delicate, light, feathery-soft gnocchi that hold their shape yet yield at the slightest touch of a fork. I can (and do) make good gnocchi now, and there are tricks to it, which can be distilled to two basic rules.
First, you want to make sure that your potato (or potato substitute) is dry. The drier your potatoes are, the less flour you’ll need to add and the less stiff your dough will be. If you’re making regular potato gnocchi, use a floury rather than a starchy potato, bake it (never boil or microwave it), pass the flesh through a potato ricer, and then spread it gently to dry on a tray or parchment paper for at least an hour before preparing your gnocchi. If you’re making gnocchi using sweet potatoes or squash, sit the cooked squash in a sieve over a bowl for at least an hour to drain out excess water. Second, don’t overwork it! You know how if you over-whip mashed potatoes they can get a gluey consistency? Similarly, you don’t want to overwork the starch in your gnocchi, or the dough will get sticky, and then you’ll add more flour, and then as you work the dough it’ll get sticky again, and so on. And the more flour you add, the heavier and denser your gnocchi will become, AND you run the risk of developing the gluten in the flour and making chewy gnocchi. (Horror!)
This gnocchi recipe was an experiment: although I’ve made sweet potato gnocchi before, I’ve never made gnocchi from butternut squash. I figured it would work, and it did. I think the ricotta is a key component. Since the squash is wetter than a potato, the ricotta binds the dough so you don’t need as much flour (I can’t explain this scientifically – I think it’s because of the protein in the cheese), and makes the gnocchi fluffier. These gnocchi were soft and light, with a rich squash flavour. Served with brown butter and sage (this is such a classic preparation because few things taste better with gnocchi), they were delicious.
Here are a couple of additional but important tips which will be especially helpful with this recipe. You should wash and dry your hands frequently during preparation. The less the flour sticks to you, the less flour you’ll have to add. A final trick, which I learned from my ex-boyfriend, who was a chef in an Italian restaurant for several years, is that you can prevent your gnocchi from incorporating too much flour by using rice flour when you roll it out. As he explained it to me, rice flour has no gluten, so it doesn’t bind to the dough. When you boil the gnocchi, the rice flour falls to the bottom of the pot, while your lovely pilllowy gnocchi float to the top. You don’t NEED to use rice flour, though. I didn’t have any so I didn’t use it this time, and my gnocchi turned out just fine.
For the gnocchi:
1 large or two small butternut squash
125 grams (about ¼ pound) full fat fresh ricotta cheese
1 egg yolk
1¼ to 1½ cups of flour
1 teaspoon salt
Grated fresh nutmeg
Freshly-ground black pepper
For brown butter sage sauce (optional):
250 grams butter
10-15 fresh sage leaves
A little bit of lemon juice or vinegar
Salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit). Halve the butternut squash and scoop out the seeds and pulp, and roast the halves cut side down in a roasting pan into which you’ve poured about half an inch of water until totally soft (about an hour and a half).
Once the squash has cooled enough for you to handle it, scoop out the flesh and pass it through a potato ricer (this will remove any fibrous chunks or lumps). Transfer to a wire mesh strainer and allow to drain over a bowl for at least an hour. While the excess liquid is draining from the squash, you’ll want to do much the same thing with your ricotta. In another sieve if you have one, or using cheesecloth, drain out excess liquid over a bowl for at least an hour.
Combine the squash, ricotta, egg yolk, nutmeg, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper in a bowl, and mix together thoroughly with a whisk.
Using a rubber spatula, gradually fold in a cup of the flour, being careful not to overmix. Sprinkle in another ¼ cup of the flour, and, using your fingers this time, gently mix into the dough. If the dough feels completely wet and sticky and unmanageable to you, wash and dry your hands, and then gradually sprinkle in additional flour as needed, using a light folding and patting motion to mix. You want to have a very soft, delicate dough which does not stick to your fingers if you touch it gently with clean hands.
Flour a board generously. (If you have rice flour, use that. Otherwise, all-purpose flour is fine.) If your hands are sticky, wash and dry them. Next, take a fist-sized chunk of the gnocchi dough and quickly toss it on the floured board so it is dusted with flour. Then, using a very gentle rolling/patting motion, roll the dough into a long ‘snake’ about an inch in diameter. (You can roll it thinner if you like, but for this kind of gnocchi I like them opulently oversized.) Using a pastry knife or a clean sharp kitchen knife, cut the gnocchi into pieces about two finger-widths wide. Transfer to a floured baking tray and, making sure your board is clean, repeat until you’ve used up all your dough. That’s it! Now, if you wish, you can freeze the gnocchi in layers separated by parchment paper, or you can cook them straightaway.
For gnocchi with brown butter and sage sauce, dollop a generous amount of butter into a pan and melt over medium heat. As the butter starts to foam, tilt and/or whisk to mix the butter. Eventually the butter solids will start to turn golden brown and smell like hazelnuts. Add a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar, a sprinkling of salt, and your sage leaves. Fry the sage leaves until crisp.
Cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water until they float to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon, and then toss in the brown butter over medium-low heat until gently browned on all sides. Serve topped with crisped sage.