Gnocchi is the reason that I went to Italy; gnocchi is the reason that I became a chef; gnocchi is the reason I’m writing this book. I love gnocchi! Gnocchi would be my last meal if I got to pick; it’s the food I’d want to have if I could only have one. In fact, it’s exactly what I made as survival food when I was trapped at a good friend’s apartment with a bunch of people during a city-slamming snowstorm. Everyone ooh’d and ah’d as the gnocchi bobbed up to the top of the pot. We ate ‘em with freshly grated cheese and canned tomato sauce—then we went outside and made snow angels in the empty streets.
I’ve spent a lifetime finding the best way to make the lightest, fluffiest gnocchi—I’ve been working on it ever since the first time I made this pasta with my aunt, when I was twelve. In the fancy local Italian restaurant I worked in as a teenager, they came frozen in a bag, and we precooked them and then reheated them with sauce. They were flavorless lead sinkers. That’s how they were served everywhere I went, in fact—so that’s how I thought they were supposed to be. I was pretty sure my aunt’s version was just some weirdly delicious home-cooking thing she’d come up with herself. When I went to Italy and had them at the source for the first time, I realized that my aunt had just been cooking Italian-style: gnocchi, cooked correctly, are actually melt-in-your-mouth sublime morsels. Unless they’re made of semolina, gnocchi should be light, airy, smooth and luxurious.
But they’re still widely misunderstood in America—and even in Italy, where I’ve actually been served the frozen-from-a-bag version in restaurants. Not long ago, a cook who had worked with me took a chef’s job in his hometown. He put my gnocchi recipe on the menu—and the owner complained that they were “bad” and “inauthentic” because they weren’t dense and heavy enough. He wouldn’t like this version much, either.
Makes 4 servings.
4 large Idaho potatoes (about 2 lbs.), scrubbed
1 whole egg, beaten
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons grated Parmesano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon course ground black pepper
Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 425°F.
Prick each potato several times with a fork and place on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan large enough to hold them all in a single layer. Bake in the oven until the potatoes are tender enough to be easily pierced with a small knife (about 60 minutes).
Remove the potatoes from the oven and let them cool slightly—just enough so that you can handle them, not more. They should still be steaming when you cut them open ( about 6 to 10 minutes). (If you let the potatoes get too cold, the proteins in the egg won’t bind with the potatoes, and your gnocchi will fall apart). Cut each potato in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Pass the potato flesh through a food mill or press through a ricer set over a medium bowl. (When it comes through the ricer, the potato should look sort of like Play-Do.) Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the beaten egg, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, melted butter, salt, and pepper, and 1 cup of flour, reserving the rest. (You can melt the butter in the microwave). The mixture should be stirred only until the ingredients are combined: anything more will overwork the dough, and your gnocchi will come out tough (like the frozen-in-a-bag variety). Work the mixture into a smooth ball; if the dough seems a little too moist for this, add a touch of flour (the moisture level in every potato is different, so every batch of gnocchi will be a bit different, too).
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Working quickly, cut the dough into inch-wide slices, using a dough cutter if you’ve got one, a regular dinner-table knife if you don’t. Roll these between your hands to make them into a ball. The dough should feel soft, slightly tacky but not sticky—sort of warm and sexy. Roll out each piece into long logs (or “snakes,” as we call them in the kitchen), approximately 14” to 16” long, about ¾“ thick. (This isn’t a precise measurement. You can make your gnocchi whatever size you want—this is just how I like ‘em.) Cut each on in half and roll it out again, thinner, to the same length. Sprinkle the rolled-out snakes with flour to keep them from sticking, and keep adding more flour to the work surface as you go to help as you roll the dough. Cut each snake into gnocchi-sized pieces ( I like mine to be about 1 inch x 1 inch), and place the pieces on a lightly floured baking sheet. Cover this with a cloth or plastic wrap until you’re ready to cook the gnocchi, so they don’t dry out.
Gnocchi are delicate little things; fresh gnocchi should be cooked the day they are made or, at the very latest, the next day. Frozen and stored in an airtight container, they’ll keep for up to a month.
To Cook the Gnocchi: This step is just as important as the preparation: tender gnocchi require careful attention.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the gnocchi all at once (or as close to it as possible). Stir once gently all around, so that the water is aerated and the dough doesn’t become glued together like one big gnoccho. Let the gnocchi cook until they rise to the surface (about 1-2 minutes); wait one more minute and then, using a slotted spoon or a spider, remove the gnocchi. (Don’t ever dump the gnocchi out into a colander the way you would spaghetti: that’s a disaster. All the gnocchi crash onto each other and break.)