Sunday, 5 June 2011

How to Make Gnocchi Your Family Will Love to Eat

                                                                                                            Original artwork by Flavia

It takes a village to raise a gnocch-ista.  And since it’s my mission to make delectable gnocchi during my lifetime, I consulted with the matriarchs in my famiglia— plus searched through my cookbooks— for all-things-gnocchi this week.  So, how do you make mouth-watering potato delicacies everyone will be happy to eat?  I could tell by the initial sighs; then smiles that came my isn’t easy. Through the laughter and tears shed in my extended family’s kitchens over the years, come these essential tips.  I am so grateful  for their stories.  As the saying goes:  learn from other people’s mistakes, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.  And besides, it’s a huge waste of flour and potatoes. 

Study these six tips before you start mixing.  You’ll be happy you did when you’re elbow-deep in sticky dough wondering what possessed you to take on this maddening challenge.

1.  Resist the temptation to boil potatoes in the morning with the intention of making your gnocchi in the afternoon.  Gnocchi is old school.  There is no place you need to be for a few hours other than in the kitchen.  Refrigerating potatoes to knead into a dough on another day will yield poor results.  For optimum fluffiness, this high-maintenance dish calls for fresh, warm potatoes.

2.  Great gnocchi begin and end with dry potatoes.  No exceptions. Potatoes must be warm and dry, dry, dry.  Baking potatoes (also known as Russets or Idahos, or whatever the baked variety is called where you live) are best.  Boil them with their skins on and drain immediately after they’re cooked.  Then put them back into the same (now waterless) pot and onto the hot burner they came from to dry them out completely.  (Just a note here about dry potatoes:  one of my cookbooks suggests baking rather than boiling.  I have trouble with this only because gnocchi come from the humble beginnings I still like to honor today.  My nonna would have turned on the oven for a roast with potatoes but it wouldn’t have made economic sense to her to turn on the oven just for potatoes. So I’m holding the frugal flag up high on this one.  Also, it was suggested to me that microwaving potatoes ensures optimum dryness but I’m old-school here, too.  I use my microwave for reheating and not for cooking.  If you’re a microwave chef, however, I say: why not do as you please?)

3.  When mashing, it’s best to use a potato ricer.  If you don’t have a ricer and wish not to buy one, you can force your cooked potatoes through an ordinary kitchen strainer— a proposal that seems exhausting to me— or mash them very finely with a fork ensuring you have absolutely no lumps.  Just don’t tell my mom or my aunts. You’d be amazed at what starts an argument in my family.

Use baking potatoes and a schiacciapatate (potato ricer) for best results
 4.  Stickiness guarantees ickiness.  Let your fingers guide you here. Use all-purpose or bread flour and don’t worry about the exact amount called for in whatever gnocchi recipe you’re exploring.  The amount of flour will vary each time, as it’s determined by the water content in your potatoes. Your sticky hands will tell you how much flour you require as you knead.  Stop when your dough is smooth and just slightly sticky.  Add too much flour and you’ll have bricks.

5.  Use the Goldilocks Test.  After you’ve rolled out, cut, and shaped your gnocchi, boil water in a 2-quart pot and test 5 or 6 of them for firmness.  This is a good way to save yourself from a family-sized serving of cement pellets or a dinner that’s simply invisible.  As they pop up, remove your gnocchi with a slotted spoon and taste them. Are they too soft?  Too hard?  Or just right?  A warning to first-timers: stand back after you put your inaugural batch into the test pot. My Zia Anna’s first-time gnocchi exploded like hand granades as they rose up due to too much flour!  If yours pop up like firecrackers, I’m not sure what to suggest as removing flour from dough is an impossible task.  Start over, or stop and pour yourself a glass of wine while considering your options.  If your gnocchi are too soft, on the other hand, this is your chance to knead more flour into the mix and retest until your dough is just right.

Use your thumb and carefully roll your gnocchi on the back of a fork

6.  To combat stickiness, use semolina or corn flour rather than regular flour when rolling and shaping your gnocchi.  This should firm them up without yielding tough little nuggets.  Below is one of our old family recipes.  I hope these tips help you achieve excellent results.  I send my good wishes to all gnocchi makers out there, especially those brave enough to try this for the first time.  In bocca al lupo
  may the Roman goddesses of the kitchen guide us!
Potato Gnocchi alla Panna (with cream sauce)

Serves 4
2 lbs (5 or 6) Potatoes
2 Eggs
1 cup Flour (Use all-purpose or bread variety)
½ tsp Nutmeg
Semolina or corn flour as needed
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes in their skins until tender, about 35 minutes.  Drain and allow to cool in the pot as explained in tip #1 until you can handle them.  Peel skins with a fork and place through ricer and into a large bowl.  Whisk your eggs separately and add to potatoes along with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Add flour gradually and knead until dough is soft and smooth enough to hold a shape.  Don’t add more flour unless it’s necessary! Sprinkle your counter with some semolina or corn flour and place a handful of dough on top.  Roll into a long strip, then cut into a few 1-inch-wide pieces. Shape them along the back edge of a fork.  Now try the Goldilocks Test.  Make any necessary adjustments to your dough and test again if necessary.  Once your dough is perfect, divide it into smaller portions. Take each ball and roll it into long strips, using semolina and corn flour as necessary. Cut these strips into inch-long pieces and shape until your dough is all used up. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and start your cream sauce. Add gnocchi (20 to 25 at a time) to boiling water and stir gently.  Remove each one with a slotted spoon when it bobs to the surface, placing them in individual plates.  Top with sauce. 

My husband, who is the wine connoisseur in our family, suggests one of two Italian wines with this dish. The fruity, lively red Barbera, or the white and earthy Soave.  After all the work you’ve done, you will enjoy it!
Cream Sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
Two handfuls of diced green onion
A little diced cooked ham
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup chicken broth
¼ cup of parmesan, pecorino or whatever hard cheese you have on hand

Heat butter and oil in a skillet and add onion, and ham.  Stir for two to three minutes. Mix in flour.  Add remaining ingredients except for cheese and simmer to reduce. Stir in cheese and remove from heat immediately.  Spoon onto each plate and serve.

I look forward to hearing about how your gnocchi turn out.  How did you do?  What did you find most challenging?  Would you make them again?  How was the wine?  And finally, what tips can you share with others?  Tutti a tavola...dinner is ready!  Buon Appetito!


  1. Yum! Thanks for the recipe, and tips. This certainly is a labour of love.


  2. June does not lend itself to spending hours in the kitchen...kid stuff means we're lucky if food gets in the fridge!
    Thanks for all your research though and it is still something I want to try!

  3. I agree. This is not the time of year to make gnocchi! Save it for a winter's day when you long to spend time creating a soothing dish in your kitchen. Whenever you decide to make them, though, I'd love to hear your story and any tips you can share.