Flour. Potato. Egg. Salt. These four ingredients are all you need to make gnocchi, the soft potato dumplings that are the ultimate Italian comfort food. These lovely little pillows soak up whatever sauce you put them in, making for a flavorful, savory dish.
As a child, I was obsessed with gnocchi. Any time we went out to an Italian restaurant, which was pretty often given my father’s Italian background, I instantly scoured the menu for gnocchi. No matter what sauce it came with, I ordered it. At one restaurant in the town I grew up in, my dad was family friends with the owner. The restaurant was quite expensive, so we only went on special occasions, like birthdays or graduations. A few days before our reservation, if gnocchi was not on the menu, my dad would call up his the owner and ask him to arrange something special for me. Even as an eight-year old, I was demanding and just slightly bougie. My version of the kids menu was gnocchi, not fish sticks or chicken nuggets. I believed my dad had a magical power to summon my favorite pasta dish. When we sat down and the menu didn’t list gnocchi as a dish, I would look to him, he would nod and take care of things with the waiter. Shortly afterwards, my one true culinary love arrived, delicious as always.
Gnocchi was also my favorite dish because making it meant I spent a lot of time with my mother in the kitchen. I would beg and beg for it for Christmas or my birthday, but she stipulated that if I wanted to eat it, I had to help make it. I had one important job, after my mom did the hard part of making the dough. I had to take each individual dumpling and carefully roll and flick a fork across it. The prongs of the fork make tiny holes in the gnocchi that help them absorb the sauce and acquire their signature fluffy texture. Essentially, the motion is putting the back of the fork lightly on the gnocchi, rolling the gnocchi towards the prongs of the fork, applying a very small amount of pressure at the end where the prongs are, and then slightly flicking the fork up to give the dumpling the indentations. Getting the hang of the motion can be challenging; even after 20 years, my brother still can’t get it quite right (a fact we of course use to tease him). So don’t worry if it takes a while to figure it out; slightly squished or smashed gnocchi are still delicious!
The other key tool to make gnocchi is a ricer. While it may seem silly to buy a piece of equipment only to make gnocchi, it makes all the difference. You can find them online or in most stores for about fifteen to twenty bucks. Passing the cooked potato through the ricer airs out the potato and makes for a light dough. Have you ever had gummy, over-worked mashed potatoes? Without the ricer, you’re going to have that, but in pasta form. I’ll give one more plug for buying one: a ricer makes- you guessed it- fantastic mashed potatoes, butternut squash pasta sauce, and more. Embrace the ricer as your key to delicious pasta!
To complete the dish, nothing beats a homemade marinara or fresh pesto. I recommend making your own sauce; my cooking philosophy is to keep it simple and cook with fresh ingredients. The last thing you want is for your beautiful, fluffy gnocchi babies to be brought down by a drab store-bought marinara. If you’re going to go store-bought, I advise checking out your local farmer’s market or Italian deli; they usually have got the good stuff!
When serving this dish to a crowd, I do a special layering system handed down by my grandfather. In a very large dish, start off, with a small bit of sauce spread out so it covers the bottom of the dish. Add a single layer of gnocchi- you don’t have to be super careful about it, just don’t put too many on top of each other. Follows this with a bit more sauce, and then a layer of fresh grated parmesan cheese. Repeat until all the gnocchi is in the plate. The fresh parm adds a great saltiness and fattiness to the humble potato gnocchi. Good parmesan cheese doesn’t have to break the bank either. Trader Joe’s sells large whole wedges for an affordable price and you can’t argue with the taste!
Part of the reason why I was obsessed with gnocchi as a kid is that it’s so deceptive: how can potato, flour, egg, and salt be so delicious?! I’m sure once you try it out, you’ll become a gnocchi devotee too!
4 medium russet potatoes
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour plus extra for dusting
2 medium egg yolks, beaten
1 tbs. salt
24 oz. sauce of choice (pesto or marinara recommended)
Grated Parmesan cheese to taste
Cookie sheets- 2
Large casserole or baking dish
1. Wash and dry potatoes. Prick each potato several time with a fork. Microwave for 20–30 minutes. Time will vary depending on the size of the potatoes and the strength of the microwave. Every few minutes, turn over and rotate the potatoes. You’ll know the potatoes are done when you can stick a fork in them easily without any resistance.
Note: Be careful when removing plate of potatoes from the microwave- it will be hot!
2. Cut each potato in half. Be sure to handle the hot potatoes with gloves or a dish towel. Scoop out the insides of one half with a spoon put into the ricer. Press down on the ricer and put the riced potato into a large bowl. Repeat with other potato halves until you have riced all the potato. Discard potato skins or save them for another dish.
3. Add in egg yolk, salt, and flour to the potato in the same bowl. Mix by hand until moist and just combined. Don’t over mix.
4. Fill a large pasta pot with water and turn the burner to high. This will make sure your water is boiling once you’re reading to cook the gnocchi.
5. Dust two cookie sheets and your cutting board with flour. When handling the gnocchi dough, be sure to frequently flour your hands.
6. Take a baseball size amount of the gnocchi dough and place it on the cutting board. Roll back and forth on the board with your palms until the ball becomes the shape of snake (also think a jump rope shape). It should be about an inch in width. With a paring knife, cut across the snake to separate it into pieces. Each dumpling should be about an inch in length.
8. Next, roll your fork across the dumpling to leave an imprint of the fork prongs. See paragraph three above for help. Place finished gnocchi on a single layer on the cookie sheets.
9. Repeat steps 6–8 until you have used all the gnocchi dough.
10. Warm up the sauce you’re using in the microwave or in a skillet on low. Put a large scoop of the sauce in the bottom of your serving dish and spread it out so the bottom of the dish is covered.
11. When water is boiling, add a large pinch of salt. Cook gnocchi in batches; depending on the size of your pot, do about half to one-third of a cookie sheet of gnocchi at a time. You’ll know the gnocchi are done when they float to the top of the water. Remove immediately with a large slotted spoon. Place cooked gnocchi in a single layer in the serving dish.
12. Once you have one layer of gnocchi, top with more sauce and cheese. Repeat step 11, continuing to layer sauce, gnocchi, and then cheese. Top with more cheese and basil if desired.