Perhaps more than any other dish, people always seem to be impressed or intrigued at the fact that i always make my own gnocchi, and i'm often asked how to make them. And I can't say i blame them, because i love gnocchi; they're a comforting and versatile alternative to pasta, with a character all their own. I'm a bit of a gnocchi snob, mainly because i grew up with a grandmother that made consistently amazing pasta, which pretty much spoiled me as far as that goes. And in my experience, even at good Italian restaurants, the gnocchi are usually mediocre at best, and the worst resemble something squeezed out of a play-doh factory. And the packaged gnocchi you can buy at the grocery store? Forget about it.
Despite the fact that they are pretty simple to make at home, they do take some time and patience, and if you mess them up they are either little piles of mush or tough, chewy nuggets that are not worth the effort to eat. But, when you make them right, they are incredible; tender, pillowy and delicious, with just enough resistance to the tooth...a perfect vehicle for your favorite sauce, or even just some butter and freshly grated cheese.
There are endless variations on recipes for gnocchi, although there are 3 primary variations: potato gnocchi, a gnocchi made with semolina "alla Romana", and one made with ricotta cheese. I generally make the potato variety...here's how:
POTATO GNOCCHI (serves approx. 5-6)
3 lbs. potatoes (i prefer either russet or yukon gold)
2-3 cups all purpose flour
1 large egg
pinch of salt
Step 1: Boil or steam the whole, unpeeled potatoes until fully cooked. I prefer to steam them (since the potatoes end up drier) although it does take a bit longer (about 40 mins, give or take). So, if you're in a hurry, go ahead and boil.
Step 2: After the potatoes are done cooking, peel them and mash them (while still hot) untill most of the chunks are gone and you have a smooth consistency. Add a pinch of salt while doing this.
Step 3: Place the mashed potatoes on whatever surface you'll be working the dough on (countertop, cutting board, etc.). Then, form a well in the center of the potatoes.
Step 4: Add 1 egg to the well you just made. Using a fork, first, mix the egg, then gradually work in the potato until you have a wet, uniform potato/egg mixture.
Step 5: Gradually add flour to the mixture, working it in little by little, until the dough is able to be kneaded by hand. Here, the amount of flour you use with vary depending on how wet the potato mixture is. I generally find that by the time i'm finished, i've used between 2-3 cups of flour. Once it's dry enough to work without it sticking to your hands, gently knead the dough into a ball, gradually adding more flour until you achieve the desired consistency (the dough should be fairly firm, smooth, and dry to the touch). Here, it is important not to overwork the dough, or make it too dry/firm with the flour.
Step 6: Cut a piece of dough from the ball, about 1 inch wide. Gently rough the dough in your hands, just enough to get it started. Then on the countertop, continue rolling the dough out (gently!) until it is about as thick as a finger. Be sure to use just enough flour on the countertop to keep the dough from sticking.
Step 7: Cut the rolled dough into approx. 3/4 inch pieces. Then, very gently press down on the piece of dough with your middle finger (or whichever one is most comfortable for you), and roll the piece towards you, in a soft, downward flicking motion (this should all be one smooth movement). The piece of dough should end up rounded, with a small concave shape where your finger was. This will take a bit of practice, but goes fast once you get the hang of it.
Step 8: As you finish pressing and rolling your gnocchi into their final shape, place them on a floured baking sheet, keeping the gnocchi from touching each other. If you're going to be using them at a later date, place the baking sheet of gnocchi in the freezer until they are solid to the touch. Then, remove them from the sheet and place them in a freezer bag or other storage container and return them to the freezer.
Step 9: To cook the fresh or frozen gnocchi, simply place them in a large pot of salted, boiling water, stirring just enough to keep them from sticking together in the water. As they cook, the gnocchi will float to the top. Let them continue to cook for 2-3 minutes after they begin to float, testing them as the cook. Your actual cooking times will vary, but they should be soft and tender to the bite, with just a bit of chewy resistance. If they are undercooked, they'll be mushy and doughy; overcook them and they'll be tough and hard. When they're ready, just drain them and serve em up with your favorite sauce...