Potato gnocchi are actually quite easy to make, although I don’t think we have them often enough in our house. We were recently asked to teach how to make them at our Cooking with Giuliano at Home class. Making gnocchi at first seems challenging, but as one gets the hang of it, they can be expertly made by anyone interested in cooking. Our students were at first a bit leery, but then had fun shaping them – and later when eating them, figuring who made which one! Everyone was surprised by how light and delicate properly made gnocchi turn out, and all were planning to make them again soon.
Many people are so intimidated by gnocchi that they never try making them. Our students learned that gnocchi are not heavy dumplings, rather they are buoyant bits of dough that float to the surface of boiling water. What causes them to be too gluey, tough, or heavy is either the wrong potato or too much flour. The secret to making good gnocchi is in using the right potato, which should neither be too waxy nor too starchy. We find that Yukon Gold potatoes work best. It is also important to stop adding flour as soon as the potato dough is smooth and only slightly sticky.
The word gnocchi in Italian, is thought to be derived from the word nocca, meaning knuckle. Indeed, the tines of the fork that is used to create them, do give a knuckle like look. Potato gnocchi are mostly found in northern Italy, but the word gnocchi can mean any kind of dumpling and there are many variations throughout Italy. Not all gnocchi in Italy are made with potatoes, which are a rather recent addition to Italy’s food repertoire. The classic Roman gnocchi are made with semolina. Some are made with just flour and water, such as the ones our students in our Cooking with Giuliano in Italy course get to taste at a fabulous restaurant on the banks of the Po River. One of our favorite places to go in the mountains of the Veneto has a “father gnocchi” festival at Christmas instead of a Father Christmas. Like many recipes, the origins are lost to history. However, it is thought that gnocchi originated somewhere in the Middle East and a type of gnocchi was eaten by the ancient Romans. Because they are simple to make, inexpensive, and filling, as Italians migrated, so did the gnocchi recipes. In Argentina, the 29th of each month is called Dia de Noquis (Gnocchi Day), when a coin is put under the plate of each person to encourage prosperity. The 29th was chosen because the next day is usually pay day and many laborers had run out of money by then.
Gnocchi made at home are undisputedly the best, and once people realize how easy they are to make, there is no reason to purchase the industrial kind. There are many pasta sauces that can be used with gnocchi. Rich and creamy Gorgonzola is a classic one. Marcella’s famous butter and tomato sauce goes very well, although we recommend pureeing the tomato sauce through the coarse disk of a food mill as gnocchi are best with smooth sauces. A simple butter and sage sauce is also lovely, and one of our favorites is with Genovese basil pesto. Whichever way you choose, enjoy in prosperity. Buon appettito!