Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gnocchi – the other pasta

An editor in the UK once advised me that English readers were not particularly fond of gnocchi and that I should consider carefully before including a recipe in a book proposal I was preparing. She never explained why she thought so.

The conversation stuck in my mind. How could someone object to gnocchi? On what grounds did she base her claim? I came to the conclusion that perhaps she’d suffered what’s termed a ‘gnocchi meltdown’ – one of those moments when gnocchi magically disappear once plunged into boiling water, the result of having added too little flour to the mix. It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing), particularly if you have four hungry guests waiting in the next room for their first course! Not that that’s ever happened to me - I’m not the one with a grudge against gnocchi. 

Gnocchi are essentially a kind of dumpling and are closely linked to pasta. Most commonly made with potato and flour, they can also be made from a mixture of breadcrumbs or cornmeal with or without flour, or semolina or polenta. Often herbs or vegetables or cheeses comprise part of the mix. They can take different forms but generally they are about the size of a thimble, and are usually given a characteristic shape by rolling the dough briefly against the back of a fork or a grater or other such means. This helps the gnocchi to hold the sauce better.

The dumplings are cooked in boiling salted water and then dressed with a sauce in more or less the same manner as pasta. In some areas they are then baked for a short period in the oven – as in gnocchi alla romana. The most simple of sauces is butter and grated cheese, usually parmesan, sometimes with sage added. Other popular sauces include the ubiquitous tomato sauce, gorgonzola cheese sauce or a basil pesto but the variations are virtually endless.

Despite their popularity throughout the whole of Italy, there’s very little known about the origins of gnocchi except that they were probably linked with the history of pasta. This is due to the fact that many old cookery books referred to both as ‘m’caroni’ – as in ‘macaroni’ - coupled with the fact that similar ingredients and methods were used to make both. Older versions of gnocchi were made from a simple mixture of flour and water. One of the first mentions of the use of potatoes in the mix dates to the 1860s.

I’ve tried various supermarket varieties of gnocchi but they just aren’t the same. Often a potato flour is used which, as anyone who has eaten the home made version will likely tell you, just doesn’t achieve the same texture or taste as real potatoes. Making good gnocchi at home is simple and once you’ve mastered the knack, it makes for a very quick and economical dish. The key is finding a good quality floury potato. It’s also best to steam the potatoes as the last thing you want is a watery potato! Although recipe books will advise as to how much flour should be added, it’s best not to be too prescriptive. The type of potato used – as in how much water it absorbs in the cooking process – will affect the amount of flour required. With practice, gnocchi can easily be made without scales or measurements – it’s simply a question of adding flour until you have achieved the desired consistency. The following recipe, my grandmother’s, has proven a faithful companion for years and is a good basis to start from.

Gnocchi with a basil red sauce

Serves 4-6
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour

For the gnocchi
1kg floury potatoes
400g plain white flour
50g parmesan cheese

For the sauce
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
500ml tomato passata
1 teaspoon sugar
A good handful of fresh basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

To make the sauce, finely chop the onion and add to a heavy-based pot with the garlic cloves and 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil.  Soften for 5 minutes and then add the tomato passata and a teaspoon of sugar.  Season with salt and pepper and simmer over a very gentle heat for about one hour. Do not stir. Add plenty of roughly torn basil leaves just before serving.

To make the gnocchi, boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water.  When cooked, drain well and mash by passing through a potato ricer. Let the potatoes cool for a few minutes before continuing.  Place the flour on a large board or work surface, make a well in the centre and add the potato and finely grated parmesan cheese.  Gently work the flour and potatoes together with your fingertips and quickly knead together to form a smooth dough.  Rip off pieces of dough, roughly the size of a tangerine and roll with your hands into a long ‘snake’ about 1cm thick.  Don’t be afraid to dust the dough with additional flour as you work to stop it from sticking.  Cut the snake into 2cm pieces and roll each of the gnocchi over the back of a fork, pressing down gently with your thumb to create a small indentation.  To cook the gnocchi bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the gnocchi. When the gnocchi float to the surface they are ready (this will only take a couple of minutes, so have your sauce ready). Remove with a slotted spoon into a large serving bowl and add the tomato sauce.  Serve with extra freshly grated parmesan cheese.


  1. I have a confession to make! I don't like gnocchi! Or Tiramisu! I think though that it may just be that I haven't had good gnocchi or tiramisu.

  2. Try making them yourself Paula. Restaurants that serve good gnocchi are few and far between - there's no comparison to the home made version.

  3. Gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce! Fantastic but you won't have to eat again for a few days!

    1. oh my word I love that too. it's quite heavy but it's so worth it!

  4. Absolutely! It is a heavy dish but well worth the effort. Also, try gorgonzola with chopped walnuts to give it some extra texture.

  5. Il Poggio in Snowmass, CO has the best gnocchi in the United States! Little pillows!!!

  6. We made gnocchi at the cooking school I went in Italy - Tuscan Women Cook. Fun time.

  7. Hi Stellabee. 'Little pillows' - a lovely way to describe gnocchi. And yes, they are great fun to cook. Whenever I make them, my children love to get involved and they're so easy to do.

  8. I love gnocchi, but I have never made my own potato ones. I made a pumpkin variety when we still lived in Australia. I love the sound of the red basil sauce. I must admit that when I buy supermarket ones, I only buy the Rana variety, otherwise I wait and have them at one of our favourite trattorias.

  9. Hi Cathy. Potato gnocchi are so good and so easy to make well. Try making them some time with the kids. I love pumpkin gnocchi with a sage and butter sauce.

  10. I used to make them with my Great Grand Mother when I was a little girl. I could never bring myself gnocchi that wasn't homemade after childhood. Have you ever made them from sweet potatoes? I'd like to try that someday.