Gnocchi hasn’t been my friend for quite some time now. I can’t recall what began this culinary schism, as I have always shown the humble potato the greatest of respect. I have never over-boiled potatoes, roasted them to charred blackness, nor steamed them to a muddy mash. I’ve steered well clear of powdered ‘mash’, have always seasoned them well with salt and pepper, and no potato has ever taken up long-term residence at the back of the cupboard, vainly sprouting roots in an attempt to propagate through the wooden interiors. I’ve shown nothing but love and respect for potatoes, but mastering gnocchi, those soft pillows of potato perfection, has always eluded me …
So this week I decided that something had to be done; I could no longer go on with this constant shunning. It was time for gnocchi and I to get together and talk this through like adults, try find some common ground, and get to the root of what the problems were. I was sure this was all a misunderstanding, actions misconstrued and best intentions misjudged. I was confident that with some civilised discourse a mature outcome could be achieved. I’ve always liked gnocchi, and I wanted gnocchi to like me.
It wasn’t easy and I learned some hard lessons; potato choices and flour ratios, baking versus boiling, there was a bewildering amount of information to learn at first. But each night with each failed batch of gnocchi, I came ever-closer to those soft pillows of potato perfection. I’m not there yet, but it would seem that gnocchi and I have moved on from enemies, past the close acquaintances stage and into that wonderful realm of best friends forever. Gnocchi, my new bff …
To start … The Basic Recipe:
Googling ‘gnocchi’ returns a little over 22 million results. By the time you get to the third or fourth page you should start to get an idea of how gnocchi is made:
- Boil potatoes
- Mash potatoes
- Add flour
- Cut up then mark with a fork
- Boil in water until they float to the top
- Serve with sauce
It all seems rather simple, but the majority of recipes don’t go into much detail on each element required to make perfect gnocchi. And that was one of the main problems gnocchi and I encountered … we simply didn’t know much about each other. So over a glass of wine, with some cool jazz playing in the background, we sat down and got to talking …
First … Potatoes matter:
You can’t just use any old type of potato for gnocchi; this was a very particular point brought up. By the third glass of wine it quickly became clear that water is the mortal enemy of gnocchi. Do not forget this. Waxy potatoes have a higher water content than floury ones, so straight away, if you’re using waxy potatoes for gnocchi, you’ve lost already. Floury potatoes are the only potatoes that should be used for gnocchi. Ideally, this recipe should be started at least two to three weeks in advance, with your floury potatoes nestling comfortably in a cool, dry place, aging away peacefully. Aged floury potatoes are the best kind to use for gnocchi.
Next … Cooking potatoes matter:
Leave the skins on when cooking the potatoes. If you’re boiling the potatoes with the skins off, you are exposing the flesh to infiltration by the mortal enemy, water. So leave the skins on. Which leads me to my next point: boiling potatoes.
It’s an easy way to cook the potatoes, same goes for steaming. The problem is, over-cooking the potatoes can also lead to possible water infiltration, especially if you’re prodding them to see if they’re cooked yet. I don’t like the risk; I find it far more beneficial to bake them in the oven.
Firstly, I line the bottom of an oven tray with a thick layer of rock salt, this will aid in drawing out any excess moisture. I have the oven around 180 degrees, and bake the potatoes (skin on of course) for around 45 minutes to an hour, turning them over halfway through. It is much safer to check if the potatoes are cooked through poking and prodding while baking them in the oven, as, funnily enough, there’s zero water involved.
If you do decide to boil the potatoes, make sure you place the potatoes in the water while it’s cold, then bring to the boil. Placing potatoes in boiling water will cause the skins to split (water!) or not cook the potatoes through evenly. Try and avoid the prodding part …
Next … The mashing:
It is important you do this step while the potatoes are still hot. Mashing hot potatoes helps reduce the water content even more through evaporation. But first you need to get rid of the skins. Have fun with that. I use gloves on both hands, with plasters over my thumbs, a tea towel in one hand, and a paring knife in the other. I’m not a professional chef; I still have nerve endings firing away at the tips of my fingers. And the potatoes are hot dammit …
To be clear, I don’t actually mash the potatoes; I use a potato ricer. If you want to make great gnocchi you should seriously consider purchasing a potato ricer. A ten minute job becomes a two minute job. No ricer? Pass the potatoes through a sieve (you should be used to it from this recipe, or this one …). I would not recommend using some kind of potato mashing instrument; you will break down the cell walls of the potatoes, creating a kind of glue that would perhaps be better suited to holding bricks together. Using a food processor? For gnocchi? Navigate away from this page please …
Next … The dough:
Some recipes will call for you to mix in the flour while the potatoes are still hot. To be perfectly honest, this never came up in my gnocchi conversations, I was too busy discussing ratios of flour. My instinct was to wait until they were cold so as not to scramble the egg. So once they’ve cooled down, you can get onto the kneading part.
The ratio of flour to potato, however, is extremely important. I found it incredibly frustrating to find so many recipes specifying two or three cups of flour; a cup is a measure of volume, you want a measure of mass. So ditch the measuring cups and spend a few bucks on an electronic scale, your gnocchi will appreciate it.
The basic ratio I use is 120 grams of flour to 500 grams of potato, with perhaps 50 grams extra used, depending on how the flour is acting with the potato. I use Italian “OO'” grade flour, but regular plain flour could be used as well. “OO” flour is finer than regular flour, and it seems to work better with pasta and gnocchi.
So, once I’ve allowed the riced potato to cool, I add one beaten egg, but you could leave this out. Egg provides extra strength for the gluten from the flour to bind with the potato, and adds a springy texture. I’ve never tried it without an egg, but hey, if you’re feeling adventurous, omit one egg … I then add a teaspoon of olive oil, about half the flour, a good amount of salt and pepper, mix it in for a few minutes, then place it onto the kitchen bench, add the rest of the flour, and continue kneading for five to ten minutes until a nice dough has formed. All up, this is a good basic recipe, but you can do better …
So, in addition to the beaten egg, olive oil, salt and pepper and olive oil, I add 100 grams of grated Parmesan, a good tablespoon of Dijon mustard, and about a teaspoon of ground nutmeg, to 500 grams of potato. The addition of grated Parmesan means less flour needs to be added, which only helps the finished flavour. And mustard has always been a good partner to Parmesan.
If you have kneaded in the flour and you are still left with a sticky, gluey mess, it is possible that you are either using the wrong potatoes, have mashed them when they had cooled down too much, or somehow got water into the potatoes if you steamed or boiled them. It is easy at this point to start adding extra flour to try and achieve a dough like consistency. Don’t. You’ll be tasting all that flour at the end, and it won’t taste good. Parmesan will help, but not salvage the situation. You could decide to simply stick with what you have and move along with the recipe, or start again. Just don’t keep adding flour. You can safely add an extra 100 grams of flour to 500 grams of potato, if need be, but the flavour will begin to suffer towards the end of those 100 grams, especially if you go over that amount.
Once you have your dough ready, clean down your bench thoroughly of any excess flour or dough that may have stuck to it. Then, with a light sprinkling of fresh flour on the bench, start breaking off chunks of the dough and begin rolling it out into a long rope, around 1.5cm in diameter. Repeat until all the dough is rolled out into these ropes. Add a little more flour to the surface of the ropes if they are sticking to the bench. Next, start cutting the ropes off into small 1 to 2cm lengths. Once you have them all cut up, grab a fork and push one side of the small pillows lightly onto the fork, using your thumb to place a small indentation in the back. This will help any sauce you make stick to the gnocchi, and speed up it’s cooking.
From here it’s all rather simple. Get a pot of salted water boiling, then cook the gnocchi in batches. Once they float to the top, they’re cooked. Scoop out with a slotted spoon or sieve and put aside with a little olive oil coating them to prevent sticking. If you are serving it with a sauce, use the gnocchi immediately. If you’re going to cook them later (like with my recipe coming up) have a large bowl of iced water nearby, and place the gnocchi into this once it’s cooked. The iced water will prevent further cooking, and help the gnocchi hold it’s shape.
And that’s it; gnocchi done. Hurrah! Now, moving on to my recipe …
Potato Gnocchi with Mushroom Consommé & Hazelnuts
- Floury Potatoes (Desiree’s are ideal; I use Red Rascal. I use around 1 kg to serve 3 to 4 people)
- Italian Grade “OO” Flour (or plain flour)
- Olive Oil
- Grated Parmesan (please don’t use pre-grated stuff, it’s horrible)
- Salt and Pepper
- Dijon Mustard
- Nutmeg (ground or grate it in fresh yourself)
- Mushrooms (portobello’s seem to work best for the consommé, swiss browns for the garnish. Button mushrooms don’t seem to carry as much flavour)
- Fresh Thyme
- Shallots (French shallots; like baby onions, but better. Not spring onions)
- Prosciutto or Jamón (bacon will work in a pinch, I like the flavour of Jamón)
First … The Gnocchi:
The first step of course is to prepare the gnocchi. Just follow the steps above, including the Parmesan, mustard and nutmeg. Be sure to use the ice-water bath after cooking the gnocchi in boiling water. Drain the gnocchi from the water, coat in some olive oil and then set aside.
Next … The Mushroom Consommé:
While you have your potatoes baking away in the oven, roughly chop the portobello mushrooms, a few swiss browns, one shallot and a clove of garlic. Place in a pot with three to four sprigs of thyme, cover with water, then set on the stove on a low heat to simmer. I use around 400 grams of mushrooms all up, with about 900mls to a litre of water. As we are trying to make a consommé at the end, it’s important not to boil the mushrooms, as boiling will cloud the broth. Just leave it at a simmer for a good hour, stirring occasionally.
After an hour of simmering the house should be filled with the wondrous aroma of fungi, with the water now a deep amber brown. The next step now is to clarify the mushroom broth with egg whites. Just remember, I do this more for presentation than anything else. You could easily strain the mushrooms out of the broth, leave it on the stove keeping warm, and serve it like that. It could also be argued that clarifying the broth with egg whites diminishes some of the flavour too. So it’s completely up to you if you follow the next step. For the brave, continue on …
Strain the broth, then leave it in the refrigerator to cool down for 20 minutes or so. If you add the egg whites into the broth while it’s hot, they will scramble, and then it’s back to the stove for another hour of simmering another mushroom broth. Like me, the first time I tried to clarify the broth …
Once the broth has cooled down, lightly (lightly!) beat one egg white, and add to that one finely diced mushroom and some crushed egg shells too. Lightly stir this into the broth and then set it on the stove, again at a low simmer. If you boil the broth here, it will not clarify, so keep a close eye on it, adjusting the heat if need be. After ten or so minutes, the egg whites, shells, and diced mushrooms will begin to form what is called a ‘raft’ on top of the broth. As this forms it will be bringing to the surface any solid particles within the broth, and after 45 minutes to an hour of simmering, beneath the raft you should have a crystal clear consommé.
The final part is to remove the raft. Using a slotted spoon, or Chinese copper wok strainer, gently remove as much of the raft as you can, trying not to disturb the consommé beneath. I’ve seen some chefs siphon it out, which is entertaining to watch when it goes wrong … Once you have removed most or all of the raft, strain the consommé into a container. You could use muslin cloth, a coffee filter, or even paper towels to aid in straining; it all depends on how discerning you are towards the clearness of your consommé. I just use a paper towel until it gets water-logged, then just pour the rest in. Works for me.
Transfer to a clean pot, and leave on the stove to reheat for later.
Next … The Garnish:
Roughly chop one shallot, a good handful of swiss brown mushrooms, one to two slices of Jamón or prosciutto (or bacon), a clove of garlic, and two to three teaspoons of chopped thyme. Sauté these together in a pan with a little olive oil for three to four minutes. Season with salt and pepper then remove from the pan and set aside. If you would like to keep this dish vegetarian, just leave out the Jamón or prosciutto.
Finally … The Assembly:
Gently start reheating your consommé, seasoning it with some salt and pepper, and turn your pan onto a medium heat. Start sautéing your gnocchi in batches in the pan. Be careful not to have the heat too high, or else they will burn on the bottom of the pan. You will also know fairly quickly if you have either added to much flour or cooked them too long in boiling water; they will begin to disintegrate in the pan. This happened to you? You may want to go back to step one, or head off to the supermarket for some pre-made gnocchi. Sorry bout that …
Once you have a nice golden colour to most of your gnocchi, return the garnish to the pan, gently mix it in, then place into your serving bowls. Add a small handful of roughly chopped hazelnuts to each bowl; the hazelnuts definitely benefit from being roasted slightly in the oven beforehand. Pour the consommé over the top, adjust for final seasoning, then shave over some Parmesan and pour over a small dollop of olive oil. I also add some fresh peas and purple carrots to complete the dish, but it will certainly work fine on it’s own.
Now, with a bit of luck, you should have a crystal clear consommé, tasty garnish, and small pillows of potato perfection. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find you have a new friend: potato gnocchi. We get on just fine now.