Italian gnocchi (pronounced "nyaucky"), like their French cousins, quenelles, are among the touchstones of a cook's skill. With perseverance anyone can make them: First a paste is prepared, then shaped spoonful by spoonful, poached, drained and served, often reheated with sauce. The most important prerequisite is patience.
The challenge to gnocchi or quenelles, however, lies in making them light and airy withouth their falling apart during poaching. More than one professional chef has said, "Never again!" after once proving that he or she had the skill to make them right.
I have taken a similar tack, but without abandoning gnocchi altogether. Cheese and spinach gnocchi in particular are too delicious to give up. Instead, my approach has been to abandon the traditional way of cooking gnocchi and prepare them in the oven, making a crustless quiche or pie from the gnocchi paste.
Served hot, these gnocchi pies are flavorful and light -- perhaps not as light as the ideal poached gnocchi, but far from heavy. Moreover, a gnocchi pie serving six to eight requires only 20 minutes of a cook's time, as opposed to an hour or more to poach enough gnocchi for that many people.
The basic ingredients in cheese or spinach gnocchi are remarkably similiar to those of cheesecake. Both are based on a mixture of eggs and fresh, unfermented cheese: cream cheese for cheesecake and ricotta for gnocchi. The major differences lie in gnocchi's lack of sugar and the use of flavorings like parmesan cheese, nutmeg or spinach.
These gnocchi pies, or ricotta pies as I like to call them, are easy to make, delicious, and versatile enough to be suitable for a variety of occasions, be it brunch, lunch or supper. They can also be eaten cold and are easily reheated in a conventional or microwave oven, though they will not be as airy as when they were first cooked.
If made with good quality fresh ingredients such as freshly grated nutmeg, freshly grated Italian or Argentine parmesan-style cheese, these pies have enough finesse to be an appetizer at the most elegant dinner party. RICOTTA CHEESE PIE (6 servings) 15 or 16 ounces of ricotta cheese 4 eggs 1/2 cup grated parmesan-style cheese 3 tablespoons flour 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or 1/3 to 1/2 whole nutmeg, grated 1/4 teaspoon freshly gound black pepper or more to taste 1/8 teaspoon salt or more to taste Butter
Mix the ricotta cheese and eggs together in a large bowl, using a whisk or an electric mixer. When they are well blended, mix in the grated parmesan-style cheese. Add the flour, nutmeg, pepper and salt, and mix well. Taste the batter to check the seasoning. The pepper should be unobtrusive, but its presence should be perceptible behind the nutmeg and cheese. Pour into a buttered 8-inch pie dish or layer cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees until the pie has puffed slightly and the center is no longer liquid -- about 30 minutes. If the top of the pie did not brown well, place under a hot broiler for a minute to toast it to a golden brown. But be careful, it can burn easily. It should be served hot, but many can be eaten cold. RICOTTA-PROVOLONE PIE (6 servings) 15 or 16 ounces of ricotta cheese 4 eggs 1/2 cup grated parmesan-style cheese 3 tablespoons flour 3/4 teaspoon gorund nutmeg or 1/3 to 1/2 whole nutmeg, grated 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper or more to taste 1/8 teaspoon salt or more to taste Butter 1/4 pound good imported provolone, cut into sticks approximately 1/4-by-1/2-by-2-inches.
Combine the first seven ingredients mixing well after each addition. Check the seasonings and adjust if needed. Pour half the batter into a buttered 8-inch pie or layer cake pan. Arrange the provolone sticks evenly over the layer of batter. Cover the provolone with the rest of the batter and bake at 350 degrees until pie has puffed slightly and the center is no longer liquid -- about 30 minutes.
The use of high quality, imported provolone instead of domestic makes a big difference in the quality of this dish. SPINACH-RICOTTA PIE (8 servings) 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach 15 or 16 ounces ricotta cheese 4 eggs 1/2 cup grated parmesan-style cheese 3 tablespoons flour 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or 1/3 to 1/2 whole nutmeg, grated 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or more to taste 1/8 teaspoon salt or more to taste Butter
Cook the spinach in a small amount of water until it is heated through. Drain it thoroughly, squeezing out as much water as possible. Mix together the ricotta and eggs. Add the parmesan-style cheese, flout, nutmeg, pepper and salt, mixing thoroughly. Add the chopped spinach. Check the seasoning. Pour into a buttered 9-inch layer cake pan and bake at 350 degrees until the pie has puffed slightly and the center is no longer liquid -- about 30 minutes. p