It is practically impossible to discuss gnocchi without invoking the p-word. Not “potato,” its historic main ingredient, but the aspirational “pillow.”
We’ve been to Brookstone and Bed Bath & Beyond, so we understand the variations along those lines. Fluffy. With shape-holding density. Heavy enough for combat. Whichever kind you’re accustomed to will do just fine, thank you — until the moment you experience the deliciousness of, say, a custom model that costs a grand. The stuff dreams are made of.
Those distinctions are apt for gnocchi, too.
The dumpling derivatives have been made for hundreds of years. Potato gnocchi began as Italian peasant food that required few components, little time and maybe one hand-powered piece of equipment. It has been universally embraced in its boot-shaped native land, north to south, where provincial gastronomic divisions are the norm.
Gnocchi is so celebrated, in fact, that it has its own day — and I don’t mean a head-scratcher like National Almond Buttercrunch Day. Trattorias in Rome serve it up on Gnocchi Thursdays, while Argentina and Uruguay have adopted their own monthly Dia de Noquis.
When you grow up eating the gnocchi your family put on the table, it becomes the gold standard. You might tweak a recipe so that it becomes your own, shaping it into an enviable entree. Order it at a number of restaurants, and you start to appreciate the better versions.
Then, when you least expect it, a transcendent forkful sends your kitchen brain into overdrive. It can initiate a quest into whys and wherefores that prompts tuberous hoarding and habitual flour dusting.
That is what happened to me. You might not get the opportunity to have close encounters with gnocchi pros, so I’m sharing my journey.
It took one taste of Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s potato gnocchi, situated in a springtime mix of lamb shank ragu, peas, pickled ramps and garrotxa cheese. The dish won best in show at the 2013 D.C. Lamb Jam. There was at least one other gnocchi dish in the May competition, and it was mighty good.
But Meek-Bradley’s gnocchi were otherwordly: tender, silky and light. Ripple patrons won’t let her take them off the menu, so she changes sauces for a little variety. How did a California girl come to possess such a gift? She learned from New York chef Jonathan Benno, now at Lincoln Ristorante on the Upper West Side. Meek-Bradley worked with him when he was chef de cuisine at the three-Michelin star Per Se.
“We’ve all made the gluey, leaden sinkers,” says Benno. “Potato gnocchi should be light. Sounds like Marjorie’s got the touch.”
When asked to describe them, Meek-Bradley says her gnocchi “eats like a pillow.”
Potatoes, egg yolks, kosher salt and all-purpose flour. She e-mailed succinct instructions. Two attempts later, my interpretation was nowhere close to what she’d served. Unnerving for my line of work. A 15-minute demonstration in the calm of Ripple’s no-lunch-service kitchen cleared things up considerably.
“I thought to myself, ‘Of course it makes sense to show you,’ ” she said, conjuring a “duh” as we waited for hot potatoes to finish in the oven. “That’s how technique is best explained.”
I was able to feel the potatoes’ temperature and that of the dough at key points. I saw how little Meek-Bradley incorporated elements with a plastic bench scraper. I discovered why she does not use a fork to create the grooves that make gnocchi look like mini mountain bike tires. (“You need a denser dough to do that,” she says.)
Each step surrendered its own lesson, enriched by the chef’s willingness to answer nitpicky questions. Her main takeaways focused on the potatoes: “Use russets,” a baking potato. “Not Yukon Gold. You need more starch than sugar.”
“Baking potatoes are too floury!” Domenica Marchetti says as gnocchi prep begins in her Alexandria kitchen. The former journalist and occasional Post contributor has written five Italian cookbooks, including “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle, 2011). She graciously agreed to a one-on-one session, even with her AC on the fritz and a nagging feeling that the weather would adversely affect the outcome.
Marchetti boils a mixture of unpeeled red bliss and Yukons. “That’s the way my mother taught me,” she says. “I’ve never made potato gnocchi any other way.” Hers are pleasantly denser than chef Meek-Bradley’s, using all-purpose flour (but less of it), a whole egg and grappa, a potent Italian aperitif. There is more moisture on her brow than in the pile of tepid potato squiggles on the counter. Minutes later, her dough has a shaggy, barely-pulled-together look. Semolina flour goes on the baking sheet for holding the formed gnocchi in the freezer.
Wait. Grappa? Another nod to her mother, and her mother’s mother. “My mom thinks it adds flavor,” Marchetti responds. “But more importantly, she says it keeps the dough tender with less risk of the gnocchi falling apart.”
In Marchetti’s kitchen, the groove-shaping step is not optional. She applies fingertip pressure that creates an indentation on the backside of each gnoccho as it rolls down the fork. After a brief turn in salted boiling water, a single serving’s worth of her gnocchi meets up with Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter. I gobble up more than my share while she inspects the rest. Their exteriors are a little softer than she likes.
Ever diligent, Marchetti checks in the next day to say she has remade the recipe with 1 / 4 cup more flour. “They held their shape much better,” she writes via e-mail. “I really believe the humidity was a factor . . . which got me to thinking . . . probably most Italians always associate gnocchi with colder seasons and/or colder climates.”
Al Dente Ristorante chef Roberto Donna endorses the seasonal vibe approach. “In September, I go to russets [instead of Idaho potatoes] because of the content of their starch,” he says. He is 52 and says his hands have been rolling gnocchi since age 3, when he stood at his nonna’s elbow in Torino.
He prefers egg yolks (two) to a whole egg, claiming that the white creates gumminess. Italian “00” flour is the only kind he uses because of its soft properties. Nutmeg, salt and black pepper are added, but not before he has tasted the potatoes on their own. The mention of grappa prompts a raised eyebrow and silent wag of the finger. Then he dumps a measured five ounces of Parm right into the mix for every three potatoes. Brought together in the same bowl that the just-baked potatoes were food-milled into, his dough feels like velvet. It is on a different culinary plane from other doughs I’ve mooshed my index finger in. His gnocchi emerge from the cooking water glistening, with well-defined edges, eager to absorb a light sauce. In a word, soft.
This is how soft: Sometimes diners send Donna’s gnocchi back because they are so soft. He shrugs, and will create a new batch of dough with more flour if they wish.
“Please make them understand,” the chef says with a ciao-ciao wave goodbye. “Gnocchi should melt in your mouth.”
In between chef visits, I have retested recipes. (See the “Gnocchi troubleshooting” sidebar.) I have watched Giada De Laurentiis make potato gnocchi on television: lots of hand squishing, lots of flour on the work surface, no mention of technique. I have compared bloggers’ renditions and perused our Food section library. I have found that potato flakes are the go-to ingredient of store-bought “fresh” potato gnocchi, which are short on potato-y flavor. I arrive at 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church, my last trip to Carbville for now.
“Nutmeg, okay. Whole egg, okay. No black pepper! And no cheese — unless I’m going to make ricotta gnocchi,” says Bertrand Chemel, reacting to an account of what Donna did.
Chemel, 38, is 2941’s executive chef. He crafts potato gnocchi that make fellow chefs swear in praise. New York chef-restaurateur Andrew Carmellini was his gnocchi muse.
As soon as the sheet of hot baked Idaho potatoes arrives, each spud on its own raised bed of coarse kosher salt, the light-bulb moments commence. Chemel explains every move in detail, his Auvergnese accent charming enough to make me forget about the “00” flour settling into my black ensemble.
“The potatoes are 60-count [per box]; they should be similar in size and weight. The salt keeps the potatoes from burning on the bottom,” he says. Sure enough, some of my earlier trial potatoes had developed a hardened brown foot. The chef wants them baked until tender but not so long that the skin pulls away from the flesh. “I always cook an extra potato in case I split them open and find that one is bruised inside,” he says.
Where the rest of us might just cut around that bruise, the chef has already reassigned the imperfect potato elsewhere in the kitchen. The notes keep coming: Cut the potatoes lengthwise so steam can escape. Season with salt just after the potatoes have been milled/riced; they should be like “dry snowflakes.” If you use all-purpose flour, sift it first. Add the flour only when the potato has cooled to between 96 and 116 degrees, or else the flour will cook. Nutmeg is dispensed in a two-second Microplane grating. A tablespoon each of melted unsalted butter and arbequin olive oil boost the dough’s flavor.
His ropes of dough have shallow fissures and breaks, some of which smooth out under his fingers. A homogenous-looking dough at this point, he says, would result in dough bombs.
Dusting with flour “means dust — a layer you can barely see,” Chemel says. Even then, a pastry brush might be needed to remove excess coating from the un-rolled gnocchi resting under cover on that hardly dusted baking sheet.
The chef keeps some gnocchi in the cooking water longer, on purpose, to show me the difference between perfectly done and overdone. The ones that pass muster are denser than Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s and Roberto Donna’s yet more refined than Domenica Marchetti’s. They are tender and hold their shape, looking quite luxurious nestled minutes later in a rosemary-infused cream sauce with spring peas, pea tendrils and seared curls of Mangalitsa lardo.
Chemel’s gnocchi really take to pan-searing in olive oil or butter. But first, a final trick: He applies a slick of olive oil to the baking sheet that acts as holding pad while the saute pan heats up. He then places the baking sheet on top of another baking sheet covered with ice cubes; this two-step safeguard keeps the just-cooked gnocchi from sticking.
A lot to remember, for sure. I remain undaunted by conflicting advice and would make any of the pros’ recipes yet again, perhaps depending on the particular dish or accompanying sauce. At the end of the day, I like to rest on more than one kind of pillow.
Marjorie Meek-Bradley will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.