Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pumpkin and Parmesan Gnocchi with Rubbed Sage and Browned Butter

Even though I don't have a drop of Italian blood in my body, I've always been drawn to Italian foods.  There's something rich and luxurious about the idea of Italian cooking (fresh-pressed olive oil? earthy truffles? sun-ripened, tomatoes fresh from the vine? all those delightful aged cheeses?) that could tempt even the most teutonic cook to try their hand at a mediterranean dish or two.  For me, this desirable dish has always been gnocchi.  I love these little pillows of dumpling delight for their versatility and, possibly, for their more-than-slight resemblance to the Eastern European dumplings of my youth.

I have always promised myself that, someday, I would make my own gnocchi from scratch.  After years of promises, that someday finally arrived last week.  For the past several days I've been slowly clearing out our cupboards and freezer in preparation for our upcoming move.  This has made for a few unusual meals, but it has also encouraged me to try new things and new combinations of ingredients.  When I discovered some pumpkin puree in the freezer (the remains of the Pumpkin of Shame - remember him?) I just knew I had to make pumpkin gnocchi.  Luckily, I had a few potatoes in the cupboard and a scant quarter cup of parmesan in the fridge - the time had come.

With no Italian nonna to whisper instructions over my shoulder, I scoured the web for recipes and eventually came up with a version that is largely inspired by the few ingredients left in my cupboards and based on this recipe by Emeril Lagasse, with some helpful hints on technique from Heidi at 101 Cookbooks.

Of course, before there's a recipe, there has to be a brief history lesson.  Aren't you fascinated by the fact that dumplings, in some form or another, exist in almost every country across the European continent? Well, I was, so I did some digging and the answer, of course, is the Romans.  The oldest written recipe for gnocchi comes from 1300s Italy, but the pasta is much, much older.  The word gnocchi comes from the Italian nocchio, meaning a knot of wood, or nocca, meaning knuckle, but the pasta is believed to be of Middle Eastern origin, brought by the Roman Legions as their empire expanded across Europe.  In the 2000 years that have passed since, many countries have developed their own variations on the original, with German Spaetzle, Polish kopytka and Czech knedlicky as some modern examples.  The original Roman version was made with semolina and eggs, as are some modern variations, though the addition of the potato is a relatively recent innovation, occurring some time after the one-maligned potato arrived in Europe in the 16th century. So now you know!

Having satisfied my curiosity about their origins, I began to wonder about the ridged, pillow-like shape that gnocchi often have.  The best answer I could discover is that the shape is suited to quick and even cooking, while the ridges provide a rough surface to which the sauce can adhere.  Of course, it also creates a nice aesthetic when they're piled into a clean, white bowl and glistening with sauce.

I've always thought of gnocchi as being mysterious and complicated but, for all the warnings I uncovered online, I had no trouble forming little pillows of dough that turned out light, airy and velvety smooth once boiled.  In fact, I found the whole process enjoyable and the small, repetitive details were comfortingly therapeutic.  Perhaps it was just beginners luck.  One thing is certain, though - this recipe takes some time and makes a lot of gnocchi, so be sure to save it for a night when you have an hour or two to spare in the kitchen; from what I've read, the process doesn't take kindly to interruptions, as unboiled gnocchi left standing too long will get sticky. All of this talk of delicious pasta is making me hungry so, without further ado, here is my adapted recipe:

Pumpkin and Parmesan Gnocchi, with Rubbed Sage and Browned Butter
adapted from this recipe by Emeril Lagasse

1 1/2 pounds Idaho potatoes, scrubbed, with skins on (I used about 4 medium-sized)
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups bread flour*
Salted water, for cooking gnocchi
2-3 Tablespoons butter, unsalted
2 Tablespoons rubbed sage (or fresh, if you have it, chopped finely)

*the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 - 2 cups all purpose flour but, since bread flour was all I had on hand, I made the substitution and just cut the amount to 1 1/2 cups.  I was repeatedly warned against over-floury dough but this version turned out perfect, with the same light texture I tasted on my travels in Italy.

Fill a large pot with cold water and add a pinch of salt.   With skins still on, put potatoes in water and bring to a rolling boil.  Cook until potatoes are fork-tender, about 40-50 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow potatoes to remain in hot water.

One by one, remove potatoes from water with a slotted spoon and place on a cutting board.  Using an oven mitt or kitchen towel to hold the hot potato, remove skin and place peeled potato in a large mixing bowl.  If the potatoes have been boiled well, the skins should peel off easily.  It's important to work quickly so that you can mash the potatoes while they are still hot.  Allowing the potatoes to cool will make them 'gluey' and affect the final texture of your gnocchi.

When all the potatoes have been peeled, it's time to mash them.  Most recipes call for the use of a potato ricer but I used a hand masher with no ill effect.  I'm sure even a trusty kitchen fork would do in a pinch! Work until the potatoes are just mashed (a few small remaining chunks are okay here, and preferable to over-mashing which will make the gnocchi dense).  Allow potatoes to cool completely before continuing.

Add pumpkin puree (I used fresh, but canned will give a nice, deep color), Parmesan cheese, egg, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper to the cooled potato mixture. Stir until just combined, taking care not to over mix.

Gradually add in enough flour to create a slightly sticky but smooth dough.  The less flour, the better but as mentioned in my note above, I used bread flour so if you have all-purpose, you may need slightly more.  Knead the dough briefly until flour is just incorporated.

Separate the dough into 6 or 8 pieces (depending on the size of your work surface) and lightly flour your countertop or cutting board.  Place one piece of dough on the floured surface and gently roll into a long, snake-shaped rope about 1/2-inch in diameter.  Using a sharp knife, cut into 1/2-inch wide pieces, dusting with flour as necessary.

Taking one piece at a time, press the dough gently against the tines of a fork with your thumb, forming slight indentations.  If you use a slight forward motion as you move down the length of the fork, the gnocchi will take on a 'C' shape with the ridges on the back, convex edge.  Set the formed gnocchi aside on a lightly floured surface (a baking sheet works well for this) to await boiling.  Repeat with each piece of dough, lightly flouring your work surface and utensils as necessary to prevent sticking.  Don't be discouraged if your first few gnocchi don't come out quite right - this step takes a little practice.  Lightly flouring the fork before each press will keep the gnocchi from sticking and help the ridges hold their shape in the boiling water.

Once you have formed a few gnocchi, re-fill your large pot with cold, salted water (you can re-use the potato water if you wish) and bring to a rolling boil.  Cook the gnocchi in batches, adding about 20 each time.  After a minute or two, the gnocchi will rise to the surface and should be removed with a slotted spoon about 10-20 seconds after rising (the original recipe says 2-3 minutes but this resulted in too-tough gnocchi so stick to the shorter time for a lighter texture).  Set finished gnocchi aside in a lightly oiled large bowl or covered casserole dish until all are finished.  The oil will prevent the gnocchi from sticking together before you can prepare the sauce.

When most of your gnocchi have been boiled, add butter to a large skillet over high heat.  Allow butter to sit until it has completely melted and the edges begin to brown (butter may foam slightly as the milk solids separate, this is normal!).  Stir browned butter and add sage, cooking for just 20-30 seconds more.  Be careful not to burn the butter (you'll know it because it starts to smell acrid and turns from rich caramel to dark, dark brown) as this will make your sauce bitter.  Add gnocchi to sauce and toss gently to coat, taking care not to mash them with your utensils.  Heat until just warmed, if necessary, and then add pepper and salt to taste.  Serve with a light dusting of shaved Parmesan cheese.

Boiled gnocchi waiting for the brown butter sauce

A few tips: I'm not sure why my gnocchi turned out so well (don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled, but I didn't expect such success on the first try!) but it could be because of my potatoes.  They had been sitting around for a while and, though still firm, were full of eyes.  It turns out that this is actually a good thing, according to my internet research, since you want your potatoes to be as dry as possible.  So make sure you pick a dry. floury variety, boil them with the skins on and don't worry too much if they're a bit old.

In shaping the gnocchi, flouring your utensils is key - especially if you have hot hands like me - and you may want to recruit a helper (thanks, Matt!) to start boiling some gnocchi while you're rolling, cutting and shaping so that you can cut down on the time they are left to sit.

This recipe may look like it uses a lot of flour in comparison to other gnocchi recipes, but remember that you are adding pumpkin puree here so more flour is needed than in pure potato versions.

There are gnocchi under all the chicken and sundried tomatoes, I promise!

As far as serving goes, gnocchi are meant to be light - hence the simple sauce - and, I think, are usually served as a first course, not a main course, in Italian restaurants and kitchens.  They are surprisingly filling so a little goes a long way, but if you want to turn them into a meal, you can serve them with some herbed chicken breast tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and garlic, as Matt and I did.  We also opened our west-facing windows and pretended that we were enjoying them, by the red-gold light of a setting sun, in the loggia of an Italian villa, but that part is completely optional and up to you. Enjoy!

This post is linked at:
33 Shades of Green: Tasty Tuesdays


  1. Dear Friend,
    I love your blog, and I've read every post.

  2. What a great idea. I just tried making my own gnocchi a few weeks ago. I love the idea of using pumpkin!

  3. Christi - thanks! It means a lot to know that people are reading - and enjoying- it!

    Katie - how did your gnocchi turn out? I was surprised at how easy they were after all the hype! The pumpkin gave it a nice, almost sweet flavor although I think I'll add a bit more nutmeg next time :)

  4. this gnocchi looks SOO good! i've never tried making it, but loooove eating it! i'll definitely have to give this recipe a try.

    i would love if you would link this and any other recipe to mangia mondays!