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Knocking Out Gnocchi

January 20, 1994|JOAN DRAKE

The three most traditional types of gnocchi are made with potatoes, with semolina flour or with spinach and ricotta cheese. But distinctive variations of what translates as "little lumps" have evolved in every northern Italian region and have been concocted by innovative chefs and cooks. Whatever ingredients are used, the aim is to turn out tiny dumplings that are feather-light and fluffy.

In the case of potato gnocchi, purists do not use eggs. That's fine as long as the potatoes are waxy, but less attention needs to be given to the type of potatoes if you use eggs. The dough will be easier to handle and the gnocchi won't collapse during cooking.

For best results, it's important that the eggs be at room temperature and the potatoes freshly cooked. Press the still hot potatoes through a ricer (Step 1), then set them aside while heating the milk and butter to boiling. The liquid should boil rapidly so the fat is dispersed, not just floating on top of the milk.

Add the flour all at once and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth, pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball.

Remove the pan from the heat, cool two to three minutes, then beat in the eggs one at a time (Step 2). The mixture will separate at first, but become smooth again as you continue beating.

When finished, the batter should look satiny. Pour this mixture over the potatoes (Step 3) and gently fold the two together.

If the gnocchi are to be shaped by hand, place the dough on a floured surface and roll into logs about a 1/2-inch in diameter (Step 4), incorporating a little flour if the dough is too soft and sticky to handle. Cut the logs into 1-inch lengths (Step 5) with a sharp knife.

In "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf: 1992), author Marcella Hazan gives the following instructions for shaping the gnocchi:

"Take a dinner fork with long, slim tines, rounded if possible. Working over a counter, hold the fork more or less parallel to the counter, with the concave side facing you.

"With the index finger of your other hand, hold one of the cut pieces against the inside curve of the fork, just below the tips of the prongs (Step 6). At the same time that you are pressing the piece against the prongs, flip it away from the tips and in the direction of the handle. The motion of the finger is flipping, not dragging. As the piece rolls away from the prongs, let it drop on the counter. If you are doing it correctly, it will have ridges on one side formed by the tines and a depression on the other formed by your fingertip."

This shaping is not done solely for aesthetics. The thinner center becomes more tender during cooking, and the grooves and depressions help hold the sauce, which is added afterward.

Novices (and those in a hurry) will find it easier and faster to force the dough through a pastry bag, cutting it to the desired length with a sharp knife (Step 7) and letting the pieces fall into the poaching liquid.

Test the amount of poaching needed by dropping one or two gnocchi into simmering salted water or broth and cook, uncovered, three minutes. Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon (Step 8) and taste; if the flavor is floury, increase the cooking time.

Cook the gnocchi in batches, not crowding the pan. Transfer them to a warm platter and sprinkle with melted butter, a little minced fresh sage and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Potato gnocchi also team well with pesto, tomato or Gorgonzola sauces.

POTATO GNOCCHI

2 medium boiling potatoes

1/2 cup milk

5 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups flour, about

2 eggs

Salt

4 quarts water or stock

Melted butter

Minced fresh sage

Grated Parmesan cheese

Peel potatoes, cut into chunks and place in saucepan. Add water to cover. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until tender.

Drain potatoes. Press through ricer. Set aside.

Place milk and butter in 3-quart saucepan. Heat to boiling. Stir in flour until dough forms ball.

Remove pan from heat, cool 2 to 3 minutes, then beat in eggs, 1 at time, until well combined. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt. Pour mixture over potatoes and gently fold together.

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in Dutch oven. Season to taste with salt. Reduce liquid to simmering.

Form gnocchi by hand or scoop dough into pastry bag. Drop gnocchi by batches into simmering salted water or force dough through pastry bag, cutting into desired lengths with sharp knife and letting drop into poaching liquid. Do not crowd pan.

Simmer, uncovered, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove gnocchi from water with slotted spoon. Place on warm platter and sprinkle with melted butter, sage and Parmesan. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

297 calories; 651 mg sodium; 110 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.25 gram fiber.

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