The trials and tribulations of gnocci

Gnocci, you elusive tease, you.

Really. The simplistic ingredients in gnocci belies its complex nature. At first glance the gnocci recipe is a sneaky in its simplicity, one thinks “oh, its time consuming, but not so difficult.” The potatoes, the flour, the hot water. Why would this be daunting to anyone past the Betty Crocker oven stage?

Waffling between terror and over confidence, filled with self-talk and psycho babble (“you can DO this..you can be GREAT!”), my virgin attempt is inspired by a recent recipe floating around the internet for sage butter gnocci.  My desire for the simplistic cozy flavors, the perfect winter divergent, was stronger than my fear. My need to perfect this quest was as competitive as any under-rated Olympian. With a deep breath, I dove in, ready at last to tackle this culinary Everest.  As a novice cook with epic ambitions, I told myself that cooking this dish wouldn’t be so difficult. Just take one step at a time; I didn’t have kitchen sherpas but I still felt the support of millions of internet recommendations and recipes.

I readied my mise en place. I turned on the burner to boil the water. I recommitted to my actions. I eyed the innocuous goods:

2 large potatoes, peeled

flour

1 egg white

baking powder

Parmesan

butter

fresh sage

I waved my hand in the air as if casting a spell on the ingredients. The first line of the recipe was deceptively reassuring:

peel potatoes and place in boiling water

Ha! So simple even a 1st grader could do it…you know..like the show “Smarter than a 3rd grader”…yep. That’s me. I let the potatoes boil and went off to do something..probably blog. Telling myself: boiling potatoes was below my paygrade.

After what seemed like 10 minutes, I skipped back to my kitchen only to witness steam rising with a turbo pace out of the lid.  The pot itself was cooking bedlam: boiling over with starchy water sealing itself forever onto my cook top. Slowly. Cautiously. I opened the lid: the potatoes had BURST.

Lesson learned: when boiling potatos for gnocci, do NOT peel the potatoes first. Instead: once boiled, cut them in half and scoop out the potato.

While a muted scream passed my lips, I reached for a slotted spoon. Desperately fishing out my potatoes, I gently lay them on the wood board. I mourned their passing. At this point many people would have known to call for pizza. Not me. I’d read the advice not to overcook the potatoes, but I wanted the experience. I wanted to see the outcome. So, like the Olympian out of the podium running, I tossed my potatoes with abandon into the food processor.

Recipe:Let the potatoes cool spread out across the cutting board – ten or fifteen minutes. Long enough that the egg won’t cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes.

I promised myself the patience to allow them to cool, I owed them that much dignity.

Patience and hunger. Neither are virtues that I have learned to command in my lifetime. Frankly, I don’t really aspire to either.  My impatience was bubbling over like aforementioned starchy pot and my hunger is now clawing at my stomach.

Surely they were cool enough now…I mean, it takes a pretty hot pan to cook an egg. I tossed in my lightly beaten egg into my food processer.

Recipe: When you are ready, pull the potatoes into a soft mound – drizzle with the beaten egg and sprinkle 3/4 cup of the flour across the top. I’ve found that a metal spatula or large pastry scraper are both great utensils to use to incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes with the egg incorporated throughout – you can see the hint of yellow from the yolk. Scrape underneath and fold, scrape and fold until the mixture is a light crumble. Very gently, with a feathery touch knead the dough.

Looking inside my food processor, I see what can only be described as the culinary version of the La Brea tar pits. Potato is bubbling, steam is rising, egg likely cooking. Reminded of primordial soup, I trod forth.  Life itself has evolved, what can’t my gnocci?

Recipe: This is also the point you can add more flour (a sprinkle at a time) if the dough is too tacky. I usually end up using most of the remaining 1/4 cup flour, but it all depends on the potatoes, the flour, the time of year, the weather, and whether the gnocchi gods are smiling on you.

Scooping my potato “no-chi” out of the processor, I realize, I am clearly past the stage of the gnocci gods smiling on me. I reach for a handful of flour. It a fit of frustration, I sling the flour onto my mound whipped potatoes.  The flour explodes throughout the entire kitchen, making a gooey mess of the stove top where the starchy water has pooled, dusting the black granite like a gentle snowfall, and of course, drying quickly on my hands and beneath my fingernails as it adheres to the glue of potatoes.

Lesson learned: Use what ever tool you’d like to mash your warm-but-not-hot potatoes, but do not, under any circumstances use a food processor.

Flour has become my last savior; though “billowy” might as well be dinner for as close as I am ever going to get to it.

Recipe: This is also the point you can add more flour (a sprinkle at a time) if the dough is too tacky. I usually end up using most of the remaining 1/4 cup flour, but it all depends on the potatoes, the flour, the time of year, the weather, and whether the gnocchi gods are smiling on you. The dough should be moist but not sticky. It should feel almost billowy.

Pride takes over. I will complete this task. I begin to smack the potato dough around, its aggressive, but I have nothing to lose and the frustration must be released.  Moving  onto rolling my “snake shaped log”, still too tacky. Need more flour. It is at this point that I wonder why I would have chosen to wear a sweater with bell sleeves to make dinner, let alone gnocci. Looking over myself, I see bits and pieces of the culinary shrapnel all over me, but particularly clumped together on my sweater, near my wrists.  I roll. Add flour. Roll, add flour. Each “snake shaped log” is like wrestling an alligator.

Finally, I begin to cut the pieces into the tiny pillows, behind the cutting remains my desecrated remains of my food processor, each inch covered in viscous glop. I glance momentarily and wonder, will it ever be clean again? My tiny pillows look positively adorable. So adorable are they and so hungry am I that I skip the “indentation” that makes gnocci so recognizable. Tradition is already long since passed, why bother now?

With my (fresh, salted), water boiling I drop each batch of gnocci in the water. Standing over the steaming pot, fearful of another explosion, my brow is damp, a fine powder of flour etches its way into each exacerbated crease on my face. Miraculously, despite the copious amounts of flour, the begin to rise to the top of the pot. Victorious, I grab my slotted spoon.

Just then, Jeff walks in. He takes one look at the battlefield and asks sweetly “what’s for dinner?”, but what he is really wondering is whether he will be required to fulfill his nightly duty of cleaning the kitchen after dinner. He is curious as to why I would have so little mercy on him. Little does he know, that mercy does not exist in this kitchen.

As we sit down to our sage-buttered home-made gnocci, he asks, “don’t they sell this at the store?”

In case you want your own adventure, here’s the link to the gnocci recipe I used

And…adorable Tyler Florence’s version here.


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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.