My husband says he doesn’t remember the exact moment when he knew he wanted to marry me, that there was a sweet amalgam of feelings and thoughts collected over a couple of years to an obvious and sparkling conclusion. I beg to differ. I say the idea stuck in his craw when the gnocchi dough I was making stuck to his kitchen counter.
Yet despite all this insouciant bucolic bounty, I was a restless young girl, far from home and friends, at the crossroads of life. I had graduated into the excitement and uncertainty of high school and boys, and the preoccupations of being a teenager took top priority.
It was on one particularly intense late afternoon of ennui that I was casting about for something to do. All the other kids, younger than I, were busy chasing butterflies and doing somersaults on the lawn. I was watching their screaming frolics from the wide window of my aunt’s handsome and comfortable kitchen when Nettie appeared at the doorway.
Antoinette, always known by the nickname of Nettie, was my cousins' grandmother, a short, stout woman with a larger-than-life, bold and blunt personality, a real spitfire in an extended family with a spirited reputation. When she walked into a room, you knew it. I knew it, too, that day.
I was still slouched against the countertop when she came up to me, and with matter-of-fact directness, asked me if I wanted to learn to make gnocchi. I didn’t know what gnocchi was. Sure, my family frequently ate and loved all the red-sauced Neapolitan classics Americans associate with Italian food, spaghetti, pizza, and baked lasagna. But the spectacular variety and abundance of Italian culinary specialties were things I had not been routinely exposed to. The idea of a hands-on lesson in something new was just the jump start I needed to separate me from my pensive reveries and idle posturing.
Nettie blasted open the cupboards and refrigerator rummaging for provisions, directing me to start my own collection of supplies, the pots and pans, bowls, wooden spoons, and the all-important singular fork. I blinked and the afternoon was over. A tall pot of red sauce was bubbling in that lazy way that only a sauce thickened with time and patience could. Another pot, one filled with water and another sort of bubbling was at the ready. The countertop was a catastrophe of all the creative mess that makes the clean up worthwhile. Nettie and I were hunched over a sprawl of flour, a canvas dotted and spotted with notched dumplings the size of my first thumb joint.
I wish I had written the recipe down, but I was young and loving the moment, no longer contemplating the mysteries of my future as I had been just a few hours earlier. My own grandmother had taught me to play the piano, my mother taught me to identify trees and flowers, and Nettie taught me how to make gnocchi. I need to thank her now, but she is far away. I still don’t know what the future holds for me, but my now mature reveries imagine a time to come when I will have an Italian grandmother for so much longer than just one day.
Nettie’s Gnocchi (as I would like to remember it; recipe by repeated trial and error over the last several days)
2 pounds Russet baking potatoes
1 slightly beaten egg
1 ½ - 2 cups flour
Salt and Pepper
Score then bake the potatoes in a microwave for ten minutes. (You can also bake them in a conventional oven for approximately 35 minutes at 400 degrees F or until tender.) Remove potatoes from oven and set out to cool, piercing each several times to release steam and moisture. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off skins and put through a ricer into a large bowl. It is very important that there not be any lumps at all. Beat in the egg, then incrementally beat in the flour until the mixture forms a non-sticky ball of dough. The amount of flour you need will vary depending on the moisture content of the potatoes. For excellent tips on making gnocchi, check here and here.
Turn out the ball of dough onto a well-floured surface and knead for approximately 5 minutes to create a very smooth texture. Do not overwork the dough. Cut ball in half.
Gently roll and stretch dough out to form a long rope ¼ - ½ inch thick. Cut the rope at ½ to ¾ inch intervals into small nuggets. Flatten each nugget against the lightly floured tines of a fork while pressing it against your fingers. Turn the fork over and slowly roll the dough off the fork, gently pressing the seam. The more you depress the fork, the deeper the ridges you will leave in the dough. (You can also roll the nuggets against a lightly floured traditional wooden gnocchi board. The ridges will not be as pronounced.)
Before you begin with the second half of the dough, slowly bring a large pot of water to a boil. Immediately after completion of all the gnocchi, gently slide them into the boiling water. Work in batches to prevent overcrowding of the pot. The gnocchi will drop down to the bottom of the pot. The gnocchi are cooked when they pop up to the surface, in a matter of minutes. If you continue to let them stay in water, they will double in size and be twice as light. The choice of texture is yours; neither are leaden nor sticky. Scoop the dumplings out of the water with a slotted spoon, either plating them to serve immediately with your favorite sauce or transferring them to an ovenproof dish for further finishing as described below.
Serves 4. --
Simple Butter and White Truffle Oil Sauce (very loosely adapted from the Epicurious recipe)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly grated nutmeg
Additional grated Parmesan cheese
In a large skillet over low heat, melt the butter with the olive oil, removing from heat when the butter fully melts. Add garlic and allow it to flavor without additional heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add white truffle oil and stir to mix. Gently add gnocchi to the skillet, turning to well coat with the sauce. Transfer gnocchi to a large ovenproof dish (or 4 individual dishes). Pour the heavy cream over and around the gnocchi. Scatter with the grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 8 minutes in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven or until cheese is melted and inner edges of the baking dish is brown and crispy.
Remove from oven and freshly grate nutmeg over top of gnocchi. Adjust salt if necessary. Serve immediately with additional grated Parmesan cheese on the side.
This post is being submitted to Jeni of The Passionate Palate and Inge of Vanielje Kitchen, co-hosts of Apples and Thyme, an event that celebrates and pays tribute to the women in our families and our lives who have left sweet memories of time spent in their kitchens.
Been There, Done That ~
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