Last month I joined Daring Bakers to help me improve my mediocre baking skills. While I was at it, I decided to be part of the flagship launch of the Daring Cooks.
The first challenge was ricotta gnocchi, chosen by Lis of La Mia Cucina and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice.
At the heart of this challenge is learning to make gnocchi out of ricotta and eggs, with only a dusting of flour to shape each gnocchi. The most important factor is the ricotta, which must be very dry. If your ricotta is not dry enough, your gnocchi run the risk of blowing up and disintegrating when you're cooking them.
To squeeze the moisture out, I took the ricotta, placed it on a splatterguard which I had above a platter, and put a heavy dutch oven on it as a weight. After this first press, I put the mixture in a colander set in a Pyrex measuring cup and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours, as directed in the recipe below. I then placed the disk of ricotta in paper towels and kept pressing them and changing the paper towels until I thought it was dry enough. Could it have used some more drying? Yes.
In the end, my gnocchi did hold together but it was not dry enough to make pretty oval shapes. They ended up being oblong and craggy shapes. Next time, I think I will use a bunch of cloth towels and the dutch oven again to squeeze out the moisture in the ricotta.
If you can, make a homemade ricotta to use in this recipe as it makes all the difference. I include a ricotta recipe that I got from a fellow DC-er, Audax Artifex, and also, in the instructions below, you'll find other suggestions for homemade ricotta recipes.
With fresh ricotta, the resulting gnocchi are delicate and full of dairy flavor. One bite and you'll be transported to the farm, the smell of fresh country air filling your lungs and a vista of grazing cows and rolling pastures spread out before you. It's that good.
As a sauce, I made a hearty ragu out of leftover roast pork loin which I simmered in tomato sauce, wine, and spices. Enjoy.
Here is the ricotta cheese recipe I used (makes about 500 grams of ricotta):
Home-Made Ricotta Cheese
3 cups of skim milk powder (equal 3 litres of milk)
1 cup of water
1 cup of cream
4 ½ tablespoons of lemon juice
Mix the skim milk powder, cream and water it will form a thick liquid. Heat until it is very hot add the lemon juice. Stir gently for 3 mins do not let the liquid boil. It should now be a mixture of curds and whey, let it cool 8 mins or so. Strain using a very fine sieve place the sieve over a bowl and place into the refrigerator overnight uncovered. Alternately, you can squeeze the curds in cheesecloth and paper towels and then put the ricotta in paper towels or cloth towels, changing the towels when they're wet until the towels don't soak up any more water. Since so little water is used the ricotta well be very dry when you want to use it. Push the cheese through a fine sieve when needed this adds lightness to the gnocchi mixture.
Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi Source: From The Zuni Café Cookbook.
Prep time: Step 1 will take 24 hours. Steps 2 through 4 will take approximately 1 hour.
- If you can find it, use fresh ricotta. As Judy Rodgers advises in her recipe, there is no substitute for fresh ricotta. It may be a bit more expensive, but it's worth it.
- Do not skip the draining step. Even if the fresh ricotta doesn't look very wet, it is. Draining the ricotta will help your gnocchi tremendously.
- When shaping your gnocchi, resist the urge to over handle them. It's okay if they look a bit wrinkled or if they're not perfectly smooth.
- If you're not freezing the gnocchi for later, cook them as soon as you can. If you let them sit around too long they may become a bit sticky.
- For the variations to the challenge recipe, please see the end of the recipe.
- Sieve- Cheesecloth or paper towels- Large mixing bowl- Rubber spatula- Tablespoon- Baking dish or baking sheet- Wax or parchment paper- Small pot- Large skillet- Large pan or pot (very wide in diameter and at least 2 inches deep)
Videos that might help:
For the gnocchi:
1 pound (454 grams/16 ounces) fresh ricotta (2 cups)
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) unsalted butter
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, or a few pinches of chopped lemon zest (all optional)
½ ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about ¼ cup very lightly packed)
about ¼ teaspoon salt (a little more if using kosher salt)
all-purpose flour for forming the gnocchi
For the gnocchi sauce:
8 tablespoons (227 grams/1/4 pound/4 ounces) butter, sliced
2 teaspoons water
Step 1 (the day before you make the gnocchi):
Preparing the ricotta.
If the ricotta is too wet, your gnocchi will not form properly. In her cookbook, Judy Rodgers recommends checking the ricotta’s wetness. To test the ricotta, take a teaspoon or so and place it on a paper towel. If you notice a very large ring of dampness forming around the ricotta after a minute or so, then the ricotta is too wet. To remove some of the moisture, line a sieve with cheesecloth or paper towels and place the ricotta in the sieve. Cover it and let it drain for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can wrap the ricotta carefully in cheesecloth (2 layers) and suspend it in your refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours with a bowl underneath to catch the water that’s released. Either way, it’s recommended that you do this step the day before you plan on making the gnocchi.
Step 2 (the day you plan on eating the gnocchi): Making the gnocchi dough.
To make great gnocchi, the ricotta has to be fairly smooth. Place the drained ricotta in a large bowl and mash it as best as you can with a rubber spatula or a large spoon (it’s best to use a utensil with some flexibility here). As you mash the ricotta, if you noticed that you can still see curds, then press the ricotta through a strainer to smooth it out as much as possible.
Add the lightly beaten eggs to the mashed ricotta.
Melt the tablespoon of butter. As it melts, add in the sage if you’re using it. If not, just melt the butter and add it to the ricotta mixture.
Add in any flavouring that you’re using (i.e., nutmeg, lemon zest, etc.). If you’re not using any particular flavouring, that’s fine.
Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the salt.
Beat all the ingredients together very well. You should end up with a soft and fluffy batter with no streaks (everything should be mixed in very well).
Step 3: Forming the gnocchi.
Fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. When it boils, salt the water generously and keep it at a simmer. You will use this water to test the first gnocchi that you make to ensure that it holds together and that your gnocchi batter isn’t too damp.
In a large, shallow baking dish or on a sheet pan, make a bed of all-purpose flour that’s ½ an inch deep.
With a spatula, scrape the ricotta mixture away from the sides of the bowl and form a large mass in the centre of your bowl.
Using a tablespoon, scoop up about 2 to 3 teaspoons of batter and then holding the spoon at an angle, use your finger tip to gently push the ball of dough from the spoon into the bed of flour.
At this point you can either shake the dish or pan gently to ensure that the flour covers the gnocchi or use your fingers to very gently dust the gnocchi with flour. Gently pick up the gnocchi and cradle it in your hand rolling it to form it in an oval as best as you can, at no point should you squeeze it. What you’re looking for is an oval lump of sorts that’s dusted in flour and plump.
Gently place your gnocchi in the simmering water. It will sink and then bob to the top. From the time that it bobs to the surface, you want to cook the gnocchi until it’s just firm. This could take 3 to 5 minutes.
If your gnocchi begins to fall apart, this means that the ricotta cheese was probably still too wet. You can remedy this by beating a teaspoon of egg white into your gnocchi batter. If your gnocchi batter was fluffy but the sample comes out heavy, add a teaspoon of beaten egg to the batter and beat that in. Test a second gnocchi to ensure success.
Form the rest of your gnocchi. You can put 4 to 6 gnocchi in the bed of flour at a time. But don’t overcrowd your bed of flour or you may damage your gnocchi as you coat them.
Have a sheet pan ready to rest the formed gnocchi on. Line the sheet pan with wax or parchment paper and dust it with flour.
You can cook the gnocchi right away, however, Judy Rodgers recommends storing them in the refrigerator for an hour prior to cooking to allow them to firm up.
Step 4: Cooking the gnocchi.
Have a large skillet ready to go. Place the butter and water for the sauce in the skillet and set aside.
In the largest pan or pot that you have (make sure it’s wide), bring at least 2 quarts of water to a boil (you can use as much as 3 quarts of water if your pot permits). You need a wide pot or pan so that your gnocchi won’t bump into each other and damage each other.
Once the water is boiling, salt it generously.
Drop the gnocchi into the water one by one. Once they float to the top, cook them for 3 to 5 minutes (as in the case with the test gnocchi).
When the gnocchi float to the top, you can start your sauce while you wait for them to finish cooking.
Place the skillet over medium heat and melt the butter. Swirl it gently a few times as it melts. As soon as it melts and is incorporated with the water, turn off the heat. Your gnocchi should be cooked by now.
With a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water and gently drop into the butter sauce. Carefully roll in the sauce until coated. Serve immediately.
Variations: For the gnocchi, you can flavour them however you wish. If you want to experiment by adding something to your gnocchi (i.e., caramelized onion, sundried tomato), feel free to do so. However, be forewarned, ricotta gnocchi are delicate and may not take well to elaborate additions. For the sauce, this is your chance to go nuts. Enjoy yourselves. Surprise us!!!
Freezing the gnocchi: If you don’t want to cook your gnocchi right away or if you don’t want to cook all of them, you can make them and freeze them. Once they are formed and resting on the flour-dusted, lined tray, place them uncovered in the freezer. Leave them for several hours to freeze. Once frozen, place them in a plastic bag. Remove the air and seal the bag. Return to the freezer. To cook frozen gnocchi, remove them from the bag and place individually on a plate or on a tray. Place in the refrigerator to thaw completely. Cook as directed for fresh gnocchi.