Food is a process

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

French Laundry Day - making gnocchi

First, there were gnocchi.

I had made them a few weeks in advance. On memorial day, to be precise. I went in to work, then realize that there wasn't anything that strictly required my presence, so I decided to go home and cook instead. I didn't know what I was going to cook yet, just that I felt like cooking. And I had this new cookbook and a whole afternoon of time...

Gnocchi Thomas Keller-style are quite simple, actually. The only difference from most recipes for gnocchi is that he wants you to roast the potatoes in the oven instead of boiling them. The reason for this is that roasting does not incorporate moisture into the potatoes, so that you will need to use less flour and fat for the dough to come together, which results in a lighter, fluffier gnocchi. It also means that the whole thing takes a lot longer.

So first you stick about 2 pounds of russet potatoes in the oven at 400˚ F for a couple of hours, or until you can scoop out the flesh of the potato with a spoon. How do you know when the potatoes are done? Well, if you're like me, you take one out, split it lengthwise, and check whether the flesh comes out easily. If it doesn't, stick the whole thing back in for another half an hour or so.

After the potatoes are ready and the flesh is scooped out (while they're still hot – for some reason Mr. Keller seems to think that the whole thing will fail if you let them cool too much) you have to press them through a potato ricer. Which I didn't have. What I did have, instead, was a stainless steel strainer (best $5 of my life) so that's what i passed them through.

You will be left with a fluffy mound of potato flesh on your counter. Shape that into a volcano, that is a little mountain with a depression in the middle. Then you add some flour in the well, then three egg yolks, then some more flour. Then, quickly, you're supposed to "chop in" all the ingredients with a dough scraper, until they've come together to form a dough. Once again, lacking a dough scraper, I used the next best thing: a big-ass chinese cleaver. Chopping the ingredients in requires getting your hands a bit more dirty than the description lets you imagine: you will have to get in there and massage the dough into shape, but in the end you do end up with a veritable, big ball of dough. A giant gnocco, so to speak.

that's one big gnocco

Now the hard part is done. Next, shaping the gnocchi. Take a bit of dough, and roll it out into a 1-inch-thick log with your hands:

rolling the dough into logs

Then you cut sections that are approximately 2 inches long. Or more. Or less. You know, it really depends on how big you want each individual gnocco to be. I like them about 2 inches, so there you go. What you're looking for here is consistency, more than anything. Try to keep an even amount of dough in each dumpling. Then you roll each section in the palms of your hands into a little ball, and then roll that ball along the back of a fork (that is if you, like me and unlike Mr. Keller, do not own a gnocchi paddle!). And there you go, you have your first gnocco!

a section and a ball

And here, again, is the simple genius of the chef: he says, boil a little bit of water in a small sauce pan, and drop that first gnocco in. It will be done within two minutes, as soon as it starts to float onto the surface of the water. Then taste it. How is it? Is it coming apart? Add a bit of flour to the dough. Is it too tough? Add a bit of water, or milk. This way, you'll know if your gnocchi are good before you make a jillion of them. Which will take time and patience.

A word about the rolling-down-the-back-of-a-fork thing. It's important. It's not just that it gives them that unmistakable gnocchi shape, the grooves it forms actually have a function: they will hold the sauce in better, whatever you decide to do with them later on. It will be tastier. Trust me. Or not, try it yourself.

Now it's a matter of simply repeating the process until all the dough is turned into little perfectly shaped (well, kind of) gnocchi. Sprinkle some cornmeal on a baking sheet and deposit your newly formed bundles of delish on it as you go along. The cornmeal will avoid them sticking to the sheet. Here's an extreme close-up of a couple of them:

close up gnocchi

Now, it's time to cook. Boil a big pot of water, then salt it (I mean it, this is one of my pet peeves: salt water after it boils) generously. Drop the gnocchi in, delicately. As they rise to the surface, it means they're done. It really doesn't take much time. Have an ice bath ready, and as you take them out of the water with a slotted spoon drop them in until cool. Do this until they're all cooked. Then lay the cool gnocchi on paper towels to briefly dry, and put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet so they won't touch each other. Now here's the cool part: stick that baking sheet into the freezer until the gnocchi are frozen solid. Then you can take them out and put them in zip-lock bags, and they will keep in the fridge for weeks and weeks. Once you're ready to eat them, you just toss them into the pan with the sauce, without even defrosting them first. Seriously, you can have home-made, French Laudry-style gnocchi ready to serve for weeks. Pretty cool.

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