October 21, 2009

Cold Sunday Gnocchi

Years ago I was invited to help make gnocchi with Roberto's parents. I was to be at the house bright and early, which at the time was 7:30, well after the roosters last crow. I got there a little earlier, 7:15. When I arrived, Frank was about halfway through the kneading process and Nancy was standing by ready to sift more flour onto the board if needed. They had started without me. It's their nature to do things bright and early. I would soon learn this.

The kitchen table had become a huge work surface. A large wooden board, which we would later inherit for our gnocchi making was situated in front of Frank. All of the kitchen chairs had been pushed off to the side. Sheet pans dusted with flour waited in the wings. The mass of potato and flour being worked over was enormous.

All the while, the surface was kept clean with a good scraping here and there. Not one ounce of flour or potato strayed. Even the white apron tied around Frank's waist appeared to be spotless. His hands clean. It was an impressive site. I was witnessing something superior, something great. I was mesmerized.

When the kneading was finished, three forks were pulled from the silverware drawer. Frank started to cut sections of the dough and roll it into long, even snakes. The snakes of dough were then cut up further into bite size pieces. Now it was my turn to help. Nancy gave everything another dusting of flour, including the fork tines. Frank took a piece of dough and ran it down the tines of the fork with his thumb and index finger. I'm finding it difficult to convey this action with words...it was more like a magical flick. It glided and rolled and when it hit the board it was a perfect little dumpling with impression and a nice divot. A cradle of potato and flour.

I was a little nervous, but pushed past all of my fears. Luckily for me and them, I picked up on this skill with ease. Perhaps there is some Italian lurking deep within my gene pool. I should be so lucky.

We made quick work of the mound, Frank and I. Nancy was too busy transferring the gnocchi to the sheet pans, dusting again with flour, covering with a tea towel and making room in the chiller. I call it the chiller because it wasn't a freezer, but an ancient refrigerator holding court over the lower level of their row home. It was quite cold and would keep the gnocchi fresh until later that afternoon.

Having seen how gnocchi is made on more than one occasion and having eaten it many a Sunday dinner, has given me a certain amount of confidence when it comes to making it myself. Although, I haven't tasked myself with this very often, so the intention and skill are there, just not always the initiative.

However, the weather has changed. There is a chill in the air. Sweaters have been worn. Roberto has returned to wearing his flannels. There is an abundance of thick socks, both knee and calf length being laundered on a weekly basis. I've been daydreaming about the next skein of yarn and the hat I'll no doubt knit before too long. All of this inspired a batch of gnocchi this past Sunday.

We had just finished dinner and walked back across the street to our house. I had left three baking potatoes out on the counter as a reminder that I wanted to do this. I made quick work of putting them in some water and ignited the high powered burner that would result in cooked potatoes in about 30 minutes.

Roberto brought the board up from the basement, the one we had inherited from his parents. He wiped it down and set it on the kitchen table. While the potatoes boiled I measured out the flour, egg and salt.

When the potatoes were ready I pulled them from the water and placed them on a tea towel that I had standing by. Then with tongues I peeled away the skin while the potatoes were still piping hot. Miraculously I did not harm myself in this undertaking. Clumsy took holiday that Sunday afternoon.

After the potatoes were peeled I sliced them into pieces which then took a turn in the food mill. I've heard that ricers do a better/quicker job, I've just never gotten around to buying one. I might have to make that particular move soon though. The mill, while it did its job, was a bit labor intensive. A majority of the potato was milled into fine ribbons which fell into a heap in the bowl below. Then others ended up a mash stuck to the walls of the mill. This leads to inconsistency. Inconsistency is no good in the kitchen.

Once milled, I transferred the potatoes to a sheet pan where I spread them out to cool. The cooling process went quickly. Before we knew it, it was time to push our sleeves further up and get on with the kneading.

I started, but after a bit I was complaining that my lower back was feeling it and my poor arms were suffering from fatigue. Roberto took over at this point. Watching him knead the dough was like watching his father. I commented on this. He is truly amazing to watch. All those years making pizza, kneading dough, has left him with a skill that I am rather jealous of...green with envy over. It just makes me smile when I watch him. He's that good.

When we had exhausted the flour and the kneading had ceased Roberto cut a chunk of the dough, gave the board another good dusting of flour and started to roll the gnocchi snakes.

I waited in the wings, with forks at the ready. Sheet pans were floured. In no time we were guiding the gnocchi dumplings down the fork tines and transferring them to their flour beds. These were then transferred to the freezer where they would harden and then further transferred into freezer bags, portioned, of course.

We work very clean in our kitchen, like Roberto's parents. It was only a slight lapse that allowed me to get this last shot, the gnocchi making aftermath which only resulted in a flour dusted board. Everything else had made its way to the sink and was getting a good rinse.

It was more about making the gnocchi that day. Having some stowed away in the freezer. We'll need that comfort, the warming from the inside out. Bite size potato dumplings insulating us on those cold winter nights ahead.


  1. Awwh Tracy, what a nice story. Whenever I tell my grandma I will help her cook on a weekend, she always gets up early and has half of everything done already too! Yumm I hope those gnocchi are awesome. Can't wait to see what sauce you used!

  2. It's endearing. I hope to be the same when I'm older and set in my ways.

  3. Just yum. I think it's lovely that you live so close to his family.

  4. It is nice. We were fortunate to find a house so close.

  5. Watching and learning, it's the best way, Roberto's parents sound charming.
    I have only made gnocchi a couple of times and it was very imperfect, I need a good teacher you see, your post is very inspiring.
    Now, the potato ricer, yes yes yes...

  6. It can be intimidating, gnocchi. I always get butterflies when I make it. I'm going to buy the ricer soon. I've been eyeing up a few. I just need to narrow it down and just do it.

  7. it's THE Italian confort food. I use ALL sorts of root vegetables to make them: squash is my favorite.

  8. Amelia PS...squash...that sounds like it would taste pretty amazing.


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