Jennifer Casa is a mama + maker + homebody + rocker + dreamer. She knits, sews, cooks, crafts, designs, writes, makes music and snaps lots of pictures. JCasa handmade is her personal blog where she writes about all that good stuff.
Years ago, back when I was working as a foreign language teacher, I spent nearly every summer studying in and traveling throughout Europe. While refining my linguistic and pedagogical skills, I developed friendships with people from all over the world. Those experiences contributed a great deal to who I am today. And while my life has shifted gears over the past decade, I am delighted to reminisce each day about my travels from our home kitchen, cooking up the many recipes I learned over the years.
Friends from Denmark taught me how simple it is to brighten a salad with fresh corn kernels, and my roommate from Japan sparked an interest in bento boxes. A dear friend told me how her family picked mushrooms in the woods of Sweden growing up as she introduced me to chanterelles, cooking the precious golden trumpets with just the perfect amount of butter. And while traveling to Prague with friends from Italy, I learned that there needs to be a discussion about which pasta is to be made, and with which sauce. It’s all tradition. And I learned that good food can be so very simple, seemingly effortless, and never ever rushed.
There was (and probably still is) an Italian restaurant in Rothenburg ob der Tauber called Pizzeria Roma – it was there that I had my first taste of Gnocchi al Forno. Served in an oval-shaped casserole, those soft potato dumplings snuggled in bubbling sauce that had cooked all day and drenched in gooey cheese. It’s the kind of dish you share with a friend because it’s so rich and filling. So very good that you need a nap afterwards.
On a later visit to Italy, I learned how to make gnocchi – but believe me when I tell you, they are tricky to master. There needs to be just the right balance of wet + dry and not too much handling. Not enough flour means the dough will be too loose, and they’ll fall apart in the water. If you add too much, they become dense or chewy. And you need to get them out of the water and into the sauce within about a minute of when they start to float. But don’t be put off by those caveats – these delicate pillows will melt in your mouth and are worth every bit of effortlessness you can manage.
POTATO GNOCCHI (serves 8)
- 2 lbs. of yukon gold or white potatoes, steamed* (with skins on), cooled and peeled
- 3/4 cup of freshly grated Romano cheese
- 1.5 – 2 cups of unbleached flour, sifted
- 1 egg
- a few pinches of salt
- + your favorite sauce
*It’s my opinion that steaming the potatoes makes all the difference. They cook through without becoming water-logged, resulting in a silky, smooth dough.
Place the peeled potatoes in a large bowl and mash with the back of a fork until there are no lumps. Add the grated cheese, a pinch of salt and stir to combine. Taste and add more salt if desired. Crack one egg on top and stir to combine. Add 1.5 cups of sifted flour to the bowl and gently combine with your hands, being careful not to overwork it. Sprinkle some flour onto your work surface and scoop out the dough. GENTLY form the dough into a ball, barely kneading it and adding flour as needed until it comes together and is no longer sticky.
Divide the dough in four. Roll one quarter of the dough into a long log that is about the thickness of your thumb. Dip a knife into flour and cut the log into 1” pieces. Then take a clean fork and dip it into flour. Turn the fork over so the rounded back of the fork is facing up. Use your thumb to gently roll one of the 1” gnocchi pieces downward along the tines of the back of the fork. As you do this, your thumb will create a small indentation on one side of the gnocchi, and the fork tines will create ridges along the curved side – perfect little nooks and crannies for your sauce. Place the gnocchi on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and continue in this manner until you have used up all the dough.
Cook in boiling water in small batches and watch for them to float – once they do, give them about another minute and remove with a slotted spoon and pop them right into your simmering sauce for just a few minutes. Serve immediately and devour.
These gnocchi can be made in advance and kept on the baking tray in the refrigerator until ready to cook that day. You can also pop the baking sheet of uncooked gnocchi into the freezer and after a few hours, place the frozen gnocchi into a freezer bag for later use, like the next day for lunch when you want more gnocchi, maybe with brown butter. Oh my.