Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Salt and Pepper Ricotta Gnocchi with Sage Butter and Fennel Pollen

Because one can never be a part of too many food blogging groups/challenges, I give you the first ever Daring Cooks challenge! Sprung forth from the minds of the Daring Bakers creators, we now have a similar group who will be challenged with recipes that fall into the "cooking" rather than "baking" category. I was excited to join when they announced the formation of the group and I was excited when I saw the first recipe: Ricotta Gnocchi from the Zuni Cafe cookbook.

Now that said, I have some sad news...I hated the inaugural recipe. It doesn't make sense either. I love the cookbook it was taken from, I love the dish in theory (I've raved about a different version already), and I love the Daring Bakers, from whence this whole thing originated. So how is it that the first ever challenge from the Daring Cooks was a big fail for me?

My main theory is that I am a very different cook than I am a baker. I was a cook long before being bitten by the baking bug and it comes much more naturally to me. I grew up around great cooks, eating great savory meals. Don't get me wrong, there were some great desserts in there too, but the focus was almost always on the savory side of the kitchen. I inherited my cooking instincts from those around me and learned at a fairly young age to cook by feel. I don't get worried if I don't have recipes, and I am comfortable taking a look in the pantry, fridge, and garden and coming up with a pretty darn decent meal.

On the baking side however, I am largely at the mercy of a good recipe. That is changing slowly, but I still use recipes for most of my breads and sweets. I just don't have the science side of baking down quite the way I do with cooking.

The other issue is that, for being as into food as I am, I have a few quirky picky eater issues - many of them particularly odd considering how long I was a vegetarian. Given these quirks and my own inclination to not follow recipes while I cook, I may find myself struggling with Daring Cook challenges in the future. Of course, the whole point is to challenge yourself, and I do look forward to that aspect of the adventure.

Getting back to this particular recipe, I will share it with you, but I encourage you to go and try this one instead. The gnocchi from the Zuni Cafe recipe are just too soft and pillowy for my liking. Now some may be way into that, and if that is what works for you, then by all means. I liked a tad more bite to the version I've made in the past which are still quite soft and luxurious.

The even bigger issue here is that the Zuni Cafe version is much fussier. You have to be very delicate with the batter/dough (hence the extreme pillowiness) and it takes quite a bit longer to form and handle. The older version is really a very quick meal - Zuni Cafe version, not so much.

All was not lost however on this challenge. I quite liked the sauce I made to go with the gnocchi and I think I will use it with fresh pasta in the future. It was very simple: butter, slightly caramelized shallot, fried sage, sea salt, fresh pepper and a dusting of fennel pollen. This of course was made up on a whim - the whole cooking by feel thing. By the way, go out and get yourself some fennel pollen, one of my new favorite things in life. In fact, Ru said the bites with fennel really saved the dish.

At the end of the day however, I just don't get it. I love the Zuni Cafe cookbook, and I think Judy Rodgers is brilliant, but for my tastes, these were not the most amazing ricotta gnocchi I've made or eaten.

Fresh ricotta whipped and ready to go

Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi
Source: From The Zuni Café Cookbook
Yield: Makes 40 to 48 gnocchi (serves 4 to 6)
Prep time: Step 1 will take 24 hours. Steps 2 through 4 will take 1 hour.

Equipment required:
• 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)

For the gnocchi:
1 pound fresh ricotta (2 cups)
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon 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 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 underneat 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 better 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 ban 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 you’re 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 you’re 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.

*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.


Karen said...

I agree. This recipe does seem fiddly and the gnocchi just didn't have enough 'bite' to it. Thanks for the other recipe! Looks much easier and def going to try it :)

Anonymous said...

What great flavors, and they look lovely!

Audax said...

Great that you did the recipe pity you didn't like it much - I don't like potato gnocchi but LOVED these little pillows of yummmmm. I think your recipe link is great yes you are right the DCooks' recipe is a bit of a fiddly. Enjoyed reading your post. Cheers from Audax in Australia

Audax said...

Forgot to mention - What the heck is fennel pollen? And just love your flavour combination!

Arundathi said...

what great flavors. lovely. and i love the photo of the field of shaped gnocchi! :-)

Ethan said...

Okay, maybe "hate" was a strong word, but definitely preferred the version made in the past for ease, taste, and texture.

Audax: fennel pollen is great, the only company I know who collects wild fennel pollen happens to be local to me so I can get it at the farmer's market, but they ship:

Grandma said...

this is a classic version of "if it ain't broke don't fix it...". i love your original version of ricotta gnocchi and look forward to another great dinner - this time with the new sauce - perhaps for next week when sister danielle and baby elijah are finally visiting - what a treat for her - still a vegetarian.

Christie's Corner said...

I found them bland, too. At least yours turned out looking good. Mine were UGLY.

Oh well, you can't win them all. Thanks for the alternative recipe. I might give it a try another time.

giz said...

Sorry it didn't work for you. It's definitely a lighter version of gnocci than I'm used to but the sage butter made me forget how fussy it could be.

alana said...

Your honesty makes a good post, and I appreciate it. And your pictures are just gorgeous. I look forward to hearing your take on future challenges.

Jessica said...

i find it interesting that this first challenge really wasn't a crowd pleaser. no one seemed to LOVE it. I was disappointed with the taste and texture. however, it was a worthy exercise and i am really glad i could learn to make the cheese.
by the way, your blog comment format doesn't allow for open URL' unaffiliated ones, so I have to leave my old blogger address, or it won't let me comment :(
thanks for stopping by my blog!

Lauren said...

Mmm, your gnocchi looks great!! I'm glad that you figured out which recipe you prefer =D.

Katia Clark said...

I like my gnocchi pillowy. That's why I don't ever make it at home because it never comes out the same. We love the fennel pollen too, which one did you use. We have hog heaven and the one for veggies. Can't wait to see you guys next week and say hello to that adorable new baby in the group.

TeaLady said...

Sorry you didn't care for them. I had never made them before, but I didn't really care for them. But yours dooooo look really nice.