Last week my friend Valeria and I decided to organise a dinner party inspired by some homemade ingredients that she had brought back from her hometown of Bono in Sardinia. Her father had cured some prosciutto and sausage which we served as antipasti, along with some Sardinian cheese and typical Sardinian bread called Pane Carasau. For the primo we decided on Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, a dish from Sorrento, near Naples, in an attempt use up the last of the season’s tomatoes. Of course you could cheat a little and buy your gnocchi ready-made but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity for a master class in making fresh gnocchi so we decided to start completely from scratch.
There are in fact many different varieties of gnocchi including gnocchi di farina (made with bread and flour), gnocchi di polenta (with polenta flour), gnocchi di castagne (with chestnut flour) and many types of gnocchi with added ingredients such as spinach, pumpkin or cheese. The recipe for gnocchi alla Sorrentina, however, calls for the classic potato gnocchi, which was perfect for my first gnocchi-making experience! Since we had two coeliac guests for dinner, we replaced the wheat flour with a gluten-free mix but for my non-coeliac readers, here is the method for the classic potato gnocchi:
Note: Classic potato gnocchi should be made without egg but most Italians add at least one to ensure that the mixture binds together well for a smooth result.
For the gnocchi:
- 100g flour
- 400g potatoes (a floury variety)
- 1 egg
Wash the potatoes and put them into salted boiling water with the skins on. Leave them to boil for around 30 minutes or until you can easily pierce them with a knife, then drain and leave them to cool down a little.
Once sufficiently cooled, you can then begin to peel the skin off the potato. Cooking the potatoes with the skins on makes them incredibly easy to peel and also gives them a richer, earthier flavour. When all the skin has been removed, pass the warm potato through a potato ricer or mash thoroughly. Do not use a blender as the potato will become heavy and gelatinous.
Tip the mashed potato onto a floured surface, make a hole in the middle and fill it with the flour, egg and around a teaspoon of salt. Gently incorporate all the ingredients until you create a ball of dough. Do not over-work the mix as the gnocchi need to be fluffy and light.
Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll them out into long cylinders about 2cm wide, re-flouring the surface as required. Cut the cylinders into 2cm long pieces using a sharp, floured knife.
You can then shape each gnocc0 (gnocco is the singular form of gnocchi, one gnocco, two gnocchi) by lightly rolling it with your thumb against a ridged surface, slightly twisting your thumb at the last minute to create a small fold in the back. We used a gnocchi board to create this effect but you can also get great results by just rolling the gnocchi across the prongs of a fork. Continue this process, placing the finished gnocchi on a tea towel until you have used all of the dough. If you don't have the time or patience for shaping your gnocchi don't worry, a rustic rectangular or even round gnocco is perfectly acceptable, you can even just squash them a little bit with a fork!
To cook the gnocchi simply drop them into salted, boiling water and drain once they begin to float to the top, this should only take about 2-3 minutes so make sure you keep an eye on it! If making the gnocchi alla Sorrentina, make sure you have prepared your sauce (see below) before cooking the gnocchi!
For the Sorrentina sauce:
- 500g fresh tomato sauce
- Basil to garnish
- 250g buffalo mozzarella (cut into 2cm cubes)
- 100g grated parmesan
Before cooking the gnocchi, pre-heat your oven to 180C. Take an oven-proof dish and line the base and edges with a little fresh tomato sauce and place 1/3 of the mozzarella in the bottom. If you can’t find buffalo mozzarella, normal is fine. Lining your dish with tomato sauce will ensure that the gnocchi won’t stick to the sides.
Cook your gnocchi as above. Note: To save time, do not salt the water until it is fully boiling as salted water takes longer to come to the boil.
Return the drained gnocchi to the pan and mix with the remaining tomato sauce, another 1/3 of the mozzarella and half of the parmesan. Pour the tomato-coated gnocchi into the baking dish, sprinkle over the remaining parmesan and mozzarella and bake until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown on top.
Garnish with basil leaves and eat it while it’s hot! As you can see, it certainly went down well with our dinner guests!