Growing up in an Italian American household meant that our household chores were, at times, a bit different than those from other neighborhood kids. Included on our list was helping our mother make homemade pasta. And she did so on a regular basis. She would send dishes of delicious homemade macaroni with pots of meatballs and sauce all over the neighborhood. (She didn’t drive a car so she was forever
reminding yelling at my father to retrieve her dishes and pots from friends and family.) Holidays or family celebrations called for delicious homemade ricotta ravioli, labor intensive capelletti in brodo, passatelli or the family favorite, gnocchi.
We loved when on Saturday mornings she pulled out the old macaroni board that my father had made for her. Next, out came the old large Charlie Chip metal can (who remembers those???) in which she kept her flour. She then proceeded to work her magic spinning out fresh pasta for an army. We were always enlisted to help carry the pasta sheets to every corner of the kitchen, draping them over counters and towels, to allow them to dry before we shaped, stuffed, rolled. We didn’t have alot of money growing up and although never mentioned, I am sure she often made pasta as a way to make ends meet. But those pastas were always spun with love and her desire to keep us (and apparently half of our town) well fed.
My mother’s gnocchi were saved for special occasions. Our extended family was forever requesting that she make them so we often found ourselves on those Saturday mornings, standing on chairs in our kitchen helping mom roll out the long ropes of dough and then cutting and shaping them with our little thumbs. There was always great trepidation as we dumped the gnocchi into my mother’s big white pasta pot. We would stare anxiously at the water to see if the gnocchi would surface or if, horrors, they would stick together and form a lump of paste at the bottom. You were never allowed to STIR the gnocchi once dumped into the pot but had to stand there for agonizing seconds to see if they floated.
The unusual thing about my mother’s gnocchi was that she only used flour and water – never potatoes – which actually made them a cavatelli but they were always referred to as gnocchi. Family lore has it that my one of my Uncles disliked potatoes so she evolved the recipe to just use flour and water. Whatever they actually were, they were always a hit, never heavy and somehow, despite the use of flour, light as pillows.
In adulthood, I often have made gnocchi (with potatoes) and find myself staring anxiously over that very same white pot holding my breath until I see the first one float. I have had a few disasters – most notably, the first time I made them for family before my wedding. With 8 folks gathered around my table, I held my breath waiting for the first signs of floaters. Nothing. Still nothing. Finally forced to stir, I found a pile of somewhat held together but mostly paste at the bottom of the pot. My family stoically ate dishes of gnocchi glue. (At least, my meatballs and sauce were killer. )
So it was with a tiny bit of trepidation that Joey and I found ourselves making gnocchi for a crowd recently. Our beloved Aunt Mary was turning 90 and all she wanted was a dish of homemade gnocchi. Joey and I scoured the internet for any tips or tricks on making these somewhat tricky little beauties so as to ensure that gnocchi glue was not in our future. Too much flour and too much moisture are typically the enemies of the gnocchi. I had tried russets, organic, red potatoes over the years. I had used egg in the recipe and I had tried it without. However for this special occasion, we knew we had to nail it. I wish I could say we came up with some great secret for how to always make spectacular, pillowy gnocchi – we didn’t. However, we did find that a few tweaks to our technique, thanks to Serious Eats: How to Make Light Fluffy Gnocchi, did the trick. Their Food Lab does extensive research on the best proportions and techniques for recipes and their technique nailed it. Follow that recipe to a T. Do not deviate. Our gnocchi came out soft, silky and pillow-soft – a collective sigh of relief all around. We served our gnocchi with a tomato sauce recipe from our relatives in Scapezzano, Italy (which includes cloves as the secret ingredient!). In the photo above, I made another batch with a simple sauce of olive oil, garlic and a pinch of red pepper to allow the silky potato goodness to shine through.