Gnocchi alla Romana

GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANA

I have long imagined what it was like for Italian cuisine before there were tomatoes.  But other new world food like corn, potatoes and peppers were also absent until the 18th century.  Which means that long before ships brought native crops from the Americas to Europe, Italy was a land without red sauce, corn polenta, or potato gnocchi. But even without the potato, gnocchi still existed, as in the form of Gnocchi alla Romana.  This oven-baked version made with semolina, eggs, cheese, and butter can be every bit as pillowy and delicious as home-made potato gnocchi.

There are some tricks and some options to be aware of.  Notice that there’s a bit of baking powder in the recipe, to aid in the rise of the gnocchi.  Notice also that first the butter and then the cheese is added to the batter OFF HEAT and that it is only then, when the temperature has cooled down some, that the egg yolks (or whole eggs) are added.  In creating the batter (I call it batter because it’s more like a choux paste than a dough), you wind up with something that is remarkably like the potato gnocchi. Even so, instead of using flour when spreading the batter and/or handling it, wetting the hands and tools with some cool water prevents sticking to the semolina batter.

 

This recipe serves  4 – 6 as a pasta or main course and 8 as a side or appetizer.

Ingredients

  • 6 C milk
  • spring of fresh rosemary
  • 5 cloves garlic 2 t Kosher salt
  • 2 C semolina flour
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 1 – 2 t Kosher salt (to taste; semolina can be pretty bland)
  • 2 stick (8 T unsalted butter + 4 T for greasing and 4 T more for topping
  • 1 C freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, + ½ C for topping
  • 2 whole eggs OR 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Tomato Sauce:                                                                                                                               

  • 2 (15 oz) cans Crushed tomatoes
  • ¼ C fresh basil
  • 1 t dried oregano (rub the leaves vigorously in your hands to help release the oil)
  • 2 T best olive oil

 

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan, heat milk, rosemary and garlic over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally to prevent scorching.
  2. While the milk is heating, whisk the semolina, salt and baking powder together.
  3. When the milk is steaming, remove the garlic and rosemary, and sprinkle in the semolina mixture in a fine shower, whisking constantly. The mixture will thicken and become difficult to whisk. Once all the semolina is added, lower heat to medium-low, switch to a stiff rubber spatula or wooden spoon and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until a sticky, dough-like mass forms and begins to pull away from sides of saucepan; about 10 – 15 minutes.  Make sure to stir deep into corners and all over bottom of saucepan to prevent scorching.
  4. Remove from heat.
  5. Stir in half of the butter (8 T) until melted and thoroughly incorporated.
  6. Stir in 1 C of the cheese until melted and thoroughly incorporated.
  7. Stick your finger in the batter; if it’s no longer hot, add the eggs (or egg yolks) and stir until thoroughly incorporated.
  8. Scrape semolina batter onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Press and smooth batter about ½ inch thick. Remember to wet the spatula or your hands, whichever you’re using.  Press plastic wrap against the surface and let cool to room temperature so you can handle it.  [Note: You could  refrigerate it to make the cooling down quicker, but it’s not necessary.  You could also make up the batter the day before and refrigerate it (covered) overnight.]
  9. Preheat oven to 450° F.
  10. When the batter is cool, it will handle a bit more like dough. Cut the dough into same size squares and shape by hand: you can roll them into balls and then flatten into rounds or you could make them in the shape of traditional potato gnocchi.
  11. Let them settle a few minutes from all the handling and then place them on a large buttered baking sheet or dish, using up to 4 T of butter.
  12. Melt the remaining butter and drizzle all over semolina gnocchi. Sprinkle the remaining freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top.
  13. Bake until gnocchi are sizzling hot and browned on top, about 15 minutes. Serve, passing more grated cheese at the table.
  14. While the gnocchi are baking, create a sauce. This can be a simple melted butter and fresh sage sauce or the tomato sauce as follow:

Combine the crushed tomatoes, chopped basil and olive oil in a sauce pan and heat.  Serve it on the side and allow people to help themselves.  But kindly suggest to your guests/family that they sample the gnocchi without any sauce first, so as not to miss out on these fabulously elegant “dumplings.”

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