Am I both a daring baker and a daring cook? A few week's ago, I participated in my first Daring Bakers challenge by making Almond Biscotti and Hazelnut Cheesecake. This month was the inaugural challenge for the new group Daring Cooks. Hosted by Lis and Ivonne, the challenge was to make Ricotta Gnocchi as described in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
A quick digression - some of you may be wondering why I do posts on baking and cooking challenges and what these are. They are typically kicked off with a challenge set by a host. The participants then virtually cook (or bake) together by trying the challenge in their own kitchens, spread all over the world, and then blogging about it, although you don't have to be a blogger to take part. At the end of the challenge period, the host will usually post a round up of pictures and links to all of the completed dishes. So why have I been doing these? To meet people by joining in the world community of home cooks, to learn by trying dishes I wouldn't usually make, and to spread the word about my blog, which I hope provides interesting information to people wishing to cook and eat simply, nutritiously and sustainably (just in case you forgot)!
Ok, so back to it. What the heck is ricotta gnocchi? I was sceptical when I initially read the recipe as it sounded like nothing more than shaped and boiled ricotta cheese. Bland tasting at best, completely disastrous at worst. I've had a cheese gnocchi disaster before. We ended up eating a pile of cheese for dinner. Or at least, two bites of one.
Even worse, I was having friends over for dinner on the only night I could make it. I decided to go for it anyway and serve it as a starter - who really cares about starters anyway?
Well, I was pleasantly surprised by both the process and the outcome.
First, I made my own ricotta the night before, which was fun and interesting. In a nutshell, (ok, actually in a pan, not a nutshell) you bring a mixture of whole milk, cream and salt to a simmer. Then add in lemon juice. Briefly stir, let simmer a minute, stir again, let sit a minute, stir again, and then strain through cheesecloth for an hour at room temperature. The result was beautiful. This cheese looked delicate, soft and fresh: much different than the mushy, wet look of store bought ricotta.
Having been forewarned that the ricotta for the gnocchi must be completely drained for about a day, I was careful to give the cheese plenty of room to drain. Rather than using a colander, I spread the cheese in a thin layer over cheesecloth (an old t-shirt actually), put this over a flat splatter guard, and set this over a plate. I folded the t-shirt up over the cheese to protect it from completely drying out. I let the cheese drain over the plate in the fridge overnight. the next day I had my results - the ricotta was dry, but not dried out, and very easy to shape.
To dress and serve it, I thought the cheese flavor and texture would be nicely offset by fresh, crisp flavors. In keeping with my spring mood, I decided to use lemon zest as the primary flavor in the gnocchi and then complimented this with flavors traditionally used with lemon zest: arugula, pine nuts and basil. Kind of a deconstructed pesto.
The result was fabulous. The gnocchi was completely different than anything I've had before. It was like an ultralight, fluffy, fragrant omelet or souffle, with just a hint of lemon. Serving it on a bed of greens provided a textural contrast that prevented the flavor from becoming repetitive. The nuts, basil and a drizzle of olive oil rounded out the flavors.
This is a dish I will make again, especially for a dinner party. With a bit of planning, the whole dish can be prepared ahead of time up to the last cooking step, which only takes a few minutes. It is a substantial and delicious starter, with a uniqueness that makes for interesting conversation.
Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi with Arugula, Pine Nuts and Basil
Makes 40 gnocchi, serves 4-6 entrees or 8 generous starter portions
- 2 qt. (1/2 gallon, 1.9 l) whole milk
- 1 c. (237 ml) whole cream
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 3 Tbs. fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1 lb (2 cups, 454 grams) ricotta
- 2 large eggs
- 1 Tbs (1/2 oz) butter
- 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest
- 1/2 oz (1/4 c lightly packed) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- all-purpose flour for shaping
- arugula, 1 handful per person (approx. 1/4 lb)
- 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest
- 1/4 c pine nuts
- 2 Tbs basil, finely sliced
- lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
- The night before, if making fresh ricotta follow instructions on Eggs on Sunday blog. Whether store-bought or fresh, drain the ricotta as described above.
- Prep your equipment. Spread a plate with half an inch of all-purpose flour. Put a small pan of salted water on to boil to test the first gnocchi. Sprinkle a baking sheet lightly with flour.
- Push the ricotta through a splatter guard or large mesh colander with a wooden spoon (or use a food mill if you have one) to break up any large curds and to lighten the texture of the ricotta.
- Using a spatula, thoroughly mix in the eggs, followed by the lemon zest, salt and Parmesan cheese. The mixture should be light, fluffy and completely uniform.
- Use two tablespoons (the eating kind, not the measuring kind) to shape the gnocchi. Scoop about a tablespoon of the mixture into one spoon, then remove the excess by scraping the spoon face-down against the edge of the bowl. Using the other spoon, push the dough from the spoon onto the bed of flour. Sprinkle the gnocchi lightly with flour. To perform the final shaping, pick it up with lightly dusted fingers then roll it a little in your palm very gently to close up cracks and smooth edges. This video shows how the originals do it at Zuni Cafe.
- To test the first piece, drop it in gently boiling water. From the time it bobs to the surface, cook it for about 4 minutes. It will dramatically puff when it is close to done. Using a slotted spoon, gently lift the gnocchi out of the pan. It's done when it holds it's shape. I was worried about overcooking the gnocchi, thinking that like ravioli it would fall apart if cooked for more than a minute or two. This worked in quite the opposite way, the longer it cooked, the more the egg set the shape. I've read that if the gnocchi still won't hold it's shape, at this point you can add a teaspoon of egg white to the mixture to firm it up.
- Once you've verified that the mixture is correct, shape the rest of the gnocchi. You can add more than one piece to the flour at a time, but be sure not to allow them to touch. After shaping each piece, place on the floured baking sheet.
- Put the baking sheet in the fridge to rest for at least an hour. I rested mine for about 5 hours with no problem. I covered them in plastic wrap for most of this so that they wouldn't get dried and rubbery, removing the covering an hour before cooking so that any condensation could evaporate. Allow the gnocchi to come back to room temperature before cooking.
- Before cooking, prep the rest of the dish. Wash and dry the arugula thoroughly, then dress it in a 1:3 mixture of lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Pile the arugula on individual serving plates. Lightly toast the pine nuts in a small pan on medium low heat for 5 minutes, tossing occasionally to prevent burning.
- Just before serving, cook the gnocchi as described in step 6 in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Cook in batches with only enough gnocchi to cover the surface of the water in a single layer.
- Drain three or four gnocchi at a time with a slotted spoon, let dry a moment in the spoon and then place gently on the arugula, serving about 5 per person.
- Sprinkle with the lemon zest, pine nuts and basil. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Serve and sit down to enjoy!