Thanksgiving dinner for me this year will be spent back home in Ohio with the family. Cincinnati will be a convergence zone for friends & family to meet up for the big Turkey din-din! Heading over from Pittsburgh, PA, is the Italian side of my family- my Dad's side. We have our little traditions in this side of the family- like my Aunt B's homemade Italian Wedding Soup. It's been far too long since I've slurped up this 'bumbi'-goodness. On a side note, in our family, we call the little pastina pasta in this soup, 'bumbis'. So when my mother put me in charge of making the sides for Thanksgiving, I immediately thought of another Italian family tradition of ours-- gnocchi!!
Gnocchi has a special connection to Thanksgiving for me. It was with the leftover mashed potatoes that my Aunt B passed down the family gnocchi recipe to me the year I was in 8th grade. I still remember her making a mini-Mt. Vesuvius mountain of mashed potatoes on the marble cutting board, with an egg or two posing as the 'lava' in the middle well of the potatoes. Then there was the Thanksgiving when I was in my mid-twenties and wanted to impress my family with my gnocchi prowess. My mom's side of the family (5 sisters) were having a mini-reunion that year at our house and I wanted to serve gnocchi as a side. Oh what a disaster that turned out to be. I made the gnocchi ahead of time, froze it, then defrosted it and dumped it in the boiling water and giant mush-balls of potato/flour mixture plopped up in the pot. I was so embarrassed with my kitchen catastrophe, but being the sweet family that I have, everyone ate it and pretended to like it.
So this year, I thought, I'm gonna 'gnocch'-it out of the park with a tried and true gnocchi recipe! I settled on Giada De Laurentiis' Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter, because it had sweet potatoes, a different twist on a Thanksgiving classic. Having suffered an epic gnocchi fail during a past Thanksgiving dinner preparation, I thought I'd better practice this recipe. I am sure glad I did! The first few times I attempted the recipe, one was a total flop and the other was an ok, back to the cutting board moment. I needed to do some research on making no-fail gnocchi and consulted the interwebs.
Having sifted through the interwebs, I found there were three key elements in making the perfect gnocchi dumplings.
1) Use as little flour as possible or else the gnocchi will be heavy and not light & pillowy.
2) Your potatoes should be as dry as possible, not watery and full of moisture or the dough will be too sloppy.
3) Handle the gnocchi dough as little as possible.
Wow! I thought. After all these years, I had developed gnocchi-making skills that were the polar opposite of this advice above. Ok, time to break from the norm!
After 3 times of making sweet potato gnocchi for the past few weeks, my 3rd time was the charm.
Here's what I did....
First, I invested in a potato ricer (bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $8.00), and a wooden gnocchi board. If you have an awesome mom like mine, she'll send you this as a gift, but you can find them on Amazon.com, too.
For this trial batch, I used a large Sweet Potato (the light yellow kind), about 9 inches long and 4 inches at the widest part, and I used a small Russet Potato (half the size of the Sweet Potato). I preheated the oven to 400 degrees F, lined a baking sheet with aluminum foil, sliced the potatoes in half, and before I put the potatoes on the sheet, I made a bed of rock salt on which the potatoes would bake. I read this somewhere on the web as advice to dry out the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes for about an hour to and hour and 15 minutes, when you could stick a fork in the potatoes to check that they're soft.
I let the potatoes cool a little bit, but while they were still hot, I peeled off the skin and scooped out the flesh, putting the flesh into the ricer, a few batches at a time. I pressed the ricer through, allowing the potato to pour out into a large mixing bowl. After I had done this with all the potatoes, I added about a tablespoon of nutmeg, a tablespoon of cinnamon, a dash of salt, and about 1/2 cup of flour. I worked this into the potatoes, but was careful not to over-handle the mixture. Once it was all mixed in, I dusted a board with flour and put the large dough ball on to it. I added about a 1/4 cup more of flour into the mix and worked it into the dough, being careful to not over-work the dough. Once the dough wasn't so sticky, I broke it off into 3 balls. With these three balls, I broke them into smaller balls and rolled each of them into snakes that were 3/4" thick. Make sure you continue to dust your board with flour before rolling the balls into snakes.
I cut the dough snakes into little dumplings- about 1" in length. Out of the large sweet potato & russet potato mixture, I was able to get 61 dumplings. I rolled the dumplings over a gnocchi board, curving them inward at the edges, creating a little crevasse on the inside of the gnocchi dumpling. The outside ridges of the gnocchi dumpling are meant to hold the sauce on the pasta. If you don't have a gnocchi board, you can use the tines of a fork to create ridges. I put the gnocchi dumplings on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, dusted with flour.
I filled a large pot with water, added salt, and waited until it reached a rolling boil. I boiled the gnocchi dumplings- about 20 at a time, 3 batches each, in the water. Plop them in the pot, and then they'll rise when they're close to being cooked. When they rise in the water- let them cook about 30 seconds to a minute before removing them. With a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchi and put them on a plate, tenting them with aluminum foil to trap their heat.
For the sauce, I loosely followed Giada's recipe for the Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter sauce. For this batch, I melted 1/2 cup of butter on low heat in a saucepan, then added a few tablespoons of olive oil. I threw in some fresh chopped sage then added a 1/2 tablespoon of cinnamon and a 1/2 tablespoon of nutmeg. A pinch of salt was also added, then 2 tablespoons of maple syrup. I let it sautee on low heat while the gnocchi cooked. Each time I had cooked a batch of gnocchi, I added those dumplings into the sauce to cook for a few minutes on each side, then transferred them to a bowl.
Once all of the gnocchi was cooked, sauteed in the sauce, and transferred to a bowl, I added the last bit of the sauce on top of the contents of the bowl. This could easily serve 2 people- around 30 dumplings each. I grated some fresh Toscano cheese on top and voila! Soft, pillowy, maple, cinnamon, butter goodness! This was delectable!!
So now that I've got my Gnocchi making down to a science, I don't wanna lose it. I better 'gnocch-gnocch-gnocch' on wood! Prepare to get your Turkey Day groove-on and ride on down the Gnocchi soul train!