Gnocchi is the Italian word for dumplings. The most popular in the family are the ubiquitous potato based, but many different types can grace Italian tables. One of the most beloved is gnocchi alla romana, a semolina-and-milk savory deliciousness whose flavor remains in the memory trove of every Italian child. It is a dish that will make foes into friends, rivals into lovers.
They are easy, if a little time consuming. The making of this dish is best shared with someone whose company you enjoy. One of you can drizzle the flour while the other is whisking and you can alternate stirring duties, all the while chatting and making sure you pick the right wine for dinner.
Roman-style semolina gnocchi
Serves 8 people
1.5 quarts whole milk
salt to taste
1/2 pound semolina
2 egg yolks
1 stick butter
1 cup grated parmigiano
pepper to taste
grated nutmeg to taste
Pour the milk in a four-quart saucepan and season it with two teaspoons of salt. Place it on medium-high heat and bring to just below the boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and grab a handful of semolina. While whisking continuously, gradually and slowly drizzle it into the milk, mimicking a flurry of snow. Repeat until you have whisked in all of the semolina.
The mixture will quickly become dense and resist your mixing efforts. Keep at it no matter how hard it seems; you will be rewarded. It will take about seven to 10 minutes for the dough to become one big blob that detaches from the sides and bottom of the pan. Sample it. If you aren’t able to detect the taste of raw flour, the hard part is over. If you do taste raw flour, then you will need to stir for a few more minutes.
Take the pot off the heat and quickly and vigorously work in the yolks, without letting them curdle. Stir in half of the stick of butter and 1/2 cup of parmigiano. Season with freshly grated nutmeg until its aroma reaches your nose while you are standing by the bowl. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.
This next step requires a smooth surface lightly dampened with cool water. Marble and stainless steel are ideal; tiling or a silicone mat also work. In absence of these options, wet and squeeze a large swath of parchment paper and lay it on your working counter.
Pour the blob of dough over the prepped surface and lay a piece of parchment paper on it. Use a rolling pin to spread to a one-and-one-quarter-inch layer. To ensure even thickness, position your pin in the center and, applying very light and even pressure, roll towards each of the four cardinal points, alternating directions on each roll. Remove the top parchment paper and let the dough cool completely.
In the meantime, butter the bottom and sides of a shallow baking dish with two tablespoons of butter and sprinkle with one tablespoon of parmigiano.
Cut the gnocchi with a one-to-two-inch cookie cutter of your preferred shape. Have a bowl of warm water by your side; you will need to dip the cutter in it every five to six uses, or it will get too sticky to function effectively. Lift the cut dumplings one by one and arrange them attractively in the baking dish by slightly overlapping them in long tracks running in opposite directions.
Any leftover dough can be re-gathered, re-rolled, re-shaped and re-used without any adverse effects, so use all of it.
Dust with the last of the parmigiano and dot with the remaining butter. Place in a 375˚F pre-heated oven for about 15 minutes, until heated thoroughly and with crusty spots of a rich golden brown color on top.
Bring to the table while still warm and fluffy and help your guests serve themselves without getting burned. Watch their eyes widen in happiness, as bite after bite they taste the love you poured into this simple wonder of home cooking.
Note: This dish that freezes perfectly. I get it oven-ready, then seal it well with plastic and aluminum and put it in the freezer. I move it to the refrigerator the morning of the day I plan to serve it, then unwrap it and bake it as above while I am making a salad to complete the meal. You can keep it frozen for up to three months.