Gnocchi is, at its most basic, mashed potatoes and flour dumplings, Italian style. It is a blank canvas, a delicious base that will keep you full for hours, and like all Italian food, tastes much better when made with care and with love.
Italian food has always been a source of bonding for my family. Food in general, I should really say. Every Christmas, my mum, sisters and I pile into the kitchen and make lasagna from scratch, from the tomato sauce to the béchamel sauce to the homemade noodles, it often ends in gales of laughter and at least one of us, if not all of us, covered in flour. My husband and I are on the road, travelling for his schooling as it takes him across the United States, but we still managed to make it home for Christmas this year. And this year, my mother greeted me with a new recipe, one that I know she has been working on for a while: Sweet Potato Gnocchi.
My mother, never one to back down from a challenge, takes my husband’s food allergies in stride. Why only feed some of the people in the house when everyone is hungry? So she experimented with sweet potatoes until she got it right.
This is more her story than mine. Coming from Nova Scotian heritage, the land of Irish meat-and-potatoes, and Acadian Rappie Pie (potato starch never tasted so good – or looked so gross!), she had homemade gnocchi for the first time at my dad’s house, made by his grandmother. And fell in love. To this day, she regrets that she never asked my Noni to show her how to make it. I know she has always felt like the family recipe has been lost. That changed recently. My mum and dad visited my grandparents a year ago, and she finally learned how to make it from my very sweet, very Italian step-grandmother.
You see, the tricky thing with gnocchi is being able to judge how they will turn out based on the feel of the dough. It’s a very tactile recipe. It’s simple on paper; all it requires is flour and potatoes. What really takes it over the top, in my opinion, is the texture. Unlike most food where there is leeway for experimentation, I believe there are two types of gnocchi. The first kind is the hearty kind, the kind that you can really chew, that you can feel in your stomach. Some people love this kind of gnocchi. Not me. I prefer the second kind. The kind that has the consistency of a cloud, like you’re biting into fluffy, rich, savoury air. This is that kind of recipe. The recipe once thought lost has been found again, and my mother has now passed it on to me. If I have anything to do with it, it won’t be lost again.
To start, you need two large sweet potatoes (about 1½ lbs)– don’t worry, this will make PLENTY of gnocchi! You want to cook them all the way through. There are a couple ways to do this. The first is to steam them. This is preferable, because you want the inside to be very, very moist. Steaming them will keep the most moisture inside. Other options are to bake them, boil them, or you can even do it in the microwave.
Once the potatoes have cooled for a few minutes, you’re going to peel them. Just break the skin with a knife and pull it away, it should come off very cleanly.
At this point, you can either use a potato ricer if you have one, or you can just mash it thoroughly with a fork. We’re living the nomadic life right now, so mashing it is!
Now we are going to add flour to the sweet potato in 1/8 cup increments. The key here is to just do it bit by bit. NEVER just dump cups of flour in, no matter how loudly your inner impatient voice yells. This is a careful process of adding a bit and mixing it in by hand, adding a bit and mixing it in, slowly and carefully. You want to add just enough flour so that it’s not sticky, so you can roll it out and handle it. Too much and you’ll end up with lead sinkers.
It’s important to treat the dough very carefully. This is not a recipe that you can do in your mixer, but instead must do totally by hand. Mixers are too rough.
You’ll find that there will be different amounts of flour each time. In this case, we added 3 ½ cups of flour. I’ve added up to 5 cups before. It depends greatly on the potatoes themselves, the weather, and the flour.
This is after 2 cups of flour. You can see it’s getting there, but isn’t quite ready yet. We’re still mixing with a fork.
After a while, you’ll notice it starts getting more dough-like in consistency. You can switch to a wooden spoon if you want. It should be like a soft, springy, sweetbread dough, bouncing back when you poke it.
When it’s ready, place on a floured surface. At this point, you can knead it gently a couple times, incorporating more flour.
You should have what looks like an orange, flour covered loaf of bread. Oh man, this is so much work but SO WORTH IT. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
Using a very sharp knife, cut just about a small handful off, and gently roll into a snake like you’re a kid playing with playdough again! Again, I’m urging you to be gentle! You want the snake to be about an inch in diameter.
Now you’ll slice up the rolled dough in half inch slices.
Using a fork (or a Gnocchi Board if you’re so lucky), place one of those little pieces on the end of the tines. Push your thumb into the centre just a little bit. That little indentation will help the dough cook evenly all the way through. With your thumb, push gently and almost flick it off the fork. It should be a gentle, quick motion so it isn’t squished or pressed through the tines at all.
You’ll end up with a gently curved piece of gnocchi, the outside ridged like a clam from the fork tines, looping around the indentation you made with your thumb. It’ll take a little bit of practice, but it’s really fun, especially if you have a helper or two! No two of your gnocchi will look identical, I promise you! You’ll get into a rhythm eventually and it goes pretty quickly.
Make sure they don’t stick together, and lay them out separately on a floured surface when they’re done.
Look at all that gnocchi!!! They can sit there all day if they have to. They freeze very well, so if you make a day of it and make a ton of gnocchi you can have some for future quick meals.
To cook your gnocchi, salt and boil your water.
You want it to be as hot as possible for all the gnocchi, so we’re only cooking about two cups of gnocchi at a time. If your water stops boiling for any reason, don’t add any more gnocchi until it returns to a boil.
They’re so funny, when they’re done they just bob right to the top…
…where you can easily skim them out with a slotted spoon or a Mesh Net Strainer Ladle.
They’re like pasta, so they can easily be the backdrop for any sauce you want, even these sweet potato ones. They’re good alone with butter and parmesan cheese (like these photos), a cream sauce like my Alfredo Sauce, a pesto sauce, or the more traditional option of pasta sauce. I haven’t tried it with a no-mato pasta sauce yet, but it is on my list!
- 1 ½ lbs sweet potatoes , cooked through (approximately 2 sweet potatoes!)
- 3-6 cups all-purpose flour
- TOPPING OPTIONS: butter and parmesan cheese OR Alfredo sauce OR Nomato sauce OR pesto sauce
* ALL STEPS MUST BE DONE SLOWLY AND GENTLY BY HAND. Too much rough handling will make your gnocchi hard and chewy!
Cook sweet potato all the way through (bake, boil, microwave, steam if possible)
Peel and mash or rice into large mixing bowl
SLOWLY add flour 1/8 cup at a time, mixing in each addition gently by hand until no longer sticky. In this case it was 3 ½ cups of flour, but it can take up to 6. Do not dump cups of flour in.
Place ball of dough on floured surface, and knead a couple times to incorporate just a bit more flour.
When you have your loaf, cut off a handful-sized piece using a sharp knife.
Gently roll the piece into a long snake about 1 inch in diameter. Slice into smaller pieces about 1/2 inch wide. Repeat with the rest of the loaf.
Placing the small piece on a fork, gently push to indent the centre, and flick and roll the piece off the fork. This should result in a curved, indented shape with ridges on the outside. Repeat for all your small pieces. This may take a couple attempts to perfect.
Boil water, and cook about 2 cups of gnocchi at a time. At all times, you want the water to be boiling. If it stops, do not add any more raw gnocchi until it is boiling again.
Skim the gnocchi off as they bob to the surface, this means that they are finished.
Serve as a side, or as a main course, top with your favourite sauce.
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