Cucina di Gnocchi
I recently surprised fellow Sac Foodie, Kim Bedwell, with a cooking class at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op for her birthday (I won’t mention which one!). Hoping she would equally enjoy learning how to make an Italian classic, I signed us up for “Gnocchi Three Ways” with Cris Mckone. This was my second class at the co-op (I learned how to make risotto a few years ago and still use the techniques today), but this was Kim’s first time attending the school located to the left of the entrance of the store on Alhambra.
There were 16 students and the class was hands-on, a must for gnocchi making, according to Mckone. She further explained, you need to feel the dough to know the consistency you’re trying to achieve when adding flour to the potato dough. She’s right!
The class was split into three groups. I practically ran to the station that was to learn how to make the traditional potato gnocchi with a tomato-cream sauce. It’s been a dream of mine for years to learn how to make these precious pillows. I have wonderful memories of my Nana’s gnocchi (easily my favorite meal of all time!) and never got the opportunity to learn hands-on how to make them. Of course, in true Italian style, no recipe exists!
We began by “ricing” the baked potatoes (the style of cooking the potatoes Mckone recommends for the least amount of moisture) in a food mill. This is definitely the next kitchen tool on my list! We were also able to try a small ricer, but the ease of the food mill proved most efficient for the potatoes and the tomatoes we milled later for the sauce. Flour, egg whites and salt were added to the potatoes, and the dough making process began. It truly is something you need to feel. We then kneaded the potato mixture into a ball and added flour until the stickiness was minimal.
Next, we took tennis ball chunks from the large ball of dough and rolled them out into long, skinny pieces of dough (like a breadstick). The dough was then cut into very small squares before the art of gnocchi making really began.
Enter my other new favorite tool – butter paddles! It’s difficult to describe how we learned to “sweep” the square potato dough on the ribbed paddles, but basically you gently push the dough against the paddle until it curls into a beautiful potato dumpling. The key is to make sure all the gnocchi are equal in size so that they cook evenly.
After my team completed the two hour production of making the gnocchi (we doubled the recipe so it took awhile, but there were five of us so I still suggest having a team at home to make this special treat!), we made a wonderful sauce of butter, garlic, tomatoes, heavy whipping cream, basil and salt. Mckone’s biggest hint about the sauce is exactly what my Italian family has preached for years – you want to be able to taste the pasta so use minimal sauce (freeze half of what you make for future pasta dishes) when serving.
The gnocchi took minutes to boil floating to the top when done. Another tip from Mckone was to always toss the gnocchi (or any pasta for that matter) with the sauce in a hot pan on the stove top so the flavors meld just before serving. We topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (of course!) and my perfect meal was ready for tasting.
We all sat down to eat our hard work sampling all three gnocchi dishes simultaneously. I may be biased but I don’t think there is a better gnocchi than the classic potato with a tomato sauce. They were wonderfully tender (not chewy like you get at many restaurants) and the sauce complemented rather than overwhelmed the tasty pillows. I very much enjoyed Kim and her team’s ricotta-spinach gnocchi with a browned butter-sage sauce (how can you go wrong with that combination?!) as well as the semolina gnocchi with a gorgonzola-walnut sauce. The latter was a stretch to call a “gnocchi” but the rich sauce was an amazing accompaniment, which I will be adding to my repertoire of sauces.
Overall, it was a terrific experience and I look forward to trying the technique at home. Mckone was a fantastic teacher commanding attention of all three stations when needed and making sure we all miraculously completed our dishes at the same time. I believe Kim enjoyed the class as much as I did. In fact, I highly recommend giving the affordable co-op cooking classes to a friend for any special occasion, but make sure you buy a spot for yourself like I did. It’s so much fun playing in the kitchen with a good friend and it’s an experience we both won’t ever forget.