The search for gnocchi February 18, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
Even if you can’t pronounce it, you can’t stop it from being a surefire hit, says C Y Gopinath
THE SEARCH FOR GNOCCHI IS OVER. It ended about two weeks ago, on page 512 of the Larousse Gastronomique. Silly of me not to have thought of it before, but I’m known for that sort of addle-patedness. In the meantime, over ten years had passed. The world had undergone radical transformations: empires had fallen, princes had been brought to their heels (but not their senses) by national scandals, the USSR had humbled itself but still been unable to improve upon its national soup, borsch. Here in India the famous Jain pizza had been perfected, with cholé topping and no garlic.
Meanwhile, I had grown old and tired searching for the original gnocchi. I remembered very little about it except that it had ingredients that could turn greedy little pigs into gourmets: lots of cheese, bluggles of milk, globblops of butter, flour and such. In addition, I recalled effortlessly the rich brown aroma of the baking session that ended the cooking. The final dish, bubbling with hot butter, had little bits of pink sticking out through the molten cheese. What could it have been? And there was something green too. Whatever could that have been?
I made gnocchi (meaning ‘lumps’ in Italian) first in 1982 in the house of an unsuspecting friend (who, since exiled to Russia, carefully avoids mentioning borsch in her despatches). I distinctly recall that the recipe did not come to me in a dream, but was laboriously copied from a book, and that too one not on Italian cuisine. There were perhaps 20 invitees to the party, and they thought ganochi, as they called it, was a specialty of Kathiawar. However, there was perfect silence, broken only by nutmeg burps, while they ate. I was an immodest hit, and was approached immediately by several eligible young women , who wanted to know if I thought a man’s place was in the kitchen.
For years after that I forgot about gnocchi, and gnocchi forgot about me. I went to Italy where, at an open-air restaurant by the Tiber, I washed down frabjous thin-crust pizzas with white Chianti. I learnt about farfalle, or butterfly-shaped pasta. (I also picked up an interesting little phrase, figlio di putane, but less of that later. Figlio means ‘son’, di means ‘of’. I can’t tell you more.)
Two weeks ago, I was doing my morning exercises — lifting the Larousse Gastronomique 20 times, first with the left hand and then with the right — when it fell open to the page with the word quenelle, meaning dumpling in the area of the world called Alsace. As you know, I am fascinated by strange deja vû words. In quick succession, I discovered knödel, noque, knepfle, all meaning dumplings in various European languages. One thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself staring at an ancient 7-letter word starting with ‘g’. Small dumplings, read the description, made of flour, semolina, potato or choux pastry. My heart leaped. Gnocchi. At last.
Three kinds of gnocchi are listed in the Gastronomique, and two of them may be safely kept aside. The one that we are concerned with is gnocchi á la romaine. Here’s how you could make an extremely high-calorie but unputdownable gnocchi dinner for four. It’s normally enough to serve it with a fresh, wet, green salad, perhaps with bits of celery or parsley.
Pour 125 gms of white flour (maida) into 2 cups of boiling milk and stir it till you get a very smooth porridge. Add salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, some freshly ground black pepper, 1 cup grated Parmesan or Mozzarella cheese and 2 tablespoons butter, and blend into the paste. Allow it to cool and then add 1 lightly beaten egg and 1 yolk.
You should have a fine paste in front of you. (If you include fresh spinach among the ingredients, the paste gets coloured a pleasant green).
Spread this out on a large moistened slab and leave it under a fan till it is completely cool. Separately, prepare some Bechamel sauce — melt 3 tablespoons butter over low heat in a heavy saucepan. Add 6 tablespoons flour and stir briskly till the mixture is smoothly blended without the colour changing. Add 2 cups of milk and whisk with a wire whisk to prevent lumps forming. Season with a salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook it slowly till it is medium thick.
With a pastry cutter, or a knife, cut the cooled paste into rounds of squares. Arrange these in a buttered baking dish, with alternate layers of Bechamel sauce and ham. Sprinkle lots of cheese over the top, pour dollops of melted butter over it, and then brown it slowly in an oven.
And by the way, it isn’t pronounced ganochi. It’s nyoki.