Ever since I saw ricotta gnocchi being made on Two Greedy Italians, with the amusing duo of Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio, I’ve been meaning to give it a go. Gnocchi as I have always known it is made up of a mixture of potatoes and flour. A while ago I successfully experimented with sweet potato gnocchi and I’ve eaten pumpkin gnocchi before, but to leave out the starchy vegetable and replace it with ricotta cheese sounded like an interesting idea.
On my first attempt I used rice flour to bind the mixture and everything looked like it was going well. That was until I dropped the little dumplings into the pan to cook and they immediately dissolved into, what looked like white baby food. It didn’t help that I had my sceptical Nonna peering over my shoulder who had never heard of ricotta gnocchi before and was adamant that they weren’t going to work. It seemed, this time she was right.
But there was hope. My hungry brother came down for breakfast at about half past one in the afternoon, spotted the mound of ‘gnocchi’, promptly covered it with cheese and bunged it in the microwave as he fried up some eggs and bacon. We both gave it a try and were surprised to find that it was actually pretty tasty.
So the taste was there, but the texture was all wrong. On the second go I followed a recipe to the T, using regular flour instead of rice and making sure to strain all of the liquid from the ricotta to stop the mixture being too wet. And it worked. The gnocchi were soft and light but held their shape when boiled.
I used Serious Eats’ recipe for the gnocchi, which suggests using paper towels to squeeze the excess liquid out (a great idea and much quicker than draining). I have written the quantities here in UK measurements for convenience but if you prefer using cups follow the original instructions. I also would advise buying a new roll of kitchen paper as their advised 6 pieces was not enough for me.
The flavour of the gnocchi is very delicate and creamy with a hint of cheese and good when paired with my simple tomato sauce. The sauce is very easy but take Nonna’s advice and cook it very very slowly, don’t rush it or you will burn the onions!
Both the sauce and the gnocchi can be made in advance and frozen. The sauce makes more than enough for this recipe. Leftovers are nice with pasta.
Baked ricotta gnocchi with tomato, spinach, basil and mozzarella
For the sauce (this will make more than you need):
1 onion, chopped finely
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
800g tinned chopped tomatoes, two tins
20g basil, chopped
5 tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
For the gnocchi:
340g whole milk ricotta
Handful of grated Parmesan
120g all purpose flour + more for dusting
1 egg and 1 yolk
Salt and pepper
A handful of spinach
A ball of mozzarella
For the sauce, drizzle some olive oil into a pan and add the onions and garlic. Fry on a low-medium heat until they are very soft and translucent, this could take about 20 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and simmer for another 30-40 minutes until the sauce has thickened up a lot. In the last five minutes turn the heat down to low and add the chopped basil and the olive oil and stir to combine. Turn the heat off and add the balsamic. Taste and season with salt.
Meanwhile, prepare the gnocchi.
Line a large plate or board with three pieces of kitchen roll. Spoon the ricotta on top and spread out a bit, then place three more pieces of kitchen roll on top. Press down firmly with your hands to blot off the excess moisture. I found that I needed to throw away the top three pieces of kitchen roll and replace them with three fresh ones three or four more times until I was happy that I’d squeezed out enough liquid. Peel off the paper and spoon 230g of the ricotta into a mixing bowl. Reserve the rest for another use.
Add Parmesan, flour, whole egg and egg yolk to the mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper. Use a wooden spoon to beat all of the ingredients together thoroughly. The mixture should be sticky but not loose so add a touch more flour if necessary.
Lightly flour a clean work surface and your hands. Take a handful of the mixture and use your hands to roll it into a sausage, not too thick but not too thin.
Use a knife to slice the sausage into bite sized gnocchi, then use a fork to lightly make an imprint on each piece. This helps the sauce to cling to them.
Line each piece of gnocchi on a baking tray that has been dusted with semolina flour or regular flour, making sure they don’t touch. (At this point you can freeze the gnocchi. When they are completely frozen, transfer them to a bag to save space. They keep for up to 2 months.)
To cook from fresh, boil a large pan of salted water and lightly drop the gnocchi in. Boil for about 3 minutes, the gnocchi are cooked when they rise to the top of the water. You can also cook the gnocchi from frozen, just add a few minutes onto the cooking time.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer to cooked gnocchi into a baking dish.
Warm the sauce and add a handful of spinach to wilt slightly. Pour the sauce into the baking dish over the gnocchi and use a spoon to mix everything evenly. Tear up as much mozzarella as you like and scatter over the top.
Heat the grill to high and put the baking dish in the oven for about 5 minutes until the cheese is bubbling.
Serve with fresh gratings of Parmesan.