Usually, there comes a point at which something goes terribly wrong.
Okay, maybe not terribly, but bad enough that I begin to question everything and briefly wonder why I'm not a person who eats more frozen pizzas.
That's just how it goes when you're experimenting with new recipes. Or at least it is when I, a chronic recipe skimmer, experiment with new recipes. I am slowly learning my lesson, trying with each new ingredient and instruction list to read carefully, lest I miss a crucial step like, "Let this mixture you just combined sit for 48 hours, thereby ensuring it will definitely not be suitable for tonight's dinner."
When I set out to make gnocchi, a soft doughy dumpling whose name comes from the Italian word for knuckles, I made sure to do my research. The first step was nixing the potato that's traditionally worked into the dough. I had tried that before, and the result was just okay. It's tricky to get the texture right. When I heard horror stories from other home cooks, my belief in the potato-free gnocchi deepened.
I opted for ricotta gnocchi instead, something you've probably seen on local menus and which tends to resemble fluffy, airy pillows of heaven. I was happy to discover that the dish is also quite easy to make at home.
When I say easy, I mean it. There are no elaborate contraptions involved, no wonky cooking methods, no special ingredients. You could even turn this gnocchi-making into an interactive event, roping in other family members, even kids. It's all the fun of homemade pasta without much of the work.
I started with a recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt of seriouseats.com. López-Alt wrote the book The Food Lab, the full title of which includes the phrase "Better Home Cooking Through Science." His recipes are indeed very scientific, using measurements and precise methods to create dishes. That makes them sound difficult. They're not. This recipe for gnocchi calls for a total of four ingredients, six if you count salt and pepper. And the only cookware you need are a bowl, a wooden spoon and a large pot.
The first thing I noticed about his gnocchi was that it called for "best quality ricotta cheese." He explains on seriouseats.com: "Mass market ricotta cheese not only has a terrible taste and texture, it's also loaded with stabilizers that make it a poor match for this recipe. For good results here, you must seek out a better quality ricotta, such as Calabro."
Now, I looked for this Calabro cheese. I could not find it at Publix, Walmart or Trader Joe's. What I did find, at Trader Joe's, was a whole milk, preservative-free ricotta. I bought it, thinking that this dinner was supposed to be easy and it was all I had time to get before I needed to get home and cook.
As I sit here scarfing down gnocchi leftovers at work, I can tell you it worked out just fine. Maybe the whole milk was key or the lack of preservatives. Or maybe I am missing out on an even superior version of this cheesy gnocchi. But really, I think the thing that matters most with regards to the ricotta in this recipe is closely following López-Alt's instructions to remove as much liquid from the cheese as you can. This allows for the chemistry to best work among the ricotta, flour and egg that make up the dough.
The other part of López-Alt's recipe I failed to follow exactly? Everything is measured in ounces. I'd recommend doing this if you have a kitchen scale, but I used my standard measuring cups based on his suggested amounts and all went smoothly.
After mixing the dough, you roll it into logs, then cut those logs into the signature gnocchi shape. Use anything that cuts to do this, from a butter knife to a baker's blade, but try to get the pieces as close in size as possible, so they cook evenly. I thought I would have to be much more delicate with the dough, which is soft and pliable but not flaky, but it's not as precious as you think. That especially applies to the cooking — the little "knuckles" held up like champs in the boiling water. I've made homemade pasta that has not been up the hot water challenge.
I swapped López-Alt's simple marinara sauce for a creamy Parmesan sauce with parsley, but just about any sauce will work fine. Gnocchi is deservedly the star here.