Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14: Daring Cooks: First Ever Challenge

This is our very first Daring Cooks Challenge!
Our hostesses for this challenge are the the founders of the Daring Bakers, Ivonne (Cream Puffs in Venice) and Lis (Lia Mia Cucina).

A message from our hostesses:
"Two-and-a-half years after the birth of The Daring Bakers, Lis and I are so happy to inaugurate The Daring Cooks with the first ever challenge! Thank you so much to all of you for joining and for supporting us!

to do away with the suspense, we're happy to announce that the very first Daring Cooks' challenge is ... Ricotta Gnocchi!

We have chosen a recipe from the stunning cookbook by Judy Rodgers, named after her restaurant, The Zuni Café Cookbook."

I'd like to thank Ivonne and Lis for hosting our first challenge, also, for having the gumption and inspiration to form The Daring Bakers.

Personally, I'm an engineer/scientist/geek. Experimentation and learning is encoded into my DNA. Fortunately, cooking is a happy form of experimentation where the end results are edible.

Being a Daring Baker and, now, a Daring Cook gives me an enjoyable way of experimenting around with different ingredients and learning new techniques.

For our first challenge, we're making ricotta gnocchi.

Ricotta gnochhi? I've heard of potato gnocchi. In fact, I've been meaning to make gnocchi after watching PBS Italian cooking maestro, Lidia Bastianich.

My first challenge and I'm making something new and unknown to me. Gotta love it!

Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi
Source: The Zuni Café Cookbook. by Judy Rodgers and Gerald Asher
Yield: Makes 40 to 48 gnocchi (serves 4 to 6)

For the gnocchi:

1 pound (454 grams/16 ounces) fresh ricotta (2 cups)
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) unsalted butter
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, or a few pinches of chopped lemon zest (all optional)
½ ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about ¼ cup very lightly packed)
about ¼ teaspoon salt (a little more if using kosher salt)
all-purpose flour for forming the gnocchi

Step 1 (the day before you make the gnocchi): Preparing the ricotta.

If the ricotta is too wet, your gnocchi will not form properly. In her cookbook, Judy Rodgers recommends checking the ricotta’s wetness. To test the ricotta, take a teaspoon or so and place it on a paper towel. If you notice a very large ring of dampness forming around the ricotta after a minute or so, then the ricotta is too wet. To remove some of the moisture, line a sieve with cheesecloth or paper towels and place the ricotta in the sieve. Cover it and let it drain for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can wrap the ricotta carefully in cheesecloth (2 layers) and suspend it in your refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours with a bowl underneath to catch the water that’s released. Either way, it’s recommended that you do this step the day before you plan on making the gnocchi.

For this challenge, I used store bough ricotta. The ricotta was set onto a strainer and allowed to sit overnight in the fridge.

Step 2 (the day you plan on eating the gnocchi): Making the gnocchi dough.

To make great gnocchi, the ricotta has to be fairly smooth. Place the drained ricotta in a large bowl and mash it as best as you can with a rubber spatula or a large spoon (it’s best to use a utensil with some flexibility here). As you mash the ricotta, if you noticed that you can still see curds, then press the ricotta through a strainer to smooth it out as much as possible.

Wow! This part took longer than expected. I opted to use my fine mesh strainer to press the gnocchi through. My objective was to smooth the ricotta by mashing any larger curds through the mesh.

Add the lightly beaten eggs to the mashed ricotta.

Melt the tablespoon of butter. As it melts, add in the sage if you’re using it. If not, just melt the butter and add it to the ricotta mixture.

Add in any flavouring that you’re using (i.e., nutmeg, lemon zest, etc.). If you’re not using any particular flavouring, that’s fine.

Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the salt.

Beat all the ingredients together very well. You should end up with a soft and fluffy batter with no streaks (everything should be mixed in very well).

I added nutmeg and pulled out the hand mixer. Not sure if the mixer was too harsh on the mixture, but I mixed until combined and looked "fluffy".

Step 3: Forming the gnocchi.
Fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. When it boils, salt the water generously and keep it at a simmer. You will use this water to test the first gnocchi that you make to ensure that it holds together and that your gnocchi batter isn’t too damp.

In a large, shallow baking dish or on a sheet pan, make a bed of all-purpose flour that’s ½ an inch deep.

With a spatula, scrape the ricotta mixture away from the sides of the bowl and form a large mass in the centre of your bowl.

Using a tablespoon, scoop up about 2 to 3 teaspoons of batter and then holding the spoon at an angle, use your finger tip to gently push the ball of dough from the spoon into the bed of flour

Whoa! The dough is very soft, almost like a thick batter. Hmmm... I'm getting worried here. NOTE: after a few tries, refrigerating an hour helped firm up the gnocchi a little more.

I found that spoon angle is very important. Too steep and you'll end up with a splat and too shallow, you'll end up with more on your finger than the gnocchi. The ideal angle I found is the gnocchi will fall back on itself like a soft serve (ice cream) swirl.

Also, the the dough being very soft, the deep layer of flour helps. You can't pick the gnocchi up with your fingers for it will mash. However, with the thick layer of flour you can go underneath the gnocchi ball and roll.

I tried to show the progression from right to left: The initial gnocchi off the spoon. The finger tracks in the flour illustrate the technique of rolling the gnocchi from underneath. Objective... coat with flour.

either shake the dish or pan gently to ensure that the flour covers the gnocchi or use your fingers to very gently dust the gnocchi with flour. Gently pick up the gnocchi and cradle it in your hand rolling it to form it in an oval as best as you can, at no point should you squeeze it. What you’re looking for is an oval lump of sorts that’s dusted in flour and plump.

The next trick is picking up the dough ball. I found the two-handed method worked. Acting like steam shovel, you pick up the gnocchi from underneath, fingers slightly apart to allow the excess flour to fall out. Now you can transfer to one hand, gently cradle and move your hand back and forth so the gnocchi rounds off.

Gently place your gnocchi in the simmering water. It will sink and then bob to the top. From the time that it bobs to the surface, you want to cook the gnocchi until it’s just firm. This could take 3 to 5 minutes.

If your gnocchi begins to fall apart, this means that the ricotta cheese was probably still too wet. You can remedy this by beating a teaspoon of egg white into your gnocchi batter. If your gnocchi batter was fluffy but the sample comes out heavy, add a teaspoon of beaten egg to the batter and beat that in. Test a second gnocchi to ensure success.

Form the rest of your gnocchi. You can put 4 to 6 gnocchi in the bed of flour at a time. But don’t overcrowd your bed of flour or you may damage your gnocchi as you coat them.

Have a sheet pan ready to rest the formed gnocchi on. Line the sheet pan with wax or parchment paper and dust it with flour.

You can cook the gnocchi right away, however, Judy Rodgers recommends storing them in the refrigerator for an hour prior to cooking to allow them to firm up.

Finally, gnocchi formed and ready for the refrigerator for some firming up.

Step 4: Cooking the gnocchi.

Have a large skillet ready to go. Place the butter and water for the sauce in the skillet and set aside.

In the largest pan or pot that you have (make sure it’s wide), bring at least 2 quarts of water to a boil (you can use as much as 3 quarts of water if your pot permits). You need a wide pot or pan so that your gnocchi won’t bump into each other and damage each other.

Once the water is boiling, salt it generously.

Drop the gnocchi into the water one by one. Once they float to the top, cook them for 3 to 5 minutes (as in the case with the test gnocchi).

When the gnocchi float to the top, you can start your sauce while you wait for them to finish cooking.

Place the skillet over medium heat and melt the butter. Swirl it gently a few times as it melts. As soon as it melts and is incorporated with the water, turn off the heat. Your gnocchi should be cooked by now.

With a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water and gently drop into the butter sauce. Carefully roll in the sauce until coated. Serve immediately.

Variations: For the gnocchi, you can flavour them however you wish. If you want to experiment by adding something to your gnocchi (i.e., caramelized onion, sundried tomato), feel free to do so. However, be forewarned, ricotta gnocchi are delicate and may not take well to elaborate additions. For the sauce, this is your chance to go nuts. Enjoy yourselves. Surprise us!!!

Freezing the gnocchi: If you don’t want to cook your gnocchi right away or if you don’t want to cook all of them, you can make them and freeze them. Once they are formed and resting on the flour-dusted, lined tray, place them uncovered in the freezer. Leave them for several hours to freeze. Once frozen, place them in a plastic bag. Remove the air and seal the bag. Return to the freezer. To cook frozen gnocchi, remove them from the bag and place individually on a plate or on a tray. Place in the refrigerator to thaw completely. Cook as directed for fresh gnocchi.

- If you can find it, use fresh ricotta. As Judy Rodgers advises in her recipe, there is no substitute for fresh ricotta. It may be a bit more expensive, but it's worth it.
- Do not skip the draining step. Even if the fresh ricotta doesn't look very wet, it is. Draining the ricotta will help your gnocchi tremendously.
- When shaping your gnocchi, resist the urge to over handle them. It's okay if they look a bit wrinkled or if they're not perfectly smooth.
- If you're not freezing the gnocchi for later, cook them as soon as you can. If you let them sit around too long they may become a bit sticky.

For the gnocchi sauce:
8 tablespoons (227 grams/1/4 pound/4 ounces) butter, sliced
2 teaspoons water

However, I went more towards a piccata sauce - lemon, butter and capers. Also, I had a pan with beef fond (fancy way of saying I cooked a steak and had some nice tasty bits on the bottom). Garnished with parsley and lemon zest.

Initially, since my gnocchi dough was more like a thick batter, I was concerned that the gnocchi fall apart during the boiling. However, the results were surpisingly good.

The gnocchi was very light and airy. It was like eating a cloud or a foam. The gnocchi dissolved in my mouth leaving the light taste of ricotta, nutmeg and the sauce.

This was a fun and challenging recipe... not knowing what to expect and how the dough should look. However, the final results were very good, especially the the melt-away texture.


Audax Artifex said...

This is one bloody excellent recipe (sorry in Australia bloody isn't a swear word it means "a lot more" of the word that follows) yes yes yes little cloud pillows of yummmmmminess. Glad to hear that you liked them so much. And as always great pixs and very honest comments. Great effort on the 1st DCooks' challenge. Cheers

Lauren said...

Mmm, your gnocchi look amazing!! I'm glad that you enjoyed this awesome first challenge =D.

Olga said...

Wow, looks like you followed directions to the letter! I totally cheated :)

Love the idea of lemon and capers.

Anonymous said...

I loved this one, too! It's so cool to be part of the very first challenge, too. I loved this one. Great step-by-step pics!

Cheri said...

I also opted to push my ricotta through a sieve... it definitely took longer then anything else. I love that you put capers in yours... that sounds so yummy.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful gnocchi! Congratulations!

Lisa said...

John, thank you so much for your kind words as I just found out it's even worse than I thought :(

In any event, your gnocchi looks fantastic, but I knew it would it would. Also, I always look forward to your photos, and as usual, I wasn't dissappointed..fabulous :)

The Messy Baker said...

I had trouble forming mine too. It was incredibly light, but not all that tasty. A bit bland. I went the sage route and now wonder if I should have tried the nutmeg.

giz said...

Great job on the gnocci - I love the tutorial pix - it was a fun challenge wasn't it?

Jamie said...

Your gnocchi look delicious! Thanks for the photos, it will really help when I try!