The Food Lab: How to Make Parisian Gnocchi
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We've all met gnocchi before. Those potato-based pasta pillows that at their best are light and bouncy, though more often then not come off as leaden and heavy. Well, those gnocchi are another story for another time. Today we're hear to talk about their even pillowier, and—most importantly—far easier-to-make cousins, gnocchi à la Parisienne. If you ask me, they're tastier, as well.
I often talk about how learning the basic techniques behind good cooking is far more important than mastering a specific recipe. I can't think of a better example than learning how to make a good pâte à choux. Once you've mastered the basics of the French-style hot water, flour, and egg-based dough, you've got the chops to pull off countless recipes. You can pipe decorative logs and fill them with pastry cream to make eclairs. You can sandwich dollops of chantilly or ice cream in it to make cream puffs or profiteroles. You can deep fry it into light and puffy beignets, or mix it with herbs and cheese to be baked into savory gougères.
Or, you can do them my favorite way: gently simmered, then fried or broiled until crisp and golden brown with a light, airy center.
Here's how to make 'em.
While the ratios of ingredients differ, the process of making Parisian gnocchi is identical, no matter who you ask. First, boil water and butter in a saucepan, then dump in flour all at once and stir it vigorously with a wooden spoon until a smooth ball of dough forms.
After the dough comes together in a ball and begins to gently steam (an indication that the flour in it is fully hydrated and cooked), finish by adding eggs one at a time and beating that dough like your life depends on it, in order to incorporate that egg without letting it curdle. I've lost more than one long-term companion to the wooden spoon gods performing this action.
You end up with a sticky, paste-like dough that holds itself together just well enough to be piped from a piping bag (or a zipper-lock bag with the corner removed).
That's your pâte à choux dough right there, and, from this point, its final form depends on how you complete it—baking and frying are common, but in the case of Parisian gnocchi, poaching in simmering water is the way to go. You pipe the gnocchi out and cut them with a sharp knife directly into the water a few at a time, then let them poach until they float to the surface for a few moments before fishing them out.
Finally, the poached gnocchi can be eaten either as-is, or finished by frying or broiling to crisp up their exteriors.
But before we get there, let's talk a bit about how hot water doughs work.
Some Like it Hot
Parisian gnocchi are somewhat of an oddity in the Western repertoire, in that they're made with a hot water dough—much like Chinese-style dumpling or stretched noodle dough. With most Western breads and pastries, cold or room temperature liquid is added to flour before kneading it.
There are two kinked proteins in flour, glutenin, and gliadin. Get them lubricated and rub them around enough through mechanical action (like kneading), and they tend to stretch out and bind with each other, forming the stretchy protein matrix known as gluten.
Gluten is what gives dough structure, and the more it's kneaded and worked, the tighter and more elastic it becomes. A ball of well-kneaded cold water dough will spring back if you press it and contract if you stretch it. This is why, for example, pizza dough is extremely hard to roll out until it's had at least a couple hours to rest and allow this gluten to relax.
A hot water dough, on the other hand, works differently. By adding flour directly to boiling water, you actually end up not only denaturing the proteins, but smashing them into small pieces. Some degree of gluten can still form, but because cooked proteins aren't nearly as stretchy or clingy as raw ones, you won't get anywhere near the elasticity of a cold-water dough. Adding butter and other fats to the dough will further diminish its gluten-forming abilities. As a result, a pâte à choux dough isn't stretchy or bouncy; its more malleable and supple, kind of like Play-Do.
The beauty of a hot water dough is that, as you can see, it doesn't bounce back as much as a cold water dough does. This is important: as the gnocchi go through their primary poaching step in simmering water, water vapor and trapped gases will expand, causing the gnocchi to inflate slightly. This change in density caused by expanding gases is what causes them to gently float to the surface of the pot as they poach.
If we were to try and make gnocchi with a cold water dough, one with plenty of springy, elastic gluten, we'd have a heck of a time getting those gnocchi hot enough to expand to the point where they come out nice and airy; Instead, we'd end up with dense, chewy nubs that taste more like damp bread. With our tender, easy-to-shape hot water dough, however, the stretching is easy, and, what's more, the gnocchi keep their stretched-out shape even after they begin to cool, ensuring that they stay light and tender no matter how we choose to finish them off.
Sure Beats Beating
Remember how I said that pretty much all gnocchi recipes are identical? Well I lied a little bit. There are really two types of gnocchi recipes: those made the old school, wooden-spoon-and-elbow-grease way, and those made with the mechanical aid of a stand mixer. The latter, which I first saw in this Thomas Keller recipe is vastly easier, particularly if your beating arm is not quite in shape.
With this method, you start out the same way: beating the flour into a boiling mixture of water and butter. But from there, you transfer the dough to a stand mixer and beat the eggs in using the paddle rather than your bare hands.
Cooked side-by-side, there's absolutely no detectable difference between the wooden spoon and the stand-mixer method, provided you beat extremely vigorously. If you're even slightly lax with the hand-beating, then the stand mixer method will produce superior results every time.
This got me thinking: if the process can be simplified by using the stand mixer for the eggs, why not just do the whole thing in there? I added my flour and eggs to the mixer, then, with the mixer running, poured in the boiling water and butter mixture before discovering why it doesn't work.
Here's what I ended up with:
Turns out that just mixing the hot water with the flour isn't enough: the flour and water mixture actually needs to be cooked for a decent amount of time in order to fully hydrate the flour's starch and to develop its protein structure. Subsequently cooking the wet, batter-like dough in a saucepan produced what looked like decent pâte à choux, but simmering and frying it proved unsuccessful:
That's the light, airy, traditionally-made gnocchi on the left, and my dense, pasty, mix-it-all-together-and-sort-out-the-bodies-later attempt on the right.
Much as I'd love to be able to say, "Hey, check out this awesome new technique!," I'm afraid that in this case, tradition triumphs*
*and, unlike some other unnamed sources, I'm not going to try and crowbar in an inferior technique just for the sake of novelty.
After the basic dough is made, I like to add a few flavorings. Parmesan cheese is a given for me, adding a savory backbone and helping the gnocchi to brown better down the line. I take another cue from Thomas Keller and add a small dollop of Dijon mustard to my dough, as well as chopped herbs.
The most difficult part of making Parisian gnocchi—and it's really not that difficult at all—is in the piping, and it's really not all that hard. It just takes a bit of practice. To do it, you transfer the dough into a piping bag or a zipper-lock bag with the corner snipped off, then let it rest for 20 minutes or so. This will let it cool down slightly while allowing any vestiges of overworked gluten to relax and any under-hydrated starch to hydrate, helping the gnocchi to puff properly as they poach.
With the tip of the bag held out over gently simmering water, you use a paring knife held in the other hand to cut off 1-inch lengths of dough, letting them drop straight into the pot. If you've got a close friend or kitchen ally, this process is a snap—one person pipes, the other person cuts.
The goal is to pipe and cut as many gnocchi as you possibly can within about a minute, so that the last gnocchi that drops in won't be too far behind the first one that entered the pool. Once they've finished cooking, you fish them out and start again with the next batch.
The first few times you do this, it may be as few as a dozen or so at a time. As you practice and your speed goes up, you should be able to pipe 30 to 40 gnocchi per minute, which greatly reduces overall prep time.
The beauty of these gnocchi is that once they're poached, you can transfer them to a rimmed baking sheet, toss them in a bit of oil, and let them cool down. At this stage, they can be transferred to a sealed container and stored in the refrigerator for up to a few days until you're ready to fry or broil them just before serving. Just as with regular pasta, this means that if you make them in advance, dinner is only 20 to 30 minutes away.
How to serve the gnocchi? One of the easiest and tastiest ways is to broil them in a cast iron skillet.
I brown just enough butter to give them a nice coating, add the gnocchi and toss to combine, then cover them in a blanket of finely grated Parmesan cheese.
After a brief stint under the broiler, they come out puffed and crisp, ready to be served straight out of their skillet. That's a big ol' taste of comfort right there.
Want to get fancier? You can fry the gnocchi in a skillet to be used as a blank palate for any number of seasonally-based pasta dishes.
Toss them with chunks of squash cooked down in brown butter with sage and a squeeze of lemon, or with charred Brussels sprout leaves and shallots in the fall. Serve them with some great canned tomatoes in the winter. Toss them with some simply blanched fresh peas and asparagus tips in the spring.
This time of year, I like to catch the last days of summer's glory by combining them with some sautéed sweet corn, zucchini, and oven-roasted tomatoes with plenty of olive oil and Parmesan.
Did I say that the toughest part of Parisian gnocchi was the technique? That's not really true. The truly tough part is settling on the best way to serve them.
Click here for a step-by-step slideshow of the process, or check below for the complete recipes.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.