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Everything you need to know about eating and cooking with curds
Normally, I’m all about innovation and deep digging and hardcore testing here at The Food Lab. But this time I’m starting with a dish so iconic, so incredible, so damn-near-flawless in its original form that the best I can possibly hope to do is tweak it just a bit to suit my very particular personal tastes. I’m talking about the ricotta gnudi at The Spotted Pig, April Bloomfield’s West Village gastropub. It’s my favorite restaurant in New York, largely on account of those little buttery balls of dairy (though the perfect Sazeracs they make at both the upstairs and downstairs bars don’t hurt either).
I can still intimately remember the first time I had them. It was back in 2008 and I was on the home stretch of an eight hour, 12 burger tour of New York. Despite the fact that I already had close to a dozen burgers in my belly, the bartender convinced me that the ricotta gnudi were worth a try. They come to the bar in a shallow dish, a half dozen pale yellow balls bathed in a creamy butter sauce with a dark streak of browned butter drizzled on top.
I could smell the nuttiness of the browned butter infused with crispy sage. What I didn’t expect as I picked up one of those gnudi was its texture. It felt almost like an under-inflated water balloon, a thin, thin skin that seemed impossibly delicate with a liquid center. I bit into it and felt the rush of warm savory sheep’s milk ricotta burst into my mouth. I quickly polished off the dish and ordered a second for my friends who were joining me later on.
To this day, I still make it a point to stop into the ‘Pig and order a plate of those gnudi every time I’m in New York, and I’m not the only one: they’re the most popular dish on the menu for a reason.
The good news is that even if you never get the chance to visit the Spotted Pig, the gnudi are actually quite simple to make at home. All you’ve got to do is roll a ricotta mixture in semolina flour and let it rest overnight until that flour has hydrated and formed a thin, thin shell of pasta around the ricotta that just barely holds it together. Then you just boil and eat it. April herself offers up a recipe and technique in her book A Girl and Her Pig (required reading as far as I’m concerned, and you can find the exact recipe reprinted with permission on Serious Eats). I’ve used her method in the past with excellent end results, but they can be a bit fiddly and require the use of a piping bag with a very large tip.
Over years of making these guys at home, I’ve come up with a few little tweaks and tips; minor modifications to the original technique that have maximized my own chance of success. Hopefully they’ll help you out as well. Here’s how I do it, step by step.
Step 1: Start With Good Ricotta and Drain it Well
As with my quick and easy ricotta gnocchi, I’ve found that the quality of the ricotta is of utmost importance to the success of this recipe. There’s really not much more to it. Not all ricotta is created equal. In fact, of commonly available supermarket ingredients, I’d say it’s the one product that shows the most variation between low and high quality. The good stuff can be heavenly, while the bad stuff? Gritty, watery, bland, sour-tasting dreck that’s not worth the cost of the plastic tub it comes packaged in.
Low-quality mass-market brands will have various gums and stabilizers listed as ingredients, included to bypass costly and time-consuming draining steps. You’re essentially buying water that’s been stabilized artificially to thicken up with the milk solids in the tub. Higher quality ricotta should list milk, salt, and, at the very most, either an acid or a natural culture. These are the only ones you should be buying. If you can find freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta at a specialty market or a farmer’s market, even better. It has a nice grassiness and sharp acidity that plays nicely with the rich butter sauce.
To drain the ricotta, I use my patented rapid-drain technique: just spread the ricotta out on a triple layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and press it down with more clean towels.
Lift off the towels (they should peel right off), and dump the ricotta into a bowl, leaving the excess moisture behind.
Step 2: Season and Mix
Once the ricotta is drained, I weigh out exactly 12 ounces of it to which I add two ounces of grated Parmesan cheese, along with a ton of black pepper. The gnudi at the ‘Pig have no pepper, but to me, ricotta without black pepper is like MacGyver without a pocket knife. It just doesn’t get the job done quite as well.
I fold all of this together with a rubber spatula.
At this point, in the original recipe, you’d transfer the soft mixture to a piping bag and pipe it out onto a bed of semolina flour in long logs that then get cut up with scissors into individual gnudi. I always found this process a little trying. Here’s what I do instead:
Step 3: Spread and Freeze
To get the mixture to firm up, I spread it out on a plate and transfer it to the freezer for about 15 minutes, just until it starts to harden. I then transfer it back to the bowl and work it with a spatula until no big chunks of frozen ricotta remain.
Step 4: Scoop and Coat
With the ricotta chilled and firm, it’s now pretty easy to scoop it out with a small cookie scoop…
…and dump the balls into a bowl of semolina flour.
I use my fingers to scoop excess flour on top of the ricotta balls to coat them.
Step 5: Ball, Nest, Repeat
Once the ricotta is coated on all sides with semolina, I pick it up and very gently roll it into a clean sphere in my fingertips, making sure not to fold it or to scrape off any of the semolina.
Next I give the ball a little nest inside a baking dish with another layer of semolina flour. The idea is that this baking dish is going to become the ricotta ball’s home for the next 1 to 3 days as a shell slowly forms around it.
Once all the ricotta balls are in place, I dump any remaining semolina over the top then cover the dish and let it rest in the fridge, turning the gnudi over a couple times a day as they rest. I find that about 18 hours is the minimum you need to form gnudi that have a thick enough shell not to completely burst as you cook them. Mush longer than 3 days and the gnudi start to get dry inside as the pasta layer slowly absorbs interior moisture.
As soon as the gnudi feel relatively firm and dry to the tough, they’re ready to go.
Step 6: Make Sage Brown Butter
The saucing is entirely up to you. Even a good red sauce would be great with these, but I’m partial to the way April does it at the Spotted Pig. The duo of butter sauces really brings out the sweet, fresh dairy flavor of the gnudi.
Start by gently browning butter in a skillet.
Next add fresh sage leaves and fry them, turning, until they’re completely crisp. This will take a couple minutes. You will be hungry the entire time.
Transfer the fried sage leaves to a paper towel and immediately season them with salt. I eat two or three right off the bat. I just can’t help myself. I’m amazed that nobody has sold packages of fried sage leaves yet. I’d eat them as a snack.
Step 7: Boil the Gnudi
To cook the gnudi, I gently drop them into a large pot of boiling salted water. They are far more delicate than your average pasta, but not quite the tender, timid beasts that many folks make them out to be. I’ve never had any that have broken on me during cooking, though you do have to make sure to stir gently with a wooden spoon at the very start to ensure they aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pot. Just two to three minutes and they’re hot and ready. Rather than draining in a colander (which can cause the gnudi to crush each other), I use a slotted spoon to lift them out and transfer them to a skillet that’s already waiting for them with a few tablespoons of fresh butter.
Step 8: Make the Second Butter Sauce
The second sauce is just a simple emulsified butter sauce. At the Spotted Pig, you get a super luscious, creamy, perfectly emulsified beurre monté, which is relatively easy to make when you do it by the pound in a restaurant setting (or have the benefit of an industrial burner that will rapidly boil and emulsify butter and water), but tends to be a little more difficult to do at home in small batches. Never you fear, we’ll get there, and it’s much easier than you think once you learn to accept that you’re cheating just a little bit.
The key is to use plenty of pasta water. These gnudi shed semolina like a dog sheds hair in the summer, so your pasta water should be packed with it. When you combine some of this pasta water in a skillet with a few more tablespoons of butter, the starch granules from the flour swell up and burst, thickening the water and making it far easier to emulsify with the butter.
Just a vigorous boil on the stovetop with the gnocchi already inside will transform your butter and pasta water into a creamy, gnocchi-coating sauce.
Step 9: Plate Them Up!
And we’re done! All that’s left to do is plating, and that’s an easy one. Transfer the gnocchi and whatever sauce clings to them from the pan to a serving platter, top with fried sage leaves, drizzle with browned butter, and you’re good to go. Just make sure your guests are ready and waiting because these gnudi are at their best just out of the kitchen and, as we all know, ricotta waits for no man.
Step 10: Open Wide
Step 11: CHOMP.
Pro-tip: do NOT do what I did and bite off half of a gnudi. This is one of those cases where you wanna get the whole thing in your mouth in one go so that you can experience the pleasure of the dairy burst.
And there you’ve got it. My own take on my favorite dish in the world (made by one of my favorite chefs in the world), in your own kitchen. And it’s damned easy to boot. As Tom Petty says, it’s just the waiting that’s the hardest part.
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