Why It Works
- Draining and squeezing the ricotta (and feta) before mixing the ingredients together helps eliminate the excess liquid that would otherwise prevent the gnudi from holding its shape.
- Flour and eggs act as binding agents to help hold the two cheeses and the spinach during boiling and the gnudi retains its shape.
- Fresh spinach is cooked to release as much water as possible before being incorporated into the mixture.
Gnudi are one of the many wonderful Italian fresh pasta innovations, and except for a few pots and pans and a strainer, you really don’t need any special equipment to make them from scratch. As someone who consumes a lot of cheese, gnudi occupy a special place in my heart, since they're almost entirely made up of cheese of some kind.
Gnudi are sometimes said to be related to gnocchi, but whereas gnocchi dough is typically made from a combination of potato, flour, and sometimes egg, gnudi is primarily made up of ricotta and flour. Really, gnudi are more closely related to ravioli; they're sometimes called "ravioli gnudi," that is, nude ravioli, the filling without the pasta purse.
There are various delightful variations on gnudi; some include the addition of parmesan and spinach, while others, like the one Kenji was inspired to make after eating April Bloomfield’s at The Spotted Pig, involve coating the dough in semolina and then leaving it to dry out for several hours in the refrigerator before being cooked. This recipe is a little different, it uses flour in addition to eggs as binding agents, which in turn eliminates the need to dry out the gnudi before cooking.
You can serve the warm gnudi with a rich tomato-based sauce. However, here I pair it with a warm fragrant broth made from mushrooms, garlic, and saffron.
Uncooked gnudi can be a bit finicky during cooking and can run the risk of falling apart during the boiling step. Over the years, I’ve tweaked this recipe to make it work and I’ve come up with a few conclusions and solutions. The quality of the dairy and ingredients going is of course very important, but what’s also important is how much water they contain. A gnudi dough that’s too wet won't hold its shape during cooking.
Let’s take a look at the key ingredients in this recipe, how they work, and how to manipulate them.
You must cook the spinach first before incorporating it into the gnudi dough to get rid of its excess water. I like to immerse the spinach in a pot of salted boiling water till it changes color and becomes soft, which takes all of about a minute. I then drain and squeeze out as much liquid as possible by chopping it up and wringing it in a little cheesecloth sack. You can use frozen spinach but, again, controlling the amount of water it contains is of the utmost importance, so let it thaw and squeeze it thoroughly to drain it. While you can sauté the spinach in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat to cook out the water, I don't recommend it: I found the taste of sautéed spinach easily overwhelmed the flavor of the cheese in the gnudi.
The first cheese in this recipe is ricotta. As with the spinach, the most important thing is that you remember to drain it first. The easiest way to do this is to scrape it into a fine mesh strainer or strainer lined with a layer of cheesecloth and press down gently with your hands to get rid of any excess liquid. You can also use Kenji’s method of spreading the cheese out in a single thin layer and squeezing it between multiple sheets of kitchen towels.
The second cheese in this recipe is feta. Feta is a bit firmer than ricotta and it contains less water, although you can purchase feta soaked in brine or feta that’s been previously drained. If it came sitting in the brine, you should first drain the brine, then squeeze the excess liquid out between dry paper towels to dry it further.
The Binding Agents
I use flour and eggs to help bind the cheeses and spinach in the gnudi together. Whereas in Kenji’s recipe for gnudi, where the thin shell of pasta that forms on the exterior of the gnudi holds them together, in this one, the proteins in eggs help to hold the cheese together, with a little assistance from the proteins and starch in the flour.
Once shaped into evenly portioned balls, the gnudi are cooked in batches in a pot of salted boiling water, which takes roughly 5 minutes per batch. Because an exact cooking time is always a difficult measure in almost any recipe, I recommend checking the doneness of one of the gnudi balls before removing the rest. Cutting a cooked gnudi in half should reveal a firm but tender interior. You can, alternatively, use an instant read thermometer interior, which should be firm yet tender, or you can check its internal temperature at its core with an instant-read thermometer, which has the benefit of not deforming the ball: when it hits 160°F (71°C), they're ready. If the gnudi are ready, remove the rest and then cook the second batch the same amount of time as the first; if not, add an extra minute or two to your boiling time.
This mushroom-saffron broth is extremely fragrant and colorful. First, I brown butterin a saucepan to create rich caramel notes and nutty flavors. I add a splash of olive oil goes to the browned butter to create the basis for the flavor solvent (it’s the same principle as a tadka, just in reverse). Then I add garlic, chile flakes, pepper, and saffron, all of which contain fat-soluble flavor molecules—allicin in garlic, capsaicin in the chile, and piperine in the pepper—that are extracted into the hot fat. In addition, the red pigment capsanthin in the chile and the crocetin in saffron are fat-soluble, and they give the fat a bright orange-red color. Once the garlic and spices are fragrant, I add water along with a generous teaspoon of mushroom bouillon (a staple in my pantry) to make a vibrant broth with a splendid and instantaneous dose of umami.
I love to serve this dish with sliced chives and a good shaving of Parmesan on top of the warm gnudi. And while you don't need any special tools to eat it, I highly recommend using a big spoon that can hold an ample amount of broth and an entire gnudi so you can pop the combination together into your mouth.
- For the Sauce:
- 4 tablespoons (2 ounces; 55g) unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch saffron threads
- 1 teaspoon mushroom bouillon, such as Better Than Bouillon Mushroom Base
- Kosher salt
- For the Gnudi:
- 15 ounces (430g) whole milk ricotta
- 4 ounces (115g) feta
- 10 ounces (285g) fresh baby spinach (see note)
- Kosher salt
- 1 large egg plus 2 large yolks
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (1 1/4 ounce; 35g), plus 2 cups (9 ounces; 255g) for coating the gnudi
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest from 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- For Serving:
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
- 1/2 ounce (15g) finely grated Parmesan
For the Sauce: In a 2-quart saucier or medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Continue to cook, swirling pan frequently, until milk solids turn golden brown and butter smells nutty, 4 to 5 minutes. Add olive oil, garlic, Aleppo pepper, black pepper, and saffron. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Add mushroom bouillon and 2 cups (475ml) water and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil, season with salt to taste, then remove from heat and set aside.
For the Gnudi: Line a fine-mesh strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth and set it over a large bowl. Add ricotta to center of cheesecloth, gather together the corners of the cheesecloth, and twist the ends and squeeze with your hands to express as much extra liquid as possible. Transfer drained ricotta to a large bowl and set aside; you should have about 10 ounces (280g) after draining. Discard accumulated liquid, but do not discard cheesecloth. Once again, line fine-mesh strainer with the same double layer of cheesecloth and set it over the now-empty large bowl; set aside.
If feta is packaged in brine, drain well. Set feta between layers of dry paper towels or a clean kitchen towel and squeeze firmly to remove as much liquid as possible (you should have about 3 1/4 ounces/90g feta after squeezing).
In a medium or large pot of salted boiling water, cook spinach until completely tender, about 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer spinach to a heatproof bowl and allow to cool slightly. Squeeze with a clean hand to remove excess water, then transfer spinach to a work surface and finely chop.
Transfer spinach to prepared strainer, gather together the corners of the cheesecloth, and twist and squeeze tightly to remove as much water as possible (you should have about 2 3/4 ounces/75g cooked, drained spinach).
Add spinach, feta, egg and yolks, 1/4 cup flour, lemon zest, pepper, and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (if using table salt, use half as much by volume) to bowl with ricotta. Using a fork, mix until well combined and no dry flour remains (the final gnudi dough should weigh 19 3/4 ounces/560g).
Return the pot of water to a boil. Place remaining 9 ounces (255g) flour in a rimmed baking sheet. Set a separate rimmed baking sheet next to the one with flour. Using a tablespoon measure, measure out 2-tablespoon (1 1/4-ounce; 35g) portions of dough and transfer to an empty baking sheet (you should have about sixteen 2-tablespoon portions). Using your hands, roll each 2-tablespoon portion of dough into a smooth 3/4-inch (2cm) ball.
Transfer dough balls to flour and gently toss to evenly coat; wipe the empty baking sheet clean. Working in batches, gently lift dough balls and shake off excess flour, then set on the cleaned baking sheet.
Transfer half the dough balls to boiling water and cook until gnudi float, about 5 minutes, then cook for 1 minute longer. Using a slotted spoon, remove 1 gnudi ball from water and cut in half to check for doneness: It should be firm but tender in the center. If it's not, cook for about 1 1/2 minutes longer. Alternatively, you can measure the temperature at the core of the gnudi ball using an instant-read thermometer: the gnudi are done when the thermometer registers 160°F (70°C). Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer cooked gnudi to a platter and repeat with remaining gnudi.
To Serve: Rewarm broth, then divide evenly among warmed serving bowls. Add cooked gnudi, sprinkle with chives and Parmesan, then serve.
Fine-mesh strainer, whisk, Microplane zester, slotted spoon.
Frozen spinach can be substituted for fresh spinach. If using frozen spinach, skip the boiling process. Instead, start with 8 ounces (225g) frozen spinach, wrap it in a clean kitchen towel or double layer of paper towels, and squeeze very firmly to remove any excess moisture. You should end up with about 2 3/4 ounces (75g) spinach, ready to be mixed into the dough.
Some feta, especially feta that is sold in a brine, can have extra liquid that can harm the gnudi dough. We recommend sandwiching the feta between clean towels and pressing firmly to absorb any excess moisture to ensure gnudi dough that's sufficiently dry.