You all know my mother is from Rome, right? Una vera romana, she can swagger and gesticulate with the best of them. And she's pretty cute, if it's still alright to say that about a woman of a certain age. She's the lady who taught me how to pan-fry thin little pork chops with slices of raw lemon until crisp and juicy and totally delectable. She's the one whose Parmesan broth with tiny noodles is still the only thing I want to eat when I'm sick. And its her tomato sauce that, simmering on the stove, makes any house my home.
She is, however, not a cook. By her own admission. My career path mystifies her. She loves to eat, but cooking is not her bag. She masters the simple, but leaves the complicated to restaurants, Sicilian brother-in-laws, her strange daughter, or the hallowed halls of her childhood memories. When I called her the other night to tell her I was making gnocchi alla romana, a classic Roman dish of little semolina pucks baked in the oven and served with tomato sauce, her voice registered only disbelief.
"You're going to make them? Yourself? From scratch?" She might as well have said, "why on earth would you ever bother?"
Told you she thinks I'm strange.
The thing is, semolina gnocchi really aren't that hard. You cook semolina with milk and butter until creamy and pulling away from the sides of the pot, sort of like polenta. You mix in some cheese and egg yolks and spread this mass out onto a baking sheet. Later, using a cookie cutter, you stamp out little rounds, tuck them into a baking dish, dust them with more cheese and dot them with butter and stick them in the oven until lightly crisped around the edges and browned. Yes, that's about it.
Oh, and that tomato sauce is so easy you could practically do it with one hand tied behind your back, whistling. (Though the slices of garlic were a little unsightly.) I didn't have any cookie cutters for the semolina gnocchi, so I tried to improvise with an egg cup. That was sort of a bust. I ended up finishing the job with a sharp knife, cutting little rounds out by hand which was far less fussy than it sounds.
What's important in this recipe is one small little thing: salt. Oh, ho. Yes. The amount of salt you add can and will be the difference between insipid baby food and something rather delicious. Which is why I found it so annoying that the recipe doesn't stipulate the amount of salt needed. I put in about a teaspoon and, sadly, my gnocchi tended very much towards the insipid. So try at least two teaspoons and taste taste taste as you go. If I made these again, I'd also double the amount of Parmesan used, and I'd put most of it in the semolina batter and only a little bit on top of the gnocchi.
This recipe made an enormous amount of gnocchi, but only a rather modest amount of sauce. The sauce is so nice that it's a shame to have too little of it. So I'd double that, if I were you. Leftovers, if you've got any, are easy enough to get rid of on your spaghetti dinner the next evening. The gnocchi need that acidic, juicy kick of sauce to give them some spine.
And here's the last thing about semolina gnocchi: you must eat them when they're fresh and when they're hot. I know, I know: Italians and their food rules. But really, listen up. If you've got leftovers, too bad. Do not attempt to eat them the next day. You will regret it. Instead, invite some friends over and impress the pants off of them with dinner. Make them scrape up every last gnocco and be glad you don't have any left to throw out.
Gnocchi alla Romana
Makes 6 servings
1 quart plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups semolina flour
1 5- to 6-ounce piece Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 14.5-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan, combine milk, nutmeg, salt and 4 tablespoons butter. Bring just to a boil, lower heat to medium and immediately start adding semolina in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Keep whisking to make a smooth mixture. Reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in most of the cheese and the egg yolks.
2. Use some of the oil to grease a baking sheet. Spread hot batter on baking sheet to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until very cold, 4 hours or overnight.
3. Heat remaining oil in a saucepan, add garlic and onions, cook until soft and add tomatoes. Simmer gently about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Use a little remaining butter to grease a shallow baking dish about 9 by 13 inches. Use a 2- to 3-inch round cookie cutter or a glass to cut disks of chilled dough. Keep dipping cutter in cold water to prevent sticking. Lift disks off baking sheet and arrange, slightly overlapping, in baking dish. Scraps can be kneaded briefly and smoothed out to allow for a few additional disks. Sprinkle disks in dish with remaining cheese and dot with remaining butter. Bake about 15 minutes, until lightly browned.
5. Gently reheat sauce. Serve gnocchi with some sauce alongside each portion.