Cooking Class: Gnocchi

 Eva demonstrating the making of gnocchi.

Eva demonstrating the making of gnocchi.

Gnocchi. Getting the Italian pronunciation right gives your tongue a workout - that "gn" sound is a struggle for English speakers (it sounds much like the "ny" in canyon) and don't forget that the final "chi" is a hard sound, like in "key". Gnocchi. 

I've eaten only a few truly good ones, all in Italy. Too often I've had gnocchi that were either gummy or pesante (heavy) and, to make matters worse, served in a sauce that was much, much too rich, making the dish even heavier. To make proper gnocchi - tender little dumplings - is a real test of culinary skill. Luckily it is a skill possessed by Eva, the maestra di cucina (cooking teacher) at Lucca Italian School (LIS).

One of the highlights of my last trip to Italy was a cooking class, sponsored by LIS, that included a hands-on lesson in the art of gnocchi making. The class was held in a fattoria (farmhouse) kitchen in the countryside outside of Lucca, with beautiful views, a great wine cellar, a large kitchen with plenty of space for our group of 10 students, and a wonderful dining room where we all enjoyed the food we had created. Picture us laughing, sipping wine, and chatting away in Italian (with a bit of English as needed) as we prepared a multi-course meal.

 The fattoria kitchen, ready for the start of our cooking class.

The fattoria kitchen, ready for the start of our cooking class.

The ingredients for the gnocchi were simple - potatoes that were boiled, peeled while hot, put through a ricer, and then mixed with flour, egg, and salt. Sounds easy but the magic is in determining just the right amount of flour, which varies with the moisture of the potatoes and must be judged by feel.  Eva recommends about 300 grams (10 ounces) of white flour for every kilo (2.2 pounds) of potatoes along with 1 large egg and some salt. When well mixed, the dough is shaped into a long rope and cut into little pieces (about 1 inch each).

Then comes the fun part - shaping the gnocchi to create those little ridges that are the key to holding onto the sauce. We used the traditional wooden tool for shaping the gnocchi and everyone had fun learning the technique.

 Finished gnocchi, dusted with flour and ready for immersion in boiling water.

Finished gnocchi, dusted with flour and ready for immersion in boiling water.

To go with the gnocchi we made a traditional ragu, starting with a soffritto (a saute of onion, carrots, and celery in olive oil), to which was added ground meat (beef and pork), a little tomato sauce (the tomato is subtle, not the base of the ragu), some red wine, and spices.

 Finished gnocchi topped with ragu.

Finished gnocchi topped with ragu.

We started our cena (dinner) with a traditional panzanella salad and then moved on to the star of the meal - the gnocchi. They turned out just right - light and fluffy with the flavorful ragu clinging to the ridges, enhancing but not overwhelming the gnocchi. Topped with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, it was one of the best gnocchi I've eaten, thanks to Eva's great instruction! We followed the gnocchi with a porcini-stuffed chicken breast, an insalata mista (mixed salad), and a dessert of creme caramel, which we made during the class. After dinner, we all took home the recipes for each dish, along with some new Italian cooking terms and a lot of wonderful memories!                      post by JB

Contacts: Lucca Italian School

 Happy LIS students sharing a great meal.

Happy LIS students sharing a great meal.