Clouds of fine flour rise into the air, a solitary egg yolk sits resplendently mellow yellow in the midst of what looks like a white fort. There is vigorous stirring, pounding, kneading, with equally vigorous vocal accompaniment. You are observing greatness: Nonna is making gnocchi.
There were versions of this, even before the potato itself was known in Europe, sometime in the 16th century. But the delicate, melt in your mouth version that has been attempted by many, perfected by few, is a potato-based delicacy that has many pretenders at its feet.
Recipes for gnocchi are legion. Some may actually work, but the key is always to have some kind of relationship with the ingredients. Let experts tell you the methods, but if you don't get your hands and heart into it, there’s no magic. Let the gnocchi force be with you.
It is a study in time: there is no way to make these using shortcuts. That is part of the deep charm. The time is spent in a concentrated effort to exact the best of what potato, flour and a touch of egg can give you. Oh, yes, salted boiling water, too. Many parts of the dish can be made in advance, actually. This is especially important in terms of sauces, accompaniments, simple or complex as you choose.
There are splendid gnocchi dishes that feature nothing more complex than sage butter, or even a bit of fried bacon and mushroom, mixed in last moment.
Still, the charm is that this cannot be done any other way than by hand. Boil some Russet potatoes, skin on. Once cooked, they must be removed and peeled as soon as your delicate fingertips can handle them. Ideally, rice the potatoes, though you can mash them by hand if you want to. The ricer gives a fineness that allows for absorption of flour without overdoing it, a vital fact. A good ratio is six potatoes and one cup of flour. Make sure to let the spuds cool down. They will absorb more of the flour if they are hot, resulting in dense gnocchi.
You can put the mash on a board, spread it out a bit and make a kind of bowl with an indentation in the middle. There, place the single egg yolk and begin sprinkling flour about the whole. Gradual integration is key. Kneading by hand is crucial, as you begin to form an entire mass of dough. At some point, extract a portion of the dough, roll it out into thin strips, kneading all the way. Then, simply make a thin log of dough, cut in one-inch lengths, gently indent with a fork to form little furrows and drop into the boiling water. Flour the fork, too. No stickiness allowed.
The magic, learned over centuries and handed down, is in the administering of flour to the potato. If you mess it up, the gnocchi will be too dense, and become lumpy. Or, they become chimera, almost dissolve in the boiling water and are irretrievably lost. Balance in gnocchi, as in life, is essential. And takes practice.
But once you have it down, this is unlike anything else. The little pillows of potato pasta are delicate beyond description, melting in your mouth. Gnocchi, because it is potato based, is remarkably absorbent of flavor, so you can really go to town with different sauces. A simple Pesto. A bacon and ham. Mascarpone and pork belly. The best, perhaps, is your own home made tomato sauce, made from scratch, but that's another story entirely.
Gnocchi is an emblem of slower, more contemplative efforts in cooking, gratification beyond the instant. But don't try it for the first time with invited guests. Chances are, you won't want to share.