Lazy Man’s Gnocchi with Tomato and Basil – It’s all about semolina

If you’ve never had semolina gnocchi you’re in for a treat this week.  Drift down to Jody’s notes for an idea of how good they taste, what they are, etc., then come back here for a few more practical comments.

Ready?  Okay.  

You probably already have some idea of what gnocchi are (e.g. thimble-sized pillows of goodness made from potatoes but about as  uncomplicated as frontal lobe microsurgery).

Not these.  These babies are made from semolina wheat flour,  which make them old-school gnocchi, old-school as in let’s go watch Claudius Maximus cut the liver outs of three gladiators from Thracia and then get ourselves some gnocchi.  Potato gnocchi are mere parvenus when contrasted with their semolina cousins, nouveau arrivistes that piggybacked their way onto the Apennine Peninsula with the introduction of the potato in the just-last-week 16th century.  In a culinary comedy of manners Semolina gnocchi are the down at their heels rural aristocrats to their crass, prosperous city-dwelling relatives.  Don’t get me wrong–I love potato gnocchi as much as anyone, especially when someone else is making them–but if I had to choose between semolina or potato for my gnocchi for the rest of my days, it would be the unlettered, rustic charm of the former that would prevail.*

If you can make oatmeal and use a cookie cutter you can make semolina gnocchi.  You cook a thick porridge from semolina flour and allow it to cool so it becomes firm, like polenta.  Once it cools you cut it into “cookies.”  Although Jody uses an espresso cup in our photographs, I usually just slice everything into diamonds or trapezoids with a dinner knife, so I don’t have to deal with any odd-shaped leftovers. Anyway, you layer the “cookies” in a baking dish, dot with butter and cheese and bake.  Then you’re done.

We chose to interleave the gnocchi with cherry tomatoes, about the only fresh tomatoes that we like this time of the year.  During the summer a simple fresh tomato sauce, like the one we use in our unconstructed Eggplant Parmesan makes a nice accompaniment.  Mushroom ragout is another alternative.  Just keep it simple – the joys of semolina gnocchi are akin to the joys of macaroni and cheese.  If you get too complicated you lose what made the dish wonderful in the first place.

Ken

*If the The Artist with Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo hasn’t disappeared from theaters by the time of this post, just go, go, go!  How often does the opportunity arrive to see a new silent film on the big screen, let alone one as clever and funny as this one.

Lazy Man’s Gnocchi

with Tomato and Basil

Makes 4 generous servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2  cup semolina flour
  • 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons butter at room temperature
  • 1/4 pound small tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 10 basil leaves

Directions:

  1. Heat the milk in a medium-heavy saucepan over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. When the milk is just about to boil, whisk in the semolina in a slow steady stream, beating constantly. Continue whisking until it is very thick, 5- 10 minutes, or even a bit longer.   Remove from heat.
  2. Stir 1/3 cup of the cheese, the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon butter into the semolina mixture. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into an 8-9-inch glass pie plate and allow to cool and harden.  Flatten the tops with a wet knife
  3. Once the semolina mix has hardened, cut it into 1 1/2-inch rounds. Rub a clean glass or glazed pie plate with ½ tablespoon butter. Arrange the ragged pieces on the bottom of the pan.  Arrange the rounds in an overlapping circle, saving one for the center. If not serving immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
  4. If you’ve refrigerated the gnocchi, allow them to come up to room temperature.  Preheat the oven to 450°.
  5. Put a slice of tomato and a basil leaf between each gnocchi round.  Dot the gnocchi with the remaining butter and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.  Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. If the gnocchi aren’t a lovely golden brown after 20 minutes run them under the broiler for a minute or two until they turn the proper color. Allow to rest 10 minutes before serving.

Jody Notes:

My mother is a wonderful cook and in the days of big dinner parties she made elaborate meals with guidance from Elizabeth David, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and of course, Erma Rombauer.  I think it was Elizabeth David’s Braised Beef with Oranges and Black Olives, accompanied by semolina gnocchi, that was the culinary starting line for me.  My sisters and I loved the gnocchi, and during clean-up in the kitchen we fought over the crusty scraps clinging to the edges of the pan. Talk about Umami!  It was amazing to me that such simple ingredients could be whipped up into something so sensual and yummy.

Although potato gnocchi are the most familiar to most Americans, gnocchi in Italy are more variable.  One style of gnocchi is made with choux paste, a light pastry dough, others with potatoes.  Ricotta, spinach and eggs find their way into different versions.  Potato gnocchi are poached; semolina gnocchi, never.  Tomatoes and basil, which I’ve added to make the dish stand on its own for a lunch or light dinner, would be unlikely additions for an Italian.  Feel free to go your own way–if you’re going to serve the gnocchi as a side dish skip the extras.

A few important points. 

  • Use a saucepan with high sides, in which the milk goes about 1/4 of the way up before you add the semolina.  In a shallow pot the mixture may not form properly.
  • Be sure to cook the mixture for 5 minutes to ensure the semolina is cooked enough and it thickens properly.
  • Be discrete with the butter and cheese.  Some think  more is better, but I like the taste of semolina to come through the richness.
  • Be sure to bake the gnocchi until the edges crisp and turn color, like in the pictures.

The hardest part of this recipe is cleaning the saucepan.  The semolina mixture sticks to the sides. Filling the pan with soapy water and letting it simmer for 30 minutes before washing works wonders.  Of course you can always ask someone else to scrub it–after all, you cooked!  

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19 thoughts

  1. Did you read my mind? I saw something like this in the Williams-Sonoma catalog last fall (there was some pan that was a “must have” to make them of course). Yesterday I was trying to remember what these were called in a conversation with a friend because I remember I was wanting to make them: “Roman gnocchi or something like that? They are these big biscuit looking things…” (I’m eloquent). And here is your post. I wasn’t sure if could use regular semolina flour or if I had to find something like cream of wheat so thanks for clarifying! What better stick-to-the-ribs food after the snow this week! Also-while I agree with your point on getting someone else to clean, thanks for the tip anyway.

    • If you want to get fussy–and we often do–a glazed earthenware dish works best. To be honest, when we make gnocchi we often double the quantity in this recipe and then we used bake and serve the entire quantity in a large earthenware oval from Mexico. We haven’t been been able to find a replacement we like since. Ken

  2. I’m a big fan of gnocchi parisienne (the kind with the choux paste), but these look too good to pass up. How lucky for me that I actually have some semolina in my pantry….now I just gotta find me some gladiators.

  3. Jody made several references to choux paste in her notes, but I edited them out, figuring that most people wouldn’t know what she was talking about and we were already running long without getting into choux paste explanations. But you’re right on about gnocchi parisienne, although if they’re served with, say, braised shank of lamb they can be part of meal that can leave you staggering back from the table at the end of the meal. I suggest eating semolina gnocchi while watching HBO’s ROME or Showtime’s SPARTACUS – BLOOD AND SAND. Ken

  4. Tip of the hat for carrying on the Roman metaphors in regards to a dish for an entire paragraph. It totally brought a smile to my face. I can almost taste these semolina gnocchi; I feel like I’ve enjoyed something similar but I can’t figure out what it is.

    We just watched the Kubrick “Spartacus” last month. Little too long for me, but my husband enjoyed it. I guess the length, coupled with the fact that I’m not a huge fan of his movies made for a very boring night for me. Fingers crossed “The Artist” is still playing when we finally have a moment to catch it. It’s been on my must-see list since I read about it this summer.

    • Thank you, Molly. A couple of years ago I read Robert Harris’s IMPERIUM, the first in a trilogy of novels about the life of Cicero. There’s a reference to slaves crucified on either side of the road and suddenly that final scene from SPARTACUS, which I’d seen as a kid, came back in all its vivid glory. Serious Kubrick fans probably consider it a lot of sentimental claptrap, but for a kid getting his first taste of sword-and-sandals epics it was wonderful. By the way, IMPERIUM is great–and you’ll love THE ARTIST. I realized after posting that my reference to it was a bit of non-sequitur. In my first draft I made mention of “…a culinary comedy of manners in which aristocratic semolina gnocchi…” I spared you the reference, but decided to leave the ARTIST in–it deserves attention. Ken

  5. I love your definition of old school, Ken. “Potato gnocchi are mere parvenus” ha! I’ve recently made the gnocchi parisienne, so I want go back to these. I agree with Jody, those crusty bits are worth fighting over. Lucky you, Jody. My mom was a terrible cook! Time to hunker down with these and watch Rome re-runs (we don’t have Starz….maybe it would be worth adding it just for more blood and gore.) Great post!

  6. I tried this last weekend and it looked like it was going to be perfect. However, after it was cooled, and I began to cut out the rounds (using a copper napkin ring that is the perfect size) regretfully the dough was not hard enough to form. I ended up sprinkling the top with the cheese and butter and baking it in the pie pan. The flavor was wonderful but I was disappointed that I couldn’t form the gnocchi……..any ideas?
    (The semolina flour was fresh.)

    • Iris,
      I’m sorry your gnocchi didn’t set up. I have had the same problem, and I believe it comes down to cooking the paste long enough. The length of time can be influenced by the condition of the flour–how much of the milk it has absorbed–and the size of the pan. Next time you make it, put a dollop of the paste on the counter (before adding the eggs) to see whether it will set up. If not, cook it some more. Please let me know if this works. I have edited the recipe to indicate that the paste could take more time to cook.
      And we are so glad you have tried our recipe.
      Best,
      Jody

      • Will do. It sure looked perfect when I turned it into the pie plate but I’ll follow your suggestion next time and report back. Thanks so much.

  7. Pingback: Gnocchi di Polenta - Recipes from Italiaoutdoorsfoodandwine | Italian Food, Wine, Health and Fitness

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