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.
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.
*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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- If you’ve refrigerated the gnocchi, allow them to come up to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 450°.
- 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.
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!