Chubby charms

Gnocchi like mamma makes. By Annie Bell. Photograph by Patrice de Villiers

Only the Italians could dream up something as extravagant as gnocchi, then slip them in before the start of the real dinner in the name of being "il primo". These sublime little cushions that do not come with so much as a stew to lighten their chubby form will do me fine for dinner on their own - with a green salad before or after. Well, maybe with a little vin santo and cantuccini to follow, but I'll still pass on the main course.

In my early days as a cook, such was my fondness for gnocchi and reluctance to make them that I tried all manner of short-cuts, including buying them readymade. Were they even half as good as shop-bought fresh pasta, I think I should have settled for them, but the bullets that come out of vac-pacs are unrecognisable. They could almost be forgiven their lousy texture if they tasted like real gnocchi, instead of a concoction of scarcely edible chemicals.

Unfortunately, divine gnocchi do not come in packets. The only way is to shut yourself into the kitchen, take the phone off the hook, pour yourself a glass of wine, turn on the radio, roll up your sleeves, and prepare to return to the childhood nirvana of making and shaping.

They're not that painful to make - the single most important thing being the dryness of the dough. Not as tough as pastry, it should feel more like a sticky bread dough. The difficulty comes if it is too sticky, but this depends on the type. As Anna Del Conte points out in her seminal Gastronomy of Italy, there are any number of variations. She includes "gnocchi alla cadorina" from Veneto, enriched with butter and smoked ricotta, also "gnocchi di zucca", with pumpkin, spices and, sometimes, amaretti, doused with butter scented with rosemary and garlic. Then there are gnocchi made with polenta, gnocchi made with rice, and the extraordinary dumplings of Venezia Giulia, which are large enough to enfold a prune within.

But all this is advanced gnocchi. For me, they come in the pale orange of pumpkin (although I prefer the concentrated sweetness of butternut squash), scattered with sage leaves that have turned crisp from a brief frying in butter. I also like the restrained, creamy white of ricotta and potato, and the green of spinach and herbs such as parsley and marjoram, sometimes layered with fontina and a sprinkling of Parmesan before being baked like a gratin in the oven or sharpened with a smudge of pesto sauce.

The forming of each little gnocco is something of an art. Effecting the grooves on their surface which allow the sauce to cling is the sort of thing Italian children pick up from grandma. To follow Anna del Conte's recommendation, you should "take a fork and hold it with the prongs resting on the work surface at an angle of about 45 degrees. Take each piece of dough, dust it with flour, press it lightly with the thumb of your other hand against the inner curve of the prongs and, with a quick downwards movement, flip it towards the end of the prongs. The gnocchi should be concave on the thumb side, and convex with ridges on the fork side."

Mine simply emerged squashed and sad. To press the lines of a fork against its surface as it lies on the workbench is as close as I can offer to a solution for anyone as butter-fingered as myself. You don't get the concave-convex curves that are a gnocco's birthright, but you still get a fine little dumpling with grooves along its length. I'm not, though, convinced that perfectly formed gnocchi should be a goal at all; squashed and uneven, they're just as delicious.

Ricotta and Nutmeg Gnocchi with Tomato and Basil, serves 4

These are the easiest of the bunch to make - so beginners, please start here.

Butter:

150g unsalted butter

350g tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and diced

2 tbsp shredded basil leaves

Gnocchi:

150g plain flour, sifted

sea salt, black pepper

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

450g ricotta

2 medium egg yolks

To serve: freshly grated Parmesan

First clarify the butter by melting it in a small saucepan, skim off surface foam, decant the clear liquid and discard the milky solids in the base.

To make the gnocchi, combine the flour, seasoning and nutmeg in a bowl. Blend the ricotta and egg yolks in another bowl. Add the flour to the ricotta mixture and work until it is just blended. Do not overmix: the mixture will be sticky.

Flour a work surface. Take about a fifth of the mixture at a time and roll it by hand into a long, thin sausage 1cm in diameter. Cut this into slices 0.5cm thick. Press the tines of a fork on one of the cut sides of each slice, flattening it. Lay out a tea towel and sprinkle it with flour, and reserve the gnocchi in a single layer. You can keep them in a cool place for a short while, covered with another tea towel, in which case, you may find it easier to lay the tea towel out on a tray.

To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Rewarm the butter and add the tomato, basil and seasoning. Add the gnocchi to the boiling water, and cook them at a simmer for a minute or two until they rise to the surface. Give them the same length of time again, then strain and serve with the hot butter and tomato spooned over, with Parmesan on the table.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage and Garlic, serves 3-4

Butter:

150g unsalted butter

a handful of sage leaves

2 garlic cloves, peeled

Gnocchi:

700g butternut squash

2 large egg yolks

100g freshly grated Parmesan

sea salt, black pepper

100g plain flour, sifted

To serve: freshly grated Parmesan

Melt the butter in a small saucepan, skim off the surface foam, decant the clear liquid and discard the milky solids in the base. Rewarm the clarified butter and, when it is hot, add the sage leaves and let them sizzle for a moment, also the garlic cloves. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

To make the gnocchi, cut open the squash, take out the seeds and fibrous matter, and cut into chunks. Steam the squash for about 20 minutes until it is very tender. Once it is cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh off the skin and squeeze it out in a tea towel to get rid of as much water as possible. This should have the double effect of pureeing it at the same time. Place the squash in a bowl and stir in the egg yolks, Parmesan and seasoning. Add enough flour to form a dough. This should be sticky but not wet. You may need a little more or less flour than the amount specified.

Flour a work surface and roll out a lump of the mixture into a long, thin roll. Do this with all the dough, then cut them into thin slices. Press the tines of a fork against one of the cut surfaces of each gnocco which should flatten the dumpling. Store the gnocchi on a floured tea towel.

To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, add the dumplings and cook them at a simmer for a minute or two until they rise to the surface. Give them the same amount of time again, then remove with a slotted spoon. Gently reheat the butter and remove the garlic cloves. Serve the gnocchi drizzled with butter and a few sage leaves, and accompany with freshly grated Parmesan.

Gratin of Spinach and Parsley Gnocchi, serves 4

Gnocchi:

450g floury potatoes

25g unsalted butter

30g flat-leaf parsley, tough stalks removed

300g young spinach leaves

sea salt, black pepper

2 large egg yolks

100g plain flour, sifted

To finish:

200g fontina, diced small

80g freshly grated Parmesan

15g unsalted butter

4 tbsp double cream

To make the gnocchi, boil the potatoes in their skins. When they are cool enough to handle, skin them and pass through a mouli-legumes or a sieve. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the parsley and stir until it softens. Add the spinach and cook until it wilts. Season and leave it to cool, Place in a sieve and press out as much moisture as possible - this is important to how workable the dough will be. Coarsely chop it on a board.

Add the egg yolks to the potato puree and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the cooked spinach and parsley and gradually work in the flour. Expect the dough to remain sticky. Liberally flour a work surface, drop teaspoons of the mixture on to a floured surface and coat them so you can shape them in your hands into a dumpling. Now flatten each one with a fork and store on a floured tea towel. They will be more generous in size than classic gnocchi.

Preheat the oven to 220C (fan oven)/230C (electric oven)/450F/gas mark 8. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the gnocchi. If they are delicate, you can remove them from the towel using a flat spatula. Cook the gnocchi at a simmer for a minute or two until they rise to the surface. Give them the same length of time again, then remove them to a bowl using a slotted spoon. It is best to cook the dumplings in two goes.

Butter a gratin dish or a shallow casserole and lay over half of the gnocchi. Dot with half of the fontina, season and sprinkle over a little Parmesan. Repeat these layers, spoon the cream over and cook the gratin in the oven for 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and golden on top

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