It’s spring. While I may be laying here nursing a cold, I can see out my windows that the trees are budding. It’s all rainy days and smooth sailing from here on out and like most of Chicago, I’m anxiously awaiting the first outdoor farmers market in a few weeks. In anticipation I bought some asparagus the other day, before I caught this nasty cold, and thought it would go well with a plate of gnocchi and a little brown butter.
Now while I love a good gnocchi, making those delectable little Italian dumplings can be a little tricky. There are so many persnickety factors that vary from batch to batch; most revolving around moisture. Over time I’ve developed a feel for the dough, as I learned to cook by touch to know the right texture, the correct tackiness. More than once I’ve cursed a blue streak and swore I’d order them in restaurants rather than put myself through such torture. Then I learned about Parisian gnocchi and developed a completely different perspective. A much more forgiving perspective.
Parisian gnocchi are simply little bits of pâte à choux – the same incredibly versatile egg based dough/batter that makes cream puffs, profiteroles, éclairs and such – poached in gently simmering water. With a few savory touches, that wonderful batter becomes the most delicious little dumplings in no time and to my mind, are a helluva lot easier than the traditional, potato-based Italian gnocchi. They’re a bit lighter, more delicate and take on other flavors, such as cheese, mustard or herbs, remarkably well. Of course, there are a few things to know.
As with the potato gnocchi dough, it’s all about getting the right texture from the start. The choux paste is a simple mix of water, salt, butter, flour and eggs but there’s a way to go about this. Once the water, salt and butter comes to a boil; the flour is vigorously mixed in until it forms a ball, and cooked a bit more to dry out a little. Then the eggs are added, one at a time, and while this can be done by hand, it’s much easier to let a standing mixer to do the work. The dumplings lightness comes from the eggs, which are beaten in, one at a time, until smooth. Like the potato dough, moisture can affect the final mixture and will determine how many eggs are used. You may not need the final egg – add as many as the butter and flour will hold.
Due to these variables, it’s important to know how the paste should look and feel – it should be soft, smooth and pipe-able. Be sure to mix thoroughly between each egg and check before adding the next one. It will start out separated and gloppy but will come back into a smooth paste as you go. It’s ready when the batter is nice and smooth and if you run the handle of a wooden spoon through the paste, the trail holds with a slight flopping of top of the channel edges. The Kitchn website also describes it as “If you pull the paddle attachment of an electric mixer out of the paste, a “tongue” should appear at the tip of the paddle. Or similarly, if you gently scoop up a bit of the paste with a rubber spatula and let it fall back into the bowl, a “v” of paste should be left behind on the spatula.” Make sense?
To shape, little bits of dough are piped-and-snipped into a pot of lightly salted simmering water and bob happily until cooked through. If you want them pretty, a piping bag and large round metal piping tip will help otherwise, you can pipe from a Ziploc bag. I prefer to use a metal tip because not only does it form pretty, compact shapes but I found in years of teaching this recipe, sometimes the edge of the Ziploc bag ends up snipped into the gnocchi. Not good. I’ve also seen chefs use a spoon to scoop small bits of dough into the poaching water. It’s really your call.
While the little dumplings can certainly be eaten at this point, I like them best sautéed in a little butter, which browns to a lovely nutty flavor and makes the gnocchi a little crispy on the outside. I can stop right here and make a meal out of sautéed gnocchi alone but some asparagus and maybe a few more herbs makes a wonderful and elegant dinner.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: BOWLS FULL OF HAPPINESS. There is something about a bowl full of dumplings – dumplings of any kind – that makes me infinitely happy. I have a few true comfort foods and this is certainly one of them. I also love making these things – the process of piping-snipping-and poaching is strangely relaxing to me. If I’m stressed out, give me a project. Singular focus people, singular focus. And it helps to sit down with a big bowl of slightly browned gnocchi, let me tell you. Oh, and Happy Tax Day to you. Maybe you need a big bowl of happiness today.
Eight years ago: Brown Butter Banana Bread
Seven years ago: Peanut Butter Bars, Pretzel Dogs
Six years ago: Peterson Garden Project Round 2, Sticky Bun Bread
Five years ago: Strawberries in Hibiscus Syrup, Fresh Goat Cheese
Four years ago: Lemon Loaf Cake, Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies, Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese Croutons, Escargot Roasted Mushrooms
Three years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Two years ago: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
Last year: Blueberry Crumb Cake, Giardinara Cheese Bread, Red Curry Firecracker Shrimp with Sweet Chile Dipping Sauce, Coconut Pound Cake
PARISIAN HERB GNOCCHI WITH BROWN BUTTER & ASPARAGUS – loosely adapted from this recipe
I love the mixture of chives, parsley and tarragon in these gnocchi, but you can use what you have.
for the gnocchi:
1 cup water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup + 2 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
¼ cup finely grated parmesan
3 large eggs
for the herbed brown butter & asparagus:
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter (4 ounces/1 stick)
3 Tablespoons mixed fresh herbs, finely chopped (chives, parsley, tarragon, etc.)
¼ pound fresh asparagus, tough ends snapped off
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
pinch of kosher salt
grated parmesan for garnish
- For the gnocchi: In a medium saucepan, bring the water, salt and butter to a boil over high heat.
- As soon as the water boils, add the flour all at once and beat the dough with a wooden spoon until it is thick and comes away from the side of the pan.
- Cook, stirring to dry out the dough, about 1 minute – the dough should form a light crust on the bottom of the pan.
- Transfer the dough to bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on low until it stops steaming. (By hand – transfer to a medium bowl and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.)
- Beat 1 egg into the dough until incorporated. (By hand – beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until incorporated.
- Beat in the second egg until smooth.
- Beat in the third egg then the parmesan, mustard and herbs until the dough is very smooth.
- Transfer the dough to a piping bag fitted with a large round tip. (Alternatively, use Ziploc bag and be careful not to cut the plastic end while shaping the gnocchi.)
- Bring a large shallow pan of lightly salted water to a boil and reduce to low for a gentle simmer.
- Carefully hold the bag over the water and press out the dough, using kitchen scissors to cut 1” lengths gently into the water. Tip: dip the scissors in the water occasionally to keep the dough from sticking. (Do in batches – don’t crowd the pan.)
- Simmer the gnocchi for 3-4 minutes until cooked through (cut one open to check.) The gnocchi should be somewhat firm, not mushy.
- With a slotted spoon, transfer to a parchment lined sheet pan.
- To sauté: heat a large sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat and add 2 Tablespoons of the butter.
- When the butter has melted, add half the drained gnocchi and stir quickly to coat.
- Give the pan a toss occasionally and once browned, transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl.
- Continue in the same manner with another 2 Tablespoons butter and remaining gnocchi transferring to the bowl when finished.
- Add the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and heat until sizzling.
- Add asparagus and sauté until tender-crisp, about 4 minutes.
- Add the gnocchi back to the pan to heat through along with the chopped herbs, a good squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt; toss to coat.
- Transfer to a serving dish or individual plates and garnish with some grated parmesan.