SOFT BUT PLEASANTLY CHEWY, THAT IT FROLICS IN BETWEEN EVERY BITE WITH THE UPMOST PLAYFUL RESISTANCE
Light. Airy. Delicate. Cloud-like.
See, surely these are rules best to dictate cotton candies and runway models.
But, in my opinion, not for gnocchi.
I know, I know. Who am I – an Asian who grew up in North America – to judge gnocchi, an inarguably Italian prerogative guarded by some very defensive if not hostile Italian grandmothers. To some, if I am ever entitled to an opinion then it should only be on chop suey or somethin’, certainly not this heritage pasta sacredly given by the ancient Roman Gods. Hey, I know! I agree!, or at least I used to, which was why I never complained every time I was served with a plate of texture-less and borderline-mushy “clouds”, in Rome or Nice and etcetera might I add, and nodded in compliance like a team-player. “Yes, Mandy. These mashy semisolids are intentional and authentic. Now shut up and eat them. Gollum Gollum”. I truly tried.
You see, close-minded it may seem, but I come from a place where any flour-involved, savory carbohydrates have to have, a chew.
Whether it’s hand-pulled xi’an noodles, the delicate wrappers of dim sum dumplings, or hand-shaped fresh pastas and whatnots, no matter. No chew, shameful personal failure of the cook. Doesn’t matter if it was the long-term habit that shaped my preference, or the other way around, it’s the same thing. I just like’em chewy.
So as time went on, a quiet rebellion came when I first found out about this “French” gnocchi business. It’s a pâte à choux type of dough that yields a firmer, chewier and springy form of gnocchi, which were much more relatable and appreciated by my (ok angry nonna, I’ll say it myself) narrow-minded Asian taste-buds. It was a vote of endorsement that said, hey there is actually a market out there for a texturally different type of gnocchi and it isn’t going to get me burnt alive on a stick in the middle of a piazza. It was encouraging, although, not enough to push me to commit recipe-social-suicide, to turn the idea of gnocchi upside down. Until, unfortunately, the real affirmation came a few weeks ago during one innocent gathering with friends, when one of them ever-so-harmlessly mentioned…
“I’ve never like the soft, fluffy gnocchi. I prefer the chewier type”, he said.
Boom, there! One single white Jewish American dude agrees! (Yoohoo~ waving my arms in the air in glorious triumph…). Little did he know that his no-more-entitled opinion on gnocchi, was all the badge I needed to push myself over the cliff. You’ll find me tomorrow as a pile of ash by the trash-bins behind Santa Maria del Fiore.
Al’right, you might think that I’m being dramatic, pile of ash and all, but listen, what I’m about to do to gnocchi, could be deeply upsetting.
There is this thing, a Taiwanese thing (best to drag another country into the argument so if somebody has to burn something, burn their flag), called yuyuan, meaning sweet potato dumpling. Composition-wise, it is extremely similar like gnocchi, meaning it’s a dough mixed with mashed starchy root vegetables and flour, then shaped into a ball-shaped dumpling. The difference is that instead of potato, it uses sweet potato (or taro), and instead of wheat flour, it uses tapioca flour and potato starch, and it’s exclusively eaten as a dessert mostly over shaved/crushed ice.
Why am I bringing it up? Well, because, under all circumstances in my own psychotic and twisted universe, I replace it ruthlessly with the actual gnocchi.
Now listen, even though Italian gnocchi and Taiwanese yuyuan shares many structural similarities, but taste and texture-wise, they are worlds apart. Yuyuan is mildly sweet and vibrant in sunshine glow, soft but pleasantly chewy (because of the tapioca)(think bubble tea) that it frolics in between each bite with a playful resistance, jewel-like and silky in the sense that it slips effortlessly down the throat. No more texturally ambiguous
clouds mush that melt fall apart in a feast of confusion, yeah, like Italian gnocchi. Shoot me. This sweet potato gnocchi works (to rub it in I’m gonna call it gnocchi, too), in my view, wonderfully if not better in two classic gnocchi applications. One as a simple toss in browned butter infused with pancetta, fresh thyme and black pepper, where the yuyuan’s natural sweetness welds with that in the browned butter but pops against the saltiness of the pancetta. Then the second as a thorough coating in a condensed tomato sauce with anchovy and garlic, where the tangy and sweet marry well into a combination of unique texture and old comfort. Both, showered ferociously with aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
If that sounds not offensive but heavenly, not intrusive but long-awaited, well, then welcome to the club.
Oh, and it’s gluten-free, too.
I’ll see you at our crucifixion.
- 1 1/2 cup (345 grams) baked and peeled sweet potatoes
- 3/4 cup (90 grams) tapioca flour, plus more to adjust
- 1/4 cup (37 grams) potato starch
- 1/4 cup diced pancetta
- 2 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to grate
- 1 can (400 grams) peeled plum tomatoes
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 fillet anchovy
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp light brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 clove garlic, grated
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to grate
- TO MAKE GNOCCHI: The result of the gnocchi largely depends on the nature of the sweet potatoes used. Whether it contains more, or less moisture, will affect the amount of flour that's needed. But follow these steps and you should be able to get it right. Refer back to the photos for more visual guidance.
- You'll need about 2~3 sweet potatoes. After washing, bake them in a 400 F/200 C oven for 1 hour until cooked through. Let them cool down COMPLETELY, then peel and put 345 grams (strongly recommend measuring by weight) of the sweet potatoes into a large bowl. Add tapioca flour and potato starch, and knead with your hands until the mixture becomes a very dry, shaggy and very crumbly texture. The mixture should be too dry to come together as a cohesive dough at this point, but you can squeeze small nubs of it into solid chunks. If your mixture is too wet (that it gathers into a solid chunk), add more tapioca flour until it's right.
- Bring a small pot of water to boil. Now take out 4 individual tbsp of the mixture, and squeeze them into 4 tube-shaped dough. Cook them in the boiling water until they just float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and rinse under water to cool down. Make sure you drain them well, then add them back into the dough-mixture. Now you should be able to knead the whole thing together into a pliable, slightly springy, TACKY but not too sticky dough. The dough should be moist and tacky, but shouldn't stick to your hands during kneading. If your dough is sticky, add more tapioca flour until it isn't. (You can test-cook a small piece in boiling water, cool it under cold water, and see if you're happy with the texture before adding more flour or sweet potato).
- Now break off a large piece and roll it into a 1/2" (13 mm) thick tube. Lightly dust it with tapioca flour, then cut into segments about 3/4" (20 mm) long (DO NOT dust then with more flour at this point). Place one segment standing up on a fork (cut sides facing up and down), then press it down into a stubby nub (not a disk that's too thin), then gently roll it off of the fork. Repeat until you're done with the entire dough. Now scatter them on a sheet-tray and freeze until hard. Keep in an air-tight bag in the freezer until needed.
- GNOCCHI IN THYME BROWNED BUTTER: In a skillet, add diced pancetta and water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat (I feel that this brings out more "porky-ness" whereas if I just brown the pancetta directly). Continue to cook until all the water has evaporated, and that the pancetta starts to brown slightly in its own fat. Now add butter, fresh thyme and black pepper, and continue to cook until both the pancetta and butter are browned. Turn off the heat and set aside.
- Bring a pot of water with a generous amount of salt to boil. Add the gnocchi straight from the freezer (or you can cook them fresh, too), and when they JUST float to the surface, cook 30 seconds more. Transfer into a large sieve and rinse under cold water, tossing them gently so they are cooled down evenly and completely (this step is important in obtaining that chewy texture). Drain well, and add them into the browned butter skillet. Heat over high heat until each gnocchi are warmed through. Re-season with sea salt if needed, and serve immediately with LOTS of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
- GNOCCHI IN TOMATO SAUCE: Blend the canned tomatoes until finely pureed, set aside. In a pot, heat extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sliced garlic, thyme and anchovy, and cook until the garlics are slightly browned on the edges. Add the pureed tomatoes, sea salt, light brown sugar and black pepper, then partially cover the pot (it will splatter during cooking). Keep the mixture at a gentle boil, stirring occasionally, until it's reduced down to about 40% of its original volume. Re-season with sea salt, then stir in the grated garlic, set aside.
- Bring a pot of water with a generous amount of salt to boil. Add the gnocchi straight from the freezer (or you can cook them fresh, too), and when they JUST float to the surface, cook 30 seconds more. Transfer into a large sieve and rinse under cold water, tossing them gently so they are cooled down evenly and completely (this step is important in obtaining that chewy texture). Drain well and transfer into a skillet over medium-high heat, then add enough tomato sauce to generous coat each gnocchi (you may need all of it), and the butter. Cook until butter is blended into the sauce, and that each gnocchi is warmed through. Serve immediately with LOTS of Parmigiano Reggiano.