Editor’s note: Mark Messer, copy editor at the Mount Desert Islander newspaper, is a word and language geek who grew up in Ellsworth. He also likes to play around in the kitchen.
When I was in graduate school in the early 2000s, I took a vacation in Spain and spent a lot of time with my old Maine friends Louise and Neil in Santiago de Compostela, where Neil was a student.
My birthday fell during that trip, and they treated me to dinner at a lovely restaurant in the old part of the city. Seeing gnocchi on the menu, I had to have it. I’m a sucker for dumplings of any kind, and these fresh little dumplings in simple basil pesto did not disappoint.
About a decade later, I chaperoned a George Stevens Academy trip to Italy, and when we got to the Piazza del Comune in Assisi, we broke off into groups for lunch. Two other teachers, Jackie and Rachel, and I decided to steer clear of the tourist-focused restaurants on the piazza, and within a few minutes, we found a place that looked promising: Ristorante I Monaci.
After we settled in, I saw gnocchi on the menu and knew that I had to have it. I expected potato gnocchi, but when they came out, these gnocchi weren’t the small dumplings I was used to. They were the size of hens’ eggs and they sat in a broiled casserole with sauce and a bit of cheese.
As I cut into one of these gnocchi with my fork, it revealed its light, spongy texture. When I put one in my mouth, the taste was more than I could have hoped for.
As the years passed, I realized that I wouldn’t eat those dumplings again unless I made them for myself. I asked the restaurant for the recipe: no reply. I went online to find something that looked similar, hoping there’d be a recipe attached. I had no luck at first, but eventually, I found enough references to ricotta gnocchi that I decide to give it a shot.
The recipes were inconsistent, though, so I set about gleaning from those few recipes the essentials for making ricotta gnocchi. After a couple of months of research, my friends Ben, Genevieve, Janine and Heath agreed to give these dumplings a shot. Though these are not quite as spongy as what I ate in Assisi, we enjoyed them, and they are delizioso.
It takes a bit of forethought to make them; otherwise, they are simple to prepare.
Baked Ricotta Gnocchi
Serves 4 as a side
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup flour
3 cups tomato sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella
Set a large pot of salted water to boil.
Set the oven to 250 degrees F. Put the sauce into the casserole, then slide the pan in the oven. Feel free to embellish the sauce. I start with crushed tomatoes and add garlic powder, a bit of truffle salt, basil, oregano, maybe a bit of crumbled Italian sausage —whatever I feel like.
As the pan and sauce warm, I mix the Parmesan, ricotta and eggs well. I used a food processor, but a spoon or whisk will do. Transfer this into a large bowl. Fold in about one-third of the flour, being careful not to overmix.
The liquid and agitation activate the gluten and can make the dumplings tough. Gradually, fold in the remaining flour. The mixture will go from being like batter, to being a soft dough that deforms, to being a stiffer dough that doesn’t deform. That’s what we’re aiming for.
Rub some olive oil on your hands, then take golf ball-sized lumps of dough and roll them quickly into small balls. Set these on a platter as you go, but don’t let them touch.
After they are all rolled, put a few tablespoons of olive oil in a shallow bowl and put that near the boiling pot. Take the pan with the sauce out of the oven and put it near the shallow bowl. Turn the oven up to 500 degrees F.
One at a time, drop the dumplings in the boiling water. After a couple minutes, they should rise to the surface. Continue to boil them for another minute or two, then using a slotted spoon, take several out, put them in the bowl with oil, and roll them around quickly to coat them with oil. Place them in the pan of sauce.
Continue till all the dumplings are oiled and in the pan. Sprinkle with shredded cheese and put the dish in the oven. Bake till the cheese is well melted, about five minutes, then turn the heat up to broil. When the cheese has started to brown, remove the pan from the oven. Let them cool a bit before eating. Enjoy!