A recent addition to a long Italian tradition.
The evolution of gnocchi most certainly took the second path. But before we talk about that, I should mention that this is one of two kinds of gnocchi we typically eat, the other being ricotta gnocchi.
At least, my mother and I call it gnocchi. Dori insists it’s something else.
The distinctive thing about gnocchi is the shape–curled over with ridges on the exterior, providing surfaces to catch and hold sauce.
Here, I’ll let my mother explain this bit:
In this family, being that we are all lawyers, we pride ourselves on the ability to see both sides, to argue merit and not just passion. We consider ourselves able to rise above the petty and actually communicate. (We are soooo deluded…) This is true about everything… ehmmm… well, just about everything.
In my house, the great divide which ignites a sure fire argument is about gnocchi. Yes, gnocchi. We have two camps. The Gnocchi devotees who will only accept gnocchi made with potatoes and refer to everything else as “FAUX GNOCCHI” and find it intolerable, offensive, vile… etc. etc. and then there are those of us who simply recognize that the merit of potato gnocchi does not in any way negate the value of a good ricotta gnocchi.
About a week ago I sent my daughter a link to a ricotta gnocchi recipe. Doing this was tantamount to snapping her with a rubber band. I knew it when I did it. But I did it anyway. After all, this just proves my point, ricotta gnocchi is now mainstream, it is real, it is here to stay! But, this is how my daughter responded:
Dori: Ricotta gnocchi is not ok. NOT OK.
Mmph. Well, ricotta dumplings existed a couple hundred years earlier than this version. Potato gnocchi (a name that’s either from the Germanic word for knot or Italian for knuckle, depending on who you believe) didn’t exist until the late 18th century, but it’s helpful to understand a little bit about the evolution of dumplings and pasta in Europe before we get to that.
Deep breath–the history of dumplings in Italy is going to take a little while to explain.
In the post for Yesterdish’s pantry fideos with clams, I mentioned that the Arabs, the Greeks, and the Etruscans all had forms of pasta (that is, dough made from wheat flour and eggs). So why is Italy so associated with pasta?
Because the Italians thought to do something nobody else in the West had done: they boiled the pasta.
While that seems like a shock to us in the modern world, think of it in terms of the concerns of the Medieval world: water generally wasn’t good for you. There wasn’t really a clear concept of sanitation, and for the most part, people who had enough money drank beer. If you were lucky enough to find a source of clean water, you weren’t generally inclined to use it in an application that requires you to discard it at the end.
(Note that while the Chinese traditions of boiled noodles and dumplings started at least twelve centuries earlier than the Italian efforts, in those cases, they were cooked in soup, and the soup was consumed as well. Typically, noodles or dumplings to be consumed without soup were steamed–a practice that the Chinese were exceptionally familiar with, given that it was an essential step in the processing of tea from ancient times until the 13th century, when roasting dry leaves became more common.)
uncertain and contested origin).
While pasta would be made with fresh flour, the early dumplings were made with stale bread.
Around 1465, chef Martino da Como (who would go on to be chef for the Vatican shortly thereafter) wrote his Libero de Arte Coquinaria, or the Art of Cooking, where he included a recipe for zanzarelli dumplings (the name’s origin is likely a mishearing of a vulgar form of a dialect phrase meaning “to chew”). These dumplings were made from stale bread, Parmesan, and egg, and served in soup.
Martino included three versions: a red, flavored with saffron; a green, flavored with herbs; and a white, made with almond milk. There’s also a version where the dough is stirred into the soup without being formed–eventually, that evolved into stracciatella, sometimes described as Roman egg drop soup. But we’re talking about dumplings today.
(If you care, click here and I'll explain why I don't think there's evidence that knödel predate canederli. If you don't care, move on...)
|Defects in Evidence Connecting Canederli to Knödel
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying they’re not related–they almost certainly are. I’m simply saying they appear roughly contemporaneously in the timeline and there’s no direct evidence suggesting one was derived from the other.
German cooking enthusiasts (evidently this is a thing) trot out a find of a 5600-year-old dumpling in the Alps as proof that knödel are the oldest regional dumplings, totally ignoring that not only was this dumpling not cooked, and not only is there no indication it started as bread, but that there’s substantial evidence these grain-and-water lumps were dried and carried as food on long voyages. This isn’t a dumpling at all, it’s a granola bar.
At this point, the German cooking enthusiast will sputter, “But wait! There’s a 12-century fresco that shows someone eating knödel!”
Well, that fresco is in Castle Hocheppan. Apart from the fact that Hocheppan is physically in modern Italy, and apart from the fact that it’s about 50 miles from Trento’s canederli dumplings, let’s look at this supposed evidence of knödel:
Oh, well, yeah, then, of course, surely those are knödel and not canederli, or meatballs, or eggs, or fruit. So that proves it. Oh wait, no, no it doesn’t. The fact that a castle bordering Italy has pictures of dumplings 400 years before any German recipe shows up is not, by itself, fantastic evidence that canederli came from knödel.
I disagree. The distinctive thing about gnocchi is the shape–curled over with ridges on the exterior, providing surfaces to catch and hold sauce. You can use a fork, but there are gnocchi boards that make even more ridges. (In a pinch, rolling a whisk along the rolled dough before cutting can work.) That shape is what makes gnocchi special–that, and the light texture and subtle flavor when properly made. The two tricks are to remember not to over-work the potato (else it becomes glue-y) and to use as little flour as possible. Because the moisture content of potatoes vary, you’ll need to trust your fingers.
Don’t be upset if it’s not perfect the first time. Potato gnocchi is a skill it takes a long time to master. (As opposed to ricotta gnocchi, as we’ll see soon…)
From Yesterdish’s recipe box.
Yesterdish’s Gnocchi di Patate
3 lbs. potatoes — Russet/yellow
up to 2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, extra large
pinch of salt
- get 6 quart pot of water ready to cook gnocchi
- get a floured pastry cloth ready to put the gnocchi on
- get your gnocchi board, fork or grater ready to texture
- Cook and rice the potatoes.
- Make a well in the center, sprinkle enough flour to cover the surface–crack and beat the egg with salt.
- Add beaten egg.
- Mix lightly–let sit for 5 minutes.
- Mix again–roll out in thin logs–about 3/4 inch. Only add enough flour to make the dough not sticky.
- Cut into 1 pinch pieces–run against the tines of a fork or against the gnocchi board. You should get little ridged shells. Place on the pastry cloth until all are made.
- Boil until they float.
- Cool on the pastry cloth as you cook in small batches.
- Sauce, or butter and cheese–eat!