Here’s a linguistic quandary: The Italian word gnocchi is usually translated as ‘dumplings’, and the dictionary defines the word ‘dumpling’ as “a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming” or “a piece of dough, sometimes filled, that is cooked in liquid such as water or soup”. Well, gnocchi alla romana defy these definitions: they’re not made with a dough, not filled and not cooked in liquid or by steaming either.
So these gnocchi bear no resemblance to the classic potato gnocchi we all know and love. But at the end of the day, none of that really matters, because whatever you want to call them in English, gnocchi alla romana are really delicious. Here’s how you make them:
- 1 liter (1 quart) milk
- 250g (1/2 lb) semolina
- A good knob of butter
- Salt, to taste
- 75g (2 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1-2 egg yolks (optional)
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- More butter, q.b.
Heat the milk with a dash of salt and a nice nob of butter. When the milk just comes to the simmer, add the semolina in a slow stream—in Italian they say a poggia or “like rain—into the simmering milk (just like you make polenta). Lower the heat and let the mixture cook until it has become quite stiff, mix in some grated parmesan cheese. Off heat, whisk in the egg yolks if using.
Pour the mixture onto a baking sheet or other flat surface, which you will have lighted oiled or buttered to prevent sticking. Spreading it out thin—about ½ cm (¼ in.) or so thick—and as evenly as you can. (A wet spatula—or your wet, freshly washed hands—are ideal for this operation.)
Let the semolina mixture cool completely (it speeds things up considerably if you stick the baking sheet into the fridge) and then, using a glass or cookie cutter, cut out disks of the semolina.
Arrange those disks in a buttered baking or gratin dish, layering them in slightly overlapping rows like so many roof tiles. Top with copious amounts of grated parmesan cheese and melted butter. Some recipes also call for grated gruyere which, of course, makes for an even richer dish.
You then either bake the gnocchi in a hot oven (200° C, 400° F) or pass it under the broiler until nicely browned on top.
Let the sizzling gnocchi ‘settle’ for a few minutes and then serve them in their baking dish.
Notes on Gnocchi alla romana
Gnocchi alla romana are very rich, so you do not need any kind of sauce, although one correspondent tells me that she serves these with ragú for her husband, who does not care for the taste of butter. The egg yolk (or two) is optional; it gives the gnocchi a richer coloration and a slightly firmer texture. Try it if you like.
Personally, I find that the broiler technique is both quicker and more appealing, as baking in the oven takes 15 minutes or more, by which time the gnocchi can dry out a bit. But if you want to prepare the gnocchi ahead of time, the oven-baked method is the way to go.
After you cut out the gnocchi disks, you will be left with scraps of semolina. Don’t throw them out, whatever you do. Save the scraps for later. If you gather them up and press them together into a ball of ‘dough‘. When you are ready for another meal, form little croquettes out of this ‘dough’, roll them in bread crumbs and fry them until golden brown. These croquettes are absolutely delicious—almost better, if you ask me, than the gnocchi alla romana themselves…