When I looked over at my cousin chewing, it looked like her mouth was doing way too much work, like she had taken a huge spoonful of peanut butter and it was all sticky and gooey in there (remember those Got Milk? commercials?!). She was eating my gnocchi. Ehm, my attempt at gluten-free gnocchi.
“This is so good, Gab,” she said. I had to try hard not to laugh. The amazing part is, she meant it, sincerely, while I wondered, how can you be enjoying it when it looks like you are chewing three pieces of Bubblicious gum all at once, you poor mouth barely able to open from all that dense gooeyness?
OK, I am making them sound worse than they were. But still, the following conversation ensued when a fellow cooking-enthusiast questioned his eating experience.
“Gab, tell me about these gnocchi. Are you happy with them?” my brother-in-law asked me.
“Yeah,” I lied. The lie was obvious.
“No really, what do you think of them?” he pushed.
“Well, what do you think of them?”
“No, I want to know what you think of them, I’m curious,” brother-in-law said again.
Do you really want to know? I asked. I usually try not to criticize what I make in front of the people I’m feeding, I told them. I am always critical of the food I make, but pointing out the flaws might ruin someone else’s enjoyment.
“Yes, Gab, just answer, we’re your family!” said my sister.
OK. So I indulged them in the gnocchi story. The experiments. The errors. The terrors.
It all started when I decided to make gluten-free gnocchi, to appease my sister whose relationship with it is tepid. I would use spelt flour, I decided, because it was in the pantry, and because the nutty taste described on the bag might just be delicious…so I thought.
Do you know what it’s like when you are craving a delicious baguette, crusty on the outside and fluffy inside, and you buy a whole wheat one instead just because it’s a little healthier? Or when you are craving a starchy, creamy pasta carbonara but you use kamut-flour pasta instead for the added nutrients, but none of the same satisfaction? Eating the spelt-flour gnocchi was a bit like that. They tasted too…healthy. They tasted too much, period. Gnocchi, I realized, should be about mouth feel and texture, not taste. The sauce delivers the taste.
So that was the taste problem. Then there was the texture problem. I did not have a ricer. When you make gnocchi, you bake the potatoes until fork-tender, then scoop out the flour and pass it through a ricer to work out any lumps and help it cool down faster (so as not to trap steam, which would force you to add more flour).
I like to believe that fancy equipment isn’t necessary, that the savvy cook can devise ways to make something work without all that stuff. True enough. But, in trying not to overwork the potato, I did not mash it thoroughly enough to remove the lumps. In retrospect, I realize I should not have been worried about overworking it, because the gluten from the flour is what can make the gnocchi too tough and chewy, but since I had no gluten in there….mash away!
“Why doesn’t the sauce kind of coat the gnocchi, and, you know, drip off the fork?” asked the brother-in-law. “I think with a thicker sauce, it would compensate for the chunky gnocchi.” I guess I had a critical diner.
Oh the sauce. The sauce, too, was all wrong. I used half and half, and not heavy cream, and I mixed it with beef stock. I stuck in mushroom stems and chives to let it reduce and to infuse it with mushroomy flavor. The chives were to brighten it a little, to add some spring to the winter of the dish. Well, as it heated, right away it started to curdle. How would I bring the sauce back together? Trying to be savvy cook again, I strained it through a sieve, I reduced it some more, with butter, I added grated parmesan cheese. Well, humpty dumpty would not come back together again.
(Here, on the Food52 blog, is an interesting conversation about curdling, which gives some good pointers, though not scientific and definite answers. Perhaps if I added the stock more slowly and off the heat it wouldn’t have curdled? perhaps if I’d used heavy cream instead of half and half? I can’t be sure until I try it another way).
“You know what? These gnocchi are great,” my proud and loving father chimed in. “They just need an explanation. The expectation should be different when you know you’re eating gluten-free gnocchi. And you can indulge in them because they are much healthier.” Ah, the doctor speaks up, his voice of wisdom quieting down the rowdy , and not totally sober, masses.
Hmm. So perhaps what it boiled down to was, truth in advertising! These were no gnocchi. These were spelt-flour, gluten-free gnocchi!