About a year ago, I answered a question about successful gnocchi-making, noting that both egg and flour can make gnocchi heavy or tough, and that “once you become adept, you may be able to incorporate the flour and potato without using any egg at all.” Well, now’s the time.
Here’s why. Kneading wheat flour with liquid develops gluten, a protein that, once developed, lends structure and elasticity. Gluten denatures and firms when exposed to heat. Egg proteins – particularly the ovoalbumin in the white – denature and form an increasingly hard gel when exposed to heat. Together, flour and egg transform fluffy, starchy potato into poachable dumplings. Without anything to hold together the potato, it will simply disintegrate and dissolve into the cooking liquid. With too much, however, the dumplings become tough and/or heavy.
One way to minimize the potential for toughness is to eliminate the egg entirely. You don’t need it; the egg really just enriches the gnocchi. Using egg, however, means you must use more flour to soak up the egg’s moisture. The more flour you add, and the longer you knead the dough, the stiffer and more leaden the gnocchi will be. So dispense with the egg, and use just enough flour to lend structure to the potato. Work the flour-potato mixture long enough to develop the gluten so the gnocchi don’t completely collapse on cooking. Rest the dough before forming, to allow the gluten to relax for more tender dumplings.
A lot of people think the eggless gnocchi are more difficult to make than the egg-enriched variety. I disagree. Once you get the hang of these, they’re easier and far faster to make than any gnocchi involving egg, and the texture is so much better. Counting the time to bake the potatoes, you can get these out in an hour; make extra and freeze them if you like. You may incorporate small quantities of light, dry flavorings like minced herbs or Parmigiano-Reggiano at the same time as the flour.
Preheat the oven to 400F/204C and, using a fork, poke several holes in the potato skin. Place the potatoes in kosher salt in a baking dish and place in the hot oven; alternatively, simply bake directly on the oven rack. The salt is not essential. Bake until thoroughly tender.
As soon as possible, halve the potatoes, scoop out the innards, and rice directly onto a wooden board. Spread out on the board by fluffing with a fork to release steam. Set salted water to boil.
Season the surface of the riced potato lightly with salt and then add just enough flour to coat the surface of the potato at first; knead together until the mixture forms a sticky dough. If it’s too sticky (sticking mostly to your hands), add more flour. I use my fingertips to grab just a couple of tbsp at a time, to avoid over-flouring.
When you reach this point – the dough holds together but is not stiff, and is a little sticky but not gluey – cover with a clean kitchen towel and rest for about 30 minutes to give the gluten time to relax. Then portion with a bench scraper and roll quickly and lightly with your hands on a flour-dusted board into a rope about 3/4″ in diameter. Don’t press too hard as you roll; just press hard enough to roll to 3/4″. The surface shouldn’t be sticky; it should feel smooth. Using the bench scraper, cut into 3/4″ pieces. Roll each piece out onto a gnocchi board or the tines of a fork if you like.
Cook the gnocchi immediately in just-boiling salted water until they float. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in heated bowls.
Sauce as you like. These are served with braised ibérico de bellota pork cheeks and peas, in a sauce of the reduced braising liquid, with thyme and chive. You can finish with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I did not.
2 lb/1kg pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 c/450 ml light red wine (I used a pinot noir; brouilly or something similar would be great as well)
6 c/1.4 l quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
1c shelled English peas
several branches thyme, leaves only
Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.
Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.
Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.
When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a covered container and chill until ready to use. Strain the braising liquid through chinois. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan, torn to coarse chunks with a fork. Add the peas. Heat through until the peas are cooked.
Sauce the gnocchi with the cheek and pea, and the reduced braising liquid. Garnish with chives and thyme, and black pepper.