So we have come to the end of Day 10 of the 2006 Winter Olympics. How wondrous this journey has been! Piemonte, unfolding before our very eyes. Revealing her food to us in such a magnificent way!
As I look back at the last ten Olympic days, I am struck by the sheer beauty of these Games. The drama, the victory, the defeat … the food. And I know, deep down, that very soon I will be coming to the end of this Olympic menu. Already I see the main course on the horizon. What will it be? Meat? Game? Fish?
But before I get there … before we get there … I wanted to watch the sun set over the Alps in the company of what is considered comfort food in Piemonte: Gnocchi alla Bava.
In a place where fresh pasta and rice are royalty, gnocchi are loyal servants. Reliable to a fault, gnocchi will never let you down. Like so many other dishes, the Piemontesi like to dress their gnocchi simply, usually with butter and cheese. And what bounty of cheese in this land! We have already tasted the Robiola … but there is also the Fontina.
Made of cow’s milk, Fontina is a semi-hard cheese that is aged in caves for up to seven months. Do not confuse Italian Fontina with what you will often find in the supermarket. While Fontina is produced in other countries including Denmark, Italian Fontina is unparalleled.
Like all great food, Fontina is best at its very simplest. And no dish in Piemontese cooking can be simpler than Gnocchi alla Bava. In Italian, bava means drool or dribble … not exactly the most appetizing of images! But in fact the gnocchi are called "alla bava" to describe how the they look after they have been tossed with the Fontina. With each forkful the luscious cheese pulls away from the gnocchi in long strands, the sight of which would make anyone drool!
There are several ways of preparing this dish. I am sure that every Piemontese cook has his or her favourite version. The method that I chose is perhaps the simplest: potato gnocchi are removed from their cooking water and immediately tossed with diced butter and Fontina. As the ingredients are mixed the butter and Fontina melt into an incredibly creamy sauce.
Another popular method is to layer the cooked gnocchi in a greased baking dish with butter and Fontina. The dish is then popped into the oven for a few minutes to allow the butter and Fontina to melt. The dish emerges from the oven and what you end up with is a bubbling mass of golden gnocchi crusted with butter and cheese. Whichever method you choose, the Piemontesi have ensured that you cannot go wrong.
So with my bowl of Gnocchi alla Bava, I sit in my alpine perch and watch the sun as it sets on Day 10. In the distance I can hear the cheers of Canadians as they … as I … celebrate the gold medal won by the women’s hockey team. While I am blessed with Italian heritage, I am proudly Canadian.
With the sound of my national anthem around me, I dine on the simple food of the land that has embraced all the world.
Gnocchi alla Bava
For the gnocchi:
- 2-1/4 pounds potatoes
- 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached), plus more for your work surface
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- With a sharp knife, make a cross in each potato, but do not cut through to the bottom. Place the potatoes on a baking sheet and bake until tender (about 1 hour).
- Remove the potatoes from the oven and let cool until you are able to handle them.
- Peel the potatoes and put them through a potato ricer. Alternatively, you can mash the potatoes with a fork or a potato masher.
- Add the salt, flour and egg to the potato mixture.
- With your hands, incorporate the ingredients until you can gather the mixture into a ball.
- Transfer the gnocchi dough to a well-floured work surface.
- Knead until you have a soft dough that is not sticky. Be careful with how much flour you add as you do not want the dough to be hard. Add only enough flour so that your dough is not sticky.
- Once you have the dough at the right consistency, break off pieces of dough that are roughly the size of a tennis ball.
- Flour your hands and begin rolling the balls of dough until you have long ropes that are roughly an inch in width.
- With a sharp knife, cut the ropes of dough into gnocchi that are one inch in size.
- Take a fork and hold it at a 45-degree angle against a work surface. Take each gnocco (the singular form of gnocchi is gnocco) and roll it down the back of the fork. As you do this you will see that the gnocchi take on the ridged impression of the fork.
- As you roll the gnocchi, place them on a tray that has been covered with a dish cloth and sprinkled with flour. Once all your gnocchi have been cut and rolled, place the tray in the refrigerator.
- Put a large pot of water to boil. Once it comes to the boil, salt the water generously. Remove the gnocchi from the refrigerator and cook them all at once or in batches, depending on the size of your pot.
- The gnocchi are cooked when they rise to the top of the water.
- Serve the gnocchi with the sauce of your choosing.
Note: This recipe serves 4.
Many Italians will protest that authentic potato gnocchi should never be made with egg. They should only be made with potato, flour and salt. The fact is that many people in Italy use egg or egg yolk in their gnocchi dough. While I usually make gnocchi without egg, I decided to publish the recipe that includes egg for those that have not made gnocchi before. The egg helps bind the dough.
If you want to make gnocchi without the egg, omit the egg and for every 1-1/2 pounds of potato, use 1-1/2 cups of flour.
For the Gnocchi alla Bava:
- one recipe of potato gnocchi
- 6 tablespoons butter, diced
- 4 ounces Fontina cheese, diced
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese (more if you really like parmigiano!)
- salt to taste
- Place the butter and Fontina cheese in a pan large enough to accommodate the gnocchi.
- As soon as the gnocchi are cooked, drain them and put them in the pan with the butter and Fontina. Sprinkle on the parmigiano.
- Carefully toss the the gnocchi until the butter, Fontina and parmigiano have melted and the gnocchi are coated. Taste the gnocchi, add salt if necessary.
- Serve immediately and sprinkle with more parmigiano if desired.