Gnudi: the word is almost as much fun to roll around your mouth as gnudi themselves, also known as malfatti, thanks to their rustic appearance, and “ricotta gnocchi” – although, in truth, the resemblance between the two dumplings is largely visual. Gnocchi have a starchy base, such as potato or flour, while gnudi are, at their simplest, little more than featherlight clouds of fluffy fresh ricotta, often dressed with nothing fancier than melted butter.
In fact the Florentine term gnudi, or naked, refers to their resemblance to ravioli minus the pasta: the famous restaurateur Alvaro Maccioni claimed that they’re “very popular with people on a diet or those who think that pasta is fattening” – but presumably not butter or parmesan cheese.
Happily, they’re considerably easier to make than either ravioli or gnocchi, so if you’re yet to sample the pleasures of the naked lunch, or indeed dinner, throw caution to the wind and dive in.
Simplicity: vice or virtue?
April Bloomfield, the Brummie-born chef whose New York gastropub The Spotted Pig is known for its gnudi, writes in her book, A Girl and Her Pig, that one day she’ll take them off the menu and “we’ll probably end up closing down”. However, she goes on, “it might be worth the risk – it’s been seven years of sheer hell making these little things”. This is, I suspect, because, unlike Maccioni’s recipe in his book Alvaro’s Mamma Toscana, which uses flour to bring the ingredients together into “a fairly compact mixture, the consistency of potato puree”, or the Canna family, whose recipe using breadcrumbs is included in Lori De Mori and Jason Lowe’s Beaneaters & Bread Soup, Bloomfield’s gnudi contain no binding starch. This makes them fairly soft, fragile little things: the secret is, apparently, to cover them in semolina to draw out moisture, creating a thin skin just firm enough to hold them together in the pan. It’s a delicate process, but compared with Maccioni’s rather stodgy, gnocchi-like version, they’re wonderfully wobbly and light; almost like the freshest of cottage cheeses.
Stevie Parle is also a fan of the flour-free method, perhaps unsurprisingly, because he’s done stints in the kitchen at both the Spotted Pig and the River Cafe, which also advocates it in their Classic Italian Cookbook. Diana Henry, whose new book How to Eat a Peach, introduced me to the delights of gnudi, uses just a handful – useful if you want to cook the gnudi immediately, but if you can bear to wait a few days, be brave and leave it out, along with the accompanying eggs.
Gnudi, in fact, should be all about the ricotta, that mildest of cheeses whose sweet, milky flavour is so easily lost underneath other, more assertive ingredients. Bloomfield encourages readers to seek out sheep’s milk ricotta: “I like the gentle acidity it has. But as long as you use really moist, soft, creamy ricotta, you can get away with using one made with cow’s milk”. The Cannas and the River Cafe are also fans, but having ordered some online, I find I prefer the creamier flavour of the fresh cow’s milk ricotta, though the dryer consistency of this particular sheep’s milk cheese does have something to recommend it.
Henry warns against the UHT versions commonly found in supermarkets, which tend to be wetter and also rather bland: I’d strongly advocate seeking out some good stuff for this, because it’s the main attraction (Italian delis will often stock it, and it’s easily found online). It’s vital to leave the cheese to drain for at least half an hour before use – though if you can’t fit it in the fridge for this part of the process, I’d recommend chilling the mixture before shaping as per the River Cafe recipe: the firmer, the better for rolling.
Spinach and ricotta is a classic pairing in Italian cooking, and Henry’s recipe proves why: the leaves bring a ferrous edge to the delicate sweetness of the cheese, though I’m also very taken with Parle’s peas, especially with the generous amounts of parmesan in his version. The perfect recipe below is a plain one, but if you want to experiment, be sure to cook and then finely chop or puree whatever you’re using, draining it thoroughly before adding it to the cheese you’ve just spent half an hour removing the moisture from. You could also add a bolder flavouring, such as Henry’s sauteed onion, or even garlic or chilli, but to me it seems a shame to distract from the subtle pleasures of ricotta.
That said, the rather less shy and retiring parmesan is a crucial ingredient in gnudi (the Cannas use pecorino, but my testers prefer the richer, sweeter flavour of its better-known cousin), though you can have too much of a good thing. Without the peas to balance it, the vast quantities in Parle’s recipe would drown out all the other flavours, while Bloomfield’s are almost too restrained, demanding a liberal sprinkle of extra cheese on top: I’ve gone for a happy medium.
Henry’s nutmeg brings another dimension to her gnudi, adding a gentle warmth, as opposed to the heat of black pepper, and a sweetness that echoes those in both cheeses. If you dislike it, however, use pepper instead, or indeed leave out the spice altogether: it won’t spoil the dish.
Shaping and chilling
Bloomfield suggests piping the mixture into lines, then cutting off individual pieces to roll, a strategy that no doubt saves time in a busy professional kitchen, but proves needlessly complicated in mine – even the ice-cream scoop alternative from J Kenji López–Alt on Serious Eats feels like an unnecessary faff when all you need is a teaspoon and a clean, damp pair of hands (Henry reckons they work better than floured hands, and I’m inclined to agree – they’re easier to clean, too).
I prefer the grittier texture of semolina to the flour she, Maccioni and the Cannas roll the balls in before cooking, though, having eschewed any starch in the mixture itself, they’ll need to chill for three days first in order to develop that all-important protective skin (a process that I discover from bitter experience works better when the gnudi are fully submerged in semolina rather than simply coated in it).
Bloomfield explains that gnudi are “temperamental – sometimes they’re ready to cook after a day in the fridge, sometimes it takes two or three”, but that it’s better to be safe than sorry: “it’s easy to get right, as long as you give them three days… but not much longer, or the skin will get too dense”. If you’d prefer to eat sooner, note that Henry’s versions require only an hour’s chilling time.
It’s important to keep the saucepan at a gentle simmer, so its precious cargo isn’t unnecessarily jostled as it cooks. You can, like Maccioni, use stock rather than water as a medium, but again, I think they’re better plain.
I try a variety of accompaniments, from the Canna’s mutton ragù to Bon Appetit’s tomato sauce and Parle’s agretti. All are delicious, but the simplest proves the most popular: Henry and Bloomfield’s butter sauces allow the gnudi to shine in all their bare naked glory. And very fine they look, too.
Prep 15 min
Drain 30 min
Chill 3 days
Cook 5 min
50g parmesan, finely grated, plus extra to serve
Nutmeg, to grate
8 sage leaves
Put the ricotta in a sieve or muslin bag set above a bowl and leave to drain, preferably in the fridge, for at least 30 minutes, then stir in the parmesan and a really generous grating of nutmeg. Taste and season with a pinch of salt if necessary.
Put about a fifth of the semolina in a small bowl, and tip half the rest into a medium container or baking dish. Scoop out portions of the ricotta about the size of a small walnut, then roll them between damp hands until smooth and vaguely round.
Roll each ball in turn in the bowl of semolina to coat, then arrange them spaced out in the container or dish. Once all the gnudi are made and on their bed of semolina, tip the remaining semolina all over the top to submerge them, cover and chill for three days.
When you’re ready to cook, put the butter, sage leaves and 75ml hot water into a wide shallow pan, heat until the butter has melted, stir to combine and set aside.
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a boil. Cook the gnudi in batches, shaking off excess semolina first, and stirring gently and only once after dropping them in, until they float to the surface. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and transfer to the pan with the butter. Once they’re all in there, turn the heat back on and cook gently for a couple of minutes, shaking the pan gently to turn them in the butter.
Divide between shallow bowls and finish with a final grating of nutmeg and asprinkle of parmesan.