For total comfort, embrace these easy, potato-free gnocchi

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Posted: Oct 15, 2015 3:20 PM
For total comfort, embrace these easy, potato-free gnocchi

You probably associate gnocchi with the Italian dumplings made from potatoes. Making that kind of gnocchi takes time and patience and is not something most people would undertake on a weeknight.

But potato gnocchi aren't the only kid on the gnocchi block. There are several other varieties, including a ricotta-based type and a batter-based one, the latter of which starts with a batter similar to the one French cream puffs and eclairs are made from. That's the one I'll teach you here. But there are a few things to keep in mind when preparing these gnocchi.

Typically, cream puff dough — also known as pate a choux — starts with a pot of boiling water. Here, I am substituting chicken broth and milk for the water, which give the gnocchi a nice savory flavor. After the flour is dumped in, you need to work quickly and aggressively with a wooden spoon to beat the mixture until it is smooth. Don't worry if you get a few tiny lumps of flour in the dough; they will get worked out when you add the eggs and beat the dough with electric beaters.

Once you have successfully incorporated the flour it takes no time at all to finish cooking the paste, just a few minutes until it pulls away from the sides of the pan.

The next step is adding the eggs. It is important to cool down the paste a bit by beating it before you add the eggs so they don't scramble the second they hit it. The usual directions tell you to add the eggs one at a time, but I prefer to beat them together first, then add the beaten eggs in three batches instead. It is very hard to add an egg one a time if you are holding hand beaters with one hand.

Once the eggs are in, it is time to add the seasonings, in this case spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Simple. Your dough is made.

The rest of the procedure is straightforward. The dough gets dumped in small amounts into boiling water, cooked briefly and finished in the oven with cream and cheese. If you happen to own a 1/8 cup ice cream scoop that would be the perfect tool for dropping the dough into the water. If you don't, a tablespoon is fine, just make sure to dip it into hot water each time before you scoop up the dough and mound the dough well on top of the spoon before sliding it into the water (the hot water on the spoon helps the dough to slide off easily).

The gnocchi can be made ahead and chilled. Just let them sit at room temperature for about an hour so they can warm up a bit, then top them with the cream and cheese and bake them off. This is the essence of comfort food; your family will love you.

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BAKED SPINACH GNOCCHI WITH PARMESAN CREAM SAUCE

Start to finish: 1 hour 10 minutes (50 minutes active)

Servings: 4

11-ounce package baby spinach

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth, divided

1/2 cup whole milk

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup (4 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, beaten lightly

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 ounce finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) coarsely grated Gruyere cheese

Pour 1/3 cup water into a 12-inch skillet. Top it with the spinach, then set over high heat. Cook, covered and stirring occasionally, until the spinach is wilted, about 5 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a colander and run cold water over it to cool it. Working with a handful at a time, squeeze the spinach with your hands over the sink to remove excess water. Finely chop the spinach; you should have about 1/2 cup packed. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup of the chicken broth, the milk and the butter and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, add the flour and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until smooth. Return the pan to medium heat and cook the paste, stirring, until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and leaves a thin film in the bottom of the pan, 1 to 2 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and, using an electric mixer, beat the mixture for a few minutes to cool it down. Add the eggs, a third of the mixture at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the salt, pepper, nutmeg and reserved spinach.

Heat the oven to 425 F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Lightly butter a 9-by-9-inch shallow baking dish or gratin dish.

Working in batches of 8 at a time, drop walnut-size balls of the dough into the water, using either a small 1/8-cup ice cream scoop or a tablespoon (you will need to mound the dough if using a tablespoon), dipped in warm water each time. Maintain the temperature of the water at a simmer and cook the gnocchi for 3 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the boiled gnocchi, shaking off the excess water, to the buttered baking dish. Repeat with the remaining dough.

In a small bowl, mix together the remaining chicken broth and the heavy cream, then pour the mixture over the gnocchi. Sprinkle both cheeses over the top and bake on the oven's upper shelf until the liquid has reduced slightly and is bubbling around the edges, about 15 minutes. Increase the heat to broil and broil the gnocchi until the top is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Serve right away.

Nutrition information per serving: 610 calories; 380 calories from fat (62 percent of total calories); 43 g fat (25 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 290 mg cholesterol; 820 mg sodium; 31 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 26 g protein.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."