Cooking is alive and well!
Just when I had begun to despair that only certified foodies are interested in cooking these days, along came these three lovely young women. Meet the Knight Cooks: Isabelle, Emma and Lydia. They asked me to teach them to cook.
They are seniors at the Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge (sports team=knights) and have time on their hands. The school, in an inspired stroke of genius, cancels classes for seniors at the end of their last spring term. Seniors are invited, or should I say, required, to design their own program, which can include just about anything legal and in some way educational. (My son wanted flying lessons when it was his turn; nice try, honey!) Lydia, Emma and Isabelle will spend Monday mornings in my kitchen cooking up their own agenda.
First day out: gnocchi. Now these are some sopheesticated ladies! When I was their age I barely knew the difference between a ding-dong and a twinkie. My fallback was a penchant for coffee éclairs in the lah-dee-dah department. You could find them at the bakery; it never would have occurred to me to make them myself.
Times have changed. Our kids have expanded their palates because they eat out much, much more than my bra-burning generation did. When we left home, many of us eschewed the kitchen. I vowed on my college application that I would not under any circumstances stay home and make jello. Really! I actually wrote that. Ha ha, guess what I’ve been doing for the last eighteen years? Still, by my scientific calculation, I bet only about one-third of my peers actually cooks. I don’t know how the rest of them survive, but I’ll venture that there is a major dependency on Chinese. And their kids are mostly clueless.
Not my girls. They are in it for the long haul. I should note right here that two of their three mothers cook on a regular basis (congratulations moms!) and the third mom cooks on occasion (she works non-stop, so a helper does some of the cooking.) In other words, they come from families where cooking is the norm and more importantly, eating together is a priority. As I am well aware from my own experience, these moms and these kids do not have too much time to work together in the kitchen. Which is where I come in. And I’m loving it! People voluntarily wanting to cook something! How great is that?
Over the next several weeks I will keep you up to date on our adventures. I decided to introduce the Knight Cooks to gnocchi with a French twist (learned from my mentor Bernard). It combines pâte à chou (cream puff dough) with mashed potatoes, and necessitates the use of a pastry bag. Three lessons in one. These are feathery light, with a hint of density from the potatoes that you can sink your teeth into. The pastry bag method is sweet—it takes about one fourth of the time than hand-rolled gnocchi. However, with four pairs of hands, shaping goes pretty quickly, so we tried both methods. We topped them with a simple tomato sauce and some Parmesan, but you could douse them in a bit of brown butter and sage as well.
Gnocchi With a French Twist
2 pounds (3 to 4 medium) russet potatoes (Idaho baking potatoes), unpeeled
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in pieces
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
Sage butter (see below)
Parmesan cheese for grating
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Cut the potatoes in half if they are large and place them in a large saucepan. Cover them with cold water and set the pan over medium heat. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until they are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and peel the potatoes while they are still hot. Break them in pieces and spread them on a baking sheet. Put them in the oven to dry for 4 to 5 minutes. (The dryness is what keeps the gnocchi light.)
3. Meanwhile, combine the butter, milk and salt in a medium saucepan and bring the milk to a rolling boil over high heat. When the butter has melted, remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until well mixed. Return the pan to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 1 minute.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and stir for 2 to 3 minutes to cool the mixture slightly. Beat in the eggs one at a time, incorporating the first egg completely before adding the second one. The dough will separate and look slippery, but it will come back together. It will be stiff and sticky.
5. Fill a large pot with about 3 inches of water and bring it to a boil. Adjust the heat to a simmer.
6. Remove the potatoes from the oven and transfer them to a large bowl. Mash with a potato masher until no longer lumpy, or pass them through a potato ricer. Do not overmix or the potatoes will become gummy. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup flour, and when it is incorporated, stir in the eggy dough.
6. Set a large, warm platter or some pasta bowls next to the stove. Add a large pinch of salt to the simmering water. Fit a pastry bag with a 5/8-inch tip and fill it with the gnocchi mixture. Start by cooking a test gnocchi. Set the bag so that the tip rests on the edge of the pan. Squeeze the bag with one hand and, holding a paring knife in the other, cut through the snake of dough to make a 1-inch gnocchi. When the gnocchi rises to the top, fish it out of the water with a slotted spoon and taste it. If it falls apart while cooking, you may need to add a little more flour to the dough.
7. Continue to cook the gnocchi in the same manner in batches and without crowding the pan. The gnocchi are done as soon as they rise to the top. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a warm platter or in pasta bowls. Spoon some tomato sauce over the top and sprinkle with Parmesan or serve with sage butter (see recipe, below)
ALTERNATE GNOCCHI SHAPES:
You can also drop the gnocchi into the boiling water by the teaspoonful, or form the gnocchi into the traditional shape. The dough is soft, but can be managed if you use a light touch. Place a handful of dough on a well-floured surface and roll the dough into a rope about 1-inch in diameter. Cut the rope into 1-inch pieces. Flour your hands and shape each piece into an oval. Roll the gnocchi over the back of a fork to make “stripes” from the tines of the fork. Set them on a floured tray until you are ready to cook them.
Set the platter or bowls of gnocchi next to the stove. Melt one tablespoon of butter per person in a small saucepan over medium heat. Pick out the smallest sage leaves and add them to the pan, using about 1 tablespoon per serving. If the leaves are large, chop them. Cook the butter and swirl the pan often, until it begins to brown and smells nutty. Immediately pour it over the gnocchi and top with some grated Parmesan.
Seriously Hungry Girls