Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gnudi April Bloomfield

As I mentioned the other day, I had some gnudi curing in the fridge. For those who haven't had the pleasure, gnudi are soft, rich balls of cheese slathered in brown butter and sprinkled with crispy sage leaves and Parmesan shavings. These little sensual pillows contain no flour, eggs or other binders, so the only way to give them any kind of structural integrity is to actually let them form a thin rind-like skin by curing them in semolina for several days. 

This dish is also the specialty of one my personal heroes, April Bloomfield. Gnudi in this style are served in her Michelin-starred New York watering hole, The Spotted Pig. This is what chef Bloomfield has to say about gnudi (read it in your head with a lilty English accent):

"One day I swear I'm going to take gnudi off the menu at The Pig. We'll probably end up closing down, because it's one of the most popular items on the menu. Yet it might be worth the risk---it's been seven years of sheer hell making these little things....they're so temperamental-sometimes they're ready to cook after a day in the fridge, sometimes it takes two or three. I often jump the gun, cooking them too early and tearing my hair out as I watch them fall apart in the water."

Needless to say, it was with some trepidation that I approached this recipe, but I'm happy to report that I did not tear my hair out, for my gnudi held together beautifully. I'm also not going to precisely annotate this recipe, for it has basically been pilfered wholesale from Chef Bloomfield's book A Girl and Her Pig. If anything, I would like to promote the purchase of this book (or you can borrow mine if you must).

In basic terms, Gnudi are made by combining ricotta cheese with some Parmesan cheese and then piping out long logs of this mixture onto a semolina filled pan that is about an inch deep. Then the log is snipped carefully with scissors every inch and a half or so to form little dumpling-sized balls. They are gently coated in the semolina and then allowed to dry in the fridge for one to three days until there is a strong enough skin on them to hold them together. Once they are ready, it's basically a matter of briefly cooking them in boiling water, transferring them into a pan with a beurre monte (a few ounces of butter emulsified into several tablespoons of salted boiling water until thickened), and then garnished with a drizzle of brown butter along with some crispy sage. Yes, there is a lot of butter in this recipe.

When you bite into one of these you'll encounter oozey warm ricotta in the middle. They are very rich, so any more than five of these and you'll probably start to feel a bit queasy. A crisp and acidic white wine or a really clean, uncluttered pale ale is almost essential to wash down these buttery balls of goodness.

A few notes from the experience:

The humidity level in your fridge is critical here. Bloomfield calls for curing the gnudi under cling wrap, but I found that a lot of moisture formed under the plastic cover and the drying wasn't happening properly, so I just let them dry in the fridge uncovered.

Chef Bloomfield suggests using sheep's milk ricotta for it's tangier flavour. I will vouch for this. I used cow's milk ricotta and found that the finished product, while sublimely delicious, probably would have been just that bit more over the top with a tangier cheese.

Browning butter is not something to be rushed. The French call it beurre noisette. I've never been one to experiment much with browning butter but it is more or less essential for this dish. In a small sauce pan on a medium heat, melt a good three tablespoons of butter and whirl it around in the pan as it warms. It will start to smell nutty and turn brown. Take it too far and it turns black with little bits of scorched milk fat suspended in it - not the desired effect. So in conclusion, like most things in life, brown your butter slowly and carefully.

Finally, I would like to take this dish a bit further. I suppose sullying the recipe with additional ingredients will render 'gnudi' a bit of a misnomer given that it is the Italian word for naked, connoting the minimalism of the recipe. However, I know of a Tuscan dish called gnocchi del Casentino that provides my inspiration for altering the purity of gnudi somewhat. The Casetino mountain range in Northern Italy is home to many monasteries. The monks that inhabit them are known to collect the wild bitter greens that grow on the hillsides, such as wild chicory and dandelion and incorporate them into their ricotta dumplings. These dumplings use flour and egg to bind, making them more of a traditional gnocchi, but what if I was to incorporate some finely chopped greens into a gnudi? Creamy cheese balls peppered with emerald flecks? How could I not try? This, of course, would alter the delicate chemistry that assures the structural integrity of the cheese, but how well-lived is a life that doesn't occasionally digress from the stipulations of a recipe? In this case, I say carpe diem, and let the cards fall where they will. 

Results to be announced.

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