Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gnocchi alla Romana


For several months now, I've been cooking with Elena, my adopted Italian nonna. This week at my request, we made gnocchi alla romana. Unlike these gnocchi which are made from potato, Roman style gnocchi are made from semolina and baked. They have butter, milk and parmesan so they are not light in calories, but no one says you have to eat the whole batch.

Elena came over during Roman's nap so we could have the kitchen to ourselves. I had to lie down with him to get him to stay asleep at one point, and she continued on in the kitchen. From the dark bedroom I could hear her whisking away on the stove and I lay there thinking how nice it felt to have a grandma in my kitchen, even if she's not really "mine." To have a female companion at all in the kitchen is something that is pretty foreign to me. I could very well figure out all of these recipes on my own, but it's a cozy feeling to have an older woman spending time in my kitchen.

These are moments that are usually passed from grandmother to granddaughter, or mother to daughter. I'm lucky that Elena has taken a liking to me and seems to look forward to our Thursday meetings with even greater anticipation that I do. After all, her own busy family doesn't seem to have much time to spend with her.

Our conversation drifts from my weekend trips outside Rome to our upcoming move and then to family, and the past. She tells me that by the time she was 37, she had three kids and was suddenly alone with them when her husband died. She was very in love with him but they had a bad marriage, she says. He talked very little to her and she never understood why. This is why she says she never remarried, because although she loved him, she was skeptical that she would find a man who would be good company for her. She wonders out loud if solitudine is not better. I tell her we all feel alone sometimes, even if we are married. In the end, we are. It reassures me to see a woman who did not have an easy life but who is still upbeat and carries on with a good spirit.

I had never used semolina in a savory dish before. It occurs to me that we call this "cream of wheat" in the States and usually eat it as a hot breakfast cereal, which I love. Called semolino in Italian, this durum wheat is used to make factory bought pasta. Here in Italy (and other countries for that matter) it is also used in desserts, and I am eager to experiment with more recipes using it.

Gnocchi alla Romana
courtesy of Elena

You can serve these as a first course on their own so that you can enjoy their full flavor and texture. They are a distinct comfort food, with a slightly creamy yet savory flavor from the parmesan. The crispy exterior and firm but smooth interior gives them a uniqueness that should not be covered up with a sauce.

1 liter part skim or 2% milk (about 4 cups)
175 grams semolina (1 cup)
1 teaspoon salt (go sparingly and taste before proceeding to step 2.)
55 grams butter (1/4 cup)
1 egg yolk
85 grams parmesan (3 ounces)
freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/2 teaspoon

1. Heat the milk to luke warm in a heavy bottomed pan. Pour the semolina in slowly while whisking to avoid lumps. Add the salt and continue to stir with a whisk or wooden spoon as the milk comes to a light boil and the semolina is slightly stiff, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, half the parmesan and egg yolk.

2. Spread the gnocchi mixture onto a flat surface (I used a jelly roll pan) into a layer about 1 1/2 cm thick and allow to cool completely.

3. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 c). Cut rounds using an espresso cup or small biscuit or cookie cutter. Knead all the scraps together and use to make rounds so you don't waste any of the dough. Butter a baking dish at least 13 x 9 in size and place the rounds so they overlap slightly. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan and then bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Cool for about 5 minutes before serving.

If you are serving fewer than four people, I recommend freezing some of the gnocchi before baking. Then put them straight into the oven from the freezer without defrosting.


  1. Nicole:
    This is a very special recount of your Thursdays with your adopted nonna. It brings up memories of many many times spent in the kitchen. In our house there were a lot of women: 2 nonnas, my mamma, my sorella (sister) and many zias (aunts). Cooking has been a way for generations for women to gather, talk, share and be together, as companions. And the kitchen has always been the heart of the house, for women especially. It is so wonderful that you are discovering what female bonding is through these cooking moments.
    And of course, i adore gnocchi di semolino (in Italian it's masculine, btw). How did Roman like them? My kids adore semolino as a comfort food. Sometimes I make it for dinner with a sprinkle of parmigiano. They like it even more than the gnocchi di simolino version.
    Buona Pasqua cara!

  2. Hi Amelia! Roman loved them!!! He couldn't get enough of them, Elena and I were laughing because they were so hot and he didn't want to wait for them to cool! Auguri di Buona Pasqua!

  3. These sound delicious, and so much less work than potato gnocchi. I love dumplings- I'm making dumplings of another type today, matzoh balls to catch the tail end of Passover. I hope that we'll be able to cook together this summer.

  4. I love the stories you tell about cooking with Elena. I think we should all adopt a nonna if ours isn't nearby, or a nonno. It would teach us a lot and help the many elderly people living alone feel a little less lonely. I made gnocchi alla romana a while back to post about but never did because my photos were terrible. Nothing like yours.
    P.S. Yaaaay, finally I can comment again. I wrote you several comments in the past week and never managed to publish them. Just so you know I never skip a post.

  5. Hi Nuts about Food! I am not sure why but sometimes I also have problems with Google commenting on your blog! Then other times it lets me comment with no problem. Hmmm....
    Anyway, these gnocchi are so simple and kids seem to really love them. Always a plus!

  6. I should never visit here on an empty stomach, but I can't help it. It's such a treat, the recipes and stories.

  7. Amuse-bouche, Thank you :) I'm glad you're enjoying!!

  8. Superbe cette transmission de ta nonna d'adoption... j'ai rajouté ta recette sous mon billet de gnocchi à la romaine tellement qu'elle est belle!
    Nous sommes seuls même en couple, oui


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