A huge part of what I know about cooking came from watching my mother in the kitchen. That’s not to say my father doesn’t cook – he does, but my mother has a certain fluidity and ease of movement about her which, as a child, was very comforting to watch. On the other hand, if you hung around the kitchen too long while my Dad was cooking, you’d get caught up in a flurried exhibition of every pot and pan in the house and invariably end up as the kitchen porter, washing every dish he used.
The rest of what I know, or what I aspire to be, comes from watching countless hours of cookery programmes. The cynical voices in my head remind me you can’t believe everything you see, and that TV, with its editing and retakes and giant teams of behind-the-scenes crew, is not a realistic representation of a real-life kitchen. No matter how easy they make something look, the chances are it’s not easy and it’s taken hours of practice to get it looking that perfect.
All of this has led me to a certain level of competence that lacks adventure. I’d love to be able to do the things which would have been exotic during my childhood but are boringly basic and ubiquitous now. Like make my own pasta. And what better time to try than the first Italian Cuisine in the World Week? Well, actually, the fundamental flaw in this plan is that I don’t own a pasta maker-rolly-out-machine thingy. (Have you seen the price of those things?) So instead, with a firm grasp on my typically Irish love of the potato, I decided to have a go at making gnocchi.
Now, at this point, I hold my hands up and admit that this is not a happy-ending story. If you’re looking for a good recipe for gnocchi, this is not it. But I decided to write about my experience because I think sometimes we need reminding that it’s ok to fail. To try something new is brave, and to fail gives us the wisdom to improve. Although I would have loved to plaster the internet with pretty pictures of my delicious-looking gnocchi, and congratulate myself on my talents, I think it would have been disingenuous not to reveal the whole truth about what happened, and to warn you of the perils of making your own gnocchi.
Dramatic much? Joking aside, I do think it’s important to remember that failure is an inevitable part of life. The trick is not to let it influence how you continue from there.
So here’s how it all went wrong. Firstly, I scoured the internet for recipes, of which there are many. They all varied slightly, too. Some used eggs, others forbade the use of eggs as it’s not authentic. Some boiled potatoes, some baked the potatoes, but absolutely all of them agreed that it was easy. Some recipes looked very long and complicated, but then I found a gem that I could get on board with, a recipe posted by Anna on All Recipes. It had 3 ingredients and 3 instructions, and it had received hundreds of good reviews.
However, I’m not so naïve that I think a 3-step recipe can encapsulate all the experiments and experience of hundreds of people creating a centuries-old meal. So I took into account the suggestions from other cooks – bake the potatoes instead of boiling them; if you do boil them, cook them with their skins on, so they don’t absorb too much water; let the potatoes cool completely before adding the flour so that they don’t take on too much flour; don’t use too much flour or the gnocchi will be chewy; and don’t handle the dough too much or it becomes gummy. It all sounded like there were plenty of hurdles at which I could fall clumsily in a heap, perilously close to the phone and takeaway menu drawer.
Now, Anna’s recipe said to peel and boil the potatoes. I decided to follow the other advice and bake them with their skins on. Anna also suggests using 2 potatoes and 2 cups of flour, but this doesn’t take into account the size of the potatoes. After some more internet investigation, I gleaned the general rule of thumb is to weigh the amount of potatoes and flour, and use 1 part flour to 4 parts potato. I also gathered that, while not terribly authentic, a beginner would find it easier to use an egg, so I decided to opt for the eggy version.
I did everything they said. I baked my potatoes. They were possibly the best baked potatoes I’d ever made in my life. Almost seemed like a waste to scoop the flesh out of the crispy skins and mash it up. Anyway, I did it. I mashed the potatoes finely and spread them out thinly to cool. Then I weighed the potatoes (there was 1lb) and calculated that I’d need 4oz of flour, which I sprinkled over the potatoes. Instinct and experience told me not to add all the flour at once – it’s easy to add more if you need it, but difficult to take out. I made a well in the centre and cracked an egg into it. Gently, I brought everything together, adding flour as needed, and kneading and folding the dough with a soft touch until it became a soft fluffy ball. I was thrilled. It looked just like it had in the pictures I’d seen: soft and airy, and not too dense.
Next I cut slices off and rolled them into snakes, cutting off little pillows that measured about 1cm. When I had done this with all of the dough, I rolled them around in a bit of flour. Then, squeezing each little pillow between my thumb and a fork, I gave each one a ridged impression. They looked beautiful and I congratulated myself on a job well done. I even called Husband over to admire my handiwork and told him we’d be having gnocchi every week from now on.
Look how pretty
And so unfolded the tragedy. I had spoken too soon. I gently placed each individual gnocco into a pot of salted boiling water, knowing that they were ready as soon as they floated. They floated immediately. That didn’t seem right. So I gave them a few minutes. When I went back to strain them 5 minutes later they had all fallen apart. I tried not to lose hope. Maybe it would be ok once they were strained. It wasn’t. Basically, I had created boiled mashed potato. Luckily, I had a jar of delicious pesto rosso from Genovese Foods to stir into my potato mush and actually, the taste was good. Nice and potato-ey, and not that gross gloopy papier-mâché taste of flour mixed with water. Husband put on a brave face and made some yummy noises. But still, there was no hiding the fact that we were eating a ball of sticky potatoes with pesto stirred through.
The problem was that I didn’t know where I’d gone wrong. I’d been so careful with each step of the process. So, I turned to my good friend Google, knower of everything. I reckoned it was one of three possible problems:
I didn’t use enough flour
I didn’t knead the dough enough
I overcooked them
Trawling through even more recipes on the internet, I came to the conclusion that I had been too gentle with the dough and in my cautious efforts not to overwork it, I had in fact underworked it. The result was that, as soon as it hit the hot water, the dough just fell apart.
So there you go. If I can offer you any advice, it’s this: don’t be too cautious or you’ll risk underworking the dough. But don’t overwork it either. I guess it’s something that takes a bit of practice, and when I’ve gotten over the disappointment I’ll try it again. For what it's worth, when I do manage to get the hang of it, it'll make a great dinner for Baba, becasue it uses 3 simple wholesome ingredients. For now though, I think I’ll take a trip to my favourite Italian restaurant (La Dolce Vita in Kilmainham), and leave the cooking to someone who knows what they’re doing.