Comforting, buttery and laced with cheese, the baked dumplings called gnocchi alla Romana have the same cozy-food feel as potato gnocchi or polenta, but are crazy easy to make. That is, they don’t require you to cook mush for three hours or roll little nuggets across fork tines (or that you be a Nonna). All you have to do for gnocchi alla Romana is make a batter, cool it down, cut it into pieces, and bake them. In fact, you can make this traditional Roman dish ahead of time and simply pop it the oven come dinner.
Use them as you would gnocchi—simply, with a sauce—or polenta, as a bed for a stew or even roasted or grilled meats and vegetables. Enriched with butter, egg yolk, and a shower of Parmesan cheese, and you’ll have a tender, satisfying canvas for just about any flavor. Once you’ve got them on hand, you can top these puppies with anything you want, from leftover Bolognese to black beans and Cojita cheese (see more nifty ideas below).
Gnocchi alla Romana
Semolina flour (made from durum wheat) isn’t too hard to find, but it’s not necessarily in every supermarket. If you’re having trouble finding it, check with a health food store or wherever they carry Bob’s Red Mill or other milled products.
The addition of the bay leaf and the lemon zest are optional (and not traditional) but I think a teeny hint of bay adds intrigue and the lemon brightens the dish for spring and summer.
Serves 4 -6
2½ cups milk
6 tablespoons butter, plus 2 tablespoons for buttering the pan
1½ teaspoons salt
1 bay leaf
1 cup semolina flour
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese plus 1 cup for sprinkling
2 egg yolks
Zest from 1 lemon, grated
1) Season the milk and prep the pan
In a large, wide pot, warm the milk, the 6 tablespoons butter, salt and bay leaf over medium-high heat (you’ll want to evaporate as much of the liquid as possible and this will happen faster in a wider pot). When the milk starts to bubble and foam around the edges, remove the bay leaf and turn the heat down to medium-low.
While the milk is heating up, butter a jellyroll pan or baking dish that has sides at least ½” high. You’ll be spreading the cooked semolina mixture into the pan and you want it to be about ½” thick. A 9½” x 13” tray is the perfect size for this recipe.
2) Add the semolina to the milk and COOK IT
Start whisking the milk, and slowly and evenly pour in the semolina. Keep whisking the whole time you’re adding the semolina to prevent clumping that will get in the way of the smooth, creamy texture of your finished dish.
Once the semolina is incorporated, switch to a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and start stirring the mixture over medium-low heat. It will start to get really thick and pull away from the sides of the pan after about 1 minute. Even though your arm is going to be tired, keep beating around the stiff mixture and cook for about 2 minutes more. In order to get the cakes to stiffen, you need to cook out most of the moisture from the dough. Some people cook the dough for up to 20 minutes, but I think that’s crazy talk. After a couple of minutes or when your arm gives out, turn the heat off.
Quickly add the ½ cup of Parmesan cheese and the egg yolks to the mixture and stir until they’re fully incorporated.
3) Dump, spread and set
Plop the entire lot into the buttered pan and using a rubber spatula, immediately begin spreading the mixture into the pan. The dough might be sticky or start to set up, so keep a glass of water nearby to dip the spatula every time you start to stick when spreading. Work like you’ve got a deadline.
Put the pan in the refrigerator to cool for at least 1 hour.
4) Cut, layer and cook
If you’re serving the gnocchi soon, pre-heat the oven to 375° F.
Cut the cooled dough into pieces, any shape you like. Some people punch out circles, but I like to cut diamonds or squares so that no dough goes to waste. Lay the shapes into a baking dish and make them look pretty by shingling the pieces.
Cover the cakes with Parmesan cheese and bake for about 30-40 minutes or until the top is brown and bubbly. Sprinkle on freshly grated lemon zest just before serving.
These semolina cakes are also delicious when pan-fried. Instead of baking, warm a little bit of oil in a shallow pan and brown each cake. Top with Parmesan before serving.
Or ease up on the Parmesan and consider these other great toppings:
- Goat cheese, sautéed spinach and mushrooms
- Red grapes, freshly chopped thyme and feta cheese
- Caramelized onions, bacon and Gruyere
- Black beans, cheddar cheese and thinly sliced jalapenos
- Cherry tomatoes, freshly chopped basil and mozzarella
- Slices of prosciutto and béchamel sauce