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Charity’s Column: Gnocchi quest

The struggle to acquire a skill can be a powerful motivation, and when it comes to gnocchi, the pillowy Italian dumplings made with potato, flour, eggs and cheese, my struggle is real.

When they are good, they are ethereal puffs. When they are bad they can’t be chewed, or they disintegrate. Often, I’ve fallen short making gnocchi. And I can’t even pronounce the word.

Fortunately, I’m located in a gnocchi neighborhood. You know how ads for summer rentals always say the place is “steps away” from the beach? My place is steps away from good homemade gnocchi, and in Shelter Island’s vacation rental market that could be worth something. Sixto Coronel is the chef at Isola, our neighborhood joint, and he makes tender gnocchi, including a fantastic version with mushrooms in brown butter and sage. House-made gnocchi also appears regularly on the menu at 18 Bay, and other fine-dining establishments on the Island. But not mine.

Gnocchi turns out to be easy to make if you know how to do it, and almost impossible if you don’t. I’m firmly in the second category, mounting an occasional attempt to make it, retreating in ignominy when it doesn’t work.

I started by trying a recipe in a newspaper. It was short, easy to follow, but I had no idea how the dough was supposed to look. The gnocchi were edible, but they didn’t look right — more like pillowcases than fluffy pillows.

Then I tried a recipe in one of my cookbooks. It was five pages long, with luscious photos and expensive ingredients that required access to a sheep. The dumplings dissolved in the boiling water like egg drop soup.

I started asking friends who were expert Italian cooks, and realized it’s a sign of trouble when you hear the words “just like my mother’s,” a phrase that is shorthand for “you will never be able to make this properly because you are not my mother.”

I heard that Cristina Cosentino makes great gnocchi, and when I asked her how, she described the techniques she acquired watching her Italian grandmother. “The area that my nonna is from is Avelino, so it’s not light fluffy gnocchi, it’s a dense kind and you roll it with your thumb like an orecchiette. It’s not flat, but indented and very rustic. It holds the sauce. They are really good.”  Of course, they are. Just like your grandmother’s.

My husband is not even sure he likes gnocchi. He’s never eaten the kind of magical dumplings that fall from the fingers of Italian grannies. Most of the gnocchi he’s eaten are my feeble attempts.

Unable to get myself adopted by an Italian granny, I decided to rent one by signing up for a class. My husband said he heard me on the phone trying to convince a friend that we should take a class together “to learn to make nookie.”

She didn’t understand what I was talking about either. Subsequently I’ve learned that the correct pronunciation is “nyow-kee” an Italian word that means a knot in the wood or a knuckle. The word refers to the size and shape of the dumplings, but is misleading on the consistency, which is closer to marshmallow than wood or bone. 

Last week, after months of planning, I took a 12-hour round trip with a friend who shared my determination to learn how to turn a baked potato into a platter of puffy pasta in an intensive gnocchi lesson.

If you’re wondering who could possibly care enough about learning to make tiny dumplings to drive halfway to Canada, I can say that the class was completely full and there were four people on the waiting list. Two students came from California.

The instructors were patient and kind. They showed us how to make the dough for several kinds of gnocchi. I had not previously been aware that there was more than one kind. They watched me make the dough and they showed me when I needed to add more flour. I made scores of dumplings using forks, my hands and a wooden device that looked like a washboard for a Barbie doll. They didn’t say anything about my apparent lack of an Italian mother.

I returned from gnocchi class with new recipes heavily annotated, a revived spirit and much better at the pronunciation of Italian nouns. I ate an enormous number of gnocchi while learning, so I’ll need a few days to digest before I try again, but I will try.