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Planning a romantic dinner for two this Valentines Day? My advice is to begin with an entrรฉe so good that it either sets the standard for what’s to follow or redeems any mishaps with the other courses. Created in a food lovers paradise this dish is symbolic of Italy’s affection for cheese. Anyone who’s not scared of cheese and butter should better get their pots and pans out because this Tuscan inspired dish will leave you with the feeling that indeed “Life is beautiful” as you wipe away the last crumb from your lips.

Gnudi (an anglicised term) is kind of like gnocchi except that instead of using potato, these little balls are made from ricotta. In Italy, gnudi is called gnocchi di ricotta a humble dish known to Italians but an exceptional dish to outsiders. While there  are great recipes out there, my variation is a mixture of fresh ricotta and grated parmigiano, combined with semolina flour. The semolina flour not only binds the cheeses together, it also prevents the dainty dumplings from cracking during cooking. After resting in the fridge for some time, the balls are immersed in boiling water for a few minutes, before being scooped out. Next, they are generously coated with course semolina to give the gnudi a crisp golden crumb on the outside, with soft melt in your mouth cheese cushions on the inside when panfried. To add flavour and silkiness, the gnudi are not simply pan fried, but pan fried in a Beurre Noisette which is a French term for a brown butter sauce. The butter is cooked just enough to bring out its nuttiness, whilst infusing with oils from fresh sage leaves to be lovingly spooned again and again, over the delicate gnudi until they transcend into golden nuggets. The gnudi, blanketed in the sage butter sauce are further enhanced with grated parmigiano and served hot.

I believe that this dishes sole intention is to pamper and spoil, so there was no doubt in my mind that this was the starter I had to share for a Valentines triumph. Easy to prepare, with simple, every day ingredients I think the star virtue of this dish is the exquisite way these humble ingredients transform to become something so deliciously refined that when put onto a plate, you’re met with the sheer brilliance of Italian cuisine.

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Ingredients
  • 250g ricotta
  • 50g grated parmesan
  • 75g semolina flour
  • 1/2 cup course semolina
  • leaves of fresh sage
  • pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 40g unsalted butter
  • drop of olive oil
Preparation
  1. In a mixing bowl combine the cheeses with salt and nutmeg and mix until smooth.
    Add fine semolina and combine.
  2. Using the palm of your hands make bite sized gnudi balls from the cheese mixture. The mixture should yield about 12.
  3. Bring one litre of salted water to a rolling boil.
  4. Turn the down the heat, let the water settle and gently place the gnudi inside the water for 4 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile place the course semolina on a plate and spread out.
  6. Using a deep sieve scoop out the gnudi, shake off the excess water and drop the gnudi gently onto the plate of course semolina.
  7. Shake the plate, moving the gnudi around until they are well coated with semolina.
  8. Place the gnudi balls in the fridge for up to 30 minutes.
    After 30 minutes, add half of the butter, oil and sage to a pan on low heat.
  9. Once the butter melts and starts to bubble, turn up the heat to medium.
  10. Add half of the gnudi to the sage butter and fry on each side until golden and crispy coating with the butter sauce at all times. At a certain point the butter will start to take on a nutty aroma indicating that the butter is nicely browned and that the dish is ready. Repeat this step for the remaining batch of gnudi.
  11. Place gnudi on a plate with crispy sage. Blanket with spoonfuls of brown butter.
  12. Grate over parmesan for taste and serve hot.
Maestros Need to Know

*Note that the gnudi are panfried in two batches, this enables each individual dumpling to form a good crisp skin. If you were to overcrowd the pan the butter will start to burn before the all the gnudi have completed frying.

*What ricotta is, is milk proteins that have pulled away from the liquid to produce curd and whey. Essentially milk is heated, and an element of acidity is added to the milk such as vinegar or lemon juice. The citric acid causes the milk to curdle and with time most of the milk proteins separate from the liquid. The milk is then poured into a muslin cloth that sits over a bowl.  Gradually and with time all the liquid drains out completely, leaving only the ricotta behind inside muslin. In my own experience I found that 1 litre of milk yields approximately 250g of ricotta. I also found that vinegar works better than lemon juice because it tends to curdle the proteins faster. While many people insist that low fat milk makes better ricotta, I have never tried using low fat milk, full cream milk works fine for me. If the ricotta is rolled tightly in cling wrap with no air pockets and if the fridge is fairly cold, it can keep up to two weeks. Take note that it can take up to ten hours before all the liquid drains out during the separation process so one has to be patient. Ricotta is used for desserts as well as savoury dishes, but take note that it does tend to have ashy after taste depending on the quality. A very good quality ricotta must be smooth on the tongue and not difficult to swallow.

*Note that in this recipe I have used a drop of olive oil to the butter before melting because   oil helps to prevent butter from browning or burning too quickly. In this recipe I use only a drop of oil, but not too much because essentially the butter must brown to form what the French call a Beurre Noisette. In a traditional Beurre Noisette oil is not used at all because the butter must brown to make a classic buttery sauce that often accompanies a myriad meats and vegetables. Here I have used a drop of oil to prolong the cooking process in order for a good crust to form around the gnudi. If making a traditional butter sauce or beurre noisette it is not common practise to add oil. But in my experience when frying or sautรฉing in a butter sauce, a drop of oil is beneficial.

*Note that the water was heated to a rolling boil and then the temperature was dropped. By dropping the temperature the water will again be quite still, but scalding hot, this will help to cook the gnudi quickly but without breaking the balls. The pressure of the water at rolling boil point can be strong enough to fracture the gnudi so do not forget to lower the heat and allow the water to settle.
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