Thursday, May 14, 2009

Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi with Browned Butter and Sage

When I checked to see what the inaugural challenge for the Daring Cooks was, I just happened to be in San Francisco, the same city where the Zuni Cafe resides. Having never had ricotta gnocchi, I figured I better stop by the restaurant and taste the real thing before I went about trying to make it. I'm really glad I did because I probably would've have been tempted to douse my gnocchi with some type of heavy tomato-based sauce, but what this ultra-light pasta needs is something much more simple. Something like browned butter and sage.

Now I won't lie and say this recipe was simple, because it's not. (And I've tried to simplify the recipe as much as possible here.) You need to drain the ricotta the day before, and then there's this really delicate handling of the gnocchi while forming it that definitely needs a lot of careful attention. But if you do everything correctly, what you'll end up with is so light and fluffy in texture, yet so rich and decadent in taste that you'll be thinking about these long after you've finished your meal. I know I was.

Zuni ricotta gnocchi with browned butter and sage

Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi with Browned Butter and Sage (gnocchi recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)
serves 4 to 6

For the gnocchi:
16 oz. fresh ricotta
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 fresh sage leaves, minced
1/2 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about ¼ cup very lightly packed)
about 1/4 teaspoon salt (a little more if using kosher salt)
all-purpose flour for forming the gnocchi

For the sauce:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 dashes ground nutmeg

The day before you want to make the gnocchi, line a sieve with cheesecloth or paper towels and place the ricotta in the sieve. Cover it and let it drain with a bowl underneath for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.

Place the drained ricotta in a large bowl and mash it as best as you can with a rubber spatula. Add the lightly beaten eggs to the mashed ricotta and stir to combine.

Melt the tablespoon of butter with the chopped sage. Add a little at a time to the ricotta and egg mixture while stirring so that the eggs don't cook. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the salt.

Beat all the ingredients together very well. You should end up with a soft and fluffy batter with no streaks (everything should be mixed in very well).

Fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. When it boils, salt the water generously and keep it at a simmer. You will use this water to test the first gnocchi that you make to ensure that it holds together and that your gnocchi batter isn’t too damp.

In a large, shallow bowl, make a bed of all-purpose flour that’s 1/2" deep.

Using a tablespoon, scoop up about a tablespoon of batter and then holding the spoon at an angle, use your finger tip to gently push the ball of dough from the spoon into the bed of flour.

Use your fingers to very gently dust the gnocchi with flour. Gently pick up the gnocchi and cradle it in your hand rolling it to form it in an oval as best as you can; at no point should you squeeze it. What you’re looking for is an oval lump of sorts that’s dusted in flour and plump.

Gently place your gnocchi in the simmering water. It will sink and then bob to the top. From the time that it bobs to the surface, you want to cook the gnocchi until it’s just firm, about 3 to 5 minutes.

If your gnocchi begins to fall apart, this means that the ricotta cheese was probably still too wet. You can remedy this by beating a teaspoon of egg white into your gnocchi batter. If your gnocchi batter was fluffy but the sample comes out heavy, add a teaspoon of beaten egg to the batter and beat that in. Test a second gnocchi to ensure success.

Line the sheet pan with wax or parchment paper and dust it with flour. Form the rest of your gnocchi and place on the sheet pan. Store the formed gnocchi in the refrigerator for an hour prior to cooking to allow them to firm up.

Zuni ricotta gnocchi

While the gnocchi are in the refrigerator, make the sauce by melting the 1/4 cup of butter in a small saucepan. Continue to cook and stir until it turns a golden brown (if it gets too dark it will become bitter). Remove from heat and add the sage, salt, and nutmeg. Set aside.

Browned butter with sage

In the largest pan or pot that you have (make sure it’s wide), bring at least 2 quarts of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, salt it generously.

Drop the gnocchi into the water one by one. Once they float to the top, cook them for 3 to 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water and gently drop into the butter sauce. Carefully roll in the sauce until coated. Serve immediately.

If you don’t want to cook your gnocchi right away or if you don’t want to cook all of them, you can make them and freeze them. Once they are formed and resting on the flour-dusted, lined tray, place them uncovered in the freezer. Leave them for several hours to freeze. Once frozen, place them in a plastic bag. Remove the air and seal the bag. Return to the freezer. To cook frozen gnocchi, remove them from the bag and place individually on a plate or on a tray. Place in the refrigerator to thaw completely. Cook as directed for fresh gnocchi.

I have to say, if it hadn't been for this Daring Cooks first challenge, I doubt I would've ever ordered the ricotta gnocchi at Zuni Cafe, much less try to make it. (I probably would've gotten the roast chicken with warm bread salad because I've been dying to make it ever since I heard about it.) I'm glad I did, though, if only to broaden my foodie and cooking experiences, and I can't wait to find out what the next month's challenge is.


  1. Looks so good! Glad to know you can make gnocchi without potato flour (which is how I always thought of gnocchi), and I just bought a sage plant, too. I also got mint, rosemary, basil and cilantro (please stay alive, please please please) ... yay for herbs?

  2. omg! that's awesome! yummmm! I've been wanting to join Daring Cooks for the longest time. I'm doing it after I finish residency!

  3. oh man, sage and butter are perfect together. i want to eat this right now.