Our June Pasta of the Month is simplicity at its best. It’s also a gentle reminder that simple doesn’t always mean easy. Gnudi, ethereal cheese dumplings from Tuscany, are ravioli without the wrapper. That’s how they first came to be anyway—a way of repurposing leftover pasta filling—hence their name, meaning “nudes.” In Siena and Lombardy, they’re called malfatti (“badly made”); sometimes you’ll also see them as strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”). I’d place gnudi in the gnocchi category, the oldest genre of pasta, so it’s no surprise that written accounts of them date back to the 13th century.
Gnudi are typically made from ricotta (often sheep’s milk) and greens like chard, spinach, nettles, and kale, then tossed with sage-infused brown butter (yum). In the warmer months, a light tomato sauce is also common, and I’ve even seen them baked ziti-style covered in melty mozzarella (also yum). Flour—a safety net in gnocchi-making—is kept to a bare minimum, which means two things: 1) feather-light dumplings and 2) a high margin of error. This is kind of like pasta’s equivalent of climbing a mountain without a harness.
I’ve made gnudi at least a dozen times, with about a 70% success rate. I first approached them ill-prepared and over-confident, thinking I’d wing it and, as with other pastas, everything would turn out fine. Of course, all was definitely not fine as I watched my dumplings turn boiling water into ricotta soup.
Since then, I’ve come across a few ways to game the gnudi system. The most common is adding more flour, which binds the dumplings together but also weighs them down, both in flavor and texture. The second is “curing” them in the refrigerator overnight (or up to a few days) to create a semi-firm flour shell that protects the creamy interior like a suit of armor during cooking. Years ago I tried this method and, well, it didn’t work—my shell quickly gave way to hot water and left me with another pot of oozing cheese. (Fast forward to developing this recipe, when I found that, alongside a few other tips and tricks, not only did this technique work, but it vastly improved my gnudi. Hurrah!)
My initial goal here was to make gnudi foolproof. But I’ve realized, even with years of experience, that they’re just…not. And that’s okay, because with a little failure comes a lot of understanding. So, even if you lose a few dumplings along the way, I encourage you to give these a try because they are so delicious. And although they might not be easy, they are much easier when you keep the following in mind:
Dry ingredients are your friends. This is the most important thing to remember with gnudi, as it is with gnocchi. Grab a run-of-the-mill tub of ricotta off the shelf and you’re probably destined for disintegration: the ricotta must be dense and well-drained, without stabilizers or excess moisture, which means highest-quality brands or homemade varieties work best (see my recipe below!). Your greens, too, must be squeezed dry with all the strength your arms can bear. Do this and you’re well on your way to delicious gnudi.
Control your temperatures. Keep the cheese mixture cold while you work and, as you might with meatballs, let the dumplings rest in the refrigerator—ideally overnight—before cooking. Speaking of cooking, make sure to keep the water at a gentle simmer, not a rolling boil, and the cook time quick.
Take your time. Now that it’s June, I’m hesitant to spend a whole day in the kitchen. Which makes this a great summer recipe: split it over two, even three (if you’re making your own cheese) days so you don’t have to be inside for long. When I cooked these day-of, even when taking all of the precautions, I still lost several dumplings to the hot water (they made an excellent snack). When I cooked them after 24 hours in the fridge, they held up much better (I didn’t lose any!), not to mention they had formed that protective shell I mentioned earlier, which provided a delicious textural contrast.
It’s okay to ask for help. Many gnudi recipes omit flour entirely with the promise of the world’s lightest dumpling. I imagine this is possible only when the cook has access to the best Italian ingredients (ricotta in Italy is generally much firmer than it is stateside) or they get lucky. Instead, embrace the gift of flour just enough to help bind your dumplings. I assure you it will be undetectable when you bite into that creamy center.
Now that we’re set up for success, let’s make gnudi!
Chard & Ricotta Gnudi with Brown Butter & Sage
Serves 4 (makes about 40 dumplings)