They may look intimidating but - if you agree with Italians that food is very, very important - they're worth the effort.
I won't pretend the idea of making gnocchi didn't scare me - before I started my research, I wasn't even sure how to pronounce it (nyokkey was my conclusion), let alone whether I, with not a single nonna to call upon for help, would be up to the job.
On this basis, I settled on the potato gnocchi commonly eaten in the north of Italy, in the hope that our shared potato-based culture would offer some insight. In other parts of the country they make their gnocchi from polenta, ricotta, stale bread, pumpkin - basically, whatever's on hand and can be forced into a dumpling shape.
Giorgio Locatelli, who hails from Lombardy, calls potato gnocchi with ragù alla bolognese one of his favourite dishes in the world - a combination of ingredients, if not recipes, that sounds comfortingly familiar. Maybe this won't be so hard after all.
Of course, as soon as I start looking at recipes, I realise this is going to be a little more difficult than perfecting mash or jacket potatoes - because, where food's concerned, all Italians seem to agree on is that it's very, very important. Locatelli's Made in Italy and Other Stories assures me that I need "very starchy potatoes", while Giuliano Hazan reckons "the secret to making good gnocchi is using the right potato, which should be neither too waxy nor too starchy".
Locatelli imports Italian Piacentine for his restaurant, but says "of the British varieties, Désirée is the best". Anna del Conte agrees with him, yet in her recipe, she describes Désirée as waxy, and then I discover that it rates as a five on the Potato Council's consistency scale, which means it's very much a medium potato if ever there was one. Fortunately, it seems to be only the terminology that's a little confused, because I find the Désirée easier to work with than the slightly flourier King Edwards I use in Angela Hartnett's recipe - get them if you can.
Cooking the potatoes
Most people boil their potatoes for gnocchi, but, as Hartnett says in her book Cucina, "the trick is to keep the potatoes dry so that the gnocchi are fluffy and melt in the mouth". Locatelli puts the oven on low, so he can dry the cooked potatoes out before use, but a better idea comes from Hartnett, who bakes the potatoes on a bed of rock salt (presumably to absorb any moisture). Although you lose a little more potato flesh when you peel them, it's worth it, both for the drier results and, more noticeably in my opinion, their intensely potatoey flavour.
Everyone agrees it's important to make the dough while the potatoes are still hot, or you risk someone actually having to chew their dinner - a deeply shameful experience for any aspiring gnocchi master. This, of course, means that you will have to be brave, because the phrase hot potato didn't come about by accident; insulated by their skins, it's like juggling rocks thrown straight from the sun. But would a nonna complain? No she would not.
Once they're peeled, use a potato ricer if you have one, or push the cooked potato through a fine sieve from a little height to get some air into it, as Ursula Ferrigno recommends.
The dough is bound together with flour, and as little as possible according to Del Conte, who claims in the Classic Food of Northern Italy that in Piedmont "the best gnocchi makers manage only to use 100g flour to 1kg potatoes!" I have more modest ambitions, and if Locatelli's ratio of 320g flour to 1kg spuds is good enough for the Michelin inspectors, then it's certainly good enough for me.
Del Conte and Ferrigno's Complete Italian Cookery Course suggest using Italian 00 flour, which is the very fine stuff called for in pasta recipes. I can't tell the difference in the finished dishes, and given the relative prices, I suspect a respectably thrifty Italian would stick with the plain stuff.
Seasoning that flour is obviously a good thing, gnocchi having a dangerous tendency to blandness, but Hartnett adds a pinch of nutmeg as well. I'm a sucker for its sweet, peppery flavour, as has been noted with disapproval by many of you before, and again, I think it works really well with the rich, buttery sauces that gnocchi tends to be paired with, but feel free to leave it out if you hate the stuff.
I've been saving the most contentious issue until almost last. As the Rome-based blog Rachel Eats puts it, with gnocchi, "to add eggs or not to add eggs: that is the question". Del Conte says that, "broadly speaking, gnocchi with eggs are made in Veneto", while in Piedmont they don't approve. Hazan, born in Emilia-Romagna, is very much in the west-coast camp, announcing that eggs are not a traditional ingredient, but a crutch to make up for an inferior potato - or indeed, an inferior chef. Her recipe uses only potato, flour and seasoning, as does Del Conte's. I'm proud to say that they held together fine - but perhaps it's my palate that's inferior, because I preferred the more robust egg-bound versions produced by Locatelli, Hartnett and Ferrigno. They are also, and perhaps not coincidentally, far easier to make.
Ferrigno, like Elizabeth David, adds melted butter to the dough, but I can't see much benefit, especially if they're going to be drenched in the stuff once cooked.
The kneading and cooking
Locatelli's right not to overwork the dough or you'll begin to develop the gluten in the flour, leading, yet again, to fatally chewy results - I find it easiest to mix everything straight on to the work surface as Hartnett suggests.
Make sure everything's lightly floured, from your hands to the tray on which you arrange the shaped gnocchi: although you don't want to add too much excess flour to the dough, clumping is a crime even more heinous than chewiness. To this end, stirring the gnocchi in the pan, Locatelli style, is advisable - it also means you can keep an eagle eye on them, ready for the first one to pop up and tell you it's ready. And if you're after a recipe for ragù ...
The perfect gnocchi
1kg large Désirée potatoes, all roughly the same size
350g plain flour
½ tsp fine salt
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
2 small eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 190C/gas 5 and wash the potatoes. Dry them well and prick all over, then cover the bottom of a baking tray with a layer of rock salt and arrange the potatoes on top. Bake for about an hour until completely cooked through: this will depend on the size of the potatoes, so check them regularly.
Remove from the oven, and as soon as they're cool enough to handle (be brave), peel off the skin and discard.
Scatter 250g of the flour over a clean work surface along with ½ tsp fine salt and a pinch of nutmeg, if using. Use a potato ricer, or push the potatoes through a fine sieve from elbow height, on to the flour, then make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Mix together, adding more flour if necessary, but stopping as soon as it comes together into a soft dough.
Set the dough aside while you clean the work surface and dust it with a little more flour, then return and flatten it into a square about 1.5cm thick. Divide this into 1.5cm-wide strips, then roll these into sausage shapes.
Lay the sausages side by side, and cut them into 1cm-wide segments. Dust these with flour, and roll each over the tines of a fork, pressing your thumb into the back, so you have an indentation on one side and grooves on the other. Put the finished gnocchi on a flour-dusted tray.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, then turn down to a simmer, and tip in half the gnocchi. Stir, then wait for them to rise to the surface. Count slowly to 10, then remove with a slotted spoon, and tip into whatever sauce you're using.
Gnocchi - are you a potato, polenta or ricotta person, or do you prefer your dumplings a little more robust and on top of a stew? What do you serve them with? And go on, tell me - what would your nonna think of mine?