Brendan Cox, chef-owner of Oakleaf in Pittsboro, characterizes his cuisine as "well-travelled Franco-Italian as if prepared by a grandmother who lives in the kitchen." Cox's ricotta gnocchi illustrate the point. You can almost hear a huffing voice calling from behind the kitchen door, "Mangia! Mangia!"
If your grandmother is not a peasant-artisan of the flour-dusted kitchen—if indeed she owns and has been known to use a microwave—do not despair. You can become the grandmother that modernity cruelly denied you. What's required is what's always required: development of timing, instinct and muscle memory as a function of repeated, heart-rending, guest- and family-disappointing failure. Every grandma, remember, begins as a bumbling bride whose blushes are not confined to the bedroom.
"Be patient because you're going to screw it up the first time," says Cox. "You're going to overwork the dough or overcook the gnocchi or burn the butter. A recipe is a roadmap. There will be patches of black ice on the gnocchi curve ahead. The key is to keep trying, as with anything else."
Another key is not to nickel-and-dime your own dish. You will need fresh herbs, quality butter, premium fungi and authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano. Don't you dare reach for that green can of Kraft in the cupboard! Dash it against the wall—hurl it into the wood chipper—before it tempts you!
Nor should you heed dietetic and cardiac scruples. Grandpa may have passed at 62, but at least he went face-first into a plate of grandma's orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage. Prepare yourself for excesses of cheese and butter known only in walled hill towns that have not received the Department of Agriculture's memo about food pyramids.
Oakleaf, which opened to universal acclaim in May, pairs its gnocchi with an array of sauces and garnishes. The asparagus, sliced ramp and morel, says Cox, "will change your life." The recipes here are rich and hearty, in keeping with the cold season.
For the gnocchi
Yields 100, serves 4
454 grams (1 lb.) whole milk ricotta
250 grams (about 1 7/8 cups) Italian "00" flour
2 large eggs
40 grams (about 1/2 cup) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
6 grams (1 tsp.) kosher salt
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/2 gallons (24 cups) water + 1/2 cup kosher salt
Plenty of ice (to cool the water bath)
With a stand mixer or whisk, blend the ricotta and eggs. Add the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1 tsp. salt and nutmeg. With spatula or hands, blend in the flour until just incorporated (over-mixing or aggressively kneading will develop the gluten strands in the flour and yield a tougher gnocchi). The dough should be tacky, soft and light. On a lightly floured surface, roll handfuls of dough into ropey strands (7/8-inch diameter), incorporating as little additional flour as possible.
Cut each strand of dough into 7/8-inch nubs (about 8 grams each). Using a gnocchi board, roll each nub quickly and lightly against the grain of your cut. Rotate each piece 90 degrees and lightly re-roll with the grain of your cut, producing an elegant, neatly tucked ovoid. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet or countertop.
Bring the water and 1/2 cup salt to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and ice. Add gnocchi to the boiling water in batches of 25 and cook until the gnocchi have risen to the surface and begun to flit haphazardly (like beetles under a rock, in Chef Cox's regrettable simile), about 3 minutes.
Remove gnocchi and immediately plunge into the icy water bath. Allow gnocchi to cool for 5 minutes. Remove to a parchment-covered baking sheet until ready to finish. Tightly covered, the gnocchi can be stored in the refrigerator for hours or even overnight.
Gnocchi with browned butter, hazelnuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and sage
100 gnocchi, cooked and cooled in water bath (see above)
125 grams (about 9 tbsp.) butter (preferably a high-fat butter like Plugrá)
50 grams (about 1/3 cup) hazelnuts
50 grams (a rounded 1/2 cup) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
12 grams (about 1/2 cup) roughly chopped sage
Salt to taste
Heat nuts in a frying pan until they begin to scorch and release their skins, 2–3 minutes. Rub off remaining skins, roughly chop and set aside.
In a large sauté pan, heat butter at medium temperature until browned and exuding a rich, nutty aroma (take care not to burn). Add gnocchi and sauté until slightly crisp. Add nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and sage, stir quickly to mix, and serve. Top with additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste.
Gnocchi à la forestière
100 gnocchi, cooked and cooled in water bath
454 grams (1 lb.) mixed mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, button, etc.), sliced or roughly chopped
75 grams (5–6 tbsp.) high-fat butter
1/2 cup water
8 garlic cloves, peeled
2 shallots, finely diced
1/4 cup fines herbs (i.e., finely chopped fresh chive, parsley and tarragon in equal proportions)
Salt, pepper and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to taste
Gently simmer garlic cloves in olive oil until soft, about 20 minutes. Mash into a buttery paste and set aside.
Generously coat a large sauté pan in grapeseed oil or the garlic-infused olive oil and fry the mushrooms until they have released some of their moisture and browned, adding the shallots about halfway through. Set the mushrooms and shallots aside.
Fry the gnocchi in grapeseed oil until lightly browned and crisped. Add mushrooms and shallots, followed by butter, water and garlic, stirring vigorously to create a creamy butter sauce. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add herbs just before removing from the heat. Serve with a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Chef Cox uses sheep's milk ricotta, which has a certain acidic complexity but is not exactly a supermarket staple. Cow's milk ricotta—whole milk, of course—substitutes satisfactorily. I recommend Calabro brand (available at Whole Foods), though Sorrento will do in a pinch.
Produced exclusively in Bologna, Mantua, Modena and Parma and aged for a minimum of two years, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only authentic Parmesan cheese. Italian law entitles only the real thing to bear the name.
Italian doppio zero or "00" flour is finely milled low-gluten flour. Antimo Caputo brand is available at Capri Flavors in Morrisville or via Amazon.com.
A gnocchi board, purchasable at Capri Flavors or via Amazon.com, is a small wooden tablet with grooved slats that imprint the gnocchi with their characteristic striation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The delights of excess."