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Home Plate: The perfect dish for spring – ricotta gnudi

There’s something about spring that makes me crave ricotta cheese. Perhaps it’s because as the days grow longer and warmer, cows are turned back onto newly greened pastures and produce particularly delicious milk, which in turn makes particularly delicious cheese.

And perhaps my craving for dairy as we head out of winter is my body’s need for a spring tonic. Grass-fed cows happen to produce milk that is full of conjugated linoleic acid, a substance that seems to protect against heart attacks.

Also, it’s Easter this weekend, a holiday when ricotta cheese turns up in lots of traditional recipes. Some of my favorites are Italian Easter dishes, like the ricotta pies, both savory and sweet, baked to celebrate the season.

Italians also use ricotta to make gnudi bianchi, which translates roughly as “naked white things.” Gnudi are pretty much cheese ravioli without the pasta on the outside. What holds them together is a 24 hour dunking in semolina flour. As the gnudi sit in the semolina, the flour transforms into a delicate shell that remains intact while the gnudi are gently poached in simmering water for a few minutes.

The gnudi can be served straight from the pot, doused in an herb-flavored butter, or popped into a hot oven with a sprinkle of cheese over the top and then served sizzling, brown on top and a little crunchy on the outside.

Whichever way you choose, these make a delicious vegetarian dish for Good Friday, or can be served as a first course or side dish when the Lenten fast is broken on Easter Sunday.

The following recipe will serve 4 to 8 people. If it looks like too much, no fears. The uncooked gnudi freeze well and will make a yummy, quick supper on a work night.

Gnudi Bianchi

For the gnudi:

21/4 cups ricotta cheese

1 packed cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (plus 1 cup extra for serving)

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated is best)

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups semolina flour

For serving:

1 stick unsalted butter

large sprig of rosemary (other herbs can also be used – a few sage leaves are good)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

fresh black pepper

ground hot red peppers (optional)

Make the gnudi a day before you want to used them. Stir the ricotta cheese together with the cup of Parmesan, the nutmeg and the salt. The mixture will be very soft and sticky.

Pour 3 cups of the semolina onto a large sheet tray. Working with about 1/8 of the ricotta mixture at a time, spoon the ricotta onto the semolina, then use your hands to roll and shape it into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Once the ricotta is coated on all sides, it gets easier to roll; don’t worry if your log is not perfectly shaped. If needed, wash your hands occasionally to remove excess cheese and flour. When a log is rolled, set it off to one side in the semolina; this will help it to set a little for the next step.

When all the logs are formed, beginning with the first one shaped, cut it into pieces about 3/4 of an inch wide, approximately 8 to 10 pieces per log. Gently toss the pieces in the semolina and form them into balls. Set the balls aside half-buried in the semolina.

When all the gnudi have been shaped, sprinkle the remaining semolina over them so that each ball is half-buried in flour, cover the sheet tray with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, turn the gnudi over so their tops are now buried in the semolina.

Return the gnudi to the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them. They may also be frozen at this point. Simply put the entire sheet tray in the freezer. When the gnudi are solid, remove them from the flour and put them into a plastic freezer bag and return to the freezer. They will keep well for a month or so. Cook them while still frozen, following the directions below.

To cook the gnudi, bring a large pot of salted water to a brisk simmer (not a rolling boil). If you would like to bake the gnudi, preheat the oven to 450 degrees and set out an oven-safe baking dish. If you will be serving the gnudi simply boiled, have warm plates ready. In either case, have a slotted spoon and colander ready, too.

While the water is coming to a simmer, prepare the herb butter and grate the parmesan. Chop the leaves of the rosemary, or other chosen herb. Melt the butter in small skillet, add the leaves and let the mixture bubble until the herbs are very fragrant. Remove from the heat and set aside.

When the water is simmering, gently shake the excess flour from the gnudi, setting them onto a plate as you do so. There will be quite a bit of semolina flour left over; put it in a freezer-safe container and freeze for the next time you make gnudi, or use for another recipe that calls for semolina.

Gently place the gnudi in the simmering water and cook for about three minutes (slightly longer if frozen), or until they float to the surface of the water.

As the gnudi float (some will take longer than others) remove them from the pot with the slotted spoon and place in the colander.

When all the gnudi are cooked, serve them straight away, divided between the prepared bowls, topped with herb butter and Parmesan, and the black or red peppers as desired.

If baking, pour half the butter into the baking dish, then distribute the gnudi in the dish. Pour the remaining butter over the gnudi and sprinkle with the Parmesan. Place in the hot oven for about 5 minutes, or until sizzling and golden on top. Serve immediately.

Recipe adapted from “The Silver Spoon Cookbook” published by Phaidon

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