Gnocchi, a cross between pasta and dumplings, are made from mashed potatoes and flour, and have a fullness of flavor and texture that could never be achieved with flour alone. Even in Italian restaurants, great gnocchi are all too rare, which is too bad, because they really aren’t that difficult to make. In fact, the key to great gnocchi is doing as little work as possible; as soon as you’ve shaped them, stop! Overworking the dough is the culprit of 95 percent of all the leaden gnocchi out there.
These gnocchi are made with buttercup squash (a drier-than-average variety) and accompanied with sage and black trumpet mushrooms, elegant little fungi that are rich in flavor and, like the squash, available from the end of summer to the end of the year. If you can’t find them, substitute cremini.
Buttercup squash, with its green skin and flat top and bottom, is easy to spot in the market. It has more water content than potato, so after roasting it’s important to squeeze out most, but not all, of its liquid. You want the squash to resemble mashed potatoes, with just enough moisture to hold little clumps of it together.
If it’s easy for you to obtain the gourds this recipe calls for-buttercup and butternut squash and baby pumpkin-by all means use them, because it doesn’t take any extra effort to cook with the variety. However, if you can’t put your hands on all three, you can make the entire dish with buttercup squash and skip using the baby pumpkin for presentation.
This is a truly beautiful dish. The dark, almost black, mushrooms look quite dramatic against the squash, and their flavors and textures are a perfect marriage.—Bill Telepan and Andrew Friedman
For the gnocchi
1 large buttercup squash (2 to 3 pounds)
1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for dusting work surface
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon salt
For the assembly
4 baby pumpkins
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup pine nuts
8 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small butternut or buttercup squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 3 cups dice)
1/2 pound black trumpet mushrooms or wild mushrooms such as cremini or shiitake, cleaned and cut into 1/8-inch slices
4 sage leaves, cut into thin strips
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
Make the gnocchi
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C).
2. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Salt the flesh and place the squash halves skin side down in a shallow baking pan. Pour 1/2 inch of water around the squash and cover the sheet with aluminum foil. Place the pan in the oven and then bake the squash until tender, about 45 minutes. (A sharp, thin-bladed knife should pierce easily to the center of a piece.) Remove the pan from the oven, set aside, and let cool.
3. When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh out into a cheesecloth- or paper towel lined strainer in batches, squeezing out most of the excess moisture (see head note), then placing the flesh in a bowl. (You can also put it in a large, lined strainer and weight it down for 10 minutes with a heavy pan or a few cans of food wrapped in a clean plastic bag.) Measure out 2 cups of squeezed squash and pass it through a food mill or ricer into a large bowl. Discard any extra squash.
4. Beat the egg in a small bowl with a whisk and add it to the squash, then stir in the flour, cheese, and 1-teaspoon salt with a wooden spoon until the dough just comes together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap, and place it in the freezer for 30 minutes.
5. Place the dough on a well-floured work surface and divide it into 8 equal pieces. Roll out 1 piece into a rope about 1/2 inch thick, working from the middle out and applying even pressure. (If the rope won’t roll, wipe any excess flour from the work surface and roll using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking.) Cut the dough into segments about 3/4-inch long. Using the edge of a large, wide-bladed knife or a flat spatula, transfer the gnocchi to a well-floured baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough, then place the sheet in the freezer until the gnocchi harden, about 1 hour. These can be made in advance and frozen.
Assemble the dish
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C).
2. Remove the tops of the pumpkins by cutting a circle into the top of each pumpkin at an angle with a paring knife. Scoop out the pulp and seeds with a spoon. Put the pumpkins and tops in a pan. Pour 1/2 inch of water around them, season with salt and pepper, and cover with aluminum foil. Bake until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool enough to touch, then cut a little “window,” about 2 inches square, into one side of each pumpkin, starting from the top.
3. Spread the pine nuts out on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
4. Heat a large saute pan over high heat until very hot, then add 2 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter has melted and begins to brown, add the squash. Saute until golden and tender, about 6 minutes. Transfer the squash to a plate and set aside.
5. Set the same pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter has melted and begins to brown, add the mushrooms and saute until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
6. Bring a 12-quart pot of lightly salted water to a vigorous boil over high heat. Add the gnocchi and cook until they all float to the top, then cook for 1 minute more. While the gnocchi are cooking, prepare to finish the dish (Step 7).
7. Place the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan. Add the cooked squash and mushrooms, the sage and the pine nuts, and set aside. Put the pumpkins and tops on a cookie sheet and reheat briefly in the oven.
8. Use a heatproof measuring cup to scoop up 1/2 cup of the gnocchi’s cooking liquid and add it to the pan with the squash and mushrooms. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring to emulsify the liquids, until a creamy sauce has formed, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the gnocchi from their pot to the pan with the squash and mushrooms. Add the parsley, toss, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
9. To serve, place 1 pumpkin on each of four warm dinner plates. Spoon the gnocchi into the pumpkins and out the “windows,” replace the tops on the pumpkins, and serve immediately.
Recipe © 2004 Bill Telepan. All rights reserved.