While these butternut squash gnocchi can’t exactly coast on their looks alone, I dare you to stop eating them after your first bite. These little rascals should really be called brutti ma buoni, which means ‘ugly but good’ in Italian. Of course, that name’s already been taken by yet another unglamorous mound of sweet deliciousness. It is an Italian cookie that resembles meringue out on a date with chopped nuts.
They could also be called malfatti, which means ‘made badly.’ No go, though. That name’s already taken as well, this time by savory gnocchi made from spinach and ricotta. Yum. So let’s not begrudge that.
And so we’re back to just butternut squash gnocchi. Not as captivating in the name department, certainly, but where these naturally sweet, homely fellows excel at is in flavor, with their slight hint of warming nutmeg and subtle lemony brightness. Add the savoriness of the butter and sage sauce along with a liberal sprinkling of freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and you now have complete, unabashed decadence.
I’m embarrassed to say this, but I only started making these puppies two months ago, and do you know why?
Because my mom made the traditional gnocchi, you know…with the white potatoes, and I loved them so much that to me gnocchi were just that… those white pillowy clouds I loved to pop in my mouth. Even at 3 o’clock in the morning. Barefoot and barely awake. While standing in front of the open refrigerator. (My parents still get very indignant at the idea of me eating them cold. How can you truly savor them, they scolded me, when you just take them right out of the refrigerator??? But I’m telling you…they were still mighty, plenty good!)
Made by my mamma’s brisk and expert hand, they were the only thing this spindly, hyperactive kid would sit still for. (It reminds me of my little one actually. The laugh’s on me now, mamma…ha!)
So when I would see recipes for gnocchi made out of butternut squash, I was quite dismissive truth to tell.
It’s as though they didn’t even make my visual radar, until one day when I was flipping through some of my cookbooks, looking for inspiration. I had Italian Country Cooking, by Loukie Werle in my hand and stopped at this recipe. (Just as an aside, why is it that so many Italian cookbooks are penned by people with non-Italian names, I wonder…)
I think it’s the picture that opened up a fissure in my myopic gnocchi existence. It looked so rustic and romantic. I wanted a piece of that! And since it just so happened that I had a lovely butternut squash on my kitchen counter, I turned the oven on and got to work.
That night…oh that night!!!! Erik, my girls and I were beside ourselves hmmmm-ing and ahmmmmm-ing all the way to the bottom of our bowls.
It’s a love affair that continues. My food-savvy 11-year-old Alexia requested them for her recent birthday dinner (along with Vanilla Panna Cotta of course!). They are now officially in our repertoire of beloved meals.
The key to making them unbelievably tender and pillowy is to add as little flour as possible to the mixture while still creating a ‘dough’ that sticks together enough to create that cute little dumpling. I especially love them because while I am making gnocchi, they are not as labor-intensive as the potato-based ones. You don’t have to roll, cut and shape them. All you need to do is spoon them in tiny amounts in salted boiling water. That’s it. Weeeee!
making butternut squash gnocchi
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Prepare a 2 1/2 to 3 lb. butternut squash for roasting.
Slice off the top and the bottom of the squash on a cutting board. Rest it on the widest end and, using a heavy kitchen knife, slice down vertically. If it’s difficult to do (it is for me), use a rubber mallet to tap gently on the tops of both sides of the blade. Work as slowly as you need to and wedge the knife all the way to the base of the squash. Oh, and what a treat if you have leftover squash! Just add a little butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano and go to town!
When you have the two separated squash halves, use a spoon to scrape out their seeds and fibrous insides. Prick the flesh with a fork. Brush all the fleshy surfaces lightly with oil (I use my hands to do this) and place face-down on a cookie sheet. Roast for 45 minutes or so. The squash will be done when you can easily pierce through it with a fork.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
ADDITION: I have since learned, because I make these gnocchi often, that the gnocchi actually have a richer, more satisfying butternut squash taste when I remove the insides of the squash before roasting them. I suspect this is so because, without the innards getting in the way, the heat is better able to reach the actual flesh of the squash and, in so doing, is better able to roast out the squash’s sweet earthiness. This flavor then gets transferred into our gnocchi, much to our benefit.
Once cooled enough to handle, scoop out the soft flesh with a large metal spoon. Measure out three cups of butternut squash and place it in the bowl of a stand mixer, like a KitchenAid and mix. Add 3 eggs, 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly-grated nutmeg, 1 tablespoon sugar, the zest of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons of Marsala wine (optional), and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt.
Mix until well combined.
Slowly add 2 cups of white unbleached flour.
Mix thoroughly until well blended and until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If the flour you used has not made that happen, continue to add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does. The streaks in the dough should look like this when the dough is ready for cooking.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a handful of Kosher salt. Then, using two teaspoons, make little dumplings. Do this by scooping up a teaspoon-full with one teaspoon and using the other teaspoon to scrape it off into the boiling water. That’s really it! Work in batches. Don’t add more than 15 gnocchi into the pot at a time. Once each batch has cooked about 2 minutes, you’ll see the gnocchi floating on the surface of the water. That’s how you know they are done cooking.
Using a slotted spoon or, even better, an Asian strainer, remove them from the water and allow them to drain for 20 seconds or so over the pot of water, to give them a chance to properly drain. Place them in a large bowl and cover with aluminum foil until you are ready to add another batch, then cover again.
When you’ve added your last batch of butternut squash gnocchi to the pan, melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a small pan. Add 8 sage leaves and allow them to cook in the butter on medium-low heat for several minutes.
They will start to wilt and the butter will start to lightly brown.
Add the sage and butter sauce to the cooked butternut squash gnocchi and mix gently. Serve immediately topped with freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh-cracked black pepper. Makes 6 servings.