One of life’s simplest pleasures must be watching someone skilled working with their hands. It should be something we don’t see as much anymore in an age of supposedly being so far removed from production. Yet more and more, kitchens open up so we can see fish filleted and dishes dressed, and Instagram welcomes us into studios to see potters throwing pots, or wood being whittled. Yet nothing quite compares to seeing it in person, when it isn’t a fabricated moment, but something that happens naturally. And crucially, nothing quite compares to when it fulfils the stereotype of an Italian rolling pasta.
Back in 2012, I posted a video to accompany my timballo recipe of la signora delle orecchiette. The simplicity of the video, the monotony of the process and the effortlessness of the whole situation gripped me. It not only served to show how to roll the orecchiette, but to transport you to this perfect, almost otherworldly setting to sit with these ladies and join their conversation.
So earlier this year, in the depths of a Roman winter, when it was suggested that gnocchi al forno should be made, and zia Anna started rolling out the dough as if she did it everyday (she doesn’t), I found myself mesmerised again by the whole moment. I pulled out the camera to film her at work. It takes me back to the whole calmness of it: the saxophone soundtrack to our impromptu pasta class, the satisfying sounds of dough being rolled, scraped and cut, and Anna’s pointers that capture such a laidback approach to cooking. All of these just about get me past the blurriness and shakiness of the recording on a prime lens!
This is a next level pasta bake, and this no-egg gnocchi is so simple to make that there’s no excuse not to try and make something with your own hands. Good quality tinned tomatoes and mozzarella (smoked if you can get hold of it) will make the dish.
Scale up to quantity needed – the below works for two hungry people.
100g plain flour
Dissolve a large pinch of salt into the boiled water
Make a well in the flour and add the water. Mix with a spoon to form a dough
Tip onto a board and knead to form a tighter dough, around 3-5 minutes, adding more flour if it is too wet. Form into a round ball on the board. It should sag a little when left, but not a lot.
Cover with the mixing bowl you used and leave to rest for 20 minutes.
Better than me explaining it is to watch the video above.
Have a baking tray lined with a tea towel ready. Dust this liberally with flour.
With a dough cutter or knife, cut off a handful of dough from the rested ball.
On a large board or work surface, begin rolling the separated dough, starting in the middle and working your hands outwards to form sausages. Make sure there is little to no flour on this part of the board or the sausages will slip and not roll thinner. Put the rolled sausages to one side on a little flour.
Repeat with small amounts of dough until you have a few long sausages. Line them up and use the dough scraper to into cut 2cm rectangles.
With two fingertips, press down on the rectangles and roll towards you.
Dust the rolled gnocchi with flour, pick up as gently as possible so they maintain their shape and transfer to the floured tea towels.
Gnocchi al forno
Quantity of gnocchi as above
Quantity of your favourite homemade tomato sauce
Mozzarella (or Provola – smoked mozzarella) – in chunks
Preheat the oven to 180C
Drop the gnocchi into salted boiling water and cook for until they rise to the surface – 2-3 minutes. Drain.
In a baking dish, mix the drained gnocchi with the tomato sauce and mozzarella. Scatter parmesan on top.
Bake for 20 minutes. Rest for 10. Serve.