One of my favourite winter dishes is Baked Spinach & Ricotta Gnudi, which are delectable little dumplings 'naked' of their pasta wrapper. A kissing cousin to gnocchi, these fluffy pillows of loveliness are made with ricotta rather than potato, which makes them lighter and more delicate in ways gnocchi rarely are. The technique for making these ethereal clouds of ricotta begins with a simple mixture of spinach, ricotta, eggs and parmesan cheese that's shaped into oval egg-size dumplings, then coated with a light dusting of flour. Placed in a baking dish, the gnudi are arranged in neat rows, covered with a rich and creamy béchamel sauce, a splash of sweet tomato sauce and baked in the oven for about an hour. It couldn't be easier. Four or five gnudi make an impressive starter; eight to ten, a dreamy main course that's damn close to food heaven.
Thawed frozen chopped spinach squeezed dry
Ricotta, eggs, grated parmesan, freshly ground nutmeg are added to the spinach then seasoned with salt and white pepper
The mixture is well combined with a wooden spoon
To make the dumplings, use your hands to form the spinach-ricotta mixture into the shape and size of a small egg, slightly elongated like a quenelle
The gnudi are then coated with a light dusting of flour
The béchamel sauce starts with a roux of butter and flour
Warm milk is gradually added to the roux until the béchamel becomes silky and smooth, then it's seasoned with fresh nutmeg
A layer of béchamel is spooned over the base of a greased baking dish,
into which the gnudi are laid in neat rows
The remaining béchamel sauce is spooned over the gnudi
Tomato sauce is ladled over the béchamel
Grated parmesan is sprinkled overtop
Basil can be arranged over the gnudi before being baked at 350°F for 50-60 minutes
Hot and bubbling, the gnudi are ready to be served
Spinach & Ricotta Gnudi with Béchamel Sauce
Makes about 20 dumplings - serves 4 as an entrée or 6 as a starter
2 10oz/300g packages frozen spinach, thawed and chopped
1 10oz/300g tub fresh ricotta cheese
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil, chopped for garnish
1 tbsp butter, for greasing the baking dish
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups homemade or quality store-bought tomato sauce
4 cups whole milk
7 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg
Thaw the frozen spinach, then drain and squeeze dry, getting rid of as much extra water as you can. It will make the dumplings hold their shape better.
In a medium bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta cheese, eggs, half the Parmesan cheese and a generous grating of nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper, and stir with a wooden spoon until well mixed. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
While the oven is preheating, prepare the béchamel sauce by heating the milk in a saucepan. In a separate pan, melt the butter, then add the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon and cooking the roux until it becomes lightly golden, about 5-6 minutes. Add a ladleful of the warm milk at a time, stirring constantly so it doesn't form lumps. Continue until all the milk has been incorporated. Season with salt and pepper, and additional nutmeg to taste. Continue cooking and stirring on low heat for another 10 minutes. The sauce will thicken and become very smooth. Remove from the heat and cover.
Generously butter a large 9"x12" baking dish, and spoon enough béchamel sauce to cover the bottom. Pour the flour onto a flat plate. To make the dumplings, use your hands to form the spinach-ricotta mixture into the shape and size of a small egg, slightly elongated like a quenelle. Dust each dumpling very lightly in the flour and place them over the béchamel in neat rows. Continue until all the mixture is used up. Cover the dumplings with the remaining béchamel, dot the surface with tomato sauce and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese.
Bake until the top is lightly golden, about 50-60 minutes. Serve piping hot with a good sprinkling of fresh basil on each serving.