Pumpkin + sage + beurre noisette are a hallowed trinity. I remember grinning like a Cheshire cat that got the entire pint of cream when I informed Panda-in-crime that I’d concocted a delectable yet illegal conservatore cucinare dish: sautéed pumpkin ravioli with beurre noisette and crispy sage. Surely Italians would find it a heinous offense to fry ravioli. A rapid deflation followed, as he smugly informed me that any tortelli (a Mantuan speciality stuffed with pumpkin, nutmeg, parmesan, crushed amaretti biscuits and mostarda – a pungent apple mustard) leftover from the Christmas feasting were fried. Yeah right, like there’d ever be any left. Once the sulking abated, one thing led to another and the discussion turned to gnocchi. Not just gnocchi, but pan-fried pumpkin gnocchi. What could be better than fluffy pillows of pumpkin? Why, crispy yet fluffy pillows of pumpkin, of course.
Gnocchi are a doddle to make, but be warned that the secret to light and fluffy dumplings is in achieving their Goldilocks stickiness. It’s a simple conundrum: the more flour you add to the dough the heavier the gnocchi will be. The wetter your pumpkin mix is the more flour you’ll need to bind it (that’s why potatoes are boiled whole and then peeled when making gnocchi di patate), so I always roast the pumpkin. On the other hand, too little flour will make the sticky dough a nightmare to work with. It’s just right when you’ve added just enough flour to form a tacky dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl but barely sticks to your fingers. Cooking gnocchi are fool-proof. Simply drop them into a large pan of boiling water and they’ll float up when they are ready.
You can serve them as is, but I think pan-frying the gnocchi gives them a wonderful crust to complement their immersion in beurre noisette. Simply speaking, beurre noisette a.k.a. hazelnut butter is butter that has browned. If you use butter to scramble eggs you may have noticed (1) how the fat separates from the milk solids and (2) how easy it is to burn butter when still half-asleep. It’s the milk solids sinking to the bottom of the pan that burn, which is why ghee or clarified butter can resist a hotter sizzle. There is a fine line between beurre noisette and beurre noir, but under a watchful eye the gently toasted milk solids in butter develop a wonderfully nutty and complex flavour prized in patisserie and sauces. If you’ve never tried browning butter (on purpose) grab a knob and give it a go.
RECIPE: PAN-FRIED PUMPKIN GNOCCHI WITH BEURRE NOISETTE, WALNUTS AND CRISPY SAGE
Serves four as a starter or two as a main
For the pumpkin gnocchi
A drizzle of olive oil
Two garlic cloves and a sprig of rosemary (optional)
Half a pumpkin or a butternut squash (yields about 500g of puree)
A generous grating of nutmeg
A sprinkle of salt
A grinding of pepper
A generous grating of Parmigiano Reggiano
An egg yolk
Enough flour to bind the mix into a soft, slightly tacky dough (150-250g)
For the beurre noisette and sauce
A substantial knob of butter per person
A scant handful of finely chopped walnuts
A spring of sage leaves
Deseed and roast the quartered pumpkin with a drizzle of olive oil in a medium oven for 45 minutes or until tender. Add unpeeled garlic cloves and a small sprig of rosemary if you wish. Scoop the pumpkin flesh from the skin and mash. Use a potato ricer for best results. Add the nutmeg, parmesan and seasoning and the egg yolk. Mix well and add just enough flour to make a soft, pliable dough that veers on the tacky side, working the dough as little as possible. Roll out into a thin sausage and cut into gnocchi sized bites. Press each side of the gnocchi onto the tines of a fork (to maximise sauce coverage) and drop small batches into a large pan of salted boiling water. The gnocchi are cooked when they float up to the top, so simply scoop them up with a slotted spoon before adding the next batch. Pan-fry each batch in butter, trying not to move the gnocchi in the pan so a crust can form before turning them over. Leave aside whilst preparing the beurre noisette.
If you are confident in making beurre noisette you can fry the gnocchi whilst the butter browns. If not, heat another lot of butter up gently in a frying pan until it begins to foam and the milk solids separate and start to toast. Watch closely and jiggle to pan around so they brown evenly, adding in the sage leaves. When the butter is a light golden brown remove from heat and toss in the walnuts, gnocchi and enjoy.