Baked whole wheat gnocchi in creamy marinara

One of the most memorable days I spent in Italy was one where I visited Parma Rotta, a gorgeous restaurant in Italy's famous pasta-producing city, Parma. The employees demonstrated pasta making to my study abroad group, and we tasted their swiss chard and ricotta-stuffed ravioli, strozapretti in marinara, and gnocchi with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. You should believe me when I tell you that hand-made gnocchi is in the top 5 best things I've ever eaten. Seriously incredible.

Gnocchi is really nothing special: just potatoes, flour, egg, and salt. But roll it out fresh and boil it ever so slightly, and you get the most wonderfully soft, pillow-like bundles of pasta that literally melt in your mouth. This baked gnocchi recipe is my twist on a classic, and in my mind, it is comfort food at its finest. For this recipe, you can use pre-packaged gnocchi, but if you have the time and adventuresome spirit to make your own, it will be heads and shoulders above anything you can buy in the store.

The trick to truly light, soft gnocchi is to run the potatoes through a ricer or a food mill while they are still steaming hot from the oven. Releasing the steam and moisture from the potatoes as quickly as possible means you will be able to add less flour later. More flour=more dense gnocchi. Less flour=light, heavenly gnocchi that you'll be proud to share with all your friends.
What better to bake gnocchi in than a creamy tomato sauce? Few people can pass on a creamy sauce. Few sane people, anyways. In this recipe, I opted to use Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream, and the result was delicious.

Greek yogurt can break down and turn grainy at high temperatures. I didn't have that problem with this recipe, but if you fear it, you can mix a 1/2 cup of yogurt with 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch to stabilize it.
The grooves made from rolling gnocchi dough against a fork catch all that wonderful sauce and give you more flavor in every bite.
Baked whole wheat gnocchi in creamy marinara
Serves 2 as large entrees or 4 with side dishes
Note: You can use pre-packaged gnocchi for this. It makes life easier. But I encourage you to put on an apron and a brave face and make your own. It's totally worth it. That fluffy, pillow-like texture won't come from a package.

5 medium potatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3 cups good marinara sauce
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 1/2 cups frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed of excess water
4 ounces cheese of choice (goat, mozzarella, or ricotta are all good choices)
Fresh basil, chopped, for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
  2. Scrub the potatoes and pierce the skins several times with a fork. Bake until tender, about 45-60 minutes. 
  3. Remove the potatoes from the oven and quickly cut in half to release the steam. Releasing as much steam as possible right away will allow you to add less flour, resulting in lighter, more tender gnocchi. Use a fork to scrape the starchy interior of the potatoes into a bowl. Push the potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill set with the coarsest blade.
  4. When the potato bits are cool enough to handle, add the salt, egg, and 1/2 cup of flour to the potatoes and begin to mix with your hands. Transfer to a floured board and knead for a few minutes, adding additional flour until the dough holds together but is still slightly sticky.
  5. Tear off about a fourth of the dough and roll into a long rope about 3/4 inch in diameter. Use a sharp knife to cut the rope into 1-inch pieces. Use one hand to prop up a fork on the board by its tines (the curve of the fork should be facing up), and use a finger on the other hand to roll a piece of dough up the fork - pressing an indent into the dough as you roll- and allow the dough to fall back down to the board. There should be grooves from the fork indented in the dough. Repeat for the rest of the dough. You should end up with 60-80 gnocchi, depending on size.
  6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In 4 individual-sized baking dishes (16-ounce dishes work well), put 1/2 cup of marinara sauce, 2 tablespoons yogurt, a handful of spinach, and 1/2 ounce of cheese. Stir to combine. Boil the gnocchi for about 90 seconds until they float to the surface, then immediately distribute among the 4 baking dishes (about 20 each dish). Stir the contents together and top each with an additional 1/4 cup of marinara and remaining cheese. Bake at 375 F for 10-15 minues or until hot and bubbly. Top with chopped basil and serve immediately.

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