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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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How Naked Is Your Gnudi?

Often called ricotta gnocchi or malfatti, these little melt-in-your-mouth dumplings have created a culinary craze across the country. Zoë chef/owner Scott Staples...

Got gnudi? Yes, it sounds like something you might have done on a remote beach. But while the word does mean "naked" in Italian, the reference is to something not nearly so racy — ravioli filling without the pasta.

Often called ricotta gnocchi (because the main ingredient is ricotta cheese) or malfatti ("badly made" in Italian, because of their sloppy shape), these little melt-in-your-mouth dumplings have created something of a culinary craze across the country.

And ricotta gnocchi or gnudi, naked or not, these little cloudlike pillows deserve all the buzz they've been getting. Bon Appétit magazine chimed in last year and listed several restaurants that make a "mean version," including Restaurant Zoë in Seattle.

Zoë chef/owner Scott Staples has a bone to pick with those who call gnudi gnocchi. "There's no relationship between gnocchi and gnudi," he says. "Gnudi is fat-driven, so it melts in your mouth, and gnocchi is starch-driven." The Seattle chef, who studied with some of the best chefs in Italy many years ago, makes his gnudi with only one primary ingredient: homemade whole-milk ricotta cheese. Most gnudi recipes call for flour, Parmesan, eggs and herbs, but Staples' version is just cheese and a little cream.

Might we say that his gnudi is even more naked than most? (Staples does offer traditional gnocchi at Quinn's, his new gourmet pub on Capitol Hill.)

Making his famous gnudi at Zoë, served with a luscious brown butter-sage sauce and truffle salt, takes four days. (No wonder it costs $9.95 for an appetizer plate of about six balls.) The good news is that it's not hard to make yourself — and the name alone is sure to have your entire family in giggles.

Making the ricotta takes just a few minutes. No rennet is required, just a thermometer and cheesecloth. Lemon juice separates the curds from the whey. The quality of freshly made cheese is far superior to store-bought, so it's worth the effort — and a magical science experiment for kids to watch. ("You're making cheese?!" my 5-year-old asked incredulously.)

Frankly, most of the time making gnudi is just waiting. After the ricotta balls are made, they sit for three days to "cure" and develop the outer shell that Staples says is the secret to his gnudi. "It was really trial by error," he says, reluctantly sharing the story of how he and his staff discovered the secret. "We had been working for months trying to figure out the right amount of time to let the gnudi balls sit. One slow day, we had a lot left that didn't sell. It sat out for about three days, and we weren't sure if it was still good, so we tasted a few, and it was an 'ah-ha' moment. We had finally found a way to get the outer shell."

And that is why, when you bite into one of these warm pillows, it tastes like there's a delicate layer of pasta on the outside. But it is pure, silky cheese that simply oozes out of itself. Fat at its best. (Hey, the upside is there are no carbs!)

In springtime, Staples suggests serving gnudi with a fresh asparagus salad. In summer, with garden tomatoes. His favorite accompaniments in fall and winter are the brown-butter sage sauce with crispy fried sage leaves on top and a Parmesan reduction sauce. At home, you could also try a light pesto cream or alfredo sauce. Best to keep the toppings light, though, so the warm, oozy cheese speaks for itself.

Recipe: Ricotta Gnudi

Serves 4

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Equipment

Rimmed sheet pan

Spoon about a teaspoon in size

Sealable container about 8-by-4-inch

Medium mixing bowl

Wooden spoon

Cheesecloth

Cooking thermometer

Fresh ricotta*

½ gallon whole milk

½ cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons salt

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ cup buttermilk

1. Combine the milk, cream and salt in a pot over medium-high heat. Using a cooking thermometer, bring to 195 degrees, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the lemon juice and buttermilk, stir, and return to 195 degrees. Quickly remove from the heat so the mixture doesn't boil. Let sit to form curds, about 15 minutes.

3. Scoop the curds very gently with a mesh spoon or small strainer into two layers of cheesecloth and allow to drain over bowl. Hang for one to two hours in refrigerator.

Gnudi

7-8 ounces fresh ricotta

Salt to taste

1/8 ¼ cup heavy cream, divided

4 cups semolina flour, divided

1. Put the ricotta in a mixing bowl and add the salt and half the cream. Mix with a wooden spoon to a creamy yet firm consistency. Add the rest of the cream and more salt, if necessary. Mixture should be dry enough to roll into a ball, but moist enough to retain its shape.

2. Put ¾ of the semolina on the sheet pan. Shake the pan to make a level surface. Put the remaining semolina into the 8-by-4-inch container, again making a level surface.

3. To make the gnudi balls, use the spoon to scoop out a teaspoon-sized amount of the ricotta mixture. Put each scoop on the semolina-covered sheet tray. Continue until all of the ricotta has been used. Gently move them around so that each has a light coating of semolina. Roll each portion between your hands to form a ball. Place the balls in the container, making sure the balls don't touch. Use the semolina from the sheet tray to cover the ricotta balls. Seal or wrap this container and refrigerate for two days.

4. After 48 hours, remove the container from the refrigerator and gently pour the gnudi and semolina out onto a sheet pan. Remove the gnudi from the semolina and place on another pan. Refrigerate, uncovered, for one to two days.

5. Cook the gnudi in boiling, salted water for about 3 minutes until soft and warm inside. Do not overcook. Serve with your favorite sauce or garnish.

*Store-bought, whole-milk ricotta may be used. Look for a cheese with visible curds and texture.

— Scott Staples

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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