Festive In Purple, This Pasta's Got A Sweet Side

Feb 20, 2014
Originally published on February 20, 2014 7:02 pm

When you're an expert on Italian cooking, as Julia della Croce is, it's a rare pasta that will take you by surprise. Even with the Italian dumplings known as gnocchi — not exactly as common as your average spaghetti — Julia knows the ins and outs of the dish in ways that many others might not, whether it's made with squash, stale bread, semolina or potatoes.

For 27 years, Julia made her gnocchi with sweet potatoes, mixing an American staple into the classic recipe. "Here I was, one foot in the new world and one foot in Italy, where my family is from, and they seemed perfect for gnocchi. Why not?" And in all that time, her dumplings were sweet, served with a hazelnut butter sauce, and — most importantly — a lovely shade of orange.

Then she discovered a whole new color frontier: the Stokes Purple sweet potato. Its gorgeous hue caught her eye, but the taste and texture of these potatoes really captured her attention. Julia explains: "They're very dry, which means they'll take in less flour — which means that they will be much lighter than any other kind of potato gnocchi."

So she decided to experiment with this sugary newcomer. "Sure enough, these Stokes Purple sweet potatoes made the lightest, most beautiful indigo, blue, purple dumplings."

If you can't find them in your local market, never fear: As with just about everything these days, they can be found online. And, failing both options, you can use the classic orange sweet potato in this recipe from Julia.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Hazelnut Butter

Makes about 40 purple or orange gnocchi — first-course portion for two to three people.

I've written separate formulas for purple and orange sweet potato gnocchi to account for slightly different proportions of flour to potatoes, depending on the varieties. The orange types will absorb more flour, but they too will be delicate and fluffy as long as the potatoes are not freshly harvested and have had a few weeks to age. When making sweet potato gnocchi for the first time, prepare a small batch as described here, and practice forming the dough and rolling out the dumplings once before making a larger batch. No doubt it will occur to you to make both types for a dramatic two-colored effect, certainly a lovely presentation.

For purple sweet potato gnocchi dough

3/4 pound purple-fleshed sweet potato
1/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface
Zest of one navel orange
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

For orange sweet potato dough

1/2 pound orange-fleshed sweet potato, such as Covingtons
1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface
Zest of one navel orange
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

For cooking

kosher salt

For serving

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup lightly toasted hazelnuts, skins rubbed off, chopped finely
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


1. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the sweet potatoes on a rack positioned over a baking pan to allow circulation of heat, and roast until they are collapsed in appearance and soft inside when pierced with a knife.

2. While the sweet potatoes cook, set up your work surface with the necessary ingredients and have extra flour on hand should you need it. Line a baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel.

3. Allow the sweet potatoes to cool only enough to be able to handle them comfortably. They must be warm to form a successful dough. The flesh of the purple variety doesn't peel off easily, so best to scoop out the pulp with a spoon; discard the skin. If cooking the orange variety, peel off and discard the skin using a paring knife.

4. Pass the sweet potato pulp through a ricer onto a floured work surface, forming a mound, or mash it finely using a potato masher or fork. Never put cooked potatoes in a food processor or blender.

5. Scatter the orange zest, nutmeg, and sea salt over the potatoes. Sprinkle the mound with some flour and gradually work it in. Working quickly, keep adding the flour until you form a fairly smooth dough that no longer sticks to your hands. If necessary, add more flour to prevent stickiness. Scrape the work surface frequently as you work to keep it smooth and free of dried bits of dough as you work. You can sift any dried out bits of dough and flour back onto the board to keep the surface powdery and ease kneading. Once you have formed the dough, stop working it and cut it in half. Cover the remainder with an inverted bowl to keep it from drying out.

6. Form the dough into ropes about 3/4 inch thick and as long as you like for ease of rolling. Use the dough scraper or a knife to cut it into cylinders as wide as they are thick. Use a butter paddle, the side of a box grater or a fork, take each little piece and dip it in flour on the cut ends to prevent sticking. Roll it against the paddle, grater or tines of a fork, pushing your thumb into it as you do so to form a hollow, concave dumpling with a pretty ridged surface. Place the gnocchi onto the prepared towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process with the remaining dough to form the remaining gnocchi, lining them up on the towel without touching.

7. Have ready a spider strainer or a slotted spoon with which to scoop the cooked gnocchi out of the cooking water. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water. Select a shallow serving platter and spread the butter in it. Bring the water to a rapid boil and add 2 tablespoons kosher salt.

8. Lift the towel with two corners in the grasp of each hand, and position it over the boiling pot. Release your hold of the bottom two corners of the towel and drop the gnocchi at once into the water. Cook over high heat until the dumplings float to the top, allowing them to bob on the surface no longer than 1 minute before you retrieve them with the spider strainer or slotted spoon.

9. Transfer the gnocchi to a warm, buttered serving platter, shaking the dish to toss and coat them all over. Scatter with the hazelnuts and grated cheese and serve at once.

Note: Once formed, the gnocchi can be left out at room temperature, uncovered, for up to two hours, or frozen in place in an ample deep-freeze. Once frozen solid, slide the gnocchi into freezer bags and freeze for up to three months. To cook, drop them, frozen into boiling salted water and proceed as described in the recipe

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Today's Found Recipe is a colorful spin on an Old World favorite.

JULIA DELLA CROCE: This is Julia della Croce. I am a food writer and cookbook author, and expert on Italian cooking. And I'm here to tell you about a new dish that I invented this year: purple sweet potato gnocchi.

CORNISH: OK, let's stop and back up...

DELLA CROCE: Purple sweet potato gnocchi.

CORNISH: ...and break this down. Gnocchi are Italian dumplings.

DELLA CROCE: There are many different kinds of gnocchi. Sometimes, they're made with squash. Sometimes, they're made with semolina. Sometimes, they're made with stale bread. But a large category of gnocchi are made with potatoes.

CORNISH: Often with Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes, unless you take a page out of Julia della Croce's cookbook. She's been using sweet potatoes for her gnocchi for years. And yes, her dumplings taste sweet. She serves them with butter, almond pesto sauce - mmm. And for 27 years, they were a lovely shade of orange, except this year. This year, Julia della Croce's sweet potato gnocchi went purple.

DELLA CROCE: I discovered a new sweet potato. It's called the stokes purple. It was introduced into the market, apparently, a couple of years ago. So gorgeous and the most sugary sweet potato I had ever tasted. So I thought, OK, these will make the deal ideal gnocchi because they're very dry, which means that they'll take in less flour, which means that they will be much lighter than any other kind of potato gnocchi.

And so I experimented with it. And sure enough, these stokes purple sweet potatoes made the lightest, most beautiful indigo, blue, purple dumplings.


DELLA CROCE: To make the gnocchi, it's actually quite simple. After the potatoes are roasted, mash them up really well, either through a potato ricer or even with a fork. Add the orange zest. And then you add as much flour as the potato will take until you form a dough that's not sticky. You roll it out into long cords. You cut them into very small pieces, about three-quarters of an inch wide.


DELLA CROCE: You get your water boiling rapidly. You dump the gnocchi into the boiling water and they take about a minute to float to the surface - no time at all. As soon as they float to the surface, you scoop them up. And you put them in a waiting warm dish with melted butter. Scatter your roasted nuts on top - and that's it.


DELLA CROCE: Now, don't worry if you can't find the stokes purple sweet potato. It's available in specialty markets, and you can find it online. But you can use the traditional orange-fleshed sweet potato just as well, and it will be just as good.

CORNISH: That's Julia della Croce. See that gorgeous indigo sweet potato and her step-by-step guide for making the gnocchi, at our Found Recipes' page at NPR.org



This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.