Her hard-worn hands kneaded the dough, the way she has been doing for fifty years, adding flour here and there to get it to the right consistency. My children looked on in amazement. “That’s gnocchi?” they asked incredulously. “It’s going to be,” I said.
It was Family Day and my mother-in-law had a plan for us. Following a filling lunch, she had decided it was high time for me to learn to make gnocchi – a long-time favourite of my son’s. Over the years, I have had several hands-on lessons in making her secret pasta sauce; each lesson being a full two-to-three day event of chopping, frying, puréeing, and canning. This time, we headed to the ‘basement kitchen,’ a second very basic kitchen in a home that can produce vast quantities of food I can only dream of making, but where I have done my fair share of eating.
She had already prepared the potatoes. Preparation in this case meant boiling the potatoes and using a ricer to break them up.
My son wrinkled his nose at the potatoes unsure how this pile of gold would end up looking like his beloved gnocchi.
By adding flour and then an egg, the potatoes were transformed into dough and carefully rolled out.
With deft hands she cut the log into pieces to create little pasta-like shapes.
Then quickly, each piece was rolled using two fingers on the back of a grater, she purchased 30-some odd years ago, to create a pretty pattern unique to her gnocchi. Each piece was laid on a tray layered with wax paper and flour and put into the deep freeze.
Then it was my childrens’ chance to get to work. She gave them each a piece of dough and they explored it with their little fingers. They worked it like playdough, mashing it in and rolling it about. My oldest threw flour onto the table here and there but my mother-in-law stayed silent, showing a kind of patience reserved for grandmothers. My son began to get upset that his piece of dough didn’t look right. She smiled and told him to practice more. With practice he would get better. She showed him how his snake had a belly and then demonstrated how to roll at the belly to thin it out. My oldest daughter took to it fairly quickly. All three were eager to show what they could do – but she did not give any of them a passing grade. Not yet. Flour was everywhere and the kids laughed and laughed.
I asked my mother-in-law questions about what she ate and cooked growing up in her tiny little village near Zadar, Croatia. She talked about the fruit trees and the fish. She talked about not having very much but ‘making do’ with what they had. My children listened.
She gave me a piece of dough and I cringed knowing the pressure of perfection was on. Unlike the kids, I was able to roll it into the proper snake-like roll and cut it into equal-sized pieces using my thumb to eyeball the measurement. Effortlessly rolling each piece off the back of the grater, though, was hard. She chastised me for not using enough pressure to apply the design onto each piece. Again, she showed me how very simple it was.
That day, I may only have earned a B- for my cooking skills, but I think I could make some passable gnocchi in my own kitchen. For the kids, it was a learning opportunity they will not soon forget. For all of us, in lessons of love and family, it was an A+ all around.
Want to learn more about making gnocchi? See Lydia Bastianich work her magic here: