Comfort Food. Inspired By Jamie Oliver. Baked Ricotta Gnudi With Puttanesca Sauce

Two of our most loved family meals are home-made ricotta ravioli and gnocchi. I’ve previously posted two recipes for gnocchi  on this blog; the first for traditional potato gnocchi and another for an easy midweek time saving variation substitiuting ricotta. Whilst I have never posted a recipe for ricotta ravioli made entirely from scratch with home-made pasta, there is always my rather easier cheat using wonton wrappers. Last week I was inspired by an episode of Jamie Oliver’s new series Comfort Food to try my hand at making the even less complicated ricotta gnudi.

In Italian, “gnudi” means “naked”. This regional Tuscan speciality takes the cheese filling used for  ricotta ravioli, and fashions it into golf sized balls sans any pasta wrapping. The ricotta cheese balls are held together by a  lengthy dunking in finely ground semolina, truly authentic recipes eschew the addition of any eggs and flour to bind them together, the theory being that over time the semolina will draw moisture from the ricotta and form a protective crust. Pillowy and light gnudi  have all the gorgeous flavour of  traditional ricotta ravioli but structure of meltingly soft gnocchi. True Italian comfort food. Cucina povera at it’s most delicious.

Watching Jamie Oliver whip up his Butter and Sage Gnudi, I was reminded just how clever homestyle Italian cooking can be. Its a  very simple dish making the most of a handful of good quality ingredients. In years gone by an Italian nonna would have made her ricotta cheese from scratch at home, warming fresh milk and using just a little vinegar or lemon juice to produce the curds. It’s a very quick and easy process, I actually went to the effort of making it myself last  year and wrote about in a post Simple Cheese Making at Home. Warm Breakfast Bruschetta With Fresh Ricotta and Honey. Of course with ready access to a number  of really good Italian delicatessens, I opted to take the easy route and pick up a tub in store.

For best results the gnudi recipe should be started a day ahead using the freshest ricotta you can find. Jamie suggests dredging the gnudi in semolina for at least 8 hours or overnight before using, other recipes for even longer; perhaps 24 or 48 hours. Most call for the gnudi to be cooked in lightly salted boiling water for a few minutes before saucing, but I’ve opted to skip that step and simply bake them bathed in sauce in a hot oven for 30 minutes.

If the truth be known, mixing and forming the gnudi took just 10 minutes, and once settled in their semolina beds I didn’t have the patience to wait a whole day to try them. Less than 4 hours later I decided to rustle up a very quick and easy puttanesca sauce, and knowing the delicate gnudi would most likely disintegrate if I dared cook them in a pot of water, simply dusted them off, dunked them in the sauce, and cooked them in the oven. Pasta bake style. Soft, fluffy and delicious, it’s a rewarding shortcut that most definitely delivered, with no compromise, in taste or texture in less than half the time. Next time I may be better organised and begin my recipe a day ahead as prescribed, but it’s good to know there is a quicker available alternative for the more impetuous amongst us.

Ramekin Style Gnudi Puttanesca

Baked Ricotta Gnudi With Puttanesca Sauce
Inspired By Jamie Oliver’s Butter & Sage Gnudi

For The Ricotta Gnudi
Makes 16 golf sized balls. Serves 4, generously
Ideally start the gnudi a day before you want to use them.

1 kg fresh ricotta cheese, drained
1 packed cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/2 packed cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
4 cups finely ground semolina

STIR the ricotta cheese together with the parmesan, pecorino, lemon zest, nutmeg, white pepper and salt. The mixture should be soft and sticky but malleable.
POUR 3 cups of the semolina into a large shallow dish.
ROLL heaped tablespoons of the ricotta mixture into 16 golf sized balls and arrange them in an even layer over the base of the dish so that they are not touching each other or the sides.
POUR over the remaining cup of semolina making sure the ricotta balls are buried. Transfer the dish  to the refrigerator and leave for a minimum of 4 hours, preferably overnight, so the semolina has the opportunity to draw moisture from the ricotta and form a fine crust. This step helps the gnudi retain their shape as they bake.

For The Puttanesca Sauce

6 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 red chilli finely sliced or 1 heaped teaspoon dried chilli flakes
6 anchovy fillets
2 tins (800 g) cherry tomatoes in tomato juice (substitute undrained tins of diced tomatoes if you can’t find them)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon balsamic  vinegar
1/2 cup  black olives, pitted and halved
1 tablespoon capers
1/3 cup basil, chopped, plus a little extra for serving.

WARM olive oil in a medium-sized sauté pan on low. Add garlic, chilli and anchovy fillets. Sauté until anchovies begin to disintegrate and garlic softens.
ADD tomatoes, sugar and balsamic. Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes.
TURN OFF heat and stir olives, capers and basil through the  sauce. The mixture needs to be quite wet and will thicken further as the gnudi bake.

To Assemble
SPREAD  two thirds of the puttanesca sauce over the bottom of a large 30 x 20-centimetre baking dish or divide evenly amongst four small Le Creuset style gratin dishes,
LIFT gnudi out of the semolina taking care to shake off any excess. Arrange  them on top  of the puttanesca sauce. Drizzle the remaining sauce evenly over the top of the balls.  Bake for 30 minutes until tops of the gnudi are lightly golden and the sauce bubbling.
REMOVE from oven, garnish with basil and serve immediately.

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