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Malfatti (Spinach & Ricotta Dumplings with Sage & Brown Butter)

January 16, 2015
I first tasted malfatti (aka gnudi) at a dinner party in Munich and fell in love with them immediately.  Even my husband, who isn't a big fan of anything green, was happily having seconds.  I knew right then that this dish would have regular rotation back at our nightly dinner table.

I recently made an attempt to recreate our malfatti experience back in Austria.  I researched around a little and found a recipe by Scarlett Gaus over at fork and flower.  The photos of her finished malfatti looked just like the ones I made and gobbled up before a photo was taken.  Malfatti transforms a hearty bunch of spinach into a deeply satisfying and comforting dish.

Photo Credit: Scarlett Gaus @ fork and flower

In addition to spinach, the other headliner for this dish was ricotta cheese.  My local grocer does not sell ricotta cheese.  So instead of running around to locate another grocer who carries ricotta, I decided to make my own.  I've heard it's super easy... so how hard could it be?  A little more research online and I decided upon Elaine McCardel's recipe for homemade ricotta cheese over at The Italian Dish.

Photo Credit: Elaine McCardel 

I had the whole milk, cream, salt, and fresh lemons.  Good to go.  I brought everything to a nice boil, stirred often, added the lemon juice and lowered the heat.  It was cool to see the pot suddenly change from a smooth to curdled consistency.  Chemistry in action!

When it was time to separate the curds, I didn't have a cheesecloth... so, I poured the mixture directly into a fine sieve/strainer and swirled it around with a spoon to help the whey go through.  I didn't let the mixture drain for an hour as Elaine suggested - ten minutes was good enough for me because I didn't want the ricotta too dry.  You can always tell by your own eye when enough is enough!  Then, I covered the ricotta and placed it in the fridge to chill.  Elaine says this will keep in the fridge for two days.  Mine didn't last the afternoon!

So, back to the malfatti...

Fresh spinach is hard to come by here in my little town of Hall-in-Tyrol but luckily, they sell frozen blanched spinach at my local grocer.  Thaw the spinach and give it a good chop when ready. I didn't do this for my first attempt and realized that no one likes to have spinach stuck in their teeth while at the dinner table.

I now had all of the ingredients.

First, I sauteed the chopped onions and garlic til softened and fragrant.  You'll want to do this step instead of just tossing them raw into the mixture because raw onions/garlic can be overpowering.  Then,  I added the thawed and rinsed spinach to the pan and sauteed for a few minutes longer.  I also added a bit of salt and pepper, a pat of butter, and a splash of white wine to season it a bit more.

I poured the spinach mixture into a large bowl where I added the ricotta and beaten eggs and egg yolk.  Next, a dash or two of nutmeg.  Stir til everything looks nice and consistent. At this point, you can use your eye and see if the mixture is shapeable.  If it looks a bit loose, add in a few spoonfuls of breadcrumbs at a time til you get a thicker, more shapeable mixture. I let this sit in the fridge for about thirty minutes to thicken a little bit more.

Ready? Grab two spoons and start making quenelle shapes with the mixture.   Need to improve your
technique? - go here.  Grab some wine and play a little music while you make your little dumplings.

Roll them in some flour and place them in an oven proof platter.  Brown your butter and add the sage leaves.  Take them off the heat and pour over the dumplings.  Put your platter in the oven and bake for ten to fifteen minutes.  When finished, sprinkle some Parmesan over the malfatti and serve with a warm baguette, a side salad, over some pasta, or with tomato sauce.  

. . .

Remember I mentioned my husband's non-love of things green?  Well, this is a great recipe because you can play with the ratio of the spinach to ricotta.  Next time, I will reduce the spinach and balance with a bit more bread crumbs.  You will soon discover that these dumplings can be all cheese and no greens, as per April Bloomfield.  Have fun with it.  

Amanda Hesser, from The New York Times, says we can freeze these babies for a nice, impromptu (aka last minute) dinner or lunch.  I must admit that I warmed up two of these and sandwiched them between a layer of roasted red peppers and a warm buttered slice of toast for lunch... splendid idea for anyone who is looking for a lunch upgrade.

Curious about the history of malfatti?  My internet search suggested that these dumplings originated in Napa Valley, California in the 1920's. In AMERICA!?   Theresa Tamburelli came up with the idea when she had a baseball team to feed and all she had was ravioli filling. The team loved them and requested more.  Originally, she called them raviolini but then appropriately named them 'malfatti' for 'badly made or a mistake'.  This was definitely one of the yummiest 'mistakes' in culinary history! 

Discovering the history or evolution of food is something that I love so much and can get lost in (sometimes for all day!)... and so imagine my surprise to find April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig and her gnudi recipe... and a clip from The Mind of a Chef series where she makes her version for the late Marcella Hazan.

Photo Credit: Screenshot Capture from the video

Photo Credit: Screenshot Capture from the video

Gnudi (also known as the naked ravioli!), is another interpretation or variation of bringing the filling into the spotlight.  I could go on and on about all the different ingredients you could use... or the types of sauces... or ways to eat these dumplings, but I must stop here or this post will be never-ending! Buon Appetito!

Malfatti (Spinach & Ricotta Dumplings with Sage & Brown Butter) Serves 6

Print Version

1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
600g (2 1/2 C) fresh or thawed spinach, chopped
200g (1 C) ricotta
100g (1/2 C) freshly grated Parmesan
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk gently beaten
1/2 C breadcrumbs, use more or less as needed
1/2 tsp salt
4 + 2 Tbsp butter
200g (1 1/2 C) all purpose flour or semolina flour
a handful of sage leaves

Sweat and soften the onion and garlic in 2 Tbsp butter over medium heat in a pan.  Add the chopped spinach and continue cooking til wilted.  Add a splash of white wine, salt, and pepper to taste.  Pour the spinach into a large bowl.  Add the ricotta, Parmesan, beaten eggs and stir.  Add bread crumbs a little at a time til mixture is shapable by spoon.  Let mixture rest in the fridge for 30 min.

Preheat oven to 175 deg C (350 deg F).

Bring pot of salted water to a gentle simmer.  Do not reach a rapid boil or dumplings will fall apart.  Trust me, I know.  Using two large spoons, make your dumplings into the quenelle shape.  Roll each dumpling into the flour and place into an oven proof dish.

In a saucepan, heat the 4 Tbsp butter til bubbles have subsided.  Add the sage leaves and brown until leaves are slightly crisp.  Do not cook them til they are brown because they will continue to cook in the oven.  Spoon the butter and sage leaves on top of the dumplings and place the dish into a preheated oven.  Bake for 10-15min - you should hear a nice sizzle when they are done.

Dust with more Parmesan cheese and serve immediately with a salad or over pasta with tomato sauce.

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