09 February 2012


SARONNO, Italy – Here it is almost the middle of February, a time when the mimosa should be thinking about budding and the view from my window should not be white and snowy, but  neither of those things are happening. Maybe it was because I was thinking about bright yellow mimosa and warm sunny days that I got a hankering for gnocchi. How I got from mimosa to gnocchi is a mystery even to me, but I’ve learned that cooking logic is not like regular logic and I don’t worry about it anymore.
 Saffron Crocus
Unfortunately I used all of my potatoes yesterday when I made braised turkey with potatoes, onions and carrots for lunch, so I had to dig around for a potato-less gnocchi recipe. What I found was an easy recipe for gnocchi with saffron, and there it was, the connecting yellow thread between saffron and golden mimosa. 

Saffron is derived from the tiny thread like strands of the stigma of the crocus flower. Each stigma is very small and it takes tens of thousands of them to make up an ounce of saffron. Because saffron is one of the most expensive natural products we use in food, selling for more than $300 an ounce, it is usually sold by the fraction of an ounce.
Saffron production is labor intensive
This spice has been around since the days of Cleopatra, but the Egyptians didn’t eat it they used it in religious purification ceremonies. The Greeks thought it reduced the effects of a hangover and cured insomnia, while the Arabs, who introduced saffron cultivation in Spain in the 10th century, realized it was best utilized in cooking. Still today, no self-respecting Spanish chef would put forth a paella that wasn’t perfumed with saffron.

In the 16th century Venice grew rich importing and selling the spice. At that time saffron was worth its weight in gold, which led unscrupulous merchants to cut it with other spices in order to increase their profit margins. If the merchants were British, living under the rule of King Henry VIII who was mad about saffron, they could very well have been condemned to death for doing so.  



Flour, 250 grams
Milk, 200 ml
Nutmeg, pinch
Breadcrumbs, 140 grams
Parmigiano Reggiano, 80 grams
Boiled ham (Parma if possible) 100 grams – finely chopped
Salt, Q.B. (quanto basta – to taste)
Eggs, 2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks

For the Sauce
Butter, 60 grams
Onion, 1 small
Heavy cream
1 package of saffron powder
Pepper, (white if available) pinch

To Finish
Parmigiano Reggiano, 30 grams
Chopped parsley

On a pastry board or in a bowl, sift the flour, mix in the breadcrumbs and add in the eggs and egg yolks (1). Then add the finely chopped ham, the grated cheese, milk, nutmeg, a pinch of salt (2) and knead the dough until smooth and homogeneous (3).

 Form a dough ball, cover with plastic wrap (4) and let stand in a cool place for at least one hour. Then cut ¼ of the dough ball and roll it into a strip the width of a finger, then cut into 2” pieces (5). Roll the pieces on a fork or a special gnocchi board, to form the characteristic ridges which help to hold the sauce (6).

Once you have cut and rolled all of the gnocchi, put them on a floured surfaced (7). In a large frying pan, melt the butter and then add the finely chopped onion (8) and let it cook for about 15 minutes over very low heat until it becomes transparent, but not colored. At this point add the fresh heavy cream (9).
Add the package of saffron powder (10), salt and a pinch of white pepper, stir and let thicken slightly over low heat (11). Bring a large pot of water to boil and when boiling put the gnocchi in to cook (12) and when they rise to the surface.
Remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon (13) and add to cream sauce (14). Let cook over very low heat for a few seconds, then turn off the heat. Add grated cheese and chopped parsley (15), stir and serve hot.

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