Grub Street's ranking of the 50 Best Dumplings in New York could make any devotee of squishy, cheesy, oozy, or porky pack up their bags, zip on over the Big Apple, and try to make it on
Broadway! the subway.
The list is, well, long, and—speaking to both the universality of "dumplings" and how broadly that term is applied—country- and flavor-spanning: We've got sweet plum-filled "German dumplings" that Czechs know as svestkove knedliky; pan-fried pork baos known as sheng jian in Shanghai; Nepalese momo; and kreplach ("so-called Jewish ravioli"); foutou, the national dish of Côte d'Ivoire; Turkish manti; Chinese tang yuan; Austrian spaetzle... and the list goes on and on and on. (You can even get the gang as a set of trading cards!)
But amidst the flavors of foie gras and black sesame, amidst dumplings described as "chubby canoes" and "yielding nubbins," is the pretty plain-looking gnudi (naked ravioli) from April Bloomfield's gastropub The Spotted Pig, hunkering down at number nine. Why do these naked cheese balls—not decent enough to even cover themselves in pasta dough—deserve a place here? Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite of GrubStreet explain:
April Bloomfield’s gnudi—little lumps of sheep’s-milk ricotta barely but adequately contained by a dusting of semolina—are boiled, sautéed in butter, finished with a fiendish drizzle of brown-butter cream, and almost as impressive from a how-can-that-possibly-work? perspective as a Shanghai soup dumpling.
To spoil the delightful mystery, we have an answer to the "how-can-that-possibly-work" question. While Bloomfield's gnudi are, at their core, just four ingredients (ricotta, Parmesan, salt, and semolina flour), their remarkable texture comes from a three-day, entirely hands-off preparation process (which means, with a little patience, you can make them at home): Stir together the cheeses, season with salt, form the mixture into balls, roll each one in semolina flour, then bury those in a pile of that flour and refrigerate for three days before boiling, briefly, in salted water.
As the gnudi hang out in their semolina sand pit, the moist cheese hydrates the flour; when the balls are cooked, the starches in that flour gelatinize to form a skin and protect the cheese within, keeping it airy and melty rather than tight and dense. (Ideas in Food) explained this process back in 2012, with gnudi they dubbed "seamless ravioli.")
The burial and the boiling result in a texture that Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats described as "an under-inflated water balloon" with "a thin, thin skin that seemed impossibly delicate with a liquid center." Puncture the outer shell and the cheesy insides stream slowly into your mouth—like ink leaking under water.
López-Alt, who professed his love for the gnudi in 2015, has smart tips for recipe success, which was originally published in Bloomfield's 2012 book A Girl and Her Pig: He flash-drains the ricotta (by blotting it with paper towels) and freezes the cheese mixture briefly to firm it up so that it's easier to ball.
But even with López-Alt's fine-tuning, the gnudi, while simple in ingredients and technique, are not idiot-proof (I would know: I messed them up several times). Don't be tempted to use coarse semolina: Seek out semolina flour (I found it labeled as sooji), which becomes more thoroughly hydrated. And try to have patience through the three-day waiting period: López-Alt says that eighteen hours should be sufficient time for a semolina skin to form, but I'll be sticking to seventy-two (go long or go home—but, seriously, my eighteen-hour gnudi fell apart in the pot).
The last part of the process—the fussiest and the most hands-on—is a bit frightening. You melt butter in a nearby frying pan as the gnudi boil; then you transfer the cooked gnudi and splashes of their pasta water to the butter pan, turn the heat to high, and stir and shake the dumplings until they're covered with an emulsified butter sauce. This movement threatens the integrity of the fragile gnudi—and it's also difficult to make sure the butter sauce comes together with those baby gnudi in the way.
To avoid this precarious set-up, you can cut back the multitasking (I know, I know). Instead of simultaneously emulsifying butter sauce and tossing it with the gnudi, you can make beurre monté (emulsified butter sauce) as the gnudi cook, using a splash of their cooking liquid, and then spoon it over the cooked dumplings, flipping them very gently.
You can also skip that butter sauce entirely—because Bloomfield's original recipe calls for a brown butter sage drizzle, too. And when you're dealing with balls of nearly-melting cheese, two butter sauces (actually, even one butter sauce) might not be altogether necessary.
Then again, if you're waiting three days to eat a dumpling... you might as well make two different butter sauces.
For the gnudi:
- 16 ounces great-quality ricotta (sheep or cow)
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated, plus more for garnishing
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups fine semolina flour (sometimes sold as sooji), divided
For the butter sauces and serving.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 12 to 15 sage leaves
Name your favorite dumpling in the comments below.