Flour Power: The French lighten up on gnocchi

I blame my current culinary obsession on Julia Child. And Julie Powell. And Nora Ephron. For the past several months, ever since I sat in the movie theater this summer watching Julie & Julia and salivating over classic French dishes, I’ve been obsessed with French food. With all that butter and cream, it’s a love affair that I just can’t seem to let go of.

When I recently discovered French gnocchi (gnocchi Parisienne), my innocent smittenness with French food evolved into full-blown passion. I was sampling a few gnocchi recipes when I noticed that one of the dishes had a distinctly different texture. It was much lighter and more tender. I learned that those buttery, melt-in-your-mouth dumplings were made from potato-free pâte à choux (pronounced “pat a shoe”) dough, the same dough used to make éclairs and gougères.

Making traditional Italian gnocchi involves peeling and boiling potatoes, baking the cooked potatoes just until dry, pushing the potatoes through a ricer, mixing in flour and eggs, rolling out the dough, cutting the dough into dumplings, scoring the dumplings with a gnocchi paddle or the tines of a fork, and boiling in water. While it’s not difficult to make, Italian gnocchi is time-consuming.

French gnocchi, on the other hand, is much easier to make. You simply boil milk, butter and salt. Then mix in flour. Add eggs. Stuff the wet, sticky dough into a pastry bag. Pipe little dumplings into boiling water. To make it even easier, you can use a small ice cream scoop to drop little round gnocchi into the water.

The venerable Julia Child does include a recipe for French gnocchi in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her version calls for mixing cooked semolina flour into the pâte à choux dough. She finishes her gnocchi under the broiler with a topping of Swiss cheese sauce.

This is the kind of recipe you can play around with. You could add a couple of tablespoons of Dijon mustard, some chopped herbs (a mixture of parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil is particularly delicious) or shredded cheese to the dough.

My first sauce choice for gnocchi of any kind is browned butter and sage – though sometimes I need something a little less rich, especially after all of the French food I’ve been eating since July, when I previewed the movie. Recently, I opted for a winterized version of pesto; I replaced the bulk of the basil with spinach and used walnuts instead of pine nuts to create a vibrantly green sauce that is a piquant complement to the succulent gnocchi. Even though spinach pesto isn’t a classic French sauce, I think Julia Child would have approved.

Kelly Green Schmickle, an English teacher who lives in Alton, chronicles her culinary experiments at www.barbaricgulp.com.