Malfatti literally means “badly shaped” and the name fits perfectly these misshapen, fragile dumplings. Under different names (gnudi, strozzapreti, gnocchi verdi, rabaton) malfatti appear in many parts of northern and central Italy and they share the same logic: cooked, chopped leafy greens (chard, spinach, nettles) are mixed with a binding ingredient (eggs, ricotta, breadcrumbs, flour), formed into fragile gnocchi-like morsels, poached and dressed, generally, with melted butter and Parmigiano or with a light tomato sauce They are delicate but not insubstantial.
I made them with both chards and spinach and they are equally delicious; I have found that a ratio of two parts greens to one part ricotta is just about right. As with any gnocchi/dumpling, the trick is not to use too much flour when making them, otherwise they will be stodgy. I prefer to poach and then bake my malfatti: they emerge from the oven with a lovely, light Parmesan crust. One could serve them just poached and dressed with the chosen sauce: if you do this, bear in mind that malfatti are fragile also when cooked, so it is best to drain them directly into a heated serving plate and drizzle them with the hot condiment. I have also seen some versions where the malfatti are simply baked, without any prior poaching: I have not tried it, but it makes sense. Whenever I poach gnocchi-like dumplings, I prefer to shock them in icy cold water afterwards: this is not essential but it does firm them up considerably.
Malfatti di spinaci e ricotta/Spinach and ricotta gnocchi
3 – 4 portions
spinach, leaves and tender stalks – 500g
a small onion, very finely chopped
butter – 40g, plus extra for dressing the dumplings
ricotta, drained and patted dry – 250g
a little grated nutmeg
half a teaspoon of grated lemon zest
grated Parmigiano, plus extra for dressing the dumplings – 50g
Durum wheat flour (semola) for rolling the malfatti (semolina is fine too)
Sauce: melted butter and Parmesan or a light tomato sauce
Discard the roots and wash the spinach thoroughly. Cook them in a covered skillet without adding any water. Drain, refresh with cold water and squeeze them to press out as much water as possible. Chop them finely.
Melt the 25g of butter with the onion. Salt it lightly, cover and cook over low heat until the onion is thoroughly soft. Raise the heat, add the spinach and stir to coat. Cook until the mix is dry, stirring often. Cool.
Add the ricotta, egg yolk, flour, cheese, nutmeg and pepper. Stir to mix everything together. Transfer this mix onto a large plate, in a single layer and refrigerate for a couple of hours (or pop it in the freezer for about 30 minutes).
Dust a large tray with a thick layer of semola. Scoop out teaspoons of the mix and place the nuggets onto the semola: use two teaspoons, one for scooping and one for pushing the mix onto the tray. Do not worry too much about the shape. When all the malfatti are done, shower them with a thick layer of semola. Shake the tray to make the malfatti roll and assume a more uniform round-ish shape. Reshape the malfatti by hand by rolling them between your palms and place them onto a parchment paper-lined tray, dusted with some plain flour.
Place the tray in the fridge for a couple of hours, uncovered. Turn the malfatti very gingerly after the first hour. They can even stay here for few hours. Remove them from the fridge when you are ready to cook them.
Poach them in a large skillet of simmering salted water: if the water is at a rolling boil, they will fall apart. Remove them with a perforated skimmer spoon once they float up and drop them into a large mixing bowl filled with icy water. Remove them from the water and dry them on a cloth. You can even perform this initial stage a few hours in advance.
For butter and Parmigiano malfatti: Melt a knob of butter with a couple of tablespoons of water over high heat, creating an emulsion. Pour half of it into a baking dish, add the malfatti in one layer, drizzle the remaining butter sauce over and shower with Parmigiano. Bake in a hot oven until a lightly golden crust is formed on top Let it rest for five minutes before serving. For tomato sauce and parmigiano malfatti: spoon some light tomato sauce in a baking dish, add the malfatti in one layer, drizzle some more tomato sauce sauce over and shower with Parmigiano and bake as above.
Spinach: use fully grown plants, not the baby type: here in London they are available at ethnic stores and farmers’ markets: they should be a vibrant green and should almost squeak when squeezed.
The same dish can also be made with chard leaves; cook the stalks separately in the Roman style with garlic, anchovy and chilly pepper.
I have often kept the poached, ice-water shocked dumpling overnight in the fridge and finished them off the next day.