- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Quite a few years ago, when my husband and I were newly married, we were invited to dinner by another young couple, who were Italian. Although the entire meal was delicious, the dish I remember best was their gnocchi made with farina.

Gnocchi (Italian for dumplings) can be prepared with potatoes, flour or farina, and are usually enriched with eggs and cheese. Today, the flour-based gnocchi are popular, but the farina-based ones have long been my favorite.

To make them, farina (readily available at the grocery as cream of wheat) is stirred into a pot of simmering milk, a little at a time, until the mixture is thick, like polenta. Grated cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano remains the favorite), butter and eggs are whisked in, then the mixture is spread in a shallow dish or on a kitchen counter to cool.

Small rounds are cut out, placed on a baking sheet, dotted with butter, and then baked until hot and golden. Typically, the warm gnocchi are sprinkled with Parmesan, but I love to vary the garnish. In the recipe that follows, crumbled Gorgonzola, chopped walnuts and minced fresh rosemary make fine toppings.

Last week at a small dinner for friends, I served these irresistible little morsels as a side dish to chicken with porcini mushrooms, but these gnocchi would have worked equally well as a first course.

You could also pass a platter of the gnocchi (along with some cocktail napkins) as appetizers. Over all these years, I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for this Italian specialty. What’s not to like? They’re easy, inexpensive, can be assembled ahead, and, oh yes, they always seem to please my guests.

Gnocchi with Gorgonzola, walnuts and rosemary

Makes 4 servings as a first course or side dish and 6 as an appetizer. (Makes about 20 gnocchi.)

2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup regular or quick-cooking (not instant) farina (see note)

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus extra for the baking sheet

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large egg yolk

1/3 cup (about 1 ounce) creamy Gorgonzola, coarsely crumbled or diced

1/4 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped (see note)

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary plus rosemary sprigs for garnish

Heat the milk in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Lower the heat and add the farina, pouring it in a thin, slow stream and whisking it steadily. Continue whisking until it forms a thick mass on the whisk; this will take 3 to 5 minutes with regular farina and about 2 minutes with quick-cooking farina.

Remove the saucepan from the heat, and add the Parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon butter, salt and egg yolk. Whisk rapidly to avoid coagulating the egg until all the ingredients are well-blended.

Lightly moisten the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate with water and spread the farina mixture in it, using a spatula or broad-bladed knife to smooth it to an even thickness of about 1/2 inch. Refrigerate the mixture until completely cooled, about 30 minutes.

Generously butter a rimmed baking sheet. With a 2-inch cookie or biscuit cutter, cut rounds out of the farina and place them in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Gather up the scraps, press them together and continue to cut out rounds until all the mixture is used. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and dot each gnocchi with butter. You should get about 20 gnocchi. (Gnocchi can be assembled 4 to 5 hours ahead; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.)

When ready to bake gnocchi, arrange a rack at center position, and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the gnocchi until they are light golden on the top and lightly browned on the bottom, 25 to 30 minutes. Watch carefully so the bottoms don’t burn.

To serve, garnish warm gnocchi with Gorgonzola, toasted nuts, a sprinkle of chopped rosemary and rosemary sprigs.

Notes: You’ll find farina, which is also called cream of wheat, in the warm cereals section of the supermarket. Cream of wheat comes in instant, quick-cooking and regular varieties. Use the quick-cooking or regular, not the instant, for this recipe.

To toast walnuts, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast on center shelf of a preheated 350 degree oven until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove and cool.

• Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “The Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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