FRIDAY FEAST with Anne Gracie

This week on Friday Feast it’s my great pleasure to host Regency historical romance author Anne Gracie. I have a lot to thank Anne for. It was during one of Anne’s tutorials at a Romance Writers of Australia conference that I experienced the light bulb moment that changed the way I wrote. So I’m thrilled to welcome Anne today and unashamedly pimp…er…promo her books. Mind you, she’s also about to share something deeeeelicious, so it’s a win-win all round.

Now, I know it’s unlikely but it’s possible you may never have heard of Anne Gracie and her wonderful Regencies, but I bet you’ve heard of the TV series The Tudors. Well, Anne’s responsible for the novelisation of the smash-hit series. Impressive, huh? Yes, we’re talking one seriously talented lady here. A talent perfectly reflected in her latest release, Bride By Mistake.

Eight years ago, Lieutenant Luke Ripton made a hasty wartime marriage-in-name-only to protect a young girl from a forced union and left her protected in a remote mountain convent. Now, Luke is Lord Ripton, but he has been unable to obtain an annulment. Which leaves him no choice but to collect a wife he doesn’t want.

For eight years Isabella has waited like a princess locked in a tower, dreaming of her handsome, dark-eyed prince. Her dreams are shattered when Luke reveals himself not as a prince, but an autocratic soldier, expecting her unquestioning obedience, which is something Isabella’s fiercely independent nature will not tolerate.

Hooked? I bet you are. You can find more information on Bride By Mistake, including an extract, on Anne’s website. And don’t forget to check out Anne’s other books. I can highly recommend her Perfect series. They’re utterly delightful!

Oof, have a look at me rambling on like the besotted fan-girl I am. It’s time I welcomed the lady herself.

Enjoy!

 

The Secret of Gnocchi…

  …. or not, as the case may be.

After the last few Friday Feasts, I thought if I didn’t make a change from the gorgeous chocolate and sweet confections we’d all explode. (Well, I would!)

So I cast around for something a bit different, on which I could actually offer something. And I thought, I know the secret of gnocchi.

It’s not precisely my secret however; it was given to me, many years ago, by that goddess of romance writing, Helen Bianchin.

I still remember my first taste of gnocchi. I was a student, and a group of us had just got back from a camp. We were damp, cold, tired and hungry, and, since we all lived in students digs, nobody was home to make us dinner. So we went over the road to one of the many cheap, delicious Italian restaurants that Lygon St in Melbourne is famous for.

The others had pizza or pasta, but I thought I’d try gnocchi. It was delicious; little oval dumplings of potatoey goodness soaked in rich tomato sauce and topped with cheese. Heaven on a dish.

After that, I’d tried to make gnocchi myself, with conspicuous lack of success. I invariably produced little rubbery chewy things. Horrible, stodgy bullets.

I tried making different kinds of gnocchi — semolina (yum!) pumpkin (delish!), spinach and ricotta (fab!). They all tasted delicious, but whenever I tried to make potato gnocchi — disaster! I tried different kinds of potatoes, tried using bread flour instead of ordinary. Still horrible.

One day I happened to mention to Helen Bianchin that no matter what recipe I followed I always ended up with hard little rubbery lumps.

Helen, being a goddess of Italian cooking, as well as romance writing, checked my recipe. Yes, I used old, floury potatoes. Yes, I had mashed the potatoes well, even tried pushing them through a sieve. No, it wasn’t too wet a mixture.

I assured her that I’d kneaded the mix really well, as the recipes had said, until the dough was smooth.

Noooo,” she said. “You make gnocchi like scones, using the lightest touch possible.”

So the next time I made potato gnocchi, I treated the mix like scones, mixing it just barely together before forming the little gnocchi balls.

And it was brilliant. From then on, my potato gnocchi have always turned out as they should, and every time I serve up a successful batch, I mentally thank Helen.

So the plan for this blog was to make up a batch of yummy potato gnocchi and take some pics. The trouble is, I’ve been doing a course all week, and going out to dinner after it, and not getting anywhere near shops, and I have no potatoes.

Then I remembered how much I like other kinds of gnocchi, and thought, why not share the spinach and ricotta recipe I use so often? It’s quick and dead easy and delicious. I love it especially at this time of year as I make a variation with lots of fresh basil and pine nuts. It’s light and herby and fresh-tasting, filling without being heavy.

But though I had fresh basil and spinach growing, and I always have pine nuts on hand, I didn’t have any ricotta. I usually buy it fresh, by the wedge, from the market, but because of this course, and the going out afterward, I couldn’t get there in opening times.

Then late last night, driving home past the late night convenience store, I had a brainwave. I whizzed in and sure enough there was ricotta in a 250g tub. Perfect. Or so I thought….

When I opened the tub an hour ago, it looked nothing like the ricotta I was used to; it was smooth, as if it had been whipped. But I carried on regardless. I steamed a handful of spinach and chopped it finely. I minced up some basil and a couple of spring onions, and I mixed it all into the ricotta with an egg and some parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

All as I usually do.

The mix was a bit looser than usual, so I mixed in a bit of flour, and formed the little dumplings — again, as usual — a spoonful of the mix, lightly rolled in flour.

I slipped them gently, one by one, into boiling salted water… and watched as the dumplings broke up and the salt water turned into a milky-looking brew with green flecks and white lumps…

This was NOT the plan. This is my foolproof and delicious herb gnocchi recipe! These gnocchi were supposed to be firm, tasty and delicious — fit for a foody blog!— not limp blobs in a loose savory custard! The remaining lumps tasted all right, but they looked… well, this is how they looked.

So I dug out another egg, and mixed in some dried instant potato (I keep it on hand to thicken stews.) I tipped out the milky brew and boiled up another batch of salted water.

And lo, this time the gnocchi stayed together. This is how they looked.

I usually serve it simply with melted butter and parmesan and some pine nuts, put under the griller for a few minutes so the parmesan melts and goes toasty, or for something a little more substantial I’ll make a rich tomato sauce, or maybe mushrooms.

But this lot is going in the freezer for another day.

And the moral of the story is… use the ingredients you know and trust.

And also, be flexible. The second lot of gnocchi with the instant mashed potato tastes lovely even if it wasn’t what I’d planned.

But here’s the original recipe — it’s a variation of an old one from the Women’s Weekly.

Ingredients:

250 g fresh ricotta

1 egg

5 or 6 large spinach leaves, steamed, squeezed dry and finely chopped.

Fresh herbs– basil, parsley, mint, whatever, finely chopped.

50 g grated parmesan

salt, pepper, nutmeg.

Mix together, form into little balls, roll in flour, and slide into gently boiling salted water. They’re cooked when they float to the top, a minute or two.

Lift out and put in heatproof dish.

When all are cooked, dot with butter and extra parmesan and pine nuts and bake for a few minutes until cheese is toasty. Or pour over a sauce of your choice, and bake a few minutes until heated through.

So there you are; the secret of gnocchi, the tale of a gnocchi disaster and a recipe that I promise you normally works beautifully. As long as you don’t have strange ricotta.

Do you remember the first time you ate some delicious food? Have you ever taken a tried and true recipe and had it fall apart on you when you least wanted it to?

 

Ahh, this reminds me so much of my first gnocchi attempt. It was like eating a plate full of rubber super balls. Urk!

Thanks, Anne, for such a wonderful, fun post and for sharing your secret. No excuse for rubbery gnocchi now. And I couldn’t agree more about using ingredients you know and trust. So important with cooking.

If you’d like to learn more about Anne and her wonderful Regencies – and I’m sure you do – please visit her website. You can also keep in touch on Facebook, Twitter, her personal blog and with the WordWenches group blog (which is fabulous, by the way).

Now fess up. Like Anne, I want to hear your tried and true disasters. I can’t be the only one who’s suffered this embarrassing fate!

 

0 thoughts on “FRIDAY FEAST with Anne Gracie

  1. AvatarBeck

    That still looks rather yummy!
    I try to limit my kitchen disasters but fate often thinks otherwise.
    I had a simple one the other night. Hubby was kindly cooking dinner (a rare joy) and the kids were in bed so he suggested a bottle of wine. Who am I to argue? My only task was to watch the green curry while he headed to the bottle shop.
    I got distracted *internet… cough… email… cough…. twitter…* and remembered when i heard his car.
    Yup, it was charred. I blamed the ridiculously high (medium) heat he’d left it on. And I went and bought take away. Sigh.
    =)

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      Oh, yeah, I can so relate to that, Beck. The internet can be a shocking distraction when you’re cooking. You do the “oh, I’ll just leave that to simmer thing” then forget all about it. Next thing the smoke alarm is doing its nut.

      Although I did have a win once with apple sauce. That time I was lucky enough to remember the pot was on before it was completely ruined, and instead of burnt sauce ended up with a with a delicious caramelised version. It was so yum I always make it like that now.

    2. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Beck, I have burned so many dishes since email and the internet is on hand. I’ve even melted a kettle or two (metal, not electric.) The trouble is I’m sure i’ll only be a second or two…. and suddenly…. I smell something burning.

      Thanks goodness for takeaway, I say!

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      I would have thought gnocchi was perfect kid food, Rach. They’re tasty and fun to eat, and if they get bored they can chuck them one another!

      I adore gnocchi too. I’m thinking seriously of making this over the weekend as I’ll be able to get good ricotta, herbs and parmesan from the market. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

      Hmm. Feeling hungry now!

    2. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Rachael, I agree with Cathryn — I reckon gnocchi is perfect kid food.
      Ricotta is lovely cheese, too, really mild and a little sweet. The only thing they mightn’t like are the green bits — but you can make these gnocchi with just ricotta and an egg, too.

      Or try it with pumpkin, too — very yummy and kid friendly. Just cook and mash some pumpkin and replace the spinach and herbs with pumpkin. Or for a more accurate recipe, try google. I’m very much a “by eye” cook.

  2. AvatarCathryn Hein

    This is probably going to sound really “duh” but Anne taught me the importance of a likable/relatable heroine. How your reader had to connect with her from the get-go. I had a fair inkling of this already, but what I had never grasped was how crucial it was, and nor was I putting that knowledge into practice. It made me see that, subconsciously, I’d been making my heroines just that little bit awful because as far as I was concerned the hero was mine and she could just bugger off. He wanted nice me, not horrible her!

    After that epiphany, I took a lot more care with my heroines. Once I did that I started to final in contests and make real progress with my writing, eventually ending up where I am now. So, as you can see, I owe Anne a lot.

    It was a simple lesson and one I should have clicked onto donkey’s ago, but sometimes you just need someone to smack these things into your head. For me, that person was Anne.

    1. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Cathryn, there’s a theory of learning that says something like you can hear something a number of times, but you only notice it when you need to notice it. Probably you’d been lining all the other ducks up before this, and this was one of the last.

      Anyway, glad it was useful to you. iI aim to please

  3. AvatarLouise Reynolds

    Yum, I’ve never tried making gnocchi but you’ve inspired me, Anne. This is my year for cooking things I always flip over in cookbooks and magazines with a ‘too hard’ comment. I made gougeres a couple of weeks ago and they were too easy. Choux pastry no longer holds any terrors. My other big goal is to bake bread in a camp oven. I can’t think of recipes gone wrong but I can remember my earliest memory of delicious food. My grandmother made the most creamy, perfectly smooth rolled oats. She’d serve up a bowl, pour thin cream and then milk around the edge, put a large knob of butter in the centre and sprinkle the whole lot with brown sugar. That was breakfast at grandma’s 🙂

    1. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Well, there you go, Louise, I’ve never made gougeres. I have baked bread in a camp oven, well, damper, at any rate.

      And I suspect my grandma made porridge the same way. We sometimes had a drizzle of treacle or golden syrup instead of the brown sugar. Delish.

      1. AvatarCathryn Hein

        Oh, oh, gougères! They are quite the most delicious things. LOVE THEM.

        Louise, I have a fantastic bread recipe which uses a Le Creuset pot in a similar-ish way, I imagine, to how you’d use a camp oven. It’s an absolute favourite, and not just because the dough requires little kneading. Basically you throw your usual bread ingredients in a large bowl, mix until just combined, cover, and leave for 24 hours. Form into a ball, flour well and leave while preheating the casserole pot in the oven, lid on, at 230 degrees or so. When it’s hot, dump in the dough and bake half an hour with the lid on, followed by 15-20 minutes lid off, depending how brown you want it. The texture is wonderfully chewy and dense, while the crust is super crunchy. When we’re feeling lazy or short on time we make dough in the bread machine and then bake using the same method. The texture isn’t as good but the crust is always spot on.

  4. AvatarSerena Tatti

    I LOVE Gnocchi! My Mamma used to make the best ones. SIGH… When I was growing up, ricotta wasn’t readily available and because we’re from Trieste, so city folk rather than farmers, I doubt she knew how to make the wonderful cheese which is actually made from the milk whey left over from the production of cheese. So my Mamma made spinach gnocchi without the ricotta – Spinach Stuffed Gnocchi! She did put some Parmesan cheese in there, and a scraping of nutmeg, along with some egg, but I don’t remember eating them later on so the recipe is unknown to me. Served with butter and a sprinkle of cheese.

    But I do know how to make Gnocchi Alla Romana = Semolina Gnocchi! YUM!!

    1. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Serena, gnocchi alla romana is probably my favorite, but I don’t make it as often as I should. All that stirring. I only make it when I have guests for dinner and then there’s never any leftovers! but it’s delish!

      It’s a shame we didn’t chase up those old family recipes earlier. I know my grandma was famous for so many things – her date scones, her apple cakes, and many many more, but I don’t have any recipes.

      1. AvatarCathryn Hein

        I have a recipe for gnocchi alla Romana I’ve been meaning to make for ages. It’s such perfect comfort food and given Melbourne’s winter weather I think I might have plenty of need for dishes like that!

        What a shame your Mamma didn’t pass on the recipe for those spinach gnocchi, Serena. My grandmother used to make the most awesome rabbit stew. Really basic fare but oh so tasty, and it’s a terrible shame I don’t have the recipe.

  5. AvatarMel

    I love gnocchi, have only made it once long ago. Am going to have to try again as these look delish, Anne!

    I had a batch of banana muffins go weird not long ago. Because I used plain flour instead of self raising! D’oh. And at my Nana’s house, there were frequent interesting cooking results because my grandparents kept salt and sugar in identical wooden canisters by the stove. Many many cups of salty tea and coffee thrown away!

    1. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Mel, I still remember the look of pure disgust when some friends staying at my house had made a big batch of porridge one cold winter morning and they sat down to eat it and sprinkled it lavishly with salt because I’d put the grainy salt in a glass jar and they assumed it was sugar.

      It was followed by a look of deep reproach, as if I’d deliberately tried to do them out of their breakfast. I suppose it didn’t help that I cracked up laughing at the time.

      1. AvatarCathryn Hein

        Thanks, Mel and Anne, for those stories. Gave me a smile. Seems like we all have our own special kitchen systems that we think are obvious but others find unfathomable.

  6. AvatarKelly Hunter

    I had my first culinary epiphany eating gnocchi. It was a pumpkin gnocchi, with a 4 cheese sauce sprinkled with something green and herby. To this day I don’t know what the herb was. Not parsley, basil, oregano or thyme… it’s the MYSTERY INGREDIENT. Every culinary epiphany has one.

    Loving your Friday feasts, Cathryn. You realise that by Friday there is no food left in this particular house and we have to resort to reading about it? Don’t you?

    1. AvatarAnne Gracie

      Kelly, don’t you love it when you have one of those epiphanies and have to hunt half your life for that mystery herb. Maybe one time when we meet up we can head for a herb farm for a sniff and taste, hunt that herb expedition.

      And that 4 cheese sauce on pumpkin gnocchi sounds great. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I made pumpkin gnocchi…

      1. AvatarCathryn Hein

        So glad you’re enjoying the Friday Feasts, Kelly. They’re a huge amount of fun and I adore hearing about other people’s cooking adventures.

        I wonder if the herb was savory? I used to see it all the time in France and the lady who ran the Provencale cooking school I went to used it in so many dishes. The frustrating thing is I can’t seem to find it here (although I will check Queen Vic markets now I’m in Melbourne) and so my recipes never turn out as good as they did during her classes.

        Pumpkin gnocchi in brown butter and sage is one of the great dishes of the world, but I have to say pumpkin gnocchi with a four cheese sauce sounds awesome!

  7. AvatarJuanita Kees

    You had me at ‘melted butter’… yum!

    I once tried to make BBQ Pork steamed buns. I wasn’t amused when the boys took them outside to practice their golf swings 🙁

    Although they were pretty hard 😀

    I’m definitely going to give this a go! Thanks Anne & Cathryn.

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      I had a failed attempt at pork buns too, Juanita, although I had the opposite problem. Mine were so mushy they disintegrated in the bamboo steamer. Put me off every trying again. I figure that’s what restaurants were invented for!

      1. AvatarAnne Gracie

        Have another go with them, Cathryn. Seriously yummy, and even when they’re frozen, they don’t take long.

        Actually now you’ve moved to Melbourne you should check out some of the yum cha places in the city, Footscray and Richmond.

      1. AvatarMel

        We could never convince the grandparentals to change one of the bowls or label them!

        My dad’s dad was a baker…would be lovely to have his recipes but alas. He died when I was a wee thing and imagine his recipes went with the business.

        And Anne, I just saw a recipe for potstickers..but I have a feeling they were in the mag I was reading at the chiropractor yesterday. It said to fry them in a little oil until the bottom was brown then steam them. I’ve made spring rolls (much work but yummy), never tried dumplings.

  8. AvatarAnne Gracie

    Juanita, I do love those chinese steamed pork buns, but though I’ve made quite a few different kinds of dim sum, I’ve never tried to make pork buns from scratch.

    BTW, speaking of dim sum, in one of Jennifer Crusie’s Harlequins the character kept talking about “pot stickers” and even though I had no idea what they were, I was desperate to eat one (or more). An American fellow author ended up not only explaining them, but sending me a recipe. They’re… hmm, can’t spell the name — jao tze?? little crescent shaped chinese dumplings, much like ones I’ve made before — mostly I buy them frozen and cook them in a pan, not fried, but not steamed, but a bit of each, only with very little oil. But the name “pot stickers” was so enticing.

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      Are they also known as gyoza? They’re also little fried and steamed crescent shaped dumplings. Had some at Christmas in a restaurant in Townsville, and there was a hawker who made them during the Red Lantern Night Markets in Newcastle. Seriously moreish little things.

      1. AvatarAnne Gracie

        Yes, Cathryn, I think gyoza is the Japanese name, though I don’t really know. Very moreish and dead easy to cook at home. I suspect not too hard to make from scratch, too, using won ton wrappers.

  9. AvatarAnne Gracie

    Mel, I use a non stick frypan with the tiniest drizzle of oil, and I brown them on all sides, then toss in some water and cover with a lid to give them a bit of a steam. I now use this method for the frozen mini dim sims you get at the supermarket or asian grocers, too.

      1. AvatarAnne Gracie

        I am reallllly good at one pot dishes. LOL But apart from less washing up, it’s the nicest way of cooking them. I’ve never been much of a fan for fried won ton, and always preferred steamed, but this method takes the best of both.

  10. Avatareli yanti

    Hi Anne and Cathryn,

    *blushing* to admit that i dont’ like cooking maybe because i think that’s a troublesome job or i will make a dirty kitchen and lazy to wash cooking equipment *ups…

    but when i’m alone at home on saturday, no other choice and i have to cook for my self so i choice a simple menu, as like fried fish and boled vegetable 😉

  11. AvatarAnne Gracie

    Eli, for me, cooking is often a time to think as I stir or chop or knead, so sometimes when I’m writing and I’m stuck on a scene, I’ll go and make soup or something like that. And I try to wash up as I go, because I hate washing up, so I try to make it the smallest job I can.

    But lots of people don’t like to cook, and I don’t think there’s any virtue attached to whether you like it or not. I’m lucky because I can cook when I’m in the mood, or go out or call in delicious takeout when I’m not — I live close to a wonderful range of cheap and good restaurants.

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      It can definitely be a dirty job, Eli, especially when I’m let loose in the kitchen! But I’m like Anne, and tend to use cooking as a form of relaxation and thinking time. It’s amazing what pops into your head when you’re zoning out while watching a pot.

      My mum hates cooking too. We’re all different, which is what makes the world so wonderful.

      Thanks for popping by and commenting.

  12. AvatarJillian Britnell

    This topic is bringing back lots of memories. I had some flatmates from Taiwan. They and their friends sat around a big table and made little dumplings from scratch, filling and wrappers. It took a long, long time but it was a very happy, sociable time. When they were finished they boiled them, then served with sauces and chopsticks.Very nice.

  13. AvatarAnne Gracie

    Jillian, I do like those gatherings of women, working together making some kind of food, and chatting companionably, which makes the time fly.

    I have very early memories of Mum and my godmother and aunty sitting around bottling fruit and making various preserves. The men picked, the women chopped and cooked and bottled, and I remember being about 4 and carefully stacking halved and stoned apricots inside a bottle. And when it was all done, those glowing, beautiful jars of goodness to admire, and a feast to follow.

    When I was teaching adults, we’d have those gatherings, too, where women taught each other some of the dishes of their homeland. It’s a very spirit nourishing activity.

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      I love hearing about things like this, Jillian. This is what cooking should be about – generosity of heart as well as the sharing of food. How wonderful you got to experience that.

      Anne, I have similar memories of bottling fruit. We’d help Dad with the apricots, peaches and pears, while Mum and Nanny would be inside wrestling with the old steel Fowlers Vacola. I’ve never had apricot jam as good as what Mum used to make. A bit amazing, because she doesn’t enjoy cooking, but everyone made preserves back then.

  14. AvatarSue Rees

    Yoghurt covered pork roast – part of a feast with lots of my husband’s employees over for the staff Xmas party. Everything else worked beautifully but the “crust” on the pork failed big-time. We were a little short on main courses thanks to that.

    I still test new recipes on guests, with success, but have never attempted that particular roast pork again.

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      Now that sounds an interesting recipe, Sue. I have an excellent yoghurt crusted lamb recipe, butterflied out and spiced with Indian flavours, but none for pork. I bet it protects the meat beautifully.

      Funny how one failure can put you off. I’ve sidelined favourite recipes too because they disappointed. It can be so disheartening, especially if you made it for people you care about and wanted to enjoy a good meal with.

  15. AvatarImelda

    Hi Cathryn and Anne and thanks for the recipe. It looks wonderful. I have been caught by the whipped ricotta, too, Anne! I’m impressed by your solution!

    Cathryn, I think I might remember the same Anne workshop where Anne said you needed to apply the mother in law test to your heroine. That’s stuck in my head, too. Here’s hoping it will work out as well for me!

    Cheers, Imelda

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      I’m sure it will, Imelda. Such great advice from Anne.

      Great tips from yourself and Anne about the whipped ricotta. I bet quite a few people have been caught and then wondered what went wrong with their gnocchi.

  16. AvatarJillian Britnell

    Hi Anne and Catherine, yes I think was very fortunate to have that experience with my flat mates.
    My Mum used to preserve fruit too – I love preserved apricots best which we had with fresh cream seperated daily, until we found out it was very bad for you.
    The gnocchi looks and sounds yummy Anne, if challenging, and I am going to try and make it.

    1. AvatarCathryn Hein

      I guess preserving was the norm for many people back in the..err…olden days (heee!), Jillian. It’s not as vital now because we have such easy access to fresh fruit at cheap prices and loads of tinned stuff to choose from. Plus not every backyard has an orchard. A pity, because I always loved home made preserves. Still do, and there’s something very satisfying about growing and preserving your own produce.

      Speaking of which, I really need to get started on my herb and vege garden.