Malfatti means “badly formed” in Italian. These rustic spinach ricotta gnocchi-like dumplings may look a bit wonky, but they taste incredible – the very definition of the perfectly imperfect!
Malfatti – rustically delicious!
I love being proven wrong when it comes to food.
As I dubiously fished the totally unimpressive-looking, slippery dumplings from the poaching liquid and plonked them in tomato sauce to pop into the oven, I was mentally preparing for what I could do to save the dish if it came out as bland as I was expecting. Bury in cheese and stick it back in the oven, I thought to myself. Cheese’ll save anything!
How very wrong I was about Malfatti! This is one of the most delicious things I’ve made all year. (Yes, yes, I know I’ve said that a few other recipes I’ve shared this year, but this time*, I really mean it!!) Those plump little gnocchi-like balls are delightedly savoury, ultra-soft and incredibly juicy on the inside. They’re often paired with a tomato-based Napoli Sauce like here, and finished with a shower of parmesan.
Like all addictively tasty things that come in bite-size packages, they’re dangerously difficult to stop popping them in your mouth once you start. One, two, three, five, ten …
* I really meant it the other times I declared this as well. There is room in my life for more than one “most delicious thing I’ve made all year”. I have a big appetite!!
What exactly are Malfatti, anyway?
Malfatti are traditional Italian dumplings made out of spinach and ricotta. They’re bound together with a little flour and egg, and flavoured with parmesan and basil.
Meaning “badly formed”, the name malfatti is an affectionate jibe at their rough and rustic looks. They’re also known as gnudi in other parts of Italy, which means “naked” – a reference to their appearance like pasta-less ravioli.
They are often served with a tomato-based Napoli sauce, though you also see it with other sauces such as brown butter and sage.
Here’s an up close and personal look at the inside of Malfatti. Looks good, eh? 🙂
Boiled like gnocchi, baked in the oven
Malfatti are cooked much like gnocchi in boiling water. Like gnocchi, the most common way serve them is also just like that – simply drained, and topped with the sauce.
Sometimes however you see baked versions, where the Malfatti is placed in the sauce and finished in the oven and is my preferred way of making them. Baking them “sets” the surface of the dumplings so they don’t seem soggy (they’re quite wet and slippery straight out of the boiling water). Plus, you get the benefit of a little browning on the edges of the Napoli Sauce which has a change to meld with the dumplings.
I’d be interested in opinions on this (even bold?!) statement from any Italians reading this!
Ingredients in Malfatti Dumplings
Here’s what you need to make the dumplings.
Ricotta (dry and crumbly = good!) – The key ingredient here! Whereas ordinarily ricotta-based recipes will call for the freshest, softest and creamiest ricotta you can find, for Malfatti, we are after drier ricotta so the mixture is firm enough to shape into dumplings.
Rule of thumb – If you can spread the ricotta like butter, it’s too wet and needs to be drained to remove excess water (just set over a colander or wrap in tea towels, see recipe notes). If you can virtually crumble it with your hands, it’s perfect!
Emergency fix: If you decide to proceed anyway with a ricotta that you suspect is too wet and find the mixture is so loose you can’t form dumplings, just add the minimum amount of flour required to thicken the mixture (I did);
Garlic and eschalot (US: Shallots) – For flavour and sweetness. If you don’t have eschalots, use 1/2 a red onion instead. (PS. Eschalots are the little tear-drop shaped alliums sometimes labelled as “French Onions” here in Australia);
Parmesan – Much of the seasoning (flavouring and salt) for Malfatti. It also helps to firm up the mixture;
Flour – Just 1/2 a cup, far less than most dumplings. Required to bind the mixture;
Egg – The universe’s natural food glue, this is what holds the dumplings together! We use one whole egg as well as one egg yolk because one egg alone is not quite enough to make the Malfatti hold together. Bonus: An extra yolk makes them just that little bit richer and delicious!
Basil – Just a handful, for its lovely fresh flavour. If you don’t have fresh basil, just leave it out rather than substitute with dried basil (dried basil really has no flavour)
Ingredients in Napoli Sauce for Malfatti
One of the most popular sauces for Malfatti is a classic Italian tomato sauce called a Napoli Sauce (after the city of Naples, capital of the region where tomatoes and basil are staple flavours). Here’s what you need:
Onion and garlic – Classic foundation flavourings;
Tomato paste – For a small boost in tomato intensity, and to thicken the sauce slightly (the sauce for Malfatti is typically thick and chunky, rather than loose and runny);
Basil – Please pretend the basil sprig pictured here has been picked! 😂 The leaves are used in the dumplings, while we use pop the stem into the sauce to give it a small hint of fresh basil flavour.
Crushed or diced tomato – As always, the better the quality, the better the sauce;
Sugar – 1/2 a teaspoon, to soften the tartness of the sauce a touch. It’s a shortcut for this sauce, which we only simmer for 20 minutes. If you have the time to simmer on a very, very low heat for 1 hour or so to let the flavours really develop and the sauce to sweeten naturally, feel free to skip it. 😇
How to make Malfatti
The key thing here is to NOT get too hung about about perfectly perfect dumpling shapes. Remember, Malfatti means “badly formed”. Stick to the spirit of the name, a licence for imperfection!
Part 1: Remove water from spinach
Firstly we need to remove the excess water from the spinach otherwise it makes the Malfatti mixture too loose.
Sweat spinach with salt to remove water – Sprinkle spinach with a little salt and leave for 20 minutes. The salt will draw some moisture out of the spinach, which makes it easier to squeeze out the water;
Wring out water – Put a handful of spinach on a clean tea towel. Gather up the the corners of the tea towel and twist it firmly to squeeze out the water;
Roughly chop – Not too finely. We don’t want minced spinach dumplings!
Sauté lightly – Lastly, we sauté the garlic and eschalots, then add the spinach in and toss it through.
Finally, cool the spinach before stirring into the ricotta mixture.
Part 2: Make the Malfatti dumplings
Malfatti mixture – Once the spinach is cool, add it into the bowl with the remaining Malfatti ingredients. Then gently mix until combined;
Form dumplings (wonky or neat!) – Use two dessert spoons to form “football” shaped dumplings. Remember the name and don’t get too hung up about perfect shapes!!
Boil – The Malfatti are cooked in boiling water, just like other dumplings. Bring a pot of water to the boil and carefully lower 4 to 6 dumplings in. Don’t crowd the pot, you don’t want the Malfatti bashing into each other;
Cook until they float (~2 minutes) – You’ll know exactly when the Malfatti are cooked because they float to the surface! Don’t worry about whether they’re fully cooked through because remember we finish them in the oven. 🙂
Use a slotted spoon to fish them out and place onto paper towels to drain.
Part 3: Making Napoli Sauce and baking the Malfatti
The sauce is as simple as a sauté, a stir and a simmer. As the sauce takes 20 mins, I typically start the sauce while I’m sweating the spinach.
Make the sauce – Nothing ground breaking here! The usual sauté garlic and onion → add tomato → simmer 🙂 This sauce is only simmered for 20 minutes, but long enough for it to thicken and develop some flavour. If you’ve got the time, add a bit of extra water and simmer it on super low heat for 1 hour. This will make the sauce even more delicious!
Baking time! – Pour the sauce in a pan and top with Malfatti. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for just 15 minutes, long enough to just give the surface of the Malfatti the faintest hint of gold blush. More importantly, it gives the Malfatti a light crust, rather than being slippery and wet straight out of the boiling water;
Baked Malfatti result – In the photo above, you can see how the Malfatti is very lightly browned compared to the photo in Step 2. The other benefit of baking is that you get some tasty sauce caramelisation around the edges of the pan; and
Finish with parmesan – Give the Malfatti a generous dusting of parmesan and sprinkle of fresh basil. Then dish it out!!
How to serve Malfatti
Initially, I was confused about how to serve Malfatti. Over pasta? Over polenta?? Slop it up with bread??
Nope. Think of it like gnocchi. So just like you do with gnocchi, serve yourself a big bowl of Malfatti just like that.
Watch how to make it
Malfatti (Italian Spinach Ricotta Dumplings in Napoli Sauce)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves , finely minced
- 1/2 onion , very finely diced
- 800g / 24 oz crushed tomato (or diced)
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 basil stem (leaves kept for the Malfatti)
- 1/2 tsp white sugar
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
Spinach for Malfatti:
- 300g / 10oz baby spinach (~6 tightly packed cups, Note 4)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic , finely minced
- 1 eschallot (large), finely chopped (or 1/2 red onion)
- 500g / 1 lb ricotta (must be dry type, not wet and spreadable, Note 1)
- 1/4 cup (lightly packed) basil leaves, finely sliced (use stem for sauce)
- 1 egg (Note 2)
- 1 egg yolk (Note 2)
- 1 cup parmesan , finely grated
- 1/2 cup flour , plain / all-purpose
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 cup parmesan , finely grated
- Basil leaves , small (optional)
- Saute garlic and onion: Heat oil in a small pot or large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and onion and cook for 3 minutes until onion is softened.
- Simmer sauce: Add remaining ingredients plus the stem of basil. Bring to a simmer, then reduce stove to low and cook, stirring every now and then, for 20 minutes. It should be fairly thick rather than a loose runny sauce.
- Drain ricotta, if needed: The ricotta should be the dry and fairly crumbly type rather than wet, soft and almost spreadable. If it's wet, see Note 1 for removing excess water (wet ricotta makes Malfatti hard to shape and cook!)
- Sweat spinach: Toss spinach with 1/2 tsp salt in large colander. Leave for 20 minutes. Roll up in tea towel and squeeze tightly to remove excess liquid. Roughly chop.
- Sauté garlic, eschalot and spinach: Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add garlic and eschalot, cook for 1 minute until translucent. Add spinach and cook until just wilted. Transfer to large bowl, allow to cool.
- Malfatti mixture: Add ricotta and all remaining Malfatti ingredients into the bowl. Mix well to combine. It should be too wet to roll with hands without sticking, but still firm enough to shape into dumplings.
- Form dumplings: Using 2 dessert spoons, scoop up about 1 1/2 tablespoons of mixture then shape into a football (quenelle) using the two spoons. Place on a paper-lined tray. You should get about 24-30.
- Boil dumplings: Bring a large pot of water to the boil, then carefully put 6 dumplings in. Cook for 2 minutes, they should float to the surface. Remove with slotted spoon on to paper towel lined tray. Repeat for remaining Malfatti.
- Preheat oven to 180°C / 350°F.
- Assemble: Pour Napoli Sauce into a baking dish, then top with Malfatti. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
- Bake 15 minutes or until the Malfatti has a faint blush of gold on the surface (Note 3).
More meatless Italian
Life of Dozer
When Dozer came shoe shopping. I live in a VERY dog friendly area!!!
(PS In case you re wondering, he is anti stilettos and pro sneakers. Something about me not being able to play with him in heels. 🤷🏻♀️)