I have a love/hate relationship with cooking blogs. The photos always look so perfect, making the chef look like some kind of culinary demigod. They act like the process is so easy, ending up with impeccable products every time. Why doesn’t anyone ever publish the accounts of their mistakes and failures? It would make us normal people feel better about our mediocre results, and we might even pick up a few tips as to how to avoid catastrophe. I will start the new trend of being honest in the kitchen.
Back in 2007, when I was living in Mexico, it was pretty much impossible to find gluten-free flour. I was desperate for a tasty dessert, so I had to get creative. At the time, my dog had cancer and we were hand making her food. We would boil up huge vats of whole grain brown rice and freeze it for later use. I realized that when I took the rice out, frozen, and blended it in a food processor, it created a sticky powder-like flour. A light went off in my head, and I decided to use it as a base for something delicious! Seven layer cookie bars! I added pureed walnuts, brown sugar, and honey to the brown rice mix and pressed the mixture into the bottom of a cookie sheet. I poured in the condensed milk, layered it with the traditional ingredients (shaved coconut, chocolate chips, more nuts), and put it to bake. It came out amazingly! The brown rice base was firm, cookie like, and most of all scrumptious! Last weekend I wanted to relive this flavor sensation. I followed all of the same steps as before. Boiled, froze, and pureed the rice, layered the ingredients, then baked it. What came out of the oven surprised me – it was like SOUP! It had the same good flavor but the rice itself was kind of undercooked and floating in a condensed milky liquid. Hmm. What went wrong?? I have no idea what I could do differently. Where does excess water come from when the rice wasn’t even that soft?
I tried another experiment that same day. I had the bright idea to make my own gluten-free lasagna noodles, homemade sauce, and homemade ricotta cheese. It was a bit ambitious, but I gave myself 3 hours to prepare it. I started by oven roasting a red bell pepper, a green bell pepper, and a zucchini until they were slightly charred. I diced and added them to my already stewing ragu of plum tomatoes, basil, oregano, onion, and garlic. After a splash or red wine, a pinch of sugar, and a bay leaf , the sauce was left to simmer for several hours. I set in on making the ricotta cheese. It’s a very simple process that yields a very tasty product. You start with 2 L of whole milk in a deep saucepan, set to heat up on a low temperature. Using a cooking thermometer, the temperature of the milk should be monitored until it reaches 180 degrees F. While the milk is heating up, add an acid to curdle the milk. I put in a 1/8 cup mix of lemon juice and rice wine vinegar (it’s what I had in the house…).
As the milk heats, you start to see the curds separating from the yellow colored whey. After about 15 minutes, the mixture was completely separated and heated up. I turned the heat off and let the pot sit for another 5 minutes to ensure maximum separation. You are supposed to use cheese cloth to drain the whey, but all I had was a bandana, which worked just fine. I think any fine fibered fabric will work. I then hung the satchel to further dry out. I think at that point, the amount of draining you do depends on what you are using the cheese for. For a dip or spread you would want it creamier, so less draining, and for something like a lasagna, a medium amount of drainage. The product was fantastic!
So far so good. I was cooking with confidence. Next came the most challenging part… making handmade lasagna noodles. I had seen my sister-in-law make GF pasta from scratch over the winter holiday. She made it look so easy, but I knew it would be a challenge. I started with all of the right ingredients: 400g gluten-free flour, an egg per 100g flour plus 1 extra, and a tablespoon of olive oil. I set up my flour mound and added the eggs to the center, just like for normal pasta. Everything looked right so I snapped a photo and started mixing everything together.
Once it was all perfectly blended, the flour was really crumbly. When I had watched Sarah make it, she kneaded the dough for 30 minutes at least, so I thought I just had much longer to work. Fifteen minutes later it dawned on me that I forgot one vital ingredient! Gluten free flour has no binding agent to give it that sticky, rubbery quality that pasta needs. That’s why people use additives like guar gum or xantham gum. I had that, but I totally forgot to use it!! Frantically I sprinkled the xantham on my crumble mess and added some more water and olive oil. I started getting nervous because it was a Sunday and we had invited a friend over for dinner. Here in Spain, good luck finding a grocery store open on a Sunday to buy things like gluten-free pasta. I decided to keep with the noodles, positive I could work something out. The dough became super stiff, but I was still able to roll it out. I got the noodles as thin as I could, using a wine bottle as a rolling-pin. I par boiled each noodle for about a minute before layering them in the lasagna. Still confident, I put the dish in the oven and let it bake on 350F for an hour. Everything looked and smelled perfect.
I served up a heaping plateful for everyone, hoping that it had turned out alright. Well, hope is all I had, because my knife wouldn’t even cut through the noodles! They were so thick! The slim noodle that I had rolled expanded to 3x its size. I never thought I would see people “mine” a lasagna, but I did. We ate all of the cheese and sauce, leaving piled of hard thick noodle boards on the plate. Sorry everyone. Awesomely, I followed it up by serving my hard rice dessert with ice-cream. Next time I won’t invite anyone over for an experimental meal!