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Adapting Recipes: A Case Study

By February 20, 2008

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Quick reminder: The Living With Food Allergies blog carnival deadline is today at 11:30 PM EST. Get those recipes in! You can use this handy link to submit your allergy-friendly recipes.

I once lived with a roommate who was severely lactose intolerant, and one day she triumphantly brought home a box of macaroni and cheese we could both enjoy --- a lovely gesture, since when I was getting sicker and sicker before I was diagnosed, that was a major comfort food addiction of mine. Unfortunately, we both agreed that what came out of the box tasted like "cardboard with lentils" and vowed never to speak of it again until much time had passed.

There are, of course, several good dried wheat-free pastas on the market. But certain types of pasta -- namely ravioli, which is generally sold fresh or canned -- were off-limits, and I've experimented on-and-off with trying to make a wheat-free ravioli that didn't taste like the newspaper or look like tiny pellets of yuck. At first I tried simply switching up wheat flour for rice flour in my mother's recipe, but that was not so much "edible" as "crumbly."

I finally had some success after watching "Use Your Noodle 2," an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats. His recipe --- more a technique than a recipe, really --- involves not using out a set amount of flour, but using a set amount of eggs and letting them absorb as much flour as they will. This was a revelation to me after trying several recipes that involve adding eggs to a set amount of flour; the amount of wheat flour two eggs can absorb is pretty standard, but if you're using a flour with a different starch and protein content, then of course it's going to behave differently.

So when I make filled pasta, I first mix together a couple cups of rice flour (or whatever low-protein, neutral-taste flour I care to use) with a couple teaspoons of xanthan gum and a couple teaspoons of salt. Why xanthan gum? Trial and error has shown me that it makes a difference in holding the pasta together. I then add about a cup of flour to the egg, knead, and add flour slowly until I have a dense ball of dough, at which time I can wrap it and let it sit in the refrigerator for ten or twenty minutes. I've also made an egg-free version of this pasta using two eggs worth of Egg Replacer per package instructions, but using oil instead of water for the liquid to replace the fat the pasta needs. The results aren't fantastic, but it does work; I imagine it would work reasonably well with wheat flour.

The other adaptation wheat-free flour requires for this recipe --- and doubly so if you're making this without eggs --- is that it dries out extremely quickly once you start working with it. My workaround is to keep a bottle of decent olive oil on hand and knead a little into the dough if it's getting tough to work with. Because it dries out so quickly, too, I don't roll out the entire mixture; I pinch off small sections, roll them, fill them, and then assess whether the dough needs more oil. You can also hedge your bets by frying these after you boil them because, really, who doesn't like fried ravioli?

And what to fill them with? Well, pretty much anything, as long as it's not too wet. Any kind of ground meat with your choice of herbs and spices, ricotta cheese that's been drained a little (if you're not avoiding dairy), blanched and well-drained spinach, even roasted butternut squash. I've also made this with dairy-free rice cheese, with good results.

No, this isn't an everyday dish (unless you're much more efficient in the kitchen than I am!), but the results are nice. And it's a pretty typical example of how things go when I'm trying to make substitutions in recipes --- sometimes not so well the first couple times, and then better when I figure out exactly why I'm not getting the results I want.

More on making substitutions in recipes:

February 20, 2008 at 12:31 pm
(1) Gabrielle says:

That’s a great technique for making pasta – wheat free or not. Oh, and fried ravioli sounds divine!

February 21, 2008 at 1:02 am
(2) Ruth says:

Yikes, I think I just missed the deadline. If you would still consider including it, here’s my entry:

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