This month, I joined The Daring Kitchen, an online baking and cooking group. I signed up as both a daring baker and a daring cook. Each month, a new recipe challenge is given at the beginning of the month for bakers, and in the middle of the month for cooks. Group members keep the recipe challenges top secret until their respective reveal dates, the 27th of the month for bakers, when all is divulged.
Driven by my incessant need to swap one ingredient for another; to create a some times harmonious alchemy of flavors; and to be a member of a baking and cooking group that works in tandem on secret recipes – I just had to be part of it.
Especially since I have been trying to experiment with cooking and baking with natural sweeteners and whole-grain flours. I use less sweetener than most recipes call for by pairing maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, or raw honey with sweet fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, dates, applesauce, sweet potatoes, prunes, as well as fruit juices. I also try to use less dairy and eggs, although there are times when no other ingredient can replace them in flavor or texture. I often substitute soy, rice, or almond milk for cow’s milk, flavored nut creams for heavy cream, and flax seeds, bananas, tofu, or Ener-g Egg Replacer for eggs, and mild-tasting vegetable oil (grape seed oil, sesame oil, etc.), prune puree or applesauce for butter, and occasionally nut cheeses for dairy cheese.
Lately, I have had a few mixed results. Some recipes turn out flavorful alternatives to their original; others are eaten for one meal then stealthily offered to the squirrels, bears, fox, and crows beneath the overgrown pine looming in the back yard. This includes my first daring baker challenge: home made lasagna. I could have easily made creamy vegetarian lasagna with meatless red sauce, béchamel sauce, Parmesan cheese, and spinach noodles. Yet, I didn’t. This is perhaps where I went wrong.
I stripped the pasta dish of its richness and built it back up with too little oomph. I ate one helping before calling it quits and served the remaining lasagna to the backyard critters. Maybe I expected something closer in flavor to cheese melted into tomatoes, chard noodles, and cream – instead the tofu, nuts, and tomatoes tasted somewhat acidic and unbalanced – not bad, but certainly not great.
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.
The challenge included making spinach egg lasagna noodles from scratch, a white béchamel sauce, and a country-style ragu sauce. Since I wanted a lighter dish I substituted a simple red sauce without meat, a tofu-based béchamel sauce without butter or milk, and a nut-based ricotta for the Parmesan cheese.
Making lasagna noodles by hand for the first time presented the most difficult step since the dough had to be quartered for lack of counter top space and then rolled, turned, and nudged until the air pockets have popped. I followed the pasta dough recipe in Cooking the Whole Foods Way, by Christina Pirello. I replaced the spinach with chard, the all purpose flour with whole-wheat pastry flour and semolina flour, and took the eggs out adding sea salt and cold water instead. The key, I found, is to mince the greens until they are small dots before combining them with the flour and salt. Hint: use a food processor or very sharp knife. Then slowly add water.
Next, the dough gets kneaded, stretched, and thinned until translucent and then slung on the back of a chair or across the rungs of a baking rack to dry. While the pasta dried, I made both sauces.
I used the béchamel sauce recipe from Robin Robertson’s Vegan Planet, which called for grated onions sautéed in olive oil, raw cashews, white wine, soy milk, silken tofu, sea salt and black pepper, and a small sprinkling of nutmeg.
In place of the country style ragu sauce that called for veal, pork, and beef, I made a simple tomato sauce (also from Vegan Planet) with canned tomatoes, tomato paste, red wine, olive oil, onions, garlic, sea salt, black pepper, and fresh parsley.
As a substitute for the Parmesan, I use the nut ricotta recipe with raw cashews, pine nuts, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, nutritional yeast, and sea salt found in Living Cuisine by Renée Loux Underkoffler.
With the sauces were made, I boiled two pots of salted water and dropped a few dried noodles in for four minutes each and then placed the cooked noodles in a cold water bath to stop them from cooking. After each noodle was cooked, cooled, and drained, the layering began.
A fine layer of béchamel sauce was spread on the bottom of the oiled baking dish before a layer overlapping lasagna noodles. Another layer of béchamel went atop the pasta followed by tomato sauce, béchamel, and some spoonfuls of nut ricotta.
In the end, the home made chard lasagna noodles along with the tomato sauce were delicious, while the béchamel sauce and nut ricotta needed a bit more tweaking until the flavors could dance on my tongue.
Not all was lost. I learned how to make home made pasta and the critters beneath the pine tree enjoyed every last bite.
stay tuned for Daring Indeed, Part II: the sweet lasagna…