tiny kitchen science (part 2)
June 15, 2008

The point of these chemical endeavors was to avoid compromising my perfect menu when feeding gluten-free friends, who've started coming out of the woodwork to help me determine how I might alter the protein structure of gnocchi rather than opt for risotto. Scientific, though, is a bit of a misnomer, since the testing should have been far more rigorous with several iterations. But, to be honest, Tiny Kitchen's been a bit strapped for time lately. Last minute trips to Europe will do that to you.

Even so, I do a lot of reading before commencing experimentation. We want tight gluten structure in pasta, pizza dough or bread—or at least a stronger one than we want for cakes. But this same all-important glue-like protein (same linguistic root) that holds our baked goods together destroys the small intestines of people with celiac disease. There are, however, ways to get around it—without merely dispensing with the bread course. My research turns up a plethora of options, with each flour combination promising to sub for various properties and flavors of all-purpose flour—but I'm a bit reluctant to concede Tiny Kitchen tiny-ingredient-list proclivities. A mix of rice flour, chestnut flour, xantham gum and potato starch might be nice, but what if I only need about a tablespoon of each?

In the end I opt for convenience—a 1:1 mix of brown rice flour (because they have it at C-Town) and corn starch (because I have it in my cabinet). Can anything mixed with egg and some pretty tasty ricotta be that bad? First I mix wet ingredients into regular flour, knead together a few times, and roll out ropes of dough. There is a seeming state change as I turn the dough between my palms and then on the floured counter, and I wonder if that's the moment of reckoning for those glutens. Slicing my ropes into inch-long dumplings and popping them into the freezer couldn't be simpler.

After studiously washing down the counter and ridding all gluten-bearing traces from the area, I repeat a portion of the recipe with 1/4 cup ricotta and half an egg. Right away I can see that I need considerably more dry ingredients to turn this from a batter to a dough that can stand up to any sort of rolling. After adding what could be too much rice flour and corn starch, and still with a stickier product than I'd like, I start making ropes. The dough does reach a nearly homogenous state and holds together okay when I cut out dumplings—but they are definitely more fragile than their gluten-bound brethren.

The true test is two nights later when I make myself a dinner of half flour gnocchi and half from the gluten-free bag. I boil them in salted water and brown some butter with fire-escape rosemary that crisps up beautifully. Just to make sure I get the fullest flavor, I transfer my gnocchi to the brown butter to sauté as well, hoping for a crispier exterior (I probably needed to dry them off a little better for that). Then I conduct the taste comparison.

It's probably unfair for gluten-free anything to have to stand up side-by-side by freshly made ricotta gnocchi. I can't believe I eat the first one just standing in the kitchen with no ceremony because it's quite possibly the best single bite of anything I've ever made. The dumpling melts away as if it's been stuffed with a soft ricotta center rather than having the ricotta incorporated into the dough. The brown butter and rosemary are perfect. I kind of don't want to eat ever again because it's all down hill from here. But I dutifully sample my rice flour–corn starch creation. It's…well, it's not transcendent. There's definitely more grain involved, so it has a sandier texture and doesn't melt away. It's a more granola-crunchy version of gnocchi, for want of better explanation, which could certainly fit some tastes. But the flavor is good, the dumpling stays together and definitely suggests gnocchi-ness, if not achieving platonic form. "We're used to grainy," one celiac assures me, and I'm grateful for the blessing, but so very thankful that I don't have to give up flour myself.

Depending on the research, 1 in 150 or 1 in 100 people suffer from celiac disease. About 3 percent of those people know they have it. Reactions can range from a headache and flushed face induced by a sip of beer to an out-and-out collapse. It's one of those diseases that's really hard to diagnose and that we're still figuring out. So I guess until medical science catches up, it's up to chef science to figure out tasty alternatives.