I’ve been doing some experimentation with using alternatives to standard wheat flour lately. It’s been real!
The weekend before last, I painstakingly labored over a cauliflower pizza crust, only to see it go terribly, soggily awry. This was probably due more to me making the crust too thin for the loads of cheese and sauce I adore on pizza than any flaw inherent in cauliflower crust – well, that and the fact that I decided to make my own recipe out of a mish-mash of ingredients I’d seen used on the web plus what I thought would work, rather than following a tried-and-true version. (Many I saw use goat cheese. Goat cheese is out for me! I can’t get into its tangy flavor.)
Then, last week, I decided to create my gram’s gnocchi recipe – which consists of only three ingredients, flour, egg, and ricotta cheese – using home-ground black bean flour and a flax egg. I’ve used flax eggs quite a bit in the last year. I’m obviously not vegan, but I haven’t liked the taste of eggs since I was a very small child. (The smell really grosses me out, too, which certainly made that semester my freshman year of college where I scrambled liquid-carton eggs on Sunday mornings during my dorm cafeteria gig – hungover, no less – all the more taxing!). In the past, whenever I bought eggs – very beautiful, organic, cage-free eggs – to include in recipes that called for them, I would have to scramble to bake a bunch of stuff before they went bad in an attempt to avoid wasting them, since I wasn’t about to go fry up an omelette for myself. But inevitably, at least a few eggs in the carton missed the window and got wasted. So I now try to refrain from buying them whenever I can, to avoid that horrible waste. When I discovered about a year or so ago the concept of flax eggs – a combination of ground flax seeds and water allowed to thicken and used as a vegan egg substitute – I was excited. Admittedly, I’ve had mixed results with them. Making a standard boxed cake with a flax egg = delicious but crumbly-beyond-frosting cake, FYI. And I’m not sure they were the best choice as a binding agent here over a real egg, either. So if you aren’t adverse to using real eggs, you probably want to do so here. My black bean flour was fairly fine, but it wasn’t quite as fine as store-bought flour, so the gnocchi came out more delicate and crumbly than they would using wheat flour. A real egg may have helped to prevent that. The black bean flour also lends to the gnocchi a very earthy taste compared to the mild flavor that a standard white or even wheat flour imparts to it. I initially wasn’t sure I cared for it. Then I created the garlic butter sauce with its loads of rich and salty pancetta and vibrant fresh basil and discovered that it pairs perfectly with it. I think making the gnocchi with the black bean flour is worth a try at least once – if even for the adventure of eating charcoal-colored dumplings! Plus, I did feel better knowing that I was using a protein-and-fiber-packed flour rather than a carb-packed one.
To grind the black bean flour, I started by adding a small amount of dried black beans – probably about a cup’s worth – to my blender and blending them until they were broken down into relatively small pieces. (I should mention that before doing so, I shook the beans around in a strainer beforehand to sift away any creepy non-bean particles that might have been mixed in.) I was concerned about doing this beforehand, wondering if it was going to screw up my blender, but I decided to go ahead with it anyway because my blender is old and cheap-o – so what did I have to lose? A loud, disconcerting grinding noise resulted, but I’m happy to report that my blender did its job and did not kick the bucket! Then I finalized the flour in small batches in my coffee and spice grinder, blending the bean bits until they turned to an ash-colored powder. I repeated this process until my glass measuring cup was filled to the two-cup mark.
I’m pretty sure this is not the best, most profesh way to make black-bean flour. In my still much-unexplored copy of Erin Alderson’s wonderfully intriguing book, The Homemade Flour Cookbook, she recommends using a grain mill or “high-powered” (aka probably not that cheapie one you bought for $15 from a big-box store ten years ago for your college apartment) blender and then sifting the flour. I didn’t use either of these particular tools, and I surely didn’t sift. I’m not as legit as Erin Alderson. She’s a flour wizard! But the sifter is on my culinary wish list. And sometimes, as the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of the good – especially if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me!
Mix together flour, ricotta cheese, and egg, starting in a mixing bowl, and then kneading it by hand on a floured surface until it is well-melded and has achieved a dough-like consistency. Use your hands to roll small balls of dough into snake-like shapes, then cut those rolled pieces into individual gnocchi about one to two inches in length, depending on your preference. Score one side of the gnocchi lengthwise with the tines of a fork and lay out on a flat service, each not touching the other, until ready to boil. Then carefully add them to a boiling bot of water and cook until all or most of them have floated to the top, about 10-15 minutes.
While the gnocchi are boiling, add the grapeseed oil, pancetta, and minced garlic to a large saucepan and saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about four to five minutes, until the pancetta is cooked through and it and the garlic are well browned. Then remove from heat and stir in the melted butter and shredded basil.
Once the gnocchi are finished, serve immediately topped with the butter sauce. Makes about four servings.