Thursday, February 4, 2010

Talkin' 'Bout My Meditation

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, Kelli, Marin and I are part of two informal dinner groups with friends here in Colorado.  One we call our Monday Night.  The other is WND, or Wednesday Night Dinner.  Both meet biweekly, usually on off weeks from one another.  This past Monday, we hosted the latest installment of Monday Night, and for the occasion, made a massive tray of gluten-free lasagna.  Kelli and I have both had a craving for hearty Italian, and lasagna is a perfect dish for feeding the masses (we had 15 mouths to feed this time around).

To take the edge off making the large dish (we made a 12"x18" lasagna), Kelli prepped the cheese and filling the night before. She shredded the mozzarella and made the filling, which consists of tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, Italian sausage, ground turkey and spices. Then on Monday, two hours before our guests were due to arrive, I set about making the fresh lasagna noodles.

I love the process of making my own fresh pasta from scratch, including lasagna.  Some might find it tedious.  But for me, it's a wonderful thing.  And one of the things I love about it is that, for me, it induces an almost meditative kind of state.  It sounds crazy, I know, but let me explain.

A double batch of lasagna noodles (which is what was called for in this instance with such a large baking pan) is no small thing to make.  5-6 cups of flour.  Some salt and xanthan gum.  8 eggs.

I start by making a single massive well with the flour (the salt and xanthan gum already whisked into the flour).  Then I dump the eggs into the well, and it's time to start swirling.  With the index and middle fingers of my right hand, I swirl the eggs, slowly pulling in and incorporating flour from the perimeter.  Little by little, the egg thickens into a pudding-like consistency.  Not soon thereafter, a wet dough begins to form.  And not long after that, you have a true dough.

At that point, I cease swirling and begin kneading.  Using the heel of my hand, I fold and press and knead the dough until the desired texture is achieved.  It's the kind of determination you learn by doing.  I can't simply tell you to mix in X cups of flour and be done with it.  It's an intuitive process, and the 5-6 cups of flour is an intended overshoot (you'll also need some of the extra flour later...).

But as you work the pasta dough, there comes a magical moment when suddenly, the dough is ready.  While I genuinely enjoy all parts of the pasta-making process, this is by far my favorite moment.  There, in my hands, I'm holding a perfectly formed ball of pasta dough.  More so than any other gluten-free dough that we make with flour - cookie, bread, pizza, pie crust - I'm partial to the pasta dough.  That perfect dough ball feels amazingly similar to gluten dough.  It's smooth and doughy and elastic and moist and wonderful.  You can press a finger into it and feel it give.  You can pull the dough and feel it stretch.

I'll take my dough ball, and use a knife to cut it in half.  Then I'll cut each half in half again, so that I have four equally-sized quarters.  At this point, all the remaining unused flour goes into a sifter.  But rather than use the sifting mechanism, I simply tap the side of the sifter with my hand to sprinkle a little flour on the counter, and a little flour on the dough as I'm working so that it doesn't stick.

At last, it's time to roll out sheets of lasagna.  Using a rolling pin and an offset spatula (the kind with a long straight blade, offset from the handle, often used to ice cakes) I begin to roll out the dough.  I sprinkle more flour as needed, and occasionally flip the sheet of dough to make sure it doesn't stick to the counter and to evenly roll it out.  I'll use the baking pan itself to gauge the size of the lasagna sheet, and once it's as thin as a dime (or thinner), I use a pizza cutter to slice the dough to match the exact shape of the pan.  Repeat four times to make four custom-sized sheets of lasagna.

Finally, the lasagna can be assembled.  I began by ladling a hefty portion of tomato sauce into the bottom of the pan and spreading it thin.  Then goes in the first lasagna noodle.  Then the filling.  Then comes ricotta cheese.  Then some shredded mozzarella.  Then the process begins anew with the next lasagna sheet.

(One of the beautiful things about fresh lasagna is that you don't rehydrate or preboil the noodles, and you don't have to match up strips of lasagna like you would when you buy it premade at the store.  Simply make the lasagna to match the size of your pan, and assemble the lasagna directly with the fresh noodles.)

In all, from measuring the first cup of flour to popping the lasagna in the oven to begin baking, the entire process took me one hour.  The lasagna baked for 45 minutes uncovered, and then another 15 minutes covered with tin foil.  Remove from the oven and let rest for the cheese to set up so all the filling doesn't spill out once you cut the lasagna and serve portions.  (If you're watching the clock, I started making the lasagna two hours before guests were to arrive. It took me one hour to make the noodles and assemble the lasagna, another hour for it to bake, and some time for it to rest...which means it was ready shortly after everyone arrived. Excellent!)

When the night was over, we were left with a single portion of lasagna.  The rest had been eaten.  I'll admit, there's a certain satisfaction to feeding a group of people, to beginning the evening with a large tray of lasagna, and piece by piece, to watch the lasagna disappear, leaving only a dirty baking pan behind.  There were also fun moments when I got comments such as, "This is gluten-free?  You made the lasagna noodles yourself?  They're entire sheets?  Not strips of lasagna?"  Why yes.

But about the meditation.  Over the course of that hour that I was making the lasagna, all else faded into the background.  Even the rest of the kitchen seemed to become a kind of blurry backdrop.  It was just me and the lasagna noodles.  Call it a Mangia Meditation.  

When I think about it, I think it's the repetitive process of lasagna making that induces my meditative-like state.  The swirling of the egg in the flour.  The repeated kneading of the dough.  The successive rolling of each dough ball quarter into a broad sheet.  The process of layering noodles with sauce with cheese, which repeats itself four times over.

Repetition is no stranger to meditation.  It's the principle behind saying the Rosary in the Catholic tradition (with its pattern of repeating Hail Marys and Our Fathers), or the Hare Krishna mantra in the Hindu tradition.  In both instances, the repetition of the words within the prayers/mantra, and the repetition of the greater pattern, are both meant to induce a meditative state.  Why should it be any different in the kitchen?  Why can't cooking be a meditative thing?

Sometimes, it can be.  And for me, no higher form of enlightenment comes in the kitchen than when I'm making lasagna.

- Pete


gfe--gluten free easily said...

What a delightful post, Pete! I absolutely think the process of cooking can be an act of meditation. As you said, everything else fades away. You just get into a rhythm and life is good. I suspect if you were wearing a monitor, it would show that your breathing and heart rate even were at an optimum. While I haven't made homemade pasta yet (I know ... silly me), I think I enter that meditative state when I'm baking a lot of cookies, working with a big pot of soup that I have simmering for hours, etc. That's why it makes me sad when people tell me they don't cook ... what joy and peace they are missing out on (other than many other more obvious benefits)!


peterbronski said...

Hey Shirley... Thanks for sharing what gets you into a meditative state in the kitchen! And I'll tell you what's more: swirling 8 eggs in 5 cups of flour is a great workout for the shoulder! For a moment I thought I was going to have to switch arms, but luckily was able to power through. =)

Cheers, Pete