Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Captain Ahab vs Pizza Chef

I finally gave up on King Arthur and Lancelot flour being available in large quantities around Sacramento. What I decided I needed was just a decent quality high gluten flour to make the type of New York pizzas I had envisioned. Now this is where it got confusing to me. We all know what Chicago deep dish pizza is because it so vastly different than what we are use to especially in California. I had been to New York City and have eaten at one of the little pizzerias in Manhattan not far from Carnegie Hall. They give you a huge slice of pizza that they just drizzled olive oil on it and hand it to you on a wax paper. The proper way to eat it is fold it over like a taco and stick the end of it in your mouth like you would a hot dog. Californians don't eat their pizza that way because we tend to bake it on a thicker crust and not fold it because we slice it narrower and therefore it doesn't need the fold to give it rigidity. However, as different as it is it is still a New York style pizza whether it's thick, thin or medium. It appears though that Californians have developed their own style of pizza when you see all the non traditional type toppings we put on our pizza from artichoke hearts to baby corn, mountains of arugula and avocado to probably yogurt and trail mix.
I love the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer got into an argument with Poppy because he put cucumber slices on his pizza. Poppy says that's not a pizza with cucumber slices on it. They argue about toppings and Poppy says the moment you put it into the oven it's a pizza. Kramer argued that it wasn't a pizza until you take it out of the oven. It was a blatant jab at the pro lifers and pro choicers in the form of pizza. Of course the issue was not resolved.
Getting back to my pizza though, I had visions of a pizza with a firm crust and shapely curves that accentuated an already sublime figure and not carrying any excess weight. Yes, I'm still talking about pizza ;-) The only hope I had left was the high gluten flour and finally in my searches through 'smart and finals' and 'cash and carries' I had found a 50 lb bag of high gluten flour for under $20. This was going to be my Moby Dick. I would sink or swim.
Not to prolong the tension and add to the enormous amount of drama I am creating here but the pizza was hugely successful and my life would now be easier, or so I thought. After I baked it I knew immediately I had found the holy grail of pizza flour. The crust is described as rustic that was airy like a sourdough and tasty with a crunch. It stood almost an inch thick on the edges and I think was alive. I rushed to get my camera before the moment escaped me as I waited for it to deflate like a proud quiche once a witness laid eyes on it but it didn't! It stood there in perfect form accepting my accolades. I had graduated to pizza chef.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Getting Stoned

Pizza baking temperature will vary. Ask each pizza expert and you will get a different answer as to the best temperature. What they do agree on is HOT.
I've had a pizza stone below the oven in the drawer for 3 decades at least. It was the same stone I used when I baked bad pizza on and it was well seasoned from a lot of poorly made pizzas. One of my favorite stories is when I had baked a pizza one evening and left the remaining half uneaten pizza on the breadboard with a serving spatula on it. I figured on doing the dishes after I had loosened my belt and watched an episode of Cheers. I got up to go do the dishes half an hour later and saw the spatula on the living room carpet. I called out to Sheri to see if she had left the spatula in the middle of the carpet. Of course she answered in a sarcastic tone implying she hadn't. I knew what she meant because I too, speak sarcasm as a second language. Then I noticed the pizza wasn't on the breadboard anymore nor was it anywhere else. That's when we had realized our Golden Retriever, Salem had captured his prey, dragged it into the living room and devoured it! But he didn't cover his tracks. He had left the spatula in the middle of the floor. Busted, bad doggie, case closed.
That stone was still around when I first started to rediscover pizza. I began to use it again and this time with more knowledge and practice. The temperature I settled on for baking pizzas in our oven was 550 F as that as high as my oven will go. Not too many months into the pizza journey I heard a pop from across the family room. That didn't sound good and sure enough under the Calzones I was baking was a tectonic split in my 30 year old ceramic pizza stone.
Time to replace it. I tried to problem solve it. I was not washing the stones so there wasn't moisture present I figured it was just old or too hot. Since clay doesn't age it must've been too hot. The next stone was the same thickness, size and structure. Within a 6 week period a second one shattered.
Now for my third, I couldn't find any different type stones so I changed shapes to rectangle. After about 4 weeks it shattered as well. So, I must be one mean pizza maker or I'm buying inferior stones. Along the way I needed a substitute and started using 6 x 6" unglazed marble tiles leftover from the construction of our home. Put 9 together and you get a nice 18 x 18" stone on the rack of your oven. The stone must be unglazed so as to draw some of the moisture out of the dough when it bakes. This actually works despite the seams between all the tiles.
I have since ordered a professional pizza stone from Ebay called Fibrament D. It is of the same material that the pizzerias use in their ovens and best of all 3/4" thick! I will report and up-to-date on it's success or failure.
I feel kind of like soldier racking up the score with three confirmed kills. I want to spread my feet, adjust my waistband, pucker my face and hold my chest out like Barney Fife and go "yep, I've got three kills now." But that's not the point of pizza making. The number of stones you shatter doesn't matter. The number of good quality pizzas you made on them does.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I need a lot of dough

Back to basics. Dough was still my nemesis. How was I going to take my dough from amateur to professional? I Googled "best pizza dough recipe ever". There it was or should I say "there they were". All 7,655,355 best dough recipes ever. I had struck gold! Mitch's dough caught my eye because after comparing dough recipes I learned that they pretty much all had the same ingredients. Flour, yeast, salt, sugar, oil and water. But Mitch's used honey, not sugar. That was enough difference to make me choose his over all the others.
Varying amounts of the 6 ingredients fluctuated and even technique varied as well as the order of combining the big 6. I'm not sure what the mathematical formula would be for the number of possibilities of combining the 6 ingredients in a different order each time would be but I'm sure it would be in the millions, no probably billions.
Then I started reading about flour, spring flour, winter flour, bread flour, wheat flour, northern flour, southern flour, American flour, European flour, rice flour, semolina flour and on and on. I looked in our cupboard and solved that problem real fast. All we had was all purpose flour and a small bag of bread flour. I had read that adding bread flour to the AP flour (that's what we call all purpose flour now) can change the texture and taste. I tried that combination at about 3 to 1 ratio and used honey and a whole bunch more olive oil than I do now had come up with a crust I would call mature and rustic. Many of my friends were liking it and I thought that I was finished with designing a dough recipe that I liked and could live with. But I couldn't stop. Pizza making was filling up every waking moment. When we would go shopping I'm now studying bags of flour in the grocery store and googling them when I get home. Soon I thought I had found what I was looking for. There at Sam's Club next to the AP flour in 50 lb. bags was a 25 lb bag that read bread & pizza flour $6.94! I was ecstatic! How many pizzas could I make with 25 pounds of flour? Apparently not enough because that bag went way too fast before I bought another and the more I read and learned and began to understand all the while adjusting my dough recipes the more flour was beginning to obsess me. I discovered King Arthur flour and Sir Lancelot flour to be the flour of flours. Only problem was, is that it was back east and I'm out west and all I can get here is tiny little bags of this high gluten flour so unless I wanted to fork out the dough (pun intended) to have it shipped out to California I was going to be out of luck since I'm not a Pizzeria ordering huge amounts of it. BUT the key phrase was "High Gluten"...
As my dough journey proceeded I was playing with different things I could do to adjust the flavor or texture. One of the most obvious was to add garlic powder to the recipe. Another was adding beer to the dough. A side journey along the way was an attempt to make beer. A mild success. I bottled it after the brew stage with plenty of carbonation but when I went to serve it to guests the first time it had gone flat. What do I do with 12 quarts of dark Vienna style beer?
What else? Google Pizza beer dough and wouldn't you know there was someone who had done it! A world of possibilities was keeping me awake. Can I generate enough interest in my pizza that others won't get bored with it? Where do I take it from here? Is High Gluten flour going to make a difference that I will notice or just the pizza snobs will notice? Am I becoming a pizza snob? I've got to know.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Form before Function

Everybody says it's the dough that makes a good pizza. They are correct, but at this stage of the game I wasn't ready to accept that. Being an artist, I needed to work in color. I went on the quest to make a really good rich, red pizza sauce. Similar to spaghetti sauce, maybe a little firmer and ripe with flavor I thought I could just throw the ingredients I had in the house, pile up the garlic and simmer it til next Tuesday and voila', all done. It wasn't going to work that way. The more I read the more I realized I didn't know what I was doing. Every cook has their version and mine wasn't even close to any of theirs. I had to go to the pro's. Again I searched and found help. This time in the form of a DVD sold on the internet. I laid out my $30, sat back and waited. For a price you can buy all the knowledge you need. This is the link to take you to that DVD. The link to is also at the bottom of this blog.
I had to admit, I'm not as good a pizza sauce cook as I thought I was. But, that has been changing steadily. The sauce I developed from the ingredients in the video and a trip to the store were exactly the taste I was looking for. A little spicier but that gives it a wang that stays with you and I want my pizza to be remembered. I, being of Danish extraction, did not grow up eating anything more spicy than a fish stick. The foods I liked as a child were not going to sting anybody's throat. I used to say that the Danes are the ones who put the 'dane' in 'mundane' when it comes to food. So any amount of spice was an eye popper for me. I used to think cinnamon flavored toothpicks were too hot as a kid. I was going to have to adjust. The flavors in the sauce mingled and complemented each other so well. I could see and taste that this was right and I had been way off. Search over for now.

World's Greatest Pizza Dough

After finding the recipe that self proclaimed itself the "worlds' best pizza dough" I started there. With what I had in the kitchen is what I was going to use. I hadn't baked anything with yeast for over 30 years. My last attempt was a failure at baking bread over 3 decades ago because nobody told me yeast was a living thing! I know it sounds stupid now and how could I have not known that but yeast to me was just another ingredient like salt or pepper. People are living things. Trees are living things. Dogs are living things. Insects are living things and even germs are living things. But nobody ever said to me, "Vincent, yeast are living things." So I proceeded to bake bread with a yeast packet that had long since expired but I was OK with that. I have eaten potato chips that were older than my dog. As you would've guessed, the dough didn't rise. I figured it needed heat and then it would rise. So I had an inspiration. Bake it in the oven and then it will rise. It didn't, it had died.
Here I was some 30 plus years later and ready to jump back on the horse! I followed his instructions as I couldn't afford another failure at 56. I would be 80 before I could try it again at the rate I was going. This time the dough rose and I was elated. I knew I had a future in baking somehow.
The dough was so much better than all those Bisquick recipes I had used or canned biscuits I had used. Suddenly I am launched into a new world of baking. Baking with yeast that was fresh was a new world to me. I felt inspired and it was "game on."
Suddenly I wasn't saying to my wife, "that pizza was OK but let's get a real pizza tomorrow."
I had turned a corner in a BIG way. Who would've thought that living yeast could make such a big difference!
I had come a long way with that first glorious success but I had a long way to go. Tomato sauce in a jar that says pizza sauce wasn't going to do it either. At least I knew better than to use ketchup. I started with the canned and jarred pizza sauces that you buy off the shelf. Then I realized what I hadn't done. I had not googled the best pizza sauce ever. OMG a whole new world opened up to me. Pizza sauce recipes of every imaginable combination started popping up. I think there were some 8,440,000 recipes found by Google in less than 15/100th of a second. This was going to be a bit lengthy. I dug in. It was now starting to become a challenge of Man vs Food if I may borrow that phrase from the Travel Channel.
I have always enjoyed cooking when I wasn't in a hurry and now with my work being slow it was a good time to sort it out and see why everybody's pizza sauce recipe was the best.
The best thing I could have done was throw out the recipes from famous chefs like Emeril and Wolfgang Puck and the like. They weren't pizza experts. The experts in my mind were the Italian family recipes handed down for generations. That was where I wanted to go. Suddenly I began to see the quest I was on and understand why I had chosen pizza as my ally and foe. Anybody can make crappy pizza. I had done it numerous times to prove it. Only a few understood what pizza really was. These were the people in the recipes and blogs that I read and absorbed to maybe catch a glimpse of what I had been missing most of my life. Good pizza isn't a goal. It is a journey.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

An endless journey of pizza

I was surfing on YouTube when I came across an old guy making pizza and cooking it on his Weber BBQ on top of a few construction bricks. His pizza looked like an amoeba but it had potential. I played it again and laughed out loud. Then I started thinking about it. I said to myself, "I think that would work." That was my beginning. I wasn't dissatisfied with the local fast food pizza that we'd always ordered but I, by nature am a curious guy.
When I see a magic trick I want to know how they do that. Throughout grade school I read and learned everything I could about Houdini. I had caught the magic bug. The Dewey Decimal numbers are still burned into my brain. 793.8 in any library and you will find books on magic and many about Houdini. Back then we didn't blog so if your friends aren't interested in padlocking your wrists together anymore to watch you escape you lose interest and find something else to do.
While attending my cousin's Ordination to become a Catholic priest in Oakland some 40+
years ago we attended the celebration and meal that came afterwards for all that attended the Ordination. From a deck above the main seating I watched in awe as some guy in a suit attending and listening to the thank you speeches draw on a paper placemat a portrait in pencil of the person across from him. I was again awe struck. I had to earn how he did that. Art, penmanship and spelling were my 3 best subjects in grade school. When I got to college they didn't offer degrees in penmanship or spelling so I pursued art. I got my Bachelor's with a degree in Fine Art in 1979. I can honestly say that I can now draw a portrait on a paper placemat with a pencil.
None of this means anything except that when I need to know I become wrapped up in the quest. Some will say obsessed but I know from experience it will someday pass but I have much to do before that can happen.
I had worked assembling pizzas twice in my young career. Once in a pizza chain franchise and once again at a privately owned pizza place. Neither one thrilled me and neither one taught me much about pizza. I was just an assembler on the pizza assembly line of life.
Now as I have grown in wisdom and age I still love pizza and don't seem to ever tire of it. It's the one food I don't get tired of. I can eat it 3 times a weeks as an adult! The wisdom at my age is that again, I want to know how they do it. I have to start somewhere so I started on the internet. You Tube is an amazing tool for learning.
My wife taught me to always Google: by saying "the best" or "world famous" in front of the item you are looking for when it comes to recipes. I do this and sure enough, everyones is the best! But it does help bring some of the cream to the top.
With pizza it starts at the bottom. The crust has to be great or the rest of the pizza will suffer.
I started by googling world's best pizza dough recipe. This is where my pizza journey begins.