Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Time Warp

  I was about 15 when mom had come across an old cookbook dated 1906. She handed it to me and I started paging through the brittle yellow pages. She thinks it may have been her mothers' cookbook but wasn't sure. As I began to read through it I realized, even at that age, that things were considerably different back then and especially in the kitchen. There were no mixers, timers, electronic thermometers or the like. Their ranges were wood or coal fired and educated guesses were almost a science. Ingredients of particular items were pure and natural, not in a jar on the shelf.  I enjoyed reading the instructions as they differed tremendously from what we were doing in the 60's. In order to gauge the temperature of the oven the book told you to drip some spittle on the oven door when you opened it to see if it would dance, sizzle or just lay there. If it sizzled the oven temperature was just right for baking a cake. I thought to myself, "this is insane!"
    Baking a cake back then in the 60's was an exact science. You would ride your bike down to the corner store, find a cake mix for 25¢, bring it home and follow the directions. Add one egg, some oil, water and pour it in a cake pan after 5 minutes on the electric mixer. The oven temperature would already be set and a half hour later the cake was cooling on the counter. What the heck was all this stuff about grating chocolate, adding baking powder, vanilla flavoring, measuring flour and sugar, and beating the batter for 400-500 strokes? That's crazy!
   Then it hit me. I'm going to give it a shot. I'm going to bake a cake the old fashioned way and follow the directions to the letter as best as I could. Mom had a gas oven so that would be the only difference. I started gathering up the ingredients and set them up on the counter. The list went on and on and on some more when I realized it will need frosting. I remember making at least 2 trips to the store to buy stuff we didn't have. I had started at 5 in the afternoon and paused for dinner then back to the reading and deciphering of this ancient method. It was to be a three layer chocolate cake with orange frosting. It even called for grating orange peels for the flavoring in the frosting. At 11:00 at night I tested the oven door with, yup... spittle! It sizzled. I put the three pans of cake batter in the oven and just before midnight I was anxious to see what I had created. I was going to taste what 1906 tasted like in 1968. I pulled it out of the dark oven when the surface was appearing baked and went to stick a knife in it to see if it was done. To my dismay, the 3 cake pans of batter were as flat as when I put them in. They never rose. I was devastated. I re-read the cook book instructions and discovered I had forgotten to put in the baking powder.  I had spent nearly 7 hours baking that cake. I frosted it anyway and it looked like 3 pancakes with orange filling. I never attempted to cook anything from that cookbook again. 1906 was over and the 25¢ cake mixes of 1968 were the best things to ever come along, I thought.
   Today, a new generation of cooks has arrived. Sheri teaches with some younger teachers in their 20's. If she brings something into the faculty room to share that she has baked the young teachers want to know where she bought it. They can't and won't believer her when she says she baked it from scratch. To them, scratch means opening up a mix and adding an egg and shoving it in the microwave. She has to explain that scratch means following a recipe with a list of ingredients like flour, sugar, oil, eggs, baking powder etc. They stare at her in disbelief like she came out of a space ship. I suppose it would be more accurate to say she came out of a time warp from the 60's when cooking from scratch was somewhere between 1906 and the modern day 25¢ cake mixes.
The Time Warp courtesy of The  Rocky Horror Picture Show
   Last week I decided to bake a pizza dough with no yeast, and followed the recipe as I am still pursuing the perfect thin crust pizza. To my amazement, it turned out rather good. It had a nice soft chewy crust but not the cracker thin crispy crust that I am looking for. I can still feel and taste the texture of Chicago Fire's Pizza which was exceptional. That is what I am looking for and hoping to find or develop on my own and in my own time.
   If pizza is to survive the time warp the dough has to be made from scratch every time. As far as mixes go: Just say "NO!"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My First 50 Pounds

100 pounds of flour
   My first sack of high gluten flour that weighed in at 50 lbs, is nearly gone. I reached for the heavy bag in the pantry and fumbled through all these nearly empty bags of flour rolled down to the size of a Sunday paper in the Rubbermaid bin and tried to pull out the heaviest. When I came up nearly empty-handed I checked the printing on the outside of the nearly-empty bag.  It read High Gluten flour and down below it said, "50 lbs." I was shocked and amazed that I had almost used it all. For a pizzeria that wouldn't have been unusual. For a home hobby chef I was impressed. Wow, I thought, I used all that flour making pizzas in a 9 month period?  For less than $20 I was able to devour the contents by turning it all into pizza.
    When carrying in a 50 pound bag of flour from the car I had to wonder if I went overboard and just bought it because it was cheap and available. To put that question to rest, I saw that my interest in pizza was a little more than a hobby.  50 pound bags of flour are heavy to lift, move around and store. When I look into the container that holds 50 pounds of Presley's dry dog food I can never imagine him eating through all that kibble. I never ask him to save me the last bite of his dog food either nor would he give it up to me, but it's funny how he appreciates the last bite of our pizza and expects it as well.
How do they know the last bite is for them?
    It seemed absurd to buy that much flour for two people since we're not putting it in storage for Armageddon. However, I have to remind myself from time to time that I am the son of a man that has 8 to 10 gallons of paint thinner in his shed, more portable radios than Radio Shack and enough flashlights to recreate a solar flare. In his home you wouldn't have to turn your head more than 15 degrees right or left to see what time it was due to the vast number of clocks he has collected over the years and all set to within micro seconds of each other as if it were the control room at an underground nuclear missile site. So, with that in mind, I suppose a 25 lb. bag of A.P. flour, 25 pounds of bread flour and 50 pounds of high gluten flour seems reasonable.  Did I mention another 10 pounds of semolina flour as well?
   Maybe I should build myself a dry goods storage shed like the pioneers used to have out on the prairie.  No, probably not, but I think the downstairs shower that we refer to as the auxiliary pantry works out well. The glass door seals it from any would-be mice invaders. I wrap the bags of flour in plastic bags to keep any would-be pantry moths and moisture out of it and store it in a large Rubbermaid airtight container to keep any of the would-be ant invaders out. I keep my available cash in a drawer but my pizza flour is triple wrapped and secured. It makes me wonder too... but how would you explain to this soulful dog that there is no pizza in the house?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Great Taste Challenge (Revisited)

   It's been several months since I had entered the contest for the best food pairing with the Santa Margherita Wines. I had entered my Marghermeata Pizza to pair with their Chianti that racked up nearly 100 votes. The pizza is still an awesome pizza, no doubt, had they tasted it I would've won a few more votes even from the staff, I think. I believe the person who won collected some 5 or 6 thousand votes. So to put it in perspective, had this been a Presidential race it would have been close so long as Al Gore wasn't involved. I haven't thought about it much except to answer people's questions as to whether I had won or not.
   Today the UPS truck rumbled up in front of the house with a package. The doorbell rang, the relay doorbell rang too and Presley barked and I got up to see what had arrived. Thinking it had been some calcium pills that Sheri had ordered for me I felt the soft packaging and decided this must not be the calcium pills. I saw the return address and still didn't make the connection to the contest.
  Last summer I had done a mural painting on masonite boards for a woman who wanted a scene above her stove of her sister's winery down in Santa Barbara and immediately I thought it had something to do with her or her sister's winery. Upon opening it, it had a nice card that read: "Thank you so much for your submission to the Santa Margherita Great Taste Challenge Contest." The card went on to say my video didn't make it to the semi-finalist round etc. but here's a token of our appreciation. In a fine mesh wine gift bag that sparkled was an apron displaying their logo and the Great Taste Challenge 2010! Wow! I thought I had been used, abused and put out to snooze. A little gesture like this is worth mentioning I think, especially after watching numerous episodes of Gordon Ramsay's Master Chef who make the losers turn in their aprons before disappearing into obscurity. I will wear mine proudly and when people ask how I did in the competition I will say, "I lost by fewer votes than the last Presidential race." I wonder if Al Gore got an apron when he lost his race?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dynamite Pizza

   I know it's been a while since my last posting and people are wondering if pizza is out of my veins yet. That's not the case, only the time I have had to devote to writing the blogs has been shortened. Sheri says, "Work isn't just a job, it's an inconvenience." That is so true but when work comes up I have to give full attention to it and with this late summer heat everything has slowed down including me and my pizza making and experiments.
   I pulled out the binder that holds my many dough and sauce recipes and started to take inventory of what recipes I have tried and which ones I haven't yet tried. I have come across one that is another sourdough recipe but it includes garlic powder and oregano. I was hot, hungry and tired when I was perusing the file and thought I had read gun powder in the list of ingredients. That caught my eye as something I hadn't tried yet but after glancing back it clearly read garlic powder. Thank God! I don't even know which aisle at Safeway or Nugget that they might sell gun powder. I think Big 5 might carry it but that's all the way across town and if they asked me what I was using it for they might call security. It still looked worthwhile using garlic powder so I've decided to give it a go. I wonder though what would've happened if I did go with my original interpretation of using gun powder? In Rachel Ray's magazine, her one column that I read are monthly stories of kitchen messes and successes. So many of them are accidents that should have been disasters that ended up becoming a new family favorite. I think I could've made her top ten if I had insisted on gun powder.
   You want to make a pizza that's memorable and with flavors that explode in your mouth and maybe call it an Extreme Pizza or a pizza that will blow your mind not to mention your oven. I stuck with the garlic powder. After trying the recipe twice that were unsatisfactory in my opinion I decided to try a different approach. I was baking them on the stone at 550º and they were turning out hard and so tough that I had second thoughts that maybe I should have used gun powder. My final attempt I steered clear of the stone and used the pizza screen that I use when I do my incredible NewYork pizza. Instead of 550º I lowered the temp to 475º like the NY pizza, and baked it on the screen resting on the lower rack. To my surprise the pizza was chewy and and flavorful. The sourdough starter that I had added really came out in the overall taste so the gun powder was unnecessary after all.
   If I had used the gun powder I suppose I would have had to add a disclaimer to pizza lovers. "Kids, don't try this at home, Vince is a trained professional." The pizza didn't blow my mind but with the additional garlic and oregano in the mix I think it will become a worthwhile footnote to keep in mind for later use.