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Making Perfect Pizza at Home

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Making Perfect Pizza at Home

Growing up near New Haven, Connecticut, we are spoiled when it comes to pizza.  In New Haven, Wooster Street is our Little Italy.  A half-mile long stretch of city block dedicated to the some of the most celebrated Italian restaurants in the northeast.  Pepe’s Pizzeria Napolitano and its cousin, Sally’s Pizzeria are some of the oldest pizza places in the country.  They are always high on everyone’s list of favs and people gladly wait the 2+ hours in line for one of their super thin, wood-fired tomato pies.  Tummies stuffed with pizza, no trek to Wooster St. is complete without an Italian ice and a cannoli from Libby’s.  Today, Modern Pizza and Roseland’s in Derby are worth the drive from anywhere.  Determining the best place in New Haven has been fuel for heated debate for the last 75 years.  But it all comes down to a matter of opinion.  For us, great pizza is in arms reach.

Unfortunately for most, Pizza is the good-old American go-to food.  It’s what we order when we don’t really care what we’re eating.  We just pick up the phone and call.  Then in just 30 minutes, it gets hand delivered to our door.  It’s quick. It’s cheap.  It’s easy and it’s dinner.  But it’s hardly Italian food.

On my first trip to Rome, I found out what real pizza was like.  When in Rome, do what the Romans do; drive to Naples to get the best Apizza Napolitano. (Actually Romans are quite proud of their pizza too…I just wanted to use the ‘When In Rome’ pun…)  In Naples, pizza isn’t just stomach filler.  Naples is where pizza is arguably perfected and they take it very seriously.  Here, as well as all over Italy, Italians balk over what Americans do to their beloved dish.  Order a pizza and you will not get a giant slab of cooked dough with toppings a mile high and enough to feed everyone at the table.   Pizza here is a source of pride.  For the typical Italian, it’s all about the freshest ingredients and the simplicity of design.  And there are rules…yes rules…for the construction of the perfect pizza.  The basics are this:  The dough.  The sauce.  The Cheese and Toppings.

The dough:   Fresh handmade dough, hand rolled thin to fit the plate of the individual diner.  Pizza is always an oh-solo-mio event.  For real Italian pizza, the dough is the most important part of the pizza.

The sauce:  Fresh crushed tomatoes lightly seasoned.   The sauce should be applied lightly.  You should be able to read a newspaper through it.  It should barely color the dough pink.  In Rome, the sauce is put on until about 1/2 inch from the crust.  In Naples, the sauce goes right to the end of the dough. 

Cheese:  Thin slices of Mozzarella or a sprinkling of parmesan.  Not too heavy handed.

Toppings:  The major rule about toppings is that they should NEVER be thicker than the crust.  While pizza in the US is all about the toppings, toppings on real Italian pizza are more about simplicity.

Back in the Netherlands, I went into a pizza withdrawal. Except for a very few exceptions (Renato’s in de Pijp section of Amsterdam is one of the best),   pizza here is varying shades of bad.  Undercooked pre-processed crust, terrible sauce and covered with *gasp* Dutch GOUDA cheese instead of mozzarella!  As with so many things here, if I was going to get good pizza, I was going to have to make it myself. 

Luckily, after remodeling my kitchen, my brand new Boretti oven came with a 90 cm pizza stone.  At the time I thought I would never use it.  But after 10 years, it’s one kitchen ‘gadget’ that gets more use than I thought.  Crank the heat up to the max and I can make pizza that can match some of the best.  A pizza peel is also a good gadget if you have a pizza stone.  Otherwise, cooking your pizza on a cookie sheet works just fine too. 

Keeping in mind that pizza is all about the crust, it’s actually quite easy to make authentic pizza yourself.  If you have dough leftover, you can freeze it.  To thaw,  put it in the microwave at 10% power for about 5-10 mins (depending on the size of your dough).  Check often so it doesn’t cook. 

 Here’s the recipe:

Pizza topped with mozz, marscapone, capers, parma ham and finished off with fresh rucola

 The Best Homemade Pizza

Dough Starter:

1 package (2 teaspoons)  dried yeast

¼ Cup warm water

¾ Cup flour

Dough:

1 Cup Water

1 teaspoon salt

2 ¼ Cup flour

Sauce:

5 peeled and crushed Roma tomatoes. (or a can of crushed tomatoes if you pressed for time)

1 crushed clove of garlic

1 teaspoons salt.

Toppings

Thinly sliced mozzarella cheese, Choose from:  grated parmesan, fresh chopped basil, thinly sliced mushrooms, an egg (raw – it cooks in the oven), sliced olives, Parma ham(put on pizza AFTER it comes out of the oven – YUM), mascarpone cheese, chopped garlic,  rucola, pine nuts, or whatever your heart desires..

Mix starter ingredients in a small-medium mixing bowl.  It will be rather stiff and crumbly.  Cover and let sit one hour. 

After an hour,  add the cup of water to the starter.  In a large bowl  of a mixer with a dough hook, mix flour and salt.  Add starter.  On a medium setting,  knead the dough  for about 3-5 minutes.  The dough will be very soft so it’s better with a mixer than by hand. 

Divide the dough in 4 pieces, shape into balls and put on a well floured plate or cookie sheet.  Cover and let stand until double (about an hour).  You can start this at about 4:00 to make pizza for a 6:30 dinner. 

Preheat your oven to 450-500F.  Place a pizza stone on the lowest level. To make crust, dredge a dough ball in flour and roll out dough on a floured surface.  Try to get it as close to a circle shape as possible.  It should be very thin, about ¼ inch or less.  Dusting with extra flour will make it easier to roll out.  Then, pre-cook the dough to keep the toppings from making the dough soggy. This also makes it easier to push the topped pizza in the oven.  Do this by, putting the dough on a peel and shove it in the oven for 2-3 minutes until a bit puffy but still white.  This is important because a home oven cannot even come close to the temperature of commercial ovens.  So pre-cooking the dough keeps your pizza crispy on the bottom with perfectly cooked toppings.  Repeat with the rest of the balls. 

For something fun,  I put one pre-made crust on everyone plate and let my guests put their own toppings on.  My oven can cook 2 pizzas at the same time.  Have your guests top their pizzas just before going into the oven.   If they are prepared too much in advance, they will be soggy. I always serve a salad so the people that are waiting will have something to do. They can eat their salad first. 

Pizzas take about 4-5 minutes each to cook.  I find that the oven has some recovery time between pizzas, so the later ones may take a few minutes longer. 

Buon Apetito!

The Pumpkin

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

The Pumpkin

 OK, this is going to sound a bit catty, and I’m kind of ashamed to write this at the expense of my dear friend. But I think it’s an amusing story and for a struggling writer like me, when it comes to ‘the story’; everything is fair game. 

In a previous post I wrote about my garden. The garden to the left of me is rented by my long time friend, Suni.  She’s an expat from Thailand and has been living in the Netherlands for the last 30 years.  She’s an excellent cook and avid (and competitive) gardener.  Even though we’ve been long-time friends, our relationship has been strained as of late.  Probably due to a thousand small things that neither one of us could pinpoint, but together add up to a smoldering rift. 

To start with, my oldest daughter, Rebecca, has a birthday exactly on Halloween.  Halloween, to this day, remains one of my favorite holidays.  I find it so unfortunate that it is just not celebrated here in Holland.  Last year, when my mom was here for her birthday, we carved pumpkins and, like always, I saved the seeds.  We had so much fun that we wanted to plant our own pumpkins this year from the seeds I saved.  Since I bought the already grown pumpkins last year, I have no idea what kind they were.  All I know is some were big and some were small.  I just threw all the seeds in a jar. 

This past March, I started my pumpkin plants indoors along with some butternut and acorn squash plants.  With a few weeks of TLC, I had 18 beautiful plants.  Anyone who ever grew pumpkins knows that even one plant will take over your garden, so what was I to do with 18!?  Share them, of course. So one sunny Sunday afternoon in May, I proudly brought my perfect pumpkin plants to the garden to share with my fellow gardening fanatics.  During transplanting, most of the plant markers got lost or mixed up so I wasn’t sure which plant was which anymore. So, I gave my neighbors first pick with the caveat that ‘you get what you get’ and to leave me 5 plants.  Happily, my neighbors bounced back to their own gardens, arms full with their newly adopted plants.  Suni, taking her share of plants agreed with the caveat and made a comment of letting nature take its course. 

Weeks past and toward the middle of august, my entire garden was a tangle of vines.  Their large leaves reaching sunwards.   Getting curious as to what nature brought me, I start peeking under leaves to discover a beauty of a jack-o-lantern, already the perfect size for carving.  Excitedly, I call my kids over to check it out.  Rebecca takes one look and excitement takes over her whole little body.  She immediately claims it for her own and both kids begin to dance and sing celebrating our success.  Curious to what the commotion is all about, Suni trots her small booted feet over to my garden.  “Look at MY pumpkin”, Rebecca squeals.  Suni pushes back the massive leaf; the curiosity slowly drains to confusion and then rage.  “You!!” , she howls, slowly straightening upright, her tiny gloved hand pointing a dirty finger at me, “You gave me CRAP plants!  It’s YOUR fault I don’t have a jack-o-lantern!”.  Her eyes shooting yellow venom as she spits the words at me.  In shock, I calmly tell her that I’ll share my own crop with her. “I want my OWN jack-o-lantern!”.  In a complete rage, she stomps back to her garden, screaming and kicking her own plants. “See? See?  All CRAP!!” She yells ignoring a good sized jack-o-lantern of her own that’s still growing.  At this point my kids stand frightened behind me. Their joy completely dissipated.  “Psycho Kitty”, I say out of the corner of my mouth, just loud enough for them to hear.  After she calms down, I walk over to her side of the garden as she shoots one last poisoned look in my direction. “Next year,” , I say like Queen Latifa. My finger making cobra circles in the air, “grow your own @#!*$! plants”. 

Dear Readers, you will be happy to know that she finally did grow a decent sized jack-o-lantern this year…almost as big as mine ;-).

Poor dear, she must be losing her mind to get her panties in such a bunch over a pumpkin.  To honor my dear friend, today’s recipe will be her signature dish, the National Dish of Thailand:  Pad Thai. 

Pad Thai

1 large wok

1/3 cup vegetable oil

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 Cup of firm tofu, cut in  ½ inch cubes

½ pound peeled raw medium shrimp (optional)

4 eggs

1 package of thick Cantaboon rice noodles (soaked in water for 3 hours)

½ Cup tamarind sauce (recipe below)

¼ cup of chives or Chinese (garlic) chives.

1 Cup of bean sprouts. 

A dash of fish sauce (optional)

Garnish:   bean sprouts, peanuts  (chopped fine),  lime wedges, Chinese chives, sugar, ground red pepper, soy sauce, fish sauce

Directions

In a large wok over high heat, heat oil.  Add garlic and stir-fry 30 seconds.  Add tofu and shrimp and stir-fry another minute.  Break eggs and wait until set, about 1 minute.  Fold to break up.  Take noodles out of the water (using your hands works perfectly for this) and put them in the wok.  Stir fry until ingredients are mixed.  Add tamarind sauce and mix.  Add chives or garlic chives and bean sprouts and mix again.  Taste.  It should have a nice balance of sweet and salty.  It should not be too dry. 

To Serve:  The idea is that the noodles provides a base that guests can customize to their own tastes.  Serve with garnishes and let the guests help themselves.

Tamarind sauce:    In a small saucepan, add 1 cup of water, ¼ cup tamarind sauce,  ½ cup brown sugar, and a teaspoon of salt.  Simmer over med heat, stirring frequently until a thin paste. About 45 mins.  Taste.  It should be a nice balance of sour, salt and sweet.  Adjust if needed.

Dig For Peace

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Dig For Peace

Living in a country where every inch of land is at a premium,  I feel truly thankful for my vegetable garden.  A ‘moestuin’ or ‘volkstuin’ as it’s called in Dutch.  (tuin meaning garden). If I were in the UK, it would be called an ‘allotment’.  My vegetable garden is not in my postage-stamp of a backyard. It’s a mile and a half away. It’s a swath of property that I rent yearly from a lovely older couple named Co and Sjannie.   While my backyard measures about 30 feet long and 18 feet wide, my vegetable garden is about 300 feet by 30 feet.  A virtual field by Dutch standards.  In my garden are a big wooden tool hut and a shabbily built but good-sized greenhouse made with scraps of wood and old single-paned windows, most broken at this point.  (Note to self:  Fix the greenhouse this fall).   My garden is part of a group of gardens, 30 or so, all rented out and in various states of use.  On the property are a few farm animals that the Co owns; a fat horse,  5 or 6 lively goats and a dozen or so sheep.  My kids love to help him feed the sheep and brush the horse.  In exchange for all the rhubarb in my garden, he gives me a steady supply of fresh eggs from the beautiful brown hens he has running free in his backyard.  They are simply the most delicious eggs I’ve ever tasted; large with rich bright orange yolks. 

In our gardens, we all participate in this Urban Barter System.  Someone with a good crop of leek will exchange with someone punished with lettuce.  Cabbage plants are traded for strawberry plants.  When someone’s crop of string beans fails, we all chip in to share our own crop.   In this little social eco-system everyone gets what they need and nothing goes to waste.  

What’s wonderful about this unique situation is the pride you get from knowing that what is set on your  table comes from your own hand.  Earth that you tilled. Seeds that you planted.  In recent years the term “Locavores” has been coined.  This meaning eating what is fresh, local and in season. What’s more local than your own back yard?     Sure, it’s a lot of work digging in the dirt in the fresh air rather than sitting in a stuffy office and then running to some big corporation

Rebecca's Harvest

supermarket . (To buy vegetables  shipped from who-knows-where and sprayed with who-knows-what?)  But it is so rewarding.  When I see my kids eating tomatoes fresh off the vine or arguing with my youngest over when to pick the corn, I know it’s  worth the effort.      Besides, what ‘s better than the smell of a carrot just pulled from the ground, or the taste of a fresh picked raspberry, or the sweet-tart crispness of an apple right off your own tree?  Not too much, that’s what!  

During and after World War II,  many countries, in order to alleviate farm worker shortages in the agricultural industry, made efforts to support their citizens to grow their own fruits and vegetables.  Thus the term ‘Victory Garden’ was coined.  While many farm workers went off to fight the war and the much of the remaining crops used for food for the troops, thousands of families on the home-front turned over plots of grass in their own back yards and started growing.  The plan was simple,  use existing land  and labour of the homeowners.  To support the war effort, home gardens started appearing everywhere. Tilled rectangles of neatly rowed vegetables sprung up in suburbia.  In the middle of cities; rooftops, windowsills, and vacant lots turned into green goodness.  Not only did it support the war effort, for families it meant so much more. Besides the obvious nutritional value of fresh grown fruits and vegetables, it was a way to work together for a common goal. It was a learning experience for children and it saved families money in a time where every penny mattered. 

Nowadays, with more and more of this earth’s agricultural land being used to support  bio-energy and a growing population, is it possible that we can one day revisit the concept of the Victory Garden and subsequently, a barter system?

Tonight we’ll be having the below recipe, using a nice butternut that came from my garden.

 Pumpkin Risotto

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice (1 1/3 cups)

2 medium white onions, finely diced

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

About 1 teaspoon freshly ground  pepper

1 teaspoon salt

7 cups vegetable or  low-sodium chicken broth

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups arborio rice (about 11 ounces)

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a non-aluminum medium saucepan or wok. Add the pumpkin and half of the onions and cook over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until the pumpkin is just tender, about 7 minutes. Stir in the wine, nutmeg, white pepper and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
  2.  In a food processor, puree the pumpkin mixture until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl. 
  3. In a medium saucepan, bring the vegetable or chicken stock to a boil over moderate heat. Reduce the heat to low and keep the stock hot. 
  4. In the same non-aluminum saucepan or wok, heat 2 1/2 tablespoons of the butter until it begins to sizzle. Add the rice and the remaining onions and cook over moderately high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Immediately stir in 1 cup of the hot stock and cook, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 2 minutes. 
  5. Reduce the heat to moderate and gradually add 3 more cups of the hot stock, 1 cup at a time, stirring and cooking until each cup is almost absorbed before adding the next, about 15 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin puree. Continue adding the remaining 3 cups stock, 1 cup at a time, stirring and cooking as above, until the rice is tender, about 10 minutes longer. The risotto will be quite loose. Stir in the parsley and the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons butter. 
  6. Spoon the risotto into 6 warmed soup plates and sprinkle the Parmesan on top. Serve immediately.