Pizza Crust Perfected

Posted: under Baking bread, Cooking with children, Family favorites, Hiking, Italy, Large family.
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ohiotrip-1-7

 

 

I am not a pizza professional, but you could certainly say I am well-seasoned!  My family enjoys making and eating pizza, and even my children have high standards about the quality of the ingredients they want to eat.

A few years ago when my husband approached his fortieth birthday, he told me that he expected me to “go all out” for his birthday.   I knew exactly what I wanted to do–  build a wood-fired pizza oven.

 

 

The year before we had gone hiking in Crete.  We hiked through terrain that felt entirely remote and deserted, then would come around a rock and find a taverna, a family-owned restaurant.  More often than not, these tavernas would have a wood-fired oven, producing some of the most delicious food and flat bread I have even eaten.

Taverna in Crete- they could not speak English; we could not speak Greek.  They brought my husband into the  kitchen and had him point to what we'd like to eat.

Taverna in Crete- they could not speak English; we could not speak Greek. They brought my husband into the kitchen and had him point to what we desired to eat. See oven door on left?

 

Constructing a wood-fired pizza oven is certainly a Do-It-Yourself project, but I didn’t do it myself.  I had neither the time nor inclination to muck about with cinderblocks and mortar, so I hired someone to build it for me using plans that are available for free from a site called “Forno Bravo” :  http://www.fornobravo.com/pompeii_oven/pompeii_oven.html

Pompeii Oven under construction.

Pompeii Oven under construction.

 

The finished product was a resounding success!

Silk Road Catering used the oven when preparing the meal for my husband's birthday celebration.

Silk Road Catering used the oven when preparing the meal for my husband’s birthday celebration.

The following year we confirmed that the construction of our oven was authentic when we went hiking in Italy (notice a pattern here?) and visited the ruins of the city of Pompei.

Wood-fired oven in Pompei, buried under the ashed of Vesuvius.  When unearthed, there were actually loaves of bread entombed inside.

Wood-fired oven in Pompei, buried under the ashes of Vesuvius. When unearthed, there were actually loaves of bread entombed inside.

The inside construction of the oven was identical to mine, only much larger.

Domed bricks and thick walls enable oven to reach a high temperature for ideal pizza and bread making.

Domed bricks and thick walls enable oven to reach a high temperature for ideal pizza and bread making.

Here is a basic description of how a wood-fired pizza oven works:

1.  Build a very hot fire in the oven and wait until all the bricks on the ceiling are white.  That means the oven is between 750 – 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Push the remaining logs to the back of the oven, then brush the baking surface clean with a brass wire brush.

3.  Using a pizza peal (it looks like a giant spatula), gently transfer uncooked pizza into the oven.

4.  About 90 seconds later, rotate the pizza for even cooking.

5.  A couple minutes later, remove finished pizza.  That’s right – the whole process takes less than five minutes, and your pizza with be hot, bubbling, with a perfectly carmelized crust.

NOW THE REAL CHALLENGE was finding a pizza dough recipe that didn’t take all day and was able to withstand the high heat of the pizza oven.  The authentic recipe from Italy  not only requires Tipo 00 flour, which is great if you can find it, but also 4 – 5 hours of preparation.  Not ideal for spontaneous “honey, let’s make pizza tonight” occasions.  Which brings me to a story:

It was a Saturday and my husband worked in his office while I was cleaning the garage.  Around 4 PM he announced that he wanted to “fire up the pizza oven” and make pizza that night.  I did not have the time or energy to “throw together” pizza dough, so  he went off to the grocery store to purchase refrigerated pizza dough – you know- the kind that comes in a tube.  We had never bought it before.  As stated earlier, the pizza oven cooks at a very high temperature, which is what makes it so wonderful.  Well, we unrolled the pizza dough and added the toppings.  My husband shoveled it into the pizza oven and it went “BOOF!”  The pizza crust instantly incinerated!  There was nothing left but the now-charred mushrooms and cheese that my husband had to scrape out of the oven.  I am not saying that he burned the pizza crust.  There was no pizza crust – only ash.  What kind of volatile ingredients did they put in that dough?

At last, after much experimenting, I  discovered a “quick”  pizza dough recipe that yields thin-crusted pizza and is able to withstand the high heat of a wood-fired pizza oven.  I did not invent it; it comes from Alton Brown from the Food Network and is found here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/grilled-pizza-three-ways-recipe/index.html    So when my husband says, “Let’s fire up the pizza oven tonight!”, it takes me only two hours and fifteen minutes to go from “idea” to “ready for the oven”.  Most recently we  baked pizza after biking 30 miles with the children at St. Simons Island.  It was a great way to celebrate the end of a full day! (It also explains my husband’s outfit in the photos.)

The oven is heated unti the bricks on the inside turn white-hot.  Because it is so well insulated, the outside is cool to the touch!

The oven is heated until the bricks on the inside turn white-hot. Because it is so well insulated, the outside is cool to the touch!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pizza is ready for the oven.

The pizza is ready for the oven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only minutes later the crust is brown and bubbly.

Only minutes later the crust is brown and bubbly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband typically bakes the pizza while I assemble the next one.  I usually make 6 - 8.

My husband typically bakes the pizza while I assemble the next one. I usually make 6 – 8.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perfectly baked homemade pizza.  Perfect!

Perfectly baked homemade pizza. Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone has a pizza oven, but doesn’t everyone love homemade pizza?  I am sharing a recipe I have used for years that makes delicious “baked in the oven” pizza.   I call it “Presbyterian Pizza Dough” because it includes beer.    I am not a beer drinker, so I just buy whatever is cheapest.  However, I would only recommend King Arthur Flour brand of All Purpose Flour.

Presbyterian Pizza Dough

12 oz. can of beer

3 3/4 c. all-purpose flour

3 Tsp. sugar

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 Tsp. butter

1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast OR 2 tsp. rapid rise yeast

 

Mix these ingredients in a large bowl, then turn them onto lightly floured counter and knead about 8 minutes.

 To make 4 thin-crust pizzas:

Divide into four parts.

Shape each into 12 inch round.

Place on pizza pan and brush with olive oil and let rest about 15 minutes.

Put on your toppings.

Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

 

To make 2 thick-crust pizzas:

Follow same instructions except shape into two pizzas instead of four.

Baptists may omit beer, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Comments (0) Feb 10 2013

Catherine’s Incredible Hulk Beans

Posted: under Cooking with children, Family favorites, Homemaking, Large family.
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Catherine’s Incredible Hulk Beans

No one ever accused my mother of being a great cook.  No one.  But she did keep an immaculate house.  I don’t think I ever even saw a dust bunny until I went to college.  (Imagine my surprise.)  But she had a good excuse.  When my mother was a young girl, her own mother became bed-ridden, and my mother assumed all the responsibilities of the housework and the care of her father and older brothers while her younger sisters cooked the meals.  She honed her housekeeping skills into an art form.  (Alas, she did not teach me.)

My mother never complained about cooking (and my father never complained about her cooking), but she never aspired to improve her dishes or learn new things.  A typical meal went like this:

a meat, well-done

two canned vegetables, which were always flavored with bacon grease  (that is, until the heart disease connection was made)

store-bought white rolls

an iceberg lettuce salad with radishes, chunks of apple, cubed cheddar cheese, and carrots

That was the template for dinner pretty much every night.

One of the dishes my mother made with frequency, and in great quantity on special occasions, was green beans.  Ew, I can smell them in my brain.

She started with one large can of green beans, which she flavored with bacon grease, then cooked, and cooked, and cooked until every bit of cellular structure was broken down and the “green” beans were gray.  You probably didn’t even need teeth to eat those green beans.  You probably could have slurped them down with a straw.  In fact, I think having teeth only complicated matters  for me because the more I chewed them, the bigger they got.  And then I had to swallow them.  Oh dear, the memory is invoking a gag response.

So that is what green beans were to me:  gray, amorphous blobs robbed of all nutrition and flavor.

When on occasion I encountered green beans that were actually green in color, such as at a cover-dish dinner or company picnic, my mother would announce, with disdain, that “So-and-so cooks her beans like a Yankee.”  (That was a bad thing.)  So it was many, many years before I actually ate a green bean that was green in color.

I still remember the day:  July 19, 1991, at an elegant restaurant near Williamsburg, Virginia, called Indian Fields Tavern.  I even remember what I ordered:  Pork Medallions with Peach Sauce.  Oh, yum.  And when the plate arrived, there they were – green beans!  I eyed them suspiciously. Long and slender.  Bright in color.  No wider than the tines on my fork.  I was emboldened to taste them.  A little sweet with a bit of crunch.  They bore no resemblance to the water-sogged blobs of my childhood.  I was converted.

So I am going to share with you a recipe my older daughter, Catherine, created  for green beans.  She developed this one time when I left town (actually, left the country), leaving her and my mother-in-law in charge of running the household and feeding the whole crew.  One of her tasks was to creatively foist vegetables on her younger siblings.  Now frankly, my children eat lots and lots of vegetables, but we had been given pounds and pounds of green beans and okra that had to be consumed.  The okra was a bit of a challenge.  How much gumbo can one family eat?  She creatively buried the  extra okra in chocolate muffins, winning accolades from her siblings.  A resounding success.  The green beans she transformed into a kind of finger food.  She called them “Hulk Fries”.  They ate every bite.

So easy, even a male teenager can help.

 

Catherine’s Incredible Hulk Fries

2# fresh green beans, trimmed

1/4  cup canola oil

Kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

1.  Preheat the oven broiler and raise the rack.

2.  Toss green beans with oil.  They should all be slick and shiny.

Shiny, oiled beans, ready for the broiler. Please note the color.

3.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

4.  Put under broiler, but don’t walk away!

Into the oven on broil.

5.  After 2 – 3 minutes,  stir the beans.  You want to see areas of brown.

Time to stir. Note the brown parts. That is a good thing.

6. After another 2-3 minutes, stir the beans again and remove from oven.

Ready to serve. Please note, they are still green, with patches of brown. We say, “That’s Hulk’s hair.”

 

The beans are bright, crisp, and tasty!  It may sound uncultured, but I let the little ones eat them with their fingers because, after all, they are “fries”.

 

Green beans.  Bright green.  Tasty and nutritious.  And definitely not made by a Yankee. Who’d have thought it?

(For the record:  When I uploaded the snapshots, my four-year-old pointed to the raw beans and said, “Green beans.  I hate green beans.”  Then he pointed to the “after” photo and announced, “Those are Hulk Fries.  Yum.  I eat Hulk Fries.”  Enough said.)

 

Comments (2) Nov 16 2012

Thanksgiving Sanity-saving Cheatsheet

Posted: under Cooking with children, Family favorites, Homemade, Large family.
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Grubby pilgrim – 2007

Do you want to talk about an adrenaline rush?  How about realizing that Thanksgiving is in ten days and you have done NOTHING to prepare for it?  Nothing, I repeat, nothing, and you are expecting 36 guests and counting.  I say, “and counting”, because you really never know who all the college kids will bring home until they have packed up and are underway.  The more the merrier, and I mean that with all my heart.  It just takes some planning, whichI have only now begun.

My husband and I love to cook. We love to try new dishes and improve our favorites.  On Thanksgiving Day we have a great time getting our “cooking itch scratched”.  We almost always eat supper together as a family every day, but the time pressures of our daily life too often squeeze our cooking time, and the meals-of-choice become those that are lean, nutritious, easy to make, and quick to clean.

But on Thanksgiving Day, we get to savor not only the eating, but also the preparation of the food.  There is a joy to be experienced in the chop, chop, chopping of the ingredients alongside a child.  The aromas, the flavors, the little noses peeking over the counter seeking beaters to lick – I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thankfully, I do not have to recreate a Thanksgiving menu from scratch every year.  There is a little organization technique I figured out a few years ago that works wonders for our family.  If you can picture my husband, my daughter, and me, racing around the kitchen, cooking and stirring and roasting and whisking.  We were constantly misplacing our recipes and finding our favorite cookbooks smeared with mousse or gravy.  Then there was the whole challenge of timing the cooking.  Sometimes two ovens just didn’t seem like enough!

Checking the master menu.

As a coping strategy, I started photocopying or printing off the internet our planned Thanksgiving recipes.  Even recipes I know by heart I added to this pile, because I wanted to have a complete menu. I fastened all the recipes together. I made a list of my dishes on the front, then put the recipes in order.

 

Next, I made a cheatsheet of cooking times- what needs to bake at what temperature and for how long.  By charting this, I could visually see how to pair up dishes, and I could stick a post-it note reminder on the oven.   “Beef goes in at 12, mushrooms go in at 12:30.”  The master recipe menu also helps to plan for prepping.  “Exactly how many garlic cloves do I need to peel?  And how many cups of chopped onions?”  Having the recipes all together, even the ones memorized, helps to delegate tasks when you can not be two places at once.  “Finish up the casserole; I’m finishing the gravy.”

Many of our favorite Thanksgiving recipes come from Bon Appetit magazine and can be printed off of their online source, epicurious.com.  Often their recipes offer “Do Ahead” suggestions, saving time and sanity.

If it’s smeared with gravy, it’s got to be good.

When the meal is over and the dishes all washed, this collection of recipes becomes a memento of the year’s feast, and a reminder for next year’s planning.  Some recipes, such as Masa Cornbread Stuffing with Chiles, become family favorites.  Others, such as Popovers, will be passed over this year.  Popovers are easy and delicious, but are oven-hogs, requiring 40 minutes in the oven- and no peaking or sharing oven space!

2009

When all is said and done, there will be tons of food and piles of dirty dishes.  But also bellies filled with delicious food and hearts bursting with warm memories.  And that’s the best part.

 

 

 

Comments (0) Nov 13 2012

Fig Bread: Inspiration to Execution

Posted: under Baking bread, Cooking with children, Travel.
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Market Day

Travel to a foreign country is often enhanced by a visit to the local market day.  It can be a feast for the senses and a real education to mingle with the locals and observe where they shop.  On a visit to Provence, France, my husband and I saw the quaint village of Saint Remy-de-Provence transformed on market day.

 

 

 

 

Saint Remy-de-Provence

Happy shoppers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pleasure to see the fine, fresh foods available from the local farmers.

Currants

Fresh cheeses

Olives of every kind

Handmade sausages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we prepared for our afternoon hike, we were most interested in the fresh bread.  There were many familiar loaves and baquettes available, but we were interested in the whole grain breads.  The loaves were enormous. They were not purchased by the loaf, but instead chunks of the bread were purchased by  weight.

Bread for sale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How would we ever select between so many delectable varieties?  My husband, who has an incurable sweet tooth, wanted fig bread.  Now apart from chocolate, I am rarely tempted by sweets.  I wanted olive bread.  It was the old  sweet relish vs. dill relish conflict that plagues our refrigerator.   So we compromised and bought both,  a chunk of fig bread and a chunk of olive bread.  We added to that a couple of rounds of fresh goat cheese, some locally made tapenades, and we were set  for lunch.

My husband declared that the fig bread was one of the most delicious things he had ever eaten.  What does that mean to me?  It means a personal challenge to recreate and surpass that fig bread.  Add to that challenge the fact that he keeps bringing home containers of figs from the grocery store and reminiscing about “that wonderful fig bread we had in Provence”.

Now it’s not like I have a lot of time to spend experiment with bread recipes, so I enlisted the help of my seven-year-old son and (dare I say it) the bread machine.  I know how to bake bread.  I know how to capture wild yeast from the air and transform it into an awesome loaf of sourdough bread. But now is not the time. And besides, I believe my son has the potential to become an excellent baker.  He is good at math, follows instructions well, and has an extra dose of sensibility. And he’s the only child who ever remembers to wash his hands.

Fig Bread alá Provence

(reinterpretation of a raisin bread recipe)

2 cups bread flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 cup wheat germ

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 Tablespoons butter

1 cup finely chopped figs

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 package instant yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

Baker in training

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this point we put our ingredients in the bread machine, set it to “Quick Bake”, and enjoyed hot, delicious fig bread in less than two hours!  But for you purists, I shall add baking directions.

1.  Mix ingredients in a large bowl.  Cover with a towel and allow mixture to rest for 10 minutes. (Called “autolyse”, this method allows the flour to hydrate and makes the dough easier to handle.)

2. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes.  The dough should become pliable and elastic.  Resist the urge to incorporate a lot more flour.  It will make the dough stiff and the bread tough.

3.  Cover with a towel or large overturned bowl and allow to rise until it has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

4. Punch the dough down.  Shape it into two loaves, and place in two 8×4 inch loaf pans.  Cover with a towel and allow to rise, about 45 minutes.

5.  Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 350 degrees for 40- 45 minutes. (How do you know it is done?  Measure internal temperature with cooking thermometer.  It should be between 195 – 205 degrees.)

6.  Allow to cool at least a little bit before slicing, or you will flatten the moist bread.

A note about ingredients:  I only use King Arthur flour.  I used KA Bread Flour and KA White Whole Wheat Flour.  If there is a better flour available to the home baker, I have never seen it!  I like to use white whole wheat.  It lacks the tannins that can make red wheat unpalatably bitter, and it creates a delicate loaf.  You may omit the butter, but it creates a softer crumb.

I would show you a picture of our fig bread, but we ate all of it.

Nothing left but the mess

Comments (1) May 05 2011