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

Delights of iPhone Photography

Posted: under Family favorites, Large family, Photography.
Tags: , , ,

I am often at a loss to explain some of the images that show up on the photo stream of my iPhone.  I certainly am not in possession of it at all time, like I might think.  Some of the photos are obviously “special” moments.

The Birthday Cake

The Anniversary Trip

Great fun at the pool!

Collaborative construction at the Children’s Museum

Increasingly the phone plays a role in our decision making.

Should we get stitches?

Should we buy the suit?

My iPhone seems to play an important role in my children documenting their antics.

Thing 1 disguised as a Fairy Princess

The next David Yurman?

 

Captain Cowboy?

Sir Spider Hood?

My older children have put the iPhone to use in a bit of, shall we say, “photojournalism”.  I may call it “photojournalism”, but they would call it “evidence”.

Who pulled the buttons off the treadmill?

What happened to Daddy’s wasabi-soy sauce almonds?

How did she get into the Sharpie Markers?

But best of all is the convenience of whipping out that ever-present iPhone to capture that moment that REALLY lasts only a MOMENT.

The caterpillars that gobbled up my parsley plants emerge from the chrysalis as Swallowtail Butterflies!

I know the image quality isn’t the best, but it is the MEMORIES I want to capture.  And besides, can anyone every really take too many photos?

She puts a smile on my face and gray hairs on my head. Gotta love her!

Comments (1) Nov 03 2012

No Brainer Homemade Peanut Butter

Posted: under Family favorites, Homemade, Homemaking, Large family.
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Wholesome food for growing boys!

It was a memorable day.  My husband arrived at our home for lunch and I was assembling peanut butter sandwiches for our children.  I was three pounds down into a five pound container of Peter Pan peanut butter.  My husband walked in, saw what I was doing, and asked, “Are you trying to poison our children?”  What?!  “Haven’t you heard?  Peter Pan peanut butter has launched a massive recall for salmonella contamination!”  We whisked the container away to the office and pulled up the recall numbers on the computer.  Yep.  We had consumed most of a container of contaminated peanut butter.  Now we knew why, a week earlier, we all had , shall I say, “digestive distress”.

“We are not buying peanut butter anymore.  I want you to start making peanut butter again.”

Again.  That was the operative word.  I already knew how to make peanut butter.  When my husband was in medical school, I learned how to be a homemaker and how to make, basically, EVERYTHING from scratch.  I gardened extensively, made gallons and gallons of pickles, salsa, jams and jellies, ground wheat, baked all of our bread, bagels, pretzels, crackers, made yogurt and yogurt cheese, mayonnaise, you name it.  But my homemaking endeavors have been squeezed by the time pressures of homeschooling our rapidly expanding family.  Somethings I no longer have time to do.

But homemade peanut butter is a “no brainer”.  It requires little thought, little effort, and the reward is delicious peanut butter that actually TASTES like peanuts!

 

No Brainer Homemade Peanut Butter

1 food processor

1 large can of roasted cocktail peanuts  (avoid dry roasted, or else you will have to add oil)

Sugar or honey to taste

1.  Fit chopping blade into food processor.

2.  Fill 1/2 to 2/3 full with peanuts.

3.  Turn processor on, then cover your ears!  It will sound like a jet engine, or like teeth being sheared off of a gear.

4.  After 3 minutes, turn off the processor and let it cool for  a few minutes.

5.  Turn processor back on, and blend to desired consistency.

6.  Add sugar to taste.  For a 52 oz. can of peanuts, I use about 4 teaspoons.  I actually think it doesn’t require sugar, but adding sugar increased that “stick to the roof of your mouth” quality that my children prefer.

As you grind up the peanuts, the transformation is fascinating.  Big nuts become small chunks, which fracture into peanut dust.  Then, beginning at the bottom of the food processor, the dust seams to liquify.  There is a moment when you fear the contents will never blend, but then the friction of the chunks with the liquid causes this wave of peanut-butter-yumminess to blend the contents into peanut butter perfection.  It is hard to explain, but you will know it when you see it.  The point is this:  don’t give up when all the “butter” is on the bottom and the “chunks” are on the top.  Give the machine a rest, then let it finish the work.

I store the peanut butter in a plastic container in the refrigerator.  It improves the texture.  I do not worry about refrigerating it when I travel.  I have never had peanut butter turn rancid and I have never had the oil rise to the top (like you see with store-bought, fresh-ground peanut butter).

The salmonella/peanut butter contamination was five years ago.  I have been making homemade peanut butter ever since.  Once my family transitioned to fresh made, they grew to dislike the flavor of manufactured peanut butter, which is little more than peanut-flavored shortening.

Now isn’t that easy?

 

Comments (4) Nov 01 2012

Presbyterian Pears

Posted: under Family favorites.

Delicious pears

A lovely woman from my church gave our family a large bucket of pears.  The skins were mottled and spotted, but inside the flesh was firm, sweet, and juicy.  I knew exactly what to do with this gift!  I would make for my family one of our favorite dishes, which I shall call “Presbyterian Pears”.

Presbyterian Pears

8 – 10 firm pears

4 T butter

1/2 sugar

1/2 c. rum

Peeled and sliced

1. Peel the pears.  Remove the core, and slice them into quarters or sixths.  Because these were large pears, I cut them  into sixths.  Each slice should be thick enough to hold up in cooking.

2.  Melt 4 tablespoons of butter is a large pan over medium-high heat.

3.  Spread the pear slices onto the melted butter.  You want the slices to make good contact with the surface.  Do not overcrowd the pan!

Stir gently!

4. Stir them gently, to prevent sticking.  Not too vigorously, or you will reduce the pears to pear sauce.  That would be good, too, but that is not my goal.

5.  Brown the pears on one side, then flip them gently!  Aim for nicely caramelized pears – that’s where the flavor is!

Lovely, caramelized color is the goal!

6.  Sprinkle 1/2 cup of sugar over the pears.  By now they will have released a lot of juice.  While the second side caramelizes, the sugar and butter and juice will reduce to a fabulous sauce.

7.  When the second side has caramelized, pour in 1/2 cup rum.  Allow the rum to cook down.  The aroma is fabulous.  At this point the family will come running to see if supper is ready.

We love these pears served with ham, pork tenderloin, smoked turkey sausage, or (best of all) spooned over vanilla ice cream.

Baptists may omit the rum! If your pears are sweet, the cooked pears will still be delicious!

Thank you, April, for the lovely gift.  We thoroughly enjoyed them!

Comments (2) Aug 28 2011