No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Food pr0n (SFW)

Posted by Ben on Saturday, January 10, 2009

This is supposed to be about pizza, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, I’ve long been a fan of beer. In fact, the first beer I can remember was as a pre-schooler, sitting on the back of the couch turning up a bottle of Budweiser. Doctor’s orders. No, seriously, for reasons I won’t go into here, my prescription was to urinate and urinate often. Combine that with the fairly rural area in which I grew up, and, well, you get the idea. Needless to say, I developed a taste early on. I was allowed a sip of wine, champagne, or “the water jug” once in a blue moon when all the adult males of the family and friends would be sitting out on the front porch on a summer night, which I think is a big reason I didn’t go crazy in high school or college binging at parties or sneaking drinks or trying to buy underage. Alcohol just wasn’t/isn’t a big deal.

That being said, I do consider myself a bit of a beer snob. Bud Light is my cheap, everyday beer of choice. A mild splurge at the store will be a regular or seasonal (non-summer) Sam Adams. On occasion (like being at the beach), I’ll try a lighter brew that’s not Corona—I’m buying/drinking beer, not water. Otherwise, it’s dark, thick, heavy, even chewy for me, just like my coffee, which I’ll get to in a second. I used to like Guinness a lot, and while it’s still serviceable, it’s no longer THE beer for me. Even in Irish pubs, I’ll go for Murphy’s first. Nope, there are two that I can think of offhand that trump Guinness and everything else: Mad River Steelhead Extra Stout being my favorite year-round find, and Rogue Imperial Stout being my “last drink before I die” favorite. I can thank Flying Saucer for opening up my mind and palate to the world of crafted beer, and it’s certainly been and continues to be one of my favorite hobbies, not to mention a sustainable one thanks to Flying Saucer and Total Wine. Trader Joe’s allows me to sample various wines for fairly cheap (can you say Two Buck Chuck?), and yes, I prefer the stronger red wines, though most any red will be fine. White wines and champagne give me headaches almost instantly, so I tend to avoid those (I’m by no means a connoisseur of wines, nor do I intend to study them, but I do enjoy tasting them and learning through experience, though I still prefer to focus on beers).

My preferences for beer and coffee go hand-in-hand. Coffee is a more recent indulgence when it comes to more than just serving as “go” juice. Like beer, I like it dark, thick, and strong. I’m not really sure exactly how this one got started—I’ve been drinking coffee regularly for six or seven years (since I taught high school), but just like food in general until lately, it was more for utility than for enjoyment. I started going to Caribou Coffee not long after that, tried (and hated) Starbucks a few times (not even going to link up that crap), and ended up sticking with Dunkin Donuts for awhile (both in-store and at home, and it’s still my on-the-road preference), but within the past year or so, I’ve really started developing a more discriminating taste for coffees, and between Trader Joe’s French roasts (for everyday consumption) and the Flying Saucer-like selection at Dilworth Coffee, I have plenty of supply to keep me occupied for awhile as I tinker with varying combinations of bean-to-water ratios, French presses (just got one, love it, need a much bigger one, even though my coffee now smokes and hates Americans), and finding good decafs (I usually like an afternoon cup of coffee, just not the caffeine).

Note on drinks: I really don’t get into all the nutty flavor, chocolate finish, hint of coffee, splash of Sex Panther mess—while all that may be the case, I think a lot of it is just to give critics and tasters semi-gainful employment. I just know what I like, and I can give you the basics of why I like it, which makes gift-shopping much easier *hint hint*

I also want to give a quick nod to cheese. Cheese is awesome, and as my wine and beer tastes have developed, so has my search for simply awesome cheese. Yet again, Trader Joe’s helps tremendously with an inexpensive entry point to several different varieties, and Earth Fare has its own, slighly less inexpensive selection (I do have to re-visit them to get some kind of ash-layer separated cheese I had last time *nom*). I like brie well enough, and gouda is okay, but right now, my go-to favorite is Gruyere. I’m slowly expanding my horizons here with the help of some basic online pairing tools that suggest cheeses to go with my favorite libations, and wouldn’t you know that Gruyere goes well with red wines and dark beers? Score.


Now, for the real reason for this post. If you’ve been following my Twitter feed over the last week or so, you know that I’ve suddenly developed a fixation on homemade pizza, as in making my own rather than eating someone else’s (though I’m not opposed to that, either). During the annual gift-exchange period, I received a pizza stone. Let’s just say that completely changed the game for me. Armed with just a very basic dough recipe, some random ingredients and spices, and memories of yummy toppings past, I quickly learned firsthand one of the staple conditions in “gourmet” pizza-making: a little goes a long way.

So far, I’ve made the following: two-cheese (need more next time); spinach, black olive, cheddar and/or mozzerella; barbecue chicken, spinach and/or black olive, cheddar; and “breakfast” (cream cheese “sauce,” scrambled egg, shredded turkey lunchmeat, cheddar, will use bacon bits in the future). The next specific one on my radar is a spinach, sliced tomato, and ricotta cheese combo. Of course, I’m open to suggestions, and at some point, I’m going to host a pizza party where people bring their own ingredients or give me a list beforehand, and I’ll spend the whole time making pies. Someone also gave me the idea of doing calzones, which might be a little trickier, but it’s worth a shot at some point.

Here are some initial observations:

That seemingly tiny little dough ball can and will be flattened almost paper-thin while being stretched out in all directions, and yet it will remain intact and pliable until you put it in the oven. There is no such thing as a too-thin crust before baking—it will form, firm, and crisp. Just make sure to keep the flour/cornmeal handy for kneading and flattening. There is, however, such a thing as a too-thick crust, especially when using highly-active, quick-rising yeast (I had a three-day gas bubble that eventually subsided to support that point). Garlic, oregano, and other spices don’t seem to go a long way, but I’d rather start bland than boom. How I’m starting out:

Stir and sit in separate cup until mixture starts bubbling
—1 cup hot (not boiling) water
—1 tsp sugar
—1 packet yeast (highly-active for dough needed in 30-60 minutes, regular for dough to be kept overnight or beyond in the fridge)

Combine in mixing bowl
—3 cups flour (I use the “white” whole wheat Trader Joe’s stuff)
—1 tsp sea salt
—spices (fresh-pressed garlic and dried oregano are my go-tos right now)

Mix it all together and knead thoroughly, adding flour and/or water as needed. Let it all sit in a greased (I use olive oil spray) bowl covered with a towel on the counter (for quick dough) or in the fridge. Right now, there’s not a whole lot of flavor to it, but while I do want to eventually get more involved with the dough-making, it’s more than adequate right now. Individual pizzas are easily made from a ball of dough slightly larger than a golf ball (trust me, this type of pizza is much better with a thinner crust, plus it cuts down on cooking time), so the above recipe can make a dozen or more pizzas.

I’m using pre-made options to start out as I concentrate on developing a good dough recipe. My first couple pizzas each used about a teaspoon of tomato paste spread around as much as could be, but the flavor is way too strong for my liking right now, so I need to figure out a way to dilute it without completely killing the taste. For my barbecue chicken pizzas, I use a tablespoon of barbecue sauce, so the sauce itself is supremely important, just as it is when eating barbecue itself. When it’s just barbecue, I prefer a yellow, mustard-based sauce (think Courtney’s yellow sauce). However, for pizza, a red sauce seems more appropriate, so right now, I’m using a bottle of Sticky Finger’s “Carolina Sweet” but will use something else when that’s gone (this stuff just tastes funny). For the breakfast pizza, I use spreadable cream cheese (note: need to heat/melt it before spreading so it doesn’t catch on the uncooked dough as it’s spread).

Name it. Seriously, toppings are (in my mind) tertiary to (first) dough and (second) sauce. You know what your toppings will taste and feel like, so there are no real surprises here except with combinations. I’ve been pretty safe so far—I don’t like to get too crazy in this department since the other stuff should speak for the pizza. I’m open to suggestions, though.

Anything involving an oven and yeast has never gone over too well with me. Not that I’ve made any hockey pucks or charcoal logs or anything, but I’ve always prefered to be able to see and instantly manipulate my food as it’s cooking, so most of my experience has been in pots and pans on the burners and not in the oven. However, pizza doesn’t really lend itself to stovetop cooking, so after getting a pizza stone (which, in my humble opinion, you MUST get in order to make good homemade pizza), I took the plunge.

Yeast is a bear at first, but as long as you use the right kind (determined by how soon you plan to make the pizzas), it’s not that difficult. I will say that if you plan to make thicker-crust pizzas, use regular yeast and let the dough sit in the fridge for a night or two. As I alluded to before, if you use the highly-active yeast to make thicker-crust pizzas within the next hour or so, have some Gas-X nearby. You’ve been warned. Besides, why would you make a thick-crust pizza at home anyway? For this kind of work, thin-crust is the only way to go.

Speaking of which, there’s no such thing as “too thin” when forming the dough for the crust, so press or roll it as hard as you can. It will hold, and it will cook, and it will be good. If for some reason it breaks up, roll it back into a ball and start over, adding a little flour to your hands and the rolling surface to keep it from sticking to anything. Think of it like Play-Doh. No matter how much you knead and manipulate it, if it doesn’t turn out just right, you can just mash it all back together and start over. I’ve also learned that it’s easier and ultimately more successful to build the pizza on dough that’s already placed on a hot pizza stone. That gives the crust a slight pre-cook before hitting the oven, which helps ensure some crispiness without overcooking the other parts of the pizza since all you’re usually wanting to do is just add some heat and melt the cheese (assuming pre-cooking toppings).


I have two things to thank for my “passion for food,” as someone commented on one of my recent myriad of food-related tweets. First, a brief study abroad in Taiwan back in summer 2002 introduced me to what I first thought was boringly bland food; however, the absence of the Americanized overabundance of salt and sugar quickly taught me that food can actually taste like, well, food. There’s a reason most fast food tastes like fast food: salt and processing. In Taiwan, I was getting fresh-that-morning food (a small island nation means daily seafood catches, and the social climate and history encourages fresh produce), seasoned ever so slightly, if at all. Hell, I spent two days at a Buddhist monastery, and those people are vegetarians, yet the things they were able to do with soy made me (BRIEFLY) consider a life without meat. The point is that I returned to America hating the over-processed, over-seasoned, ungodly-priced diet that most people endure here. Thing is, the vast majority of people aren’t even aware enough of it to question it, let alone change it. That trip may’ve put me in debt financially for years, but it’s paid itself off in other ways many, many times over.

Second, I had the great fortune of being in the right place at the right time in my radio career when I was asked to help produce a start-up cooking show. Sure, my main function was to make everything sound good and run smoothly on-air, but the weekly in-studio guests—all accomplished, well-known executive chefs, cooks, authors, and so on—and the foods and wines they brought in showed me a world of food I hadn’t really thought about before. Even the show’s host, a good friend and co-worker still, was venturing into his own efforts of gourmet pizza-making that sparked a mild interest in me—too bad we never really got together on that as I’d offered to help make his weekly orders for a local restaurant, but our schedules just never lined up. At any rate, in the studio during those two-hour shows each weekend, I felt like Remy (the rat) in Ratatouille (even though the movie wasn’t even being advertised yet), surrounded by a world of not just food and drink, but of art and passion and discernment and just plain enjoyment. As Gusteau said in that movie, anyone can cook. It’s just a matter of actually deciding to cook rather than to just fuel your body. I admit that most times, I simply fuel my body—that’s life—but then, it makes the times that I do cook that much more fun.

Now, if only I had a slightly bigger kitchen with, oh I dunno, fully-operational appliances…


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