Pizza Pizza

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I am resolved. I am resolved never to make another recipe for pizza dough. Seriously. This is it. My family has been making this recipe for years and it is incredibly delicious. Tried and True. Foolproof. No tweaking necessary. Caramelized onions, grapes (or figs), gorgonzola and mascapone (or some other creamy cheese like ricotta) is one of our favorite combinations.

These strong feelings stem partly from several recent failed experiments but also because I am realizing now truly wonderful homemade pizza is. Really, for me, the idea of a perfect dinner is this: several of these thin-crust pizzas (each topped differently), a salad (a homemade Caesar salad sounds nice at the moment) and a glass of wine.

I can think of only one thing that might — MIGHT — improve this recipe: A wood-burning oven. Which I intend to build soon. Or, let’s say within the next six months. Seriously. It only takes a day-and-a-half to build. It’s just a matter of getting organized. I saw the construction of a wood-burning, adobe oven in San Francisco at Slow Food Nation last month, and I have been wanting my very own ever since. There are two pics at the bottom of this post of the oven I plan to build and there are several other pictures of the adobe-oven-making process here.

This recipe yields enough dough to serve about 6 to 8 people. I am submitting this recipe to the World Food Day blog event. Created by Val of More Than Burnt Toast and Ivy of Kopiaste, this event seeks to raise awareness about world hunger: Around the globe there are 862 million undernourished people. Since 1945, October 16 marks World Food Day, an event created by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To participate in the blog event, follow these instructions.

Want to build your own adobe oven, too? Buy this book: Build Your Own Earth Oven. I met the authors at SFN and they were pretty awesome. I also just found this article on Sunset.com — it might be interesting to compare the two methods: Sunset’s Classic Adobe Oven

These pizzas take about 10 minutes at 500ºF. When they emerge from the oven, all they need is a sprinkling of fresh herbs and perhaps, but not critically, a drizzling of olive oil.


One key to making a good pizza is this: keep toppings to a minimum. A thin layer of yummy ingredients is all this is needed. It helps keep the crust crisp and allows you to taste the dough. (I may have over done it a bit here. Refraining from overloading the dough is a true skill.)

This adobe oven was made in one-and-a-half days. Supplies, if I recall correctly, cost under $50. I am dying to make one.


Pizza Dough
Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table
Makes 4 8- to 10-inch pizzas (Serves 1 to 2 people per pizza)

¼ cup whole wheat flour
3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 2/3 cups lukewarm water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. Place the flours and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Or knead by hand. I have not had luck making this in the food processor — the engine starts smoking after about five minutes.) Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl and let sit for five minutes until the mixture bubbles slightly. Add the olive oil and stir. With the mixer on low, gradually add the oil-water mixture into the bowl. Knead until the dough is firm and smooth, under 10 minutes. The dough will be very wet and sort of difficult to work with. I liberally coat my hands with flour before attempting to remove it.

2. Divide the dough into four balls, about 7½ ounces each. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. (Be sure to oil the parchment paper.) Place two balls on a sheet. Lightly rub the balls with olive oil, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. The dough is very sticky and wet, so, be sure to coat the balls or the plastic with oil. Let the balls rise in a warm spot until they have doubled in bulk, about two hours.

3. To roll out the dough: Dab your fingers in flour and then place one ball on a generously floured work surface. Press down in the center with the tips of your fingers, spreading the dough with your hand. When the dough has doubled in width, use a floured rolling pin (or continue using floured hands if you are skilled at making pizzas) and roll out until it is very thin, like flatbread. The outer portion should be a little thicker than the inner portion.

Note: This dough freezes beautifully. After the initial rise, punch down the dough, wrap it in plastic and place in a Ziplock bag. Freeze for several months. When ready to use, let sit at room temperature for about an hour, then proceed with rolling/topping/baking.

Baking:

1. Preheat the oven to 500ºF. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper. Place rolled out dough onto parchment paper. Drizzle dough with a little olive oil and with your hand, rub it over the surface to coat evenly.

2. Top with a thin layer of your choice toppings. Here I used caramelized onions, grapes, gorgonzola and mascapone cheese. (The mascapone is really wonderful). Place in your very hot oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until the crust is slightly brown and the cheese is melting.

3. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with fresh basil. A drizzling of extra-virgin olive oil is nice. I used a little bit of truffle oil, which would be wonderful over a mushroom pizza.

Trying To Understand The Food Crisis and Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day: Corn Bread

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In a May 19th New Yorker article, Bee Wilson wrote: “As of 2006, there were 800 million people on the planet who were hungry, but they were outnumbered by the billion who were overweight. Our current food predicament resembles a scenario largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand and generated a wildly dysfunctional market.”

This confused me. How could so many people in the world — 100 million people currently are at risk of joining the one billion people on the planet living on $1 a day — be hungry if there is no overall shortage of food? The answer, I learned, is complicated.

China, India, Europe and the United States are all to blame. Trade officials in these nations (and other wealthy nations), of course, design policies that will protect their farmers. What’s so bad about that? Well, when governments intervene in markets by imposing import tariffs and subsidies, for example, markets do not operate as they should and false equilibriums are reached. This, in turn, leads to market failures — such as food shortages — and the consequences can be dire: misery, malnutrition, starvation.

I’ve been trying to understand this food crisis for the past few months now, and I have summarized below what I have learned. Links to all of the articles I have read regarding this matter can be found at the end of the post (before the recipe.)

The issues:

• Usually food crises are localized, but for the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once: 33 countries (including Haiti, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, the Philippines, El Salvador and Pakistan) are at risk of social upheaval because of the high food prices.

• Human suffering is vast. Food inflation could push 100 million people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth.

• The era of cheap food is over.

What is causing the high food prices?

1. The growing middle-class in China and India: A half-billion consumers in these countries are increasingly emulating rich Western diets. (They are eating more meat.)

2. High oil costs have sent diesel fuel, fertilizers and farm chemical prices sky-high. Industrial agriculture has become so dependent on fossil fuel — for fertilizer, for pesticide, for processing and transportation. Today it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy.

3. Western biofuel programs converting cereals into fuel. This year, one-fifth of the American corn crop will be devoted to Ethanol. High corn prices have led farmers to plant more corn and less soy and wheat, leading to the surge in the price for all grains.

4. Arable acreage is continually being cut back due to environmental regulations, water scarcities and urban development.

5. Government interference in markets. In a perfect world: the response to higher prices is higher output; with farming, however, this isn’t the case. For one, it always takes a season to grow more food (unlike a toy factory, which can respond immediately). And second, by imposing export quotas, price controls, consumer subsidies, export restrictions and lower tariffs, governments muffle signals to farmers and further delay their reaction to price signals. In a free market, imbalances get smoothed out naturally.

What is the solution?

First: Get food and help to the famine-ravaged places. In the short-term, humanitarian aid, social protection programs and and open trade policies will alleviate the suffering. To achieve this, the World Food Program (the world’s largest distributor of food aid) needs an extra $700 million. Though the importation of American and European surplus harvests could damage domestic markets in poor nations, given the widespread food shortages, this is the short-term solution.

Second: Open up trade. Governments need to liberalize markets not intervene. Victor Davis Hanson writes: “The best thing  that the United States could now do is to stop interfering with its own farmers, let markets and need determine what they grow and how they farm — and then by such a principled American example, persuade the rest of the world to do the same.”

Long-term solutions:

• Reduce modern agriculture’s dependence on oil. Michael Pollan writes that “agriculture is the original solar technology, and sustainable farmers have shown us how we might put our food system back on a foundation of sunlight. For example, when you take cattle off their typical feedlot diet of grain and allow them to eat grass, those hamburgers put less pressure on the prices of both oil and grain.”

• Pollan continues: “Most of the world’s grain goes to feed animals, not people, and meat is a very inefficient use for that grain — it takes 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. There would be plenty of grain for everyone if we actually ate it as food and didn’t use it to make meat. Reducing world meat consumption — or feeding our food animals differently — would leave more grain for the world’s hungry.

The Economist asserts that the way to feed the world is not to bring more land under cultivation, but to increase yields, and science, thus, is crucial. (The Economist: The quickest way to increase your crop is to plant more, but in the short run, there is only a limited amount of fallow land. Food increases thus need to come from higher yields.)

Sources: “The Silent Tsunami” and “The New Face of Hunger,” both printed in the April 19th Economist, “Harvesting Money In a Hungry World” by Victor Davis Hanson printed in the August 1st New York Times; “How To Feed The World” by Michael Pollan printed in the May 19th Newsweek, and “The Last Bite: Is the World’s Food System Collapsing?” by Bee Wilson printed in the May 19th New Yorker.

Oh and P.S.: This bread, like all of the other loaves produced from recipes printed in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, is delicious. As the pictures show, this isn’t the typical, sweet, cake-like creation most often associated with the word “cornbread.”


Broa (Portuguese Corn Bread)
From Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François

Yield = four 1-lb. loaves

3 cups lukewarm water
1½ T. granulated yeasts (1½ packets)
1½ T. kosher or other coarse salt
1½ cups stone-ground or standard cornmeal
5 cups (22.5 oz.) unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour, measured with the scoop-and-sweep method

Mixing and Storing the Dough

1. Mix the yeast and salt with the water in a five-quart bowl, or preferably, in a resealable, lidded (not airtight) plastic food container or food-grade bucket. Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve. (I added the yeast, then the flour and then the salt on top of the flour to avoid killing any of the yeast, but apparently this is unnecessary.)

2. Mix in the cornmeal and flour. Mix with a wooden spoon. If necessary, reach into your mixing vessel with very wet hands and press the mixture together. Don’t knead! It isn’t necessary.

3. Allow to rise: Cover with a lid (not airtight) and allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately two hours. You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period, but fully refrigerated dough is less sticky and is easier to work with. So, the first time you try this method, it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight before shaping a loaf.

On Baking Day:

4. Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece, using a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. The correctly shaped final product will be smooth and cohesive. The entire process should take no more than 30 to 60 seconds.

5. Place the shaped ball on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. (If you aren’t planning on baking the bread on a pizza stone, just let the dough rest on a cornmeal covered cutting board. Allow the loaf (uncovered) to rest on the peel for about 40 minutes.

6. Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450ºF, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack. (If you don’t have a stone, don’t worry.) Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread. (This helps to make the crust crispy, but you’re bread will still be delicious if you omit this step.)

7. Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will allow the slashing knife to pass without sticking. Make several ¼-inch-deep slashes across the bread. (Again, an uncritical step.)

8. With a quick forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated stone. (Alternatively, butter a Pyrex dish or baking pan and place the bread in the pan.) Quickly but carefully pour about one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack.

Pizzeria Mozza — So Yum

Mozza

Last night at 10:30 p.m., Ben and I finally dined at Pizzeria Mozza, the Nancy Silverton-Mario Batali-Joseph Bastianich pizza joint in Hollywood.

To start, we shared one order of fried squash blossoms — one order of delicately battered, ricotta-filled, piping-hot blossoms. Unbelievably tasty. For pizzas, we ordered the Ipswich clam (clams, oregano, pecorino and Parmigiano) and the Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil.) These wood-fired pizzas, I hate to admit, rival Bar’s, my absolute favorite spot on earth to eat pizza. (I’ve never been to Italy.) Two Amy’s in northwest Washington D.C. is a close second. Pizzeria Mozza, if I lived closer and if I didn’t need to make a reservation a month in advance, would surely be third. I loved everything about this place.

Well, nearly everything. Last year, shortly after Pizzeria Mozza opened, NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave it rave reviews, lauding in particular the butterscotch budino. The Times even provided the recipe. Ben took one bite and put his spoon down, declaring it cloyingly sweet. I agreed and then polished off the rest. No seriously, this dessert does not deserve the hype it has received. The little rosemary-pine nut short bread cookies provided on the side would have been the perfect finale to this long-anticipated dinner.

Artisan Bread Round II, Partially Whole Wheat and Cooked in A Pot

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So, I thought I’d give a brief update on my Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day escapades. This batch is my third, and I experimented with using nearly 50-percent whole-wheat flour. The dough rose just as beautifully as the 100-percent all-purpose flour batches, and held up just the same in the fridge during the week in which it was stored.

And, on a whim, I decided to use the Jim Lahey-Mark Bittman No-Knead Bread method of cooking — in a pre-heated, covered ceramic pot. Success! After 30 minutes in my Emile Henry dutch oven, the bread emerged with a crispy, golden crust. Since I don’t have a pizza stone, cooking in a pot is my best bet if I want to achieve the steam-injected-oven effect, which produces that professional-bakery crust. I have to say, however, that the bread tastes just as delicious when baked in a buttered Pyrex bowl — it doesn’t have the same crust, but the flavor is just the same, and the method is truly no-fuss.

Also, last time I neglected to include the Artisan Bread book’s official blog/Web site, which offers some great tips and additional recipes. Check out this grilled fruit pizza.

For the recipe for this bread, click here. For the baking method, follow the method described in this Mark Bittman NY Times article: The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do The Work

A loaf of 50-percent whole-wheat artisan bread in five minutes a day baked in a pot:

View of the 50-percent whole-wheat dough after rising overnight in the fridge.

Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day, Seriously

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Last week, NPR aired a brief program about rising food prices and how people are changing their behavior as a result. Listeners called in sharing their money-saving secrets: Some people had begun fishing and hunting, others had begun walking or riding their bikes to market, and others had begun learning to make dishes from scratch. One man resolved to learn how to bake bread.

I thought this last idea sounded a little odd. With bread often being one of the least expensive items at the market, surely, I thought, their are better ways to save money.

I decided to investigate. Over the weekend, I made a visit to Henry’s Market (to purchase goat’s milk for a rosemary-gelato round two attempt) where I recorded some prices. A one-pound loaf of La Brea bread (the gourmet bread created by Nancy Silverton sold at grocery stores nationwide) costs on average $5.35. (To give you a range, the least expensive La Brea Country White Sourdough loaf cost $3.99 a pound and the most expensive Olive loaf cost $6.99 for 14.5 ounces.) Now, La Brea bread is one of the more expensive varieties of bakery-style bread found at grocery stores, but it’s also one of the best, and I’ve chosen to use it as the measure in this experiment for that reason.

Now, on to Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I’ve been meaning to open this book since receiving it at Christmas from my father-in-law, who had read about it in this November 2007 NYTimes article: “Soon The Bread Will Be Making Itself”. Seriously, after I made the initial batch of starter, the bread took no more than five minutes of active time to prepare. (Plan on a 40 minute rise plus a 30 minute bake). And the result? Five stars. Ben and I ate almost an entire one-pound loaf in one sitting.

Preparing the loaves is so simple that I made bread on both Saturday and Sunday nights of this weekend, and I still have enough starter to prepare two more loaves this week. The starter keeps for at least two weeks in the refrigerator. This method, created by Jeff Hertzberg, a physician from Minneapolis, entails no kneading and can be prepared by the most novice of bread makers. If you have any inkling to learn to make bread or if you are a pro and desire a simpler method, buy this book: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking.

So, what does one of these loaves cost to prepare? Using the price of flour given by the American Farm Bureau — a 5-lb. bag of flour costs on average $2.39 — and prices for yeast and salt listed at Henry’s Market — a 3-lb. pound box of kosher salt costs $3.49 and a three-pack of yeast costs $2.39 — a one-pound loaf of homemade artisan bread costs about 60 cents to prepare from scratch. (Flour costs about 3 cents per ounce; yeast, 35 cents per teaspoon; and salt, 1 cent per teaspoon.) Using Henry’s Market prices, too, this estimate of 60 cents is likely on the high side.

The average price of a loaf of La Brea bread is almost nine times more expensive. Even the cheapest loaf of bakery-style bread, priced at $1.29 a pound, costs over twice as much as a loaf of homemade bread. Upon closer analysis it seems the man who called into the radio program actually might be on to something.

Even if saving money is not your goal, however, give this recipe a stab purely to experience how truly simple bread making at home can be. I’m dying to try other recipes in this book such as roasted red pepper fougasse, Italian semolina, and sun-dried tomato parmesan but for now, I’m extremely happy with the results of this master boule: It’s perfectly salty, moist and airy and delectable all around.

We ate three-quarters of this loaf in one sitting. It’s so yummy!

The Master Recipe: Boule
Adapted From Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
Yield = Four 1-pound loaves. Recipe can be doubled or halved

3 cups lukewarm water
1½ T. granulated yeasts (1½ packets)
1½ T. kosher or other coarse salt
6½ cups (29.25 oz.) unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour,
measured with the scoop-and-sweep method

Mixing and Storing the Dough

1. Warm the water slightly: It should feel just a little warmer than body temperature, about 100ºF.

2. Add yeast and salt to the water in a five-quart bowl, or preferably, in a resealable, lidded (not airtight) plastic food container or food-grade bucket. Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve. (I added the yeast, then the flour and then the salt on top of the flour to avoid killing any of the yeast, but apparently this is unnecessary.)

3. Mix in the flour: Add all of the flour at once, measuring it with dry-ingredient measuring cups, by gently scooping the flour, then sweeping the top level with a knife or spatula; don’t press down into the flour as you scoop or you’ll throw off the measurement by compressing. Mix with a wooden spoon. If necessary, reach into your mixing vessel with very wet hands and press the mixture together. Don’t knead! It isn’t necessary. You’re finished when everything is uniformly moist, without dry patches. Dough should be wet and loose enough to conform to the shape of the container.

4. Allow to rise: Cover with a lid (not airtight) that fits well to the container you’re using. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately two hours. You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period, but fully refrigerated dough is less sticky and is easier to work with. So, the first time you try this method, it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight before shaping a loaf.


On Baking Day:

5. Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size), using a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. The correctly shaped final product will be smooth and cohesive. The entire process should take no more than 30 to 60 seconds.

6. Place the shaped ball on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. (If you aren’t planning on baking the bread on a pizza stone, just let the dough rest on a cornmeal-covered cutting board. Allow the loaf (uncovered) to rest on the peel for about 40 minutes.


7. Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450ºF, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack. (If you don’t have a stone, don’t worry.) Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread. (This helps to make the crust crispy, but your bread will still be delicious if you omit this step.)

8. Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will allow the slashing knife to pass without sticking. Make several ¼-inch-deep slashes across the bread. (Again, if you omit this step, your bread will taste the same.)

9. With a quick forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated stone. (Alternatively, butter a Pyrex dish or baking pan and place the bread in the pan.) Quickly but carefully pour about one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack.

If you bake frequently, purchase yeast in bulk bags and store in your refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. You’ll save a ton of money:

Here are two shots of an unslashed loaf baked in a buttered one-quart Pyrex dish. The difference in crust texture, in my opinion, is indetectable. If you don’t have a pizza stone and don’t feel like going through the trouble of a steam tray, this method, outlined in the recipe, works just fine.

Breakfast Pizza For Dinner

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Oh, how I wish I could take credit for this ingenious creation. Alas, I cannot. A very good friend of mine, after observing my egg obsession, kindly directed me to this Apartment Therapy site, offering me yet another way to enjoy my beloved eggs. (Thanks, Amanda!) The eggs, cracked atop the pizza during the last few minutes of baking, retain a runny yolk, which, when cracked, ooze into the crust and toppings — sautéed Swiss chard and cheese, in this case — making each bite unbelievably tasty. This combination was particularly yummy, but I suspect these eggs would enhance various topping combinations, from sausage and peppers to tomato and basil to ricotta and spinach — oh, the possibilities are endless.

Not too long ago, I made a flatbread with brie, prosciutto and watercress — a recipe I spotted in a recently published cookbook Blue Eggs, Yellow Tomatoes. Well, I must confess that the dough recipe I have enclosed below is far superior. Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table, this wet dough — admittedly a little difficult to work with — yields a thin and crispy crust. I’m not sure why I bother experimenting with any other recipe — my family (my mother) has been making the Figs’ pizza dough for years with great success.

One note: Unless you have a very powerful food processor, don’t use one. I burned out the engine on mine making this recipe and had to finish the kneading by hand. Use a stand mixer if you have one or knead by hand from the beginning.

This recipe makes a very wet pizza dough. Once baked, however, the dough becomes a light, thin, crisp crust. My family has been using this recipe for years, and one of our favorite topping combinations includes caramelized onions, grapes, blue cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil. This dough freezes well, too: After the two-hour rise, punch it down, wrap it in plastic and throw in the freezer. When ready to use it, let the dough sit at room temperature for a few hours prior to cooking.

Pizza Dough
Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table
Makes 4 8- to 10-inch pizzas (Serves 1 to 2 people per pizza)

¼ cup whole wheat flour
3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 2/3 cups lukewarm water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. Place the flours and salt in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl and let sit for five minutes until the mixture bubbles slightly. Add the olive oil and stir. With the mixer on low, gradually add the oil-water mixture into the bowl. Knead until the dough is firm and smooth, about 10 minutes. The dough will be very wet and sort of difficult to work with. I liberally coat my hands with flour before attempting to remove it.

2. Divide the dough into four balls, about 7½ ounces each. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. (Be sure to oil the parchment paper.) Place two balls on a sheet. Lightly rub the balls with olive oil or lightly coat with cooking spray, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. The dough is very sticky and wet, so, be sure to coat the balls or the plastic with oil. Let the balls rise in a warm spot until they have doubled in bulk, about two hours.

3. To roll out the dough: Dab your fingers in flour and then place one ball on a generously floured work surface. Press down in the center with the tips of your fingers, spreading the dough with your hand. When the dough has doubled in width, use a floured rolling pin and roll out until it is very thin, like flatbread. The outer portion should be a little thicker than the inner portion.

Breakfast Pizza: Sorry for these undetailed instructions, but I really just threw this together.
Serves 2

cornmeal

olive oil
Swiss chard, washed, stems diced, leaves roughly chopped
garlic, minced
kosher salt
crushed red pepper flakes
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano and cheddar and crumbled goat cheese (use any grated cheese you have on hand)
4 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 500ºF. Follow the instructions above for rolling out the dough. Sprinkle some cornmeal on a baking sheet and transfer the dough to the baking sheet.

2. Meanwhile, sauté the Swiss chard stems in the oil until slightly tender. Increase the heat to high, add the greens, season with salt, red pepper flakes and garlic. Rearrange the greens with tongs until nicely wilted. Turn off the heat and set aside.

3. Top pizza with a thin layer of greens and cover with the grated cheese. Place in the oven for about eight minutes, or until about three minutes away from being done. Remove from the oven and crack the eggs over the pizza. Return to the oven, cooking just until the whites are set and the yolks are slightly runny.

4. Serve immediately.

Backyard Chickens & Thin-Crust Pizza

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A few months ago, I mentioned I was looking forward to the day when Ben and I have room in our place to fit a freestanding freezer, (one large enough to fit a half or quarter steer.) Well, I’ve added something else I’m looking forward to getting as soon as space permits: chickens. I can’t believe I never thought about this before. And, as far as I can tell from this new cookbook I’ve been reading, chickens don’t seem like that much work. I guess I’ll find out.

So, this cookbook is called Blue Eggs & Yellow Tomatoes. I’ve now tried several recipes from it including penne with asparagus, meyer lemon scones, and thin-crust pizza with brie, prosciutto and watercress. The penne was good, but way too cheesy — the recipe called for 15 ounces of ricotta and a half cup of parmesan cheese for one pound of pasta. The scones were good, too, but not as good as almond-buttermilk scones. The pizza, pictured above, however, was delectable. The dough recipe yields three eight-ounce balls and freezes well. Tonight, I thawed one of the balls at room temperature for three hours, as instructed, rolled it out and baked it topped with sautéed Swiss chard, Parmigianno Reggiano and smoked Gouda. I actually preferred this pizza to the one with brie and prosciutto. Call me crazy, but as I was eating the one topped with watercress, I kept thinking it needed something else, maybe a poached or fried egg on top.

Anyway, despite a few so-so recipes, I am still very happy to have stumbled across this book. Why? It inspired me to plant a garden. The author, Jeanne Kelley, an L.A. resident briefly describes a way of gardening — in raised beds made from plywood — that she says vegetables grow best in. I had just read an article in Acres U.S.A about a woman in Colorado doing the same sort of thing but with cinder blocks instead. I went to the Web site, The Living Farm, noted in the article  and downloaded the author’s E-book called Cinder Block Gardens. It cost $19.95. Over the weekend, I went to Lowe’s and Plant Depot and purchased everything I needed for my garden. I still need to figure out what I want to grow, but the blocks have been laid, the soil mixed and the ground watered. I cannot wait to start planting.

Once I get some seedlings in the ground, I’ll post some pics. Seriously, if you have any desire to start a vegetable garden, check out this E-Book. You don’t need a perfect patch of land — we built ours on a slightly sloped, rock-hard area measuring about seven feet by four. The author, Lynn Gillespie, has painstakingly detailed the process — the book is worth every penny.

And, once I have the space, 10 or 20 years from now, I will consult the final chapter of Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes, which describes in detail how to raise backyard hens.

I think one reason why I preferred the Swiss chard pizza to the prosciutto is that I didn’t have enough Brie to cover the surface and make it really tasty. This emerged from the oven looking a little freaky.

Brie and Prosciutto Pizza with Watercress
Adapted From Blue Eggs & Yellow Tomatoes (Running Press, 2008)
Yield = One 12-inch pizza

8 oz. Pizza Dough (recipe below)
8 oz. double-cream Brie (any type of Brie works fine, too)
Cornmeal
3 to 4 thin slices prosciutto
2 cups watercress or arugula leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, pressed
pepper

1. Prepare the pizza dough as directed in the recipe.

2. Place the Brie in the freezer until it is firm but not solid, about 15 minutes. Trim off the rind and cut the Brie into ¼-inch-thick slices. Arrange the slices on a waxed-paper-lined pan and refrigerate. (I didn’t do this. I think if you use the really good stuff, this step might be necessary, but for regular Brie, leaving it at room temperature should be fine.)

3. Position one rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat it to 400ºF. Sprinkle a large, heavy baking sheet baking sheet lightly with cornmeal (about one tablespoon).

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a lightly floured surface to a 12-inch round. Transfer the dough to a prepared sheet. Distribute the Brie evenly on top of the dough. Bake the pizza until the Brie melts and the crust is golden brown on the bottom, about 15 minutes. Transfer the pizza to a cutting board. Distribute the prosciutto evenly on top of the pizza.

5. Toss the watercress with the lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic in a medium-sized bowl. Top the pizza with the watercress and season with pepper. Cut into wedges and serve.

Pizza Dough
Adapted From Blue Eggs & Yellow Tomatoes (Running Press, 2008)
Yield = Three 8-oz. Balls Pizza Dough

1 cup lukewarm water
1½ teaspoons active dry yeast
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup white whole wheat flour (regular whole wheat flour works fine, too)
3 tablespoons vital wheat gluten
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1. Whisk the water and yeast together in a two-cup measuring cup and let stand for 5 minutes.

2. Combine the flours and salt in a food processor and pulse to blend. Whisk the olive oil into the yeast mixture. With the food processor running, pour the yeast mixture through the feed tube and process until the dough forms a ball, about 1 minute. (If the dough does not form a ball, add lukewarm water by the teaspoons until the dough comes together.)

3. Knead the dough briefly on a lightly floured surface for about one minute. Brush a large bowl with olive oil. Transfer the dough to a bowl and turn the dough to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let the dough stand until it doubles in volume, about 1½ hours.

4. Punch the dough down. Divide the dough into three even balls, about eight-ounces each. (Refrigerate up to two days or freeze for one month. Let refrigerated dough stand for one hour and frozen dough thaw four hours at room temperature before rolling.)

Same dough as pictured above, but topped with sautéed Swiss chard, Parmigiano Reggiano and smoked Gouda:

Poached Eggs Over Flax Bread

poachedegg

So, as you know, I’ve been eating a lot of eggs. I’ve been cooking them in various ways — scrambled, poached, and even baked into tortilla shells (thanks for the recipe, Ann … next Friday I’ll post my results) — and I’m starting to notice a pattern: Eggs need to be coddled. Pardon the pun, but what I mean is that eggs, prepared in any way, need to be cooked gently — slowly over low heat. And, as I mentioned recently, if you start with really fresh eggs all you need is salt, pepper and a splash of Tabasco.

Now, I haven’t tested my theory on fried eggs, but I will, and I’m guessing this method won’t fail me.

As for the bread you see pictured, I’m still in disbelief that it emerged from the oven looking somewhat like a loaf of bread. Let me explain. I had been reading this book about omega-3 fatty acids and became inspired to make flax-seed bread. I found a recipe on the Internet, but the quantities were given in gram form. Not to worry, I converted the grams to ounces, and then from ounces to cups. ( My digital Salter scale is still in storage.)

I mixed together all the ingredients, kneaded the dough briefly — the recipe told me to do so — and placed the ball in a bowl. Twenty-four hours later, the dough had not budged. I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing it away, however, so I dissolved another packet of yeast in some water, let it bloom and then mixed it with some white flour. I broke the flax-seed rock into my new flour-water-yeast mixture and began kneading. After 10 minutes, I placed the dough in a bowl to rise, I hoped, once again.

Twenty-four hours later, the dough had made a little bit of progress, so I threw it in the oven before it could collapse on me. The results, well, let’s just say, were better than I had expected? Made mostly with whole wheat flour and loaded with flax seeds, this bread tastes a little nutty and very wholesome.

Yesterday afternoon, while we celebrated my uncle Jerry’s birthday, Aunt Vicki sliced up some of this bread, toasted it up and served it with butter and orange marmalade. It actually made a nice little snack. And cousin Jay, after slicing the bread very thinly, made a tasty looking avocado and turkey sandwich. The flax bread, although having the effect of feeling “like a steel glove in the stomach,” as uncle Jerry noted, was a hit.

Perfect Poached Eggs

vinegar
eggs, however many you want
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring a small, shallow saucepan filled with water to a boil. Add a capful of vinegar. Crack eggs, one at a time, into a ramekin or small vessel. Reduce the heat of the pot to just a simmer — seriously, the water should hardly be moving. Using the end of a wooden spoon, swirl the water to create a mini whirlpool. Gently drop the egg into the center of this whirlpool.  Turn up the heat to maintain that very gentle simmer, then add another egg in the same manner to the pan.

2. To test for doneness, remove one of the eggs with a slotted spoon. Gently press the yolk with your finger. If it feels too soft, return egg to water. Cook for a total of about 3 minutes or less. Remove with a slotted spoon and gently dab the top with a paper towel — I lay a paper towel over the egg briefly to absorb the excess water. Serve the eggs over toast. Season with salt, pepper and Tabasco, if desired.

Garlic-Cheese Butter & A San Clemente Sunset

GarlicButter

I’m becoming a real purist. I have now renounced fake butter, a big deal in the Stafford household. I mean Ben and I practically fell in love over a tub of Brummel and Brown. Not really, but for many years, this butter-like spread, made with yogurt, was a staple in our refrigerator. Toast at breakfast and warm bread at dinner always received a dab of Brummel and Brown, its unfailing room-temperature texture convenient and its health claims welcome.

So what has inspired the sudden shift? I know, I know. I mention Michael Pollan in every other entry. His latest book, however, has really influenced how I shop and what I eat. And for the better. Butter is really good.

Until today, never had I read the ingredient list printed on a tub of Brummel and Brown. Here it is: water, vegetable oil blend (liquid soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil), nonfat yogurt (cultured nonfat milk), salt, gelatin, vegetable mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, (potassium sorbate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, lactic acid, artificial flavor, vitamin a (palmitate), beta carotene (for color).

Now, let’s review a few of Pollan’s eating algorithms as outlined in In Defense Of Food:

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
2. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.
3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A.) unfamiliar, B.) unpronounceable, C.) more than five in number, or that include D.) high-fructose corn syrup.

Brummel and Brown fails on every account except 3-D. Now, the tablespoon of Brummel and Brown I spread on my toast every other day likely wasn’t going to kill me. And maybe none of these ingredients is actually that bad for me. But do we really know? A tablespoon of butter on my toast surely won’t kill me — we’ve been eating butter for over 4,000 years (according to a quick google search). So why should I eat partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat*) and soy lethicin when I can eat cream? I prefer to eat cream, the sole ingredient in a batch of unsalted butter.

Because I have failed to write up an extensive entry on In Defense Of Food, I have enclosed a link to my notes, if anyone cares to learn more about the book.

*Brummel and Brown explicitly states on its tub “No Trans Fats,” but an asterisk leads to a qualification based on FDA labeling regulations related to fats: Less than one gram of fat is declared 0 grams per serving.

So, on Sunday at the San Clemente farmers’ market, when Jordan Stone of Delaney’s Culinary Fresh asked me if I was “anti-butter” I shook my head “no” and began sampling. My favorites included sun-dried tomato asiago, basil parmesan, and garlic asiago, a tub of which I ended up taking home. Spread onto warm bread, this butter, flavored with roasted garlic, Asiago cheese, herbs, lemon and sea salt, makes the Stafford household very happy.

Contrary to how it may appear, I am not a sales rep for Delaney’s Culinary Fresh. Just a huge fan. I’ve now used several other products including the artichoke tapenade (as an hors d’oeuvres with a baguette), the sun-dried tomato marinara sauce, and the basil Asiago sauce (for an instant dinner with garlic-basil spaghetti). Yum!

This is the sunset Ben and I enjoy every evening from our apartment. Just kidding. It’s the view from The Beachcomber, a great motel in San Clemente. Each room has a mini kitchen. Come visit!

Best Buttermilk Biscuits

biscuit2

Several years ago, The Washington Post ran an article in their food section called “Building a Better Biscuit,” which my grandmother saved for me, and which I have referred to many times since. The article gives some good suggestions: Don’t overwork the dough; to get maximum rise, bake the biscuits soon after they are cut; and use buttermilk, fine sea salt, and a combination of baking powder and baking soda. Light, flaky and buttery, these biscuits are delectable!

The original recipe called for eight tablespoons of shortening, but I, conditioned by my mother, use all butter instead. This recipe can be adapted — I made a cashel blue cheese and chive variation for St. Patrick’s Day — and the dough, unbaked, can be frozen and baked straight from the freezer. I prefer to eat these just as they are, maybe with a little butter, but they also make a nice base for poached eggs, Ben’s favorite way of eating them.

Buttermilk Biscuits
Yield = 8 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
¾ cup buttermilk plus more for brushing

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour mixture and using a fork, mix the butter and flour until the butter has broken into small bits and flakes.
Pour buttermilk into flour mix. Stir with fork just until the dough comes together to form a mass — Do not over-mix. Gently gather the dough in the bowl to bring together, adding an extra tablespoon of buttermilk if necessary. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Pat the dough into a ¾-inch thick circle. Using a two-inch round cutter, cut the dough into eight biscuits. Transfer to an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing the biscuits 2-inches apart.
Brush each biscuit lightly with buttermilk. Sprinkle a pinch of sugar over the top of each. Transfer sheet to the oven, immediately increasing the temperature to 425ºF. Bake the biscuits for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven, transfer to a wire rack to cool or serve immediately.