A while back my brother-in-law posted a link on my Facebook wall with the comment, “Obsessive immersion in a hobby at its best.” It was a link to Jeff Varasano’s New York Pizza Recipe. Now, those of you who know me are aware that I occasionally nerd out about cooking. I’m as enthralled by understanding and perfecting the chemistry of it as I am by eating my creations. I figured, “Cool, someone else who nerds out about cooking,” and clicked on the link.
Ok. This guy takes it to a whole new level. He is quite literrally obsessed with creating perfect, authentic, New York style pizza. For example, most home ovens go up to about 500°F, but New York style pizza cooked in brick ovens usually run at 700-900°F. So what did he do? Well, he cut the lock on his oven, rewired it to override the safety setting, and sets his oven to the clean cycle in order get the temperature inside up to 900°F and cook his pizza. Just for the heck of it, I clicked print preview to see how long the page would be if printed out: 94.
Also included are:
- a thorough comparison of the protein and gluten percentages of various types of flour, how these will affect the outcome of your pizza, and his recommendation on which flour is best
- a detailed explanation of how to mix and knead the dough—using a technique that I was not familiar with that purportedly yields significantly better results
- a discussion on the various types of mozzarella, how they react differently when cooked, and a caveat about the importance of using the freshest cheese available
- instructions on how to leaven the dough, a process that can take anywhere from three to six days
- a review of pizza restaurants from around the world and a list of his top picks
I’ve been on a sun-dried tomatoes and capers kick lately. It all started with a baked avocado with blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and pancetta. Then they started showing up in salads (with fresh lettuce from the garden!) Today they snuck into a pita sandwich. When I say snuck, they more so rolled in like Panzers. Let’s face it, neither sun-dried tomatoes nor capers are subtle. The creaminess of the yogurt balances the explosions of flavor created by the capers and sun-dried tomatoes. If you have labneh, you might try using that. (I’m in the process of making labneh right now, actually, using some homemade yogurt. I’ll post about my yogurty exploits soon).
1/4 c hummus
4 sun-dried tomatoes
1 T capers
1/4 c plain yogurt
Pepper to taste
Cut the pita in half and open it up. Spread the hummus evenly on the inside. Cut the sun-dried tomatoes into thin, 1/8″ strips. Sprinkle the tomatoes and capers so that they’re evenly distributed across the hummus. Drizzle a little olive oil and pepper over it. Finally, spread the yogurt over the top of it all.
Let me say it again. Baked Avocados with Bleu Cheese, Pancetta, Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Capers. There. Now I have your mouth lusting like a middle-school boy.
This recipe came from Cafe Girafa, a little cafe in Suchdol, Prague, Czech Republic. It’s a five minute walk from my parents’ house, and serves the best savory crepes I’ve ever had. This recipe isn’t theirs verbatim, but it’s a close reinterpretation. (I think they use bacon instead of pancetta, and gorgonzola instead of bleu cheese). However, judging by the ingredient list, there’s really no way to screw this up. Put all of the yummiest things you can think of together and eat them. That’s basically what we’re doing here.
1/8lb pancetta, sliced
1/8lb bleu cheese
6 sun-dried tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 375. In a skillet, cook the pancetta briefly. Go for about the doneness of undercooked, wobbly bacon (ewww). Remove from heat. Chop up the sun-dried tomatoes into approximately 1/4″ x 1″ slivers. Halve the avocados & remove the pits. (See below for the proper way to open an avocado). Plop a good hunk of cheese in the avocado pit. Sprinkle the sun-dried tomatoes and capers on and around the cheese. Add more of everything until it’s mounded. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle pancetta over the top. (This is not meant to be a precise recipe. Adjust ingredients to taste. If you really like bleu cheese, put more cheese on. If you hate capers, skip ’em!) Bake 15-20 minutes until the cheese is melted, the pancetta looks crispy, or you just absolutely cannot wait another second. If you want, broil the top for the final 2-3 minutes to make sure the pancetta is good and crispy.
How to open an avocado:
Use a large, sharp knife. Cut straight into like you are going to halve it lengthwise until you hit the pit. Rotate the avocado until you’ve sliced all the way around the pit, and the meat and skin are cleanly in two halves (still attached to the pit). Grab each half in either hand and rotate the halves in opposite directions (left half clockwise, right half counter-clockwise). One half should separate from the pit. Take the knife and (carefully!) whack the pit so that the knife sticks into it. (Do not whack yourself, anyone or anything else with the knife. Avocado pits can be slippery, so be sure to aim correctly). Grab the half in one hand and the knife in the other. Twist again in alternating directions. The pit should pop right out.
About once a week we make homemade pizza from a batch of homemade whole wheat pizza dough recipe. After much experimentation, I think I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the perfect way to do thin-crust pizza. Here’s a hint: high heat is the key. (Note: if you like deep-dish, high heat is probably a horrible idea. Nothing like uncooked dough and soggy pizza).
Yes. High heat is all you need, but I’ll break my technique down a little further. First, defrost the dough if it was in the freezer. (When I make a batch of dough, I usually double the recipe and divide it into 4 portions. Eating pizza once a week, a batch lasts us a month). Next, let it rest somewhere warm and dark for at least 30 minutes. This helps the glutens relax and makes it easier to roll out. It will rise a bit during this time. Begin rolling out the dough. When I roll mine to about the edges of our pizza pan, it ends up being about 1/4″ thick or less. If you like bubbly pizza, let the dough rest again for another 30 minutes or so. Doing this allows the yeast to keep eat, and as they do so, the release carbon dioxide.
Preheat the oven to 350. Stick the dough in for 5-10 min. so that it cooks slightly, just until the outside looks dry instead of doughy. (You make skip this step if you want. However, I’ve had a couple pizzas turn out doughy. Since I started pre-cooking the crust, I’ve never had it burn, so I don’t think there’s any risk with this method). Meanwhile, start preparing the trimmings. Chop and cook anything that needs chopped or cooked before it goes on the pizza (like onions usually do, in my experience).
Once the dough has cooked for a few minutes, remove it from the oven and crank up the heat to the highest your oven will go. I mean that. Get it as hot as possible. Mine goes up to 550. I’ve heard that in Italy, some restaurants crank the heat up to 700. (If you’re really hardcore, get a couple dozen unglazed quarry tiles from the hardware store. Stick them in the oven and bake them at your highest heat for 15-20 minutes. They’ll absorb it, and allow you to get much higher temperatures out of your oven.)
While you’re waiting for things to heat up, top your pizza with whatever ingredients you decided on. I can’t say enough about adding minced garlic and rosemary to the sauce. It’s really the best thing that’s ever happened to my pizza. If you’re using fresh basil, remember to put it on right after the sauce, under the cheese and other toppings. Otherwise, it will come as nothing more than like crispy, black flakes. Once the oven is hot, put it in and bake until it’s done. When is it done? Up to you but I have three criteria. 1) A good portion of the cheese is a warm, golden brown on top. 2) The ends/edges of any toppings sticking up too far out of the cheese are shriveled and burnt. 3) The crust is a nice, medium-heading-towards-dark, toasty brown color.
Experiment all you want with this method, but it’s been consistently turning out quality results for us.
Last night’s meal unexpectedly went down as “the best thing you’ve made in a long time” according to wifey. “I’ve got goosebumps!” she exclaimed at one point. I mean, while I expected it to be tasty, it went a little beyond that. OK, a lot beyond that. Best of all, it didn’t dirty many dishes or take a long time. (I know that’s a rare occurrence for a lot of my recipes. Sorry, dish-doing-haters). I only cooked for 2, but this should serve about 4. Remember that gnocchi is a gut-buster.
The largest portobellas you can find (1 per person)
3-4 stalks of sage
1 handful of chives
1T caraway seeds
6 cloves of garlic
1/4 c flour
1-2 c milk
6T olive oil/butter
Salt & pepper to taste
Feta to crumble over top
Additional oil for frying (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375. Reserve 15-20 of the largest sage leaves for frying later. Chop the rest of the sage and the chives. Set aside. Finely chop the onions and garlic. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the caraway, and cook until the onions are golden (another 3 minutes or so). Sprinkle the flour in a little at a time so that the fat/oil can absorb it. Let this cook another 10-15 minutes until it’s a toasty, golden color, stirring semi-frequently. Begin adding milk a little at a time, whisking vigorously until it dissolves. Once you have a thick roux, add the chopped sage and chives. Salt & pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and let the flavors meld, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, remove the stems from the portobellas, and put them gills-up on a large baking sheet. Bake for 10-15min until their juices are just starting to run. Bring a pot of water to a boil, and cook the gnocchi. They’re done when the float. Drain them and set aside. Once the mushrooms are done pre-cooking, remove them. Spoon a little bit of sauce onto the mushroom, and spread it around on the gills. Pile as many gnocchi as you can possibly fit onto each mushroom. Smother in sauce and top with crumbled feta. Put in the oven and bake for another 15-20 minutes. While it’s baking, pour 1/4″ of oil into a small frying pan and heat. Take the large sage leaves that you reserved at the beginning into the hot oil bottom-side-up (the way the leaf curls when it fries, it just works better upside-down). Fry for 1-2 minutes until deep green. Remove from oil and let drain on a paper towel or clean dish rag. Sprinkle a little salt on the leaves while they’re still hot, so that it sticks to them.
Remove the mushrooms from the oven, and carefully move them to serving plates using a large spatula. (I used two spatulas. The cooked mushrooms will not longer be firm enough to support the weight of the gnocchi, and you don’t want the gnocchi to slide off the mushroom caps when you serve them.) Garnish with 4-5 fried sage leaves.
Last night we made gnocchi for the first time. It was actually relatively easy, except that something with the recipe was a little screwy. Basically, you’re supposed to mix a little flour in with the potatoes, until it gets to a dough consistency that is slightly sticky to touch, but doesn’t doesn’t stick to you. The recipe calls for two cups. I used close to eight, and it still was too sticky. We just made sure our hands were well floured before handling it. So anyhow, I’m including the original recipe in the hopes that there was something goofy with my batch. Just be sure you have plenty of flour on hand just in case. Otherwise things went well. We made ours a little too big, but it wasn’t too bad. I would say the ideal size would be oblong balls as long as a quarter and as thick as a dime.
Gnocchi can be gut busters, and this recipe (adapted from Mario Batali and the Smitten Kitchen) makes plenty. We fed 5 people with it, and had enough left over to freeze an entire gallon Ziploc bag of them.
Ingredients for gnocchi:
1.5 kg (3 lbs.) russet potatoes
2 c flour (or 8 if you’re me)
1 tsp salt
Ingredients for sauce:
1 bulb of garlic (yes… bulb, not clove)
1 lb spinach
1 c of milk (or cream, if you’re feeling caloric)
4 T olive oil, butter, or a mixture of the two
4 T white flour
1+ c white wine or chicken broth (I used broth)
1/2 c grated mozzarella
1/8 c grated parmesan
Dash of nutmeg
Salt & pepper to taste
Prick the potatoes with a fork. Place them in a large pot of water, bring it to a boil, and cook for 45 minutes until the potatoes are soft when pierced. (It’s important to both prick the potatoes with a fork and to bring the pot of water to a boil with them already inside–rather than adding them to a pot of boiling water. If you don’t follow these two steps, the potato skins may split open causing soggy potatoes. And soggy potatoes may have been my problem). Once the potatoes are finished, remove them from the pot.
Preheat the oven to 375. Take a sharp knife, and cut the top the garlic bulb. A tiny bit of the top of each bulb should be exposed. Place the bulb in the center of a square of a aluminum foil. Sprinkle the top of the exposed cloves with salt and pepper. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over the bulb. Wrap the foil over the bulb, and twiste it at the top. Place the bulb on a baking sheet in the oven, and bake for 45 minutes. Remove it when it’s done and let it cool while you make the gnocchi dough.
If you have gloves specifically made for playing Hot Potato, get them now. As I understand it, you want the dough to stay warm while you’re making it, so grab a clean towel (if you don’t have Hot Potato gloves) for handling them. Peel the potatoes, and mash them in a large bowl. (Ideally, pass them through a food mill. I didn’t have one, so I grated them. You could use a food processor, too, or mash them the old fashioned way). Form a volcano hole in the middle of the potatoes, and sprinkle 2 cups of flour over the top. Add the salt and egg to the volcano. Quickly mix them all together so that the egg mixes before it gets cooked by the potatoes. Knead for an additional 4-5 min until the mixture is dough, and slightly sticky to the touch. (This is where my attempt bordered on disastrous. It was super sticky even after an additional 6 cups of flour. Better luck to you).
Take the garlic bulb, and squeeze it from the base towards the top. The roasted cloves should pop out. Take a fork and mash these into a smooth paste. In a large skillet, melt the butter (or add the oil) and heat. Sprinkle the flour a bit at a time, whisking it into the hot oil until it dissolves. Mix in the garlic paste at this time, too. Add the milk a bit at a time, whisking vigorously to make a roux. Add wine/broth until you have a thick sauce, then bring the mixture to a simmer. Sprinkle the cheese on top and mix it into the roux. Add nutmeg, salt & pepper. Reduce heat to low, and stir sparingly. Add more liquid if it’s starts getting to thick. Remove any thick stems from the spinach and roughly chop. Add a tiny bit of water to a pot and heat. Wilt the spinach, drain it and squeeze as much liquid from it as you can. Set it aside to be added at the end.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Take a fist-sized chunk of dough and roll it out kindergarten-style into a snake about the thickness of a dime. Cut the snake into one-inch bits. Roll them briefly in your hands to round any pointy edges, then roll them long-ways along the tines of a fork to create ridges. (Traditionally gnocchi has ridges; we skipped this step). Place them on an oiled baking sheet and rub them around or spray them with oil to prevent sticking. Break off another piece of dough and repeat.
Add the gnocchi to the boiling water and stir once to prevent it from sticking to the bottom. Cook about 2 minutes until it floats up to the surface. With a slotted spoon, scoop up the cooked gnocchi and plop them into the sauce. (Alternately, transfer them to an oiled baking sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they’ve frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag. This prevents them from freezing into a large gnocchish lump). Add the spinach to the sauce, and mix them all together.
After getting some chanterelle mushrooms and Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child for my birthday, I decided to try out Julia’s mushroom soup recipe. I didn’t follow her recipe exactly, but the basic premise is there. We used chanterelle–which give off a feint aroma of apricots–shiitake, oyster, crimini (a.k.a. baby portobella, baby bella, brown) and white mushrooms for this. It turned out excellently for what it was. However, upon eating it wifey and I realized a fatal mistake we made.
A thick slice of crusty artisan bread with a slice of swiss cheese toasted under a broiler is absolutely essential to this recipe. DO NOT MAKE IT WITHOUT IT!!!
1 1/2 -2 lbs mushrooms, stems removed but reserved and chopped roughly
1/4 c finely chopped onions
2 T butter
6-8 T flour
8 c veggie broth (I used mushroom bullion)
1/4 c cream (I used milk)
2 egg yolks
1 bay leaf, pepper, chopped parsley
Melt the butter in a soup pot. When foaming, add the onions for 6-8 minutes until tender but not browning. Mix in the flour until it forms a paste. Slowly add broth to make a roux. (See directions below if you don’t know how to make a roux). Keep adding broth until it’s all added, then toss in the mushroom stems, bay leaf, pepper and parsley. Let the stems simmer for 20-30 min. If you have dried mushrooms, place them in a bowl, pour boiling water over them, and let soak for 20-30 minutes. Do not discard of the liquid! Meanwhile, finely chop the mushrooms tops. You can saute them before adding them to the soup if you want. I sauted everything but the oyster mushrooms. (I’m not a big fan of crimini unless they’re sauted. Too slippery. Yech!)
Once they’re done simmering, remove the mushroom stems, squeeze the juice out of them, and throw them away. Put all but 1/4 c of the mushroom tops in a food processor, add a little liquid from the soup, and mince–not puree. Add all of the mushrooms to the soup, and let them simmer for another 15 min. Reduce the heat to low. Take two egg yolks, and beat them in a bowl for a minute. Add the cream and beat for another couple minutes. Scoop a cup of soup, and beat it very slowly to the egg mixture. Don’t add it too fast, or you’ll curdle the yolk. Once the entire cup has been added, stir the egg mixture back into the soup. Cook for a 5 more minutes to thicken slightly, being careful not to let it come up to a simmer.
Serve with broiled artisan bread with swiss. Garnish with a little chopped parsley.
How to make a roux:
Add a couple tablespoons of broth, stirring vigorously. Once the broth is absorbed by flour/butter mixture, add a little more. Keep adding more liquid once the previous addition has been absorbed until you’ve added all of the liquid. You will be able to add liquid more quickly towards the end. Do this too quickly, the flour won’t absorb the liquid, and you’ll end up with clumps and lumps that are nearly impossible to dissolve. I don’t think it’s possible to add liquid too slowly, but you don’t to add 8 cups of broth 2 T at a time!