kung pao tacos, pizza night…

June 13, 2013 Comments Off on kung pao tacos, pizza night…

IMG_6196“Kung pao tacos?” asked O the other night after I’d told her what was for dinner.  “That sounds kinda…I don’t know…racist.”

“That sounds kinda…delicious,” I told her.  “It’s a thing.  New York is full of Korean taco trucks.”

The verdict was that corn tortillas and our new favorite Cooking Light kung pao chicken recipe were best kept separate.  And they weren’t wrong–cold kung pao for lunch today was pretty outstanding even without the trans-pacific influence.

“But it totally works,” I argued with her.  “Every culture has a taco.  America?  Hamburger.  China?  Pork bun.  Or wonton.”

“Mexico?” she asked.

“Ha,” I told her.

We’ve started doing taco night about once a week, ever since the tortilla press came into our lives.  It takes about 20 minutes to make a full stack of nine or ten corn tortillas, and they can get heated back up anytime by wrapping them in a dish towel and steaming them.  The best so far has been the pulled pork–I mean, come on–but the options seem limitless.  OK, ok, maybe the kids aren’t quite up to food truck fusion, but with pork, beef, and fish already successfully in the taco department, there’s got to be a good chicken recipe that isn’t boring.

IMG_6202Italy has a taco, too.  It’s just called a pizza.  But still–meat, sauce, and a carbohydrate delivery device.  And that, right there, is the best pizza I’ve ever made, according to O.  After two and a half years of making these, I’ve got the choreography down pretty pat.  And C’s pepperoni pizza I nailed a long time ago, at least according to him.  But O and I have been trying to replicate the potato pizza in Rome, and that’s a tough one.  A few months ago, we tried smashed potatoes, and got close.  Tonight?

“This is it,” she said.  “This is the ultimate potato pizza.”  It’s not what she had in Rome, but it is smashed Yukon golds–roasted for 45 minutes, smashed and doused in olive oil, and then roasted at high heat for 15 minutes before being introduced to the crust.  Labor-intensive?  Sure, but the oven has to heat up anyway–might as well do it in stages and use the energy to make something delicious.  They were pretty good–crispy edges and oil-soaked potato middle.  And I’m not going to lie–I figured out last year when I went back to Rome that like all good restaurant meals, salt is pretty key.


And those potatoes went on a crust that was one of our best yet.  Pure 00 flour, super-high hydration, and (again) a fair glug of olive oil, plus a really long final rise.  Good hole structure in the cornicione, though I went with straight yeast and I missed the sourdough flavor that’s been in almost everything these last few months.  I’ll fix that next time, and maybe throw in a little sugar to get some better color.  But still, check that hole structure out, man.

The kids have spent basically the last three days at the pool–first string of nice weather we’ve had since it opened.  And while we were devouring these pies, O looked over at C and pointed out that he was slowly turing lobster-red.  “Oh, man,” he said.  “I put on sunscreen, I swear!  Every hour I went back and put on another coat!”

O was convinced that someone had secretly replaced his sunscreen with olive oil.



August 5, 2012 Comments Off on 00

That little, unassuming bag to the left there is the secret weapon.  The mysterious “00” flour that, we believe, holds the secret to great pizza, Roman style or Neapolitan.  The kids, who’ve been watching Bond movies as a project, looked at the double-O and instantly realized that this would be pizza…licensed to kill.

There’s a lot of mystery about what this stuff is.  High protein?  Low protein?  In fact, if you do the research, you find out that it’s the size of the grain–very, very small.  In general, 00 flour is higher protein, which produces more gluten and thus more chewy crumb, but from what I’ve heard the really critical bit is that this flour is more powdery, and thus absorbs water more easily, than American bread or all-purpose flour.  That sort of makes sense–more absorption means a wetter dough that’s still workable, which should mean a bigger rise, etc., etc.

I followed Serious Eats’ recipe for 00 pizza dough, in particular the hydration ratio, which checked in at a decent, though not overly intimidating, 60%.  I went a bit heavier on the salt and threw in a teaspoon of diastatic malt powder for extra yeasty power and some sugar for good caramelization.  The result was a pretty plastic dough, a lot like what you typically see behind a pizza counter.  I kneaded it for a good ten minutes and let it stew in the fridge overnight–it took some effort to stretch it out this afternoon, but the result seemed robust and gluten-y.  Super-promsing.

And, in fact, super.  I blind-baked the crusts for eight minutes, washed them with olive oil and topped them, and then broiled them for a minute or two until they started to char (the basil went on after they came out of the broiler).  These were superb, maybe not quite thick enough, but the crusts were crackly on the outside, chewy on the inside, and they stood up to the tomatoes, etc., that went on top of them, unlike the low-protein crust experiment last week.  For the record?  Backyard basil, local tomatoes in and on the sauce, and (*ahem*) homemade ricotta salata, which was as good as it sounded.  This one was mine–the boy got his usual pepperoni and mozzarella, and the girl, bless her heart, got leftover mashed potatoes on hers.  Three 8″ pizzas, no leftovers to speak of.  The boy, who used to leave his crusts?  No longer.  He’s a bones-and-all pizza eating machine these days.  “Pizza licensed to kill,” he said, turning to an imaginary camera “with flavor!”

grilled pizza

July 13, 2012 Comments Off on grilled pizza


The mags are full of grilling recipes this month, including a couple for grilled flatbreads (I’m sure the relevant authorities wouldn’t let anything not in an oven qualify as ‘pizza,’ but just for today I’m going to ignore the Neapolitan pizza police…). This jibes with my recent, painstaking research. Good crust is a factor of heat and fat, right? And while my trusty oven can hit 550 degrees, no problem, that’s still at least 200 short of a decent commercial pizza oven.

A hot charcoal fire hits 700 degrees at its peak, though, which is at least in the ballpark. I had read through the recipes and wasn’t totally convinced–none of them added oiling the crust, which I’m pretty convinced is the great Roman secret. But thinking it through, I figured that if you could get the crust to at least rise and set before it incinerated, you could oil the top, flip it, and oil the bottom while it was upside down. A paint brush full of olive oil certainly means some moments of concern, but that seemed to work a treat.

I prepped three dough balls that I made a few weeks ago and froze, and lit a pretty big fire in the Webber. One at a time, I blind-grilled the crusts (is that even a thing?), brushing the tops with oiil and flipping them when they started to smoke on the bottom. Then I oiled the bottoms while the tops grilled, flipped them back over for a minute, and put then back on the peel to get the toppings. Another quick hit over the coals to warm the topping and/or melt the cheese, and they were done.

And they were fantastic–far better than even the best stuff to come out of the oven. The girl’s was particularly lucky. She’d asked for potato pizza, which I was down with, but I balked at slicing up and par-boiling potatoes. So I pulled out some leftover mashed potatoes from the hamburger buns the other night, added some warmed up cream and rosemary, and spread that over one of the blind-baked crusts. It toasted up nicely, though a bit more potato crust around the edges would have been fine. This avoided the sliding potato slice problem, and added a nice spice hit while getting rid of the dry, chewy seeds that you get if you just sprinkle rosemary over the potatoes.

All in all, totally worth the effort of firing up the grill. Given the lack of oven cleanup, this was probably slightly easier, and the crusts were outstanding–super crunchy on the outside, super chewy on the inside, smoky and a bit charred throughout and able to stand up to a bunch of toppings without sogging out. New favorite.

Pizza romana

June 19, 2012 Comments Off on Pizza romana


I’m over here on a research project. Or, really two. One is the real, funded research involving a mid-twentieth century engineer (more here), and the other is to significantly raise my baking bar. In particular, pizza. I’ve gotten pretty good at a basic 10″ crust, cold-fermented, hand-tossed, lightly scattered with toppings and baked, I’ve got a couple of go-to recipes, and I’ve tweaked the timing and the process to get what I think is a pretty good balance between crispy and chewy crust. For the most part, this works fine. The kids love it, I love it, we can all be happy with pizza night.

Still, memories of our time here in Rome four years ago always make my pizza seem sorely lacking in something. So while I’m here, I’m putting in an extra couple of miles every morning, and trying a different slice most days. I’ve done my homework, looking at recent issues of Food and Wine and Bon Appetit that have highlighted Pizza in Rome. And I’ve consulted the blogosphere. The answers are slippery, but the quest is noble. And delicious. I’ve learned some things. The rest of the world probably figured out that “pita” and “pizza” are essentially the same word and the same thing. Somehow that had eluded me. And that lovely pizza margherita up above? Invented for the birthday of Italy’s first Queen, Margherita to show off the colors of the Italian flag, The fact that basil, mozzarella, and tomato are such a perfect flavor combination suggests that Italy in general gets things right.

Here’s the short answer. There isn’t really a consistent Roman pizza type. The good stuff, according to my sources, ranges all over the map, literally, from super crisp (Roscioli, above) through slightly thicker but still not quite bready (Dar Poeta, in a back alley in Trastevere that I can’t believe we missed the first time around):


to full on focaccia-like (Pizza Florida, by Largo Argentina and Forno Campo di Fiori):



All of them benefit from the mystical 00 flour and ovens that are probably twice as hot as the average home oven, which gives them a head start on the ever-elusive crispy crust/chewy crumb combination. So there are differences in how the dough gets tossed–merely dimpled for the breadier stuff, and worked into a really, really flat disk at Roscioli. And all of these places go super light on the toppings. A Bianca is one thing, but even pizzas that have a lot of stuff on them do it in a pretty thin layer, which keeps the crust from getting soggy. And, finally, I’ve seen the guys at Roscioli lather on the olive oil before and after baking with a heavy-duty commercial paint brush. The bakers at Pugi in Florence did this to their scihacatta as well, which makes me think I’m on to something. I’ve come around to blind baking the oiled or sauced crust for five minutes, slathering it with olive oil again and putting on the toppings, baking it for another 5-6 minutes, and then oiling it one more time after it comes out of the oven. That gets things crisp, but I suspect that even my generous doses pale in comparison to what the pros use. (it’s the good kind of fat, right?)

Anyway, if there has been one stereotypical Roman pizza among the crust-oscenti, it was at La Renella, also in Trastevere, on Via Moro. This one’s easy to miss, since the sign has long since been covered over in ivy. A little heavy on the toppings, but a crust that split the difference between super thin and super thick–probably actually more of a Neapolitan pizza, by that count. But Neapolitan pizza is sold by the pie, and Roman pizza is typically sold by the ounce, from long, foot-wide pies that sit on the counter:



They’re kind of beautiful, arent’t they?

There’s always a bit of craft to the serving, too: at it’s best, your server takes a pair of scissors and starts about halfway up the pizza, moving slowly toward one end until you say “basta“. (and they move slower and slower so you’re likely to order more, of course). They slice it, sometimes fold it over and wrap it with a tidy napkin, or at Forno Campo di Fiori they put it in a bag and flip it over a couple of times to twist the top. Then it gets weighed, you get a receipt, and you pay by the ounce at the cashier, usually across the shop.

There are dozens of more ordinary places that serve perfectly great slices, and there you find the La Renella model, more or less. About 3/8 of an inch thick with a gentle brush of toppings. What separates the really good stuff, of course, is the crust. At its best, these are super yeasty and airy, which leads you to think that they do a full-on biga the night before, and of course crunchy and chewy all at the same time.

So the plan for the summer pizza experiments: get 00 flour, make the dough using an overnight biga, and be more committed about the use and abuse of olive oil in baking. The kiddos should be willing test subjects, I’m guessing…

Pane Toscano & Schiaccata

June 18, 2012 Comments Off on Pane Toscano & Schiaccata

In Florence to find two buildings, so just one night. After the Calcio, I wandered back up to the hotel in search of dinner. The Hotel Arizona (Hotel California was taken, I suspect they just looked at what the next state over was…) is just up the street from the fish market, and Cibreo was tempting. We ate in their back room in 1995, and it was one of those moments where you realize that really good food can be a transcendent experience.

That wasn’t quite on the cards tonight. They were crowded, and I’m trying to save money and calories for when the rest of the research team arrives next Sunday. But the hotel is also close to the Mercantino di Ciompi, a slightly down-at-the-heels market square that has a medieval loggia that a local cafe uses for outdoor seating. It didn’t promise great food, but it was uncrowned, and the setting wasn’t bad:


When the bread came, I asked the waitress whether it was Pane Toscano. It was, she said, and she knew the next question. “Senza sala”. It’s true. Cynthia Field’s Italian Baker goes to great lengths to include a Pane Toscano recipe, and to more or less insist that it isn’t really worth trying unless you’re used to the taste of pure flour and yeast. Tuscan bread has been made this way since the 16th century, when it was first baked to protest a salt tax. Frankly, I think the point must have been made long ago, but it has now become a regional specialty.

The waitress said she could bring me some salted bread if I wanted it. I’d had my carbs already, so I told her I’d eat what I could. I’d love to say it tasted like warm evenings in Tuscany, but it didn’t. It tasted like sh*t, literally like someone had forgotten to put salt in the bread. I’ve done that once, and believe me, no one at the table talked about how much it reminded them of Florence.

Anyway. The rest of the meal was fine–simple prosciutto and mozzarella, plus a salad with tuna, avocado, and potatoes, which was a nice balance of salty and creamy. When the waitress came by again, she asked if I’d liked the bread, and I smiled and told her not really. And I told her that I baked a bit and had been curious, but was just used to more salt. Most visitors, she said, find the local custom pretty vile. But she let me know that there was good bread to be had in Florence, and that their version of pizza, Schiaccata, basically took all the salt and oil that didn’t go into the table bread, and that I should get to Pugi for their version before I left town.


I am not one to ignore a waitress’ friendly advice, so I headed up to Piazza San Marco this afternoon and chowed down on this lovely thing. Schiaccata means, literally, “smashed flat,” and it’s a really tasty version that’s right between Roman flat pizza and Neapolitan bready pizza. The slice I had was about 1/4″ thick, a bit more around the crust, salty, oily, and not covered in anything–just a light sprinkling of roasted peppers on the top, and another brush of olive oil. It was surprisingly close to what I make at home, really, and I’m now going to say that’s what I’m making–sounds much more sophisticated.

There are some differences. First, it was really obvious that they were using 00 flour–super crispy outside, super chewy inside. Crust perfection. Second, it was huge on flavor, and not just because it was generously salted and oiled. I did some reading up on the stuff, and John Gutekanst over at Pizza Goon suggests that a well-fermented biga is part of his approach (that, by the way, is the greatest baking blog on the planet, and the kids and I may drive an hour out of our way to Athens, OH next month to go munch one of his pies).

Anyway, it was more like a pizza Bianca than anything else, except not quite as fluffy and a bit crispier. Super like. The only issue I have with the whole idea, really, is that while keeping things cheese-free makes everything light and crisp, it leaves you with almost nothing but carbs.

Fortunately, there’s a good source of protein across town.


guy afternoon

April 2, 2012 Comments Off on guy afternoon

Handover day yesterday.  The girl and her mother were going dress shopping in the big city.  O has her 8th grade formal coming up in a couple of weeks.  She’s going with a girlfriend, “unless a boy asks me.”  This last phrase was spoken with a welcome lack of enthusiasm.

I told C that I owed him a big afternoon.  The girls were planning on dinner out, hours of shopping, etc.  Guys need big afternoons, too, right?  What do you really, really want to do, C?


I knew the answer, of course.  Perfect Games?  Nope.  Big City?  Nope. Bust out the totally awesome LEGO Mindstorms kit and spend the entire afternoon building a wall-sensing, home-programmed robot?  Um, yup.  C spent two hours patiently running back and forth between the assembly area (living room) and the programming center (office), putting things together, downloading his program, testing things out, and quietly assessing what was going right and what was going wrong.  After two hours, he had an actual working vehicle.  It went forward.  It hit the wall.  It backed up and thought for a second (he added a frowny face to its screen during this moment of robotic self-doubt).  Then it turned right and continued on its merry way.  It was not unimpressive.

And he wanted pizza for dinner, so Dad had a good afternoon, too.  Whole wheat crust, an extra brush of olive oil halfway through baking, not-quite-fresh basil and tomatoes for me, pepperoni for him.  And the soundtrack to the afternoon’s baking session included the gentle whirring of robotic treads, alongside the boy’s brainwaves firing at a previously unheard of rate.

And his sister?  She did OK, too.  I’m not sure how my DNA ended up producing such a good-looking kid, but there you go.

champaign, il

July 8, 2011 Comments Off on champaign, il

OK, actually Urbana, but that Old 97s song has been going through my head all day.  A fine start to the road trip, according to Google Maps we’re exactly 25% of the way to Crawford Notch.  Yikes.  This is going to be a long trip.

But spirits are high.  We got a mid-morning start today, which gave me time to get a pretty fierce workout in and let the kids sleep in for a bit.  Breakfast was whatever was in the fridge (a lot of yogurt, which probably wasn’t wise), and the first tomato of the season, which I just grabbed as I was getting in the car.  I think we managed to get everything required, though I’m sure we’ve forgotten something crucial.

The drive was pretty standard.  Lunch at the Iowa City Steak and Shake, where this time we remembered to get kids shakes for both of them, eliminating the gross imbalance that happened last week.  And we stocked a cooler full of apples, carrots, and candy, the deal being that we only re-stock candy when we need to re-stock healthy food.  It worked–we made it through a whole bag of apples today.

Shampoo-Banana is both hometown and alma mater, so the kids asked to see the spots we saw in the Spring again–the old family homestead, the Quad, the church where K and I got married, etc.  We ran around on the cross country course for a while, and C asked whether we’d ever sled down it.  Oh, man, I said, and regaled them with tales of our old Yankee Flyer, a pilfered candle or two, and break-neck runs down the steeper bits on wobbly metal runners.

Papa Del’s for dinner, of course.  When we got into the hotel room there was a menu from Pizza Hut sitting on the desk.  “Why would you ever get Pizza Hut in this place,” C asked, “when Papa Del’s is right down the street?”  Why, indeed.  The boy definitely has a pretty refined pizza palate, at any rate.

We’re all pretty tired tonight, but we have a BIG DAY planned tomorrow, one that’s probably just a bit too crazy and that probably won’t all work, but if it does it will be, as O says, epic.

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