Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Sourdough Project, Day of Reckoning

If I were starting anywhere near to what "traditional" standards, I'd be blogging about something entirely different. If I were searching for enlightenment by following the methods of my ancestors and kinsmen, I'd be going in an entirely new direction.

If I were going the "traditional" route, I'd be chronicling my quest in finding the right kind of "00" flour (hard to find, and more than likely extremely expensive), finding the right kind of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh herbs, and on and on. If I were going that way, I'd be on a seemingly never ending journey to find and create my perfect D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) pie; Fussing like an Italian mother over her child's First Communion, tirelessly nitpicking finer details while getting lost in the bigger picture. If I were going that way, I'd be blogging about something entirely different, and more than likely, going mad in the process.

But I've traveled the traditional route. The end result was hardly a payoff of the journey, and besides, I wasn't much for following tradition. Especially when I'm so far removed from it. I've been more keen on starting my own traditions. Granted, I am partial to deviating every once and awhile, but somehow, I always find my way back home. I always find my way back to what works, and what is good.

Yesterday was the inaugural run of my fist sourdough pizza crust. Between my last entry and last night, not much happened. The starter was completed, then divided to use in a batch. The batch was then divided into equal parts, frozen overnight, then sat in a refrigerator for 24 hours. While this was going on, I made a back up batch of my usual dough for the rest of the family, just in case something went horribly wrong.

Their doughs were wonderful as always. Mine (the sourdough)Moment of Truth, Part 1, I didn't know what to expect. The dough did not rise during the initial construction, not noticeably anyway. After thawing, it retained its shape rather nicely. Immediately, my mind went to my first dough making experience. It was that fear that gripped me for a moment. I removed the dough from the freezer bag, I noticed it's distinct bouquet immediately. Smell was one thing, its true test was to be on the floured working surface.

I was in trouble when I shaped my first dough years ago. I knew I was in trouble. Not only because I was shaping from sense memory, which was questionable at best, but the dough itself was way too knackered to do anything with; it fell apart almost immediately after being constructed. Since that time, I've modified my approach to the shaping process. I had to accommodate for how much space I had in the kitchen, how the dough was actually prepared, what kind of ingredients were used and what kind of hardware I was using, including the oven. I've moved three times since then. Every time is a brand new learning experience.

My family's doughs weigh in at 12 ounces; again, a measurement that came out of trial and error. The size is just right for covering a 14 inch pan. It's stretches just enough to make it thin with a nice lip around the edge. Anything less will result in a crust full of holes because it's stretched way too thin. This sourdough was divided into 10 ounce portions, and it was strong enough to stand up to the abuse I gave it in the shaping process. Moment of Truth, Part 2It stayed thin and elastic without tearing, which is always a good sign. The oldest daughter's pizza is pepperoni and bacon. My girlfriend's is fresh tomato, bacon, garlic and fresh basil. Mine is the kitchen sink: My vision of Heaven, Before...extra cheese, roni, bacon, green pepper, onion and a pinch of fresh garlic. I wanted to weigh this sucker down to see how it would behave in the oven.

Eight minutes later (3 of which were spent on a stone at the bottom of the oven), it came gliding out unbroken on the peel with a nice, toasted char on the bottom....My vision of Heaven, After. Wonderfulness. It put up a fight as it was being cut into equal slices, which I thought was peculiar, but then I remembered that I wasn't working with my typical dough.

"Please don't be like that other dough," was what I kept repeating to myself as I was taking my first bight. I had to expect the worst, and my first attempt at a pizza that would satisfy the requirements of il Denominazione di Origine Controllata, had become the benchmark of what not to do in the future. The dough was crisp, then gave way to that slight chew I have been searching for. It was sweet, nutty, it had a taste that was all it's own. The overall experience was not perfect, it was sublime. Which is close enough for me. I can find perfection on my own. I think next time, I'll let it spend a full 8 minutes on the stone, rather than shaping on a pan.

My quest for the perfect dough is on going. It might take me a while to find my white whale; My eureka moment. But at least I won't go hungry on this journey.

Daddy tested, Baby approved.
(Editor's Note: It may look like we're shoving this down her throat, but in actuality, she's got a firm grip on that slice, and she's got a right mind to eat the entire thing. She only has two teeth. It does my heart good when she uses a crust for a biter biscuit.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Sourdough Project, Day 4

Day 4:

The directions state:

"If the dough has more than doubled in size, you can go on to Stage Two."



Finally! I get to make my Mother. I will probably have to make a special cupboard just for flour. As I'm looking further in the directions, they're calling for 3 to 4 cups at a time, and this is like every 3 days....hmmm...that doesn't sound right.

Such predicaments, I must forge ahead into alien territory. I cut the culture into 6 equal pieces and separate to the best of my ability in a large metal bowl. The directions make it sound like your dividing a nice piece of Sharp Cheddar to be served with crackers, but in actuality, it is more like bathroom spackle. As I move this goop around, I can't help but catch a whiff here and there. All concerns about it losing its initial acidity and unique aroma have vanished. It's just as fruity, sharp and complex as Day 1.

I add 3 1/2 cups of bread flour and 2 cups of water, stir together until everything gets moist. I cover the whole thing in plastic wrap and wait for 3 hours. Which is just long enough to continue another blog I have going.

Yep. That's right. Another blog. It's about 11:30 on a Tuesday night. I have to wait for another hour to put my Mother in the fridge, and I have another blog that I have to finish in the next two days. Forgive my brevity, but there's really nothing more to this than this. I've tried to embellish as much as I could, but as I'd like to point out every so nothin'.

More later.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Sourdough Project, Day 3

Okay, note to self: Read the damn directions. Of course the seed culture didn't rise, it wasn't supposed to!

....okay, no problem.

So, after needlessly starting again, I


[flips open book to the sourdough page] Aw, geez! Would ya look at that:

"Day Two: There will probably be little or no growth of the dough."

HaHAAAA! How's THAT for investigative journalism. On day two, the instructions say to "crumble" the remaining dough into a bowl after getting rid of half of it.DSC00235The act of "crumbling" to me suggests breaking up something that's...I dunno...crumbly. Like a cookie, or a cracker....or a Papa John's pizza. Why not start out with smaller measurements? Not sure. But, I'm supposed to "crumble" this dough into a bowl. You tell me:DSC00236
Does this look like something you "crumble"?"Ewwww....I touched it...." I crumble this into a bowl, add bread flour and a little water and knead until the dough has the same consistency as Day 1.

Having learned my lesson, I look a little bit further into the process, and it states that if the dough hasn't doubled in size by the third day, repeat step two, and so on until the dough does indeed grow. At this rate, I don't understand that if there's nothing left of the original seed culture, how will it continue to grow? If I keep cutting away at it, it will eventually just turn to glue.

In any case, it looks like I'll be repeating this process over the next few days. Since I have other things to blog about, I'll be reporting back when there is real progress.

The Sourdough Project, Day 2

Day 2:

Total failure.
How it looked after I made the seed culture:

...aaaaand here's how it looked the next day:

Same picture? Well...yes. But the idea's the same. After adding the juice to the flour, I was to seal it in an airtight container and within 24 hours, this mess was supposed to double in size. The crude arrow on tape method was supposed to mark how far it has risen.
Well, I ran out of lids for this particular container, and had to resort to plastic wrap and wishful thinking. The next morning, 12+ hours later, no movement whatsoever. It was still a tub full of kindergarten paste goop.

Total failure.

Although nowhere near catastrophic, I can't help but be reminded about my first foray in the dough making world. I've worked in many restaurants in my life, including a few pizzerias. Those places had their own method on how dough should be made, but they all resulted in the same thing. As a result, I came away with taking a little from column A, and a little from column B. But I didn't apply this knowledge in my inaugural run. Instead, I relied on instruction from a cook book. Mistake. I should have gone my own way as soon as I noticed a step or two was missing from the directions I was following. THAT was a disaster: The dough was stiff, tasteless, flimsy and I think caught fire in the oven...not unlike the Hindenburg...oh the humanity!

Second attempt, I said screw it. I'm going my own way. Cookbooks be damned, I have enough experience to do this. The result was slightly better. This one didn't catch fire, at least. At this rate, it took me an entire summer to get to where I needed to be, and even then, I wasn't anywhere close to where I am now, which is "pretty good". I think this latest endeavor will more than likely head down the same route.

Tonight, we shall see how this goes. The new culture I made is now in a real airtight container and has been sitting out on the counter top since last night. I'm fairly confident that it'll be better this time around.

More later.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Sourdough Project, Day 1

Crust makes the pie. Master the dough, master the Universe.

I have been making my own pizza dough from scratch, every weekend for the past 3 years. I think it's safe to say that I might be getting the hang of it. I have finally gotten to the point where the dough is lovely and fragrant, the homemade sauce is piquant and aromatic, and my cheese of choice (cut from a block rather than getting a bag of shredded mozzarella), are producing edible joy on a weekly basis.

But it's not enough. It's never enough.

Everyone has their own idea of what the perfect dough should be; New York thin, Chicago thick, West Coast crunchy....Papa John's (not saying anything bad about Papa's. If eating dog turd on a cracker is your idea of a all means...mangiare). My vision of perfection is thin. Not paper thin, but thin, with just a slight chew. Something that holds up to the scrutiny of the heartiest of toppings, yet not so obnoxious as to insist on usage of fork and knife. I've tasted this in a couple of places, and they've immediately became my favorite. Which is why it maddens me that I can't replicate it, or rather up until now, haven't replicated it.Gathering ingredients and toolsPeter Reinhart's American Pie is quickly becoming an important read in my library, right up there with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's equal parts questing travelogue and cook book. Within its pages, I recognized my own hunger for wanting something new; something I haven't tasted before. Maybe it buys into my obsessive nature, but I think I might have found my latest life's calling. I have never made it, but I'm sure I've had it, I believe a sourdough crust will be the next logical step in approaching bliss. Master the dough, master the Universe. For as long as it takes, I will chronicle my quest for my white whale. For the one or two of you who caught my previous blogs, I don't think I need to explain my need to indulge in labor intensive activities. Sourdough takes patience, nurturing, a keen eye, and lots and lots of time. Sounds like something that's right up my alley.

Day 1:

Presently, I'm used to making my dough the American way, as opposed to the traditional, Italian, DOC approved, kinda tasteless dough. I've made it the traditional way, I found it in direct violation to my delicate American taste buds. I stick with what works and stopped giving a damn on what the DOC thinks.
Still, the dough that I make, while sufficient, isn't quite doing it for me. Which is why I'm switching to sourdough. Now, this is something new to me. Sourdough is made from a wild yeast. Wild Yeast is not found in stores. Wild yeast has to be farmed fresh. Wild yeast originates from a mother starter. A mother starter comes from what they call a seed culture. A seed culture is produced by making bacteria, and they way to get this certain type of bacteria is by introducing pineapple juice to whole wheat flour. I'm process oriented, but there's a simplicity to this that intrigues me. Bread has been made like this for centuries. It's important to remember one's roots.

Today, I make the seed culture. Initially, it takes less time than my usual dough prep. But my usual prep time is for one night, and one night only. Sourdough prep time takes days. It's like a plant: Tend to it, walk away, let it do its thing.
Adding the wet to dryIncorporate ingredients, knead into a tennis ball sized ball, cover in an air tight container, leave on a counter top for twenty-four hours, and bam! Instant seed culture. Time to go on to step two.


More later.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Remembrance, 2009

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From the Desk of Ego

To: 2Cents
Cc: Cognitive Memory;
Subject: 9/11 Blog (sequel?)
As you are all aware, September 11th is right around the corner. Which means it's time for another award winning blog of remembrance on the subject. Now, it has come to my attention that we may be running low on memories for a proper remembrance, coupled with the fact that people are starting to get over anything and everything that has to do with this date in history, this may be a daunting task indeed. That being said, I have seen amazing feats from everyone when crunch time is around. So, let's all pull it together and think outside the box, and what ever else those motivational quacks tell you to do!

Reply from: 2Cents

Thanks for taking the bull by the reigns and running with being all motivational and stuff, but I fear if I blog another one of these memory lists, I think I'm going to lose some more people. Myself included. In case you haven't heard, the word in the trenches these days is that we haven't done enough creatively. Journal style blogs are nice, but we need to shake it up a little, and soon. Besides, 9/11 is like a few days away. There is no way we'd be able to post this in time.
I'm trying not to be a downer here, but I don't think any of us are up for it.
Oh, by the way, "award winning"? WTF?

Reply from: Ego

I appreciate your candor as always but if you recall, your first crack at legitimate fiction writing kind of ran out of steam after the first 2 chapters. I also appreciate the notion of you wanting to branch out into something a little more meaningful. However, given your track record for procrastination, it is in our best interest to forge ahead with what we know, instead of trying something new and different. We need ad revenue. Bottom line. And although it's conceivable to generate cash with empty space, I'm guessing it would be better to not alienate readers by offering them nothing. So, if you please, give it the old college try and make us some money.
Happy writing,

Reply from: 2Cents

When I first started this, it was cute, but it lacked structure. Also, when I first started, it was for fun and to clear my head. It was therapeutic. It was never about making us rich. Anybody with a blog will pretty much tell you the same thing. As much as I'd like to hammer something together about my life in New York, it's not going to have the charm it did when I first started. It might also be borderline tasteless.


...sigh..Yeah, Ego?
"Okay, what are you working on now?"
I'm chronicling my adventures in dough making.
Yes. Seriously.
"....You are refusing to do something actionable so you could pursue something that's as exiting as watching paint dr..OKAY! Let's do this. What did you do when you were in New York?"
Work fifteen hours a day, give away headshots and resumes while getting deeper into debt?
"Okay, good. What was your job?"
Register jockey at an specialty pizza shop.
"You worked fifteen hours a day?"
Six days a week. And I know what you're going to say so stop the this-is-all-new-to-me act.
Stop it.
"Pick up a few things while you were there, did ya?"
Kinda. How'd you know, he asked as if he wasn't talking to himself.
"How else would you explain your need to blog about...dough making?"
You getting at something here, I hope?
"Wait for it."
...Wait? Wait for what?
"Just...wait for it. Do the math, let it sink in....aaaaaaannnd...?"
..Ooohh. Right. Since I spent so much time at that pizzeria, I might have some stories from there, and therefore a more cohesive blog?
"Call me when you're done." *click*
How long has it been? Feels like another lifetime.
How long did it feel when I worked there? Long enough.

An unglamorous life it was, pressing buttons and dealing with the public all day. But these are the dance moves you learn quick when you're working on a plan B, while at the same time avoiding the traps of easy money and illusion of a livelihood that would keep you in a dead end job for the rest of your life. On my day, or sometimes days off, I'd spend most of my tips on the latest copy of Backstage, stamps, packing materials, a fresh pack of smokes and a decent cup of joe, and then I'd get to work on my second job. My second job started at around noon when I woke up. Then the rest of the afternoon was spent scouring the casting call pages, pasting resumes to the back of headshots, shoving the lot in stiff manila envelopes, stacking them up high while I catch up on the Channel 11 afternoon syndication line up of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Doogie Howser, MD. Then it was off to the mailbox on the corner to throw these coins in the wishing well. Then it was off for a night of heavy drinking. Welcome to my wasted life.

Underneath all of this was my second life of working at a pizzeria. The shop itself is sandwiched in between a knock-off electronics store and a bodega. It is tiny and for many, a saving grace, because it was a vegetarian pizzeria. It sat at the foot of Harlem on the Upper West Side. Daily foot traffic consisted mainly of NYU students, artists, writers, poets, Bangers, Slangers, working and out-of-work actors alike. It is on occasion that you will encounter an actor you know. But standing up for 12 hours straight behind a register, sort of dilutes that excitement to something as exciting as a peanut butter sandwich. After a while, nothing surprises you. That means when something normally spectacular happens, it might go unnoticed. The little things stand out much more brilliantly as they are a welcome distraction. These are the ones that stand out in my mind.

We called him "Bobby". His real name was damn near unpronounceable, so we called him "Bobby". Bobby is Albanian, Muslim, a charmer with the ladies, a graduate of the Archie Bunker school of tact and a damn good pizziola...just ask him, he'll be more than happy to let you know that. He comes from the old-school, manly-man type of mindset; a type that I have never seen in this lifetime, but heard about through other people that grew up in the Fifties. He is loud, brash, bull headed, workaholic, and a pretty decent guy...until you wind him up and watch him go. You can tell he was always ready to throw down when the bottom lid of his left eye started to twitch. The twitching eyelid almost always accompanied an evil eye that I'm pretty sure he inherited from his mother.

Two occasions where I saw him break it out.

The argument didn't start out that way. They usually don't. This one started out innocently enough; a customer was inquiring something about the ingredients, Bobby answered to the best of his ability. The customer kept inquiring, Bobby had to tend to his pizzas. Customer got snippy, Bobby showed him his degree from Archie U. Customer was black, Bobby was mildly racist. It was about to turn into Do the Right Thing in a few minutes. I stepped in to cool the situation down a little bit by looking the customer directly in the eye and answering his questions in a calm and professional manner. The subtext of our dialogue went something along the lines of:

"You better put a leash on the puppy, or he's gonna get a surprise when he gets off work!"

"I know, he's an asshole. Look on the bright side, at least you don't have to work with him."
"Damn, this guy pissed me off."
"Tell me about it. He pisses a lot of people off, but trust me, he's okay."

And on and on, until he calmed down enough to actually eat something and leave. Crisis averted.

The second occasion I will never forget. Never. It gave me my first indication of how insulated from the world I am. It was a reminder to keep an eye and an ear open to what is going on around me, a reminder to never be an Ugly American.

"Where do you want me to put dis?" He stood in the doorway with a canister of soda syrup on his shoulder, Big Name Soda company name stitched into one side of his coat, name stitched into the other, letting cold air inside as he tried to get someone's attention from behind the counter. A younger guy, broad shouldered, world weary face; kind of resembled a more-sensitive Ivan Drago. His accent was familiar. For Bobby, too familiar. The eye twitched as he got extremely quiet. He slipped away from the ovens for just a moment to presumably help the guy hook up the soda canisters.

Sodas got hooked up, and then it was time to sign the invoice. For several minutes, Bobby and the soda guy engaged in what looked like a heated discussion. No voices raised, no brow furrowed, no teeth gnashed, no chest pounded, but something boiled beneath the surface. Tense. Very tense.

"So what you guys talking about?" I asked.
"Who?" it was much later, and his head was still spinning from dinner rush.
"The soda guy. It looked like you guys were pretty intense on something."Keep in mind that this was the early Nineties. The Middle East was page 7 news at best. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the mess of the day where every ill-informed Westerner was scratching their head as to what the hell was going on over there. The most evil man in the world wasn't Osama Bin Laden, it was Slobodan Milošević. Does anybody remember THAT guy?
"Oh yeah," his tone turned to something that was lost in memory. He then proceeds to tell me about his conversation. I can't remember what was said verbatim. The dialogue went essentially like this: [Envision a sort of High-Noon, Spaghetti Western type of scenario here, with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack in the background...]

Bobby: "I am Serbian."
Soda Dude: "I am Croat."
Bobby: [sneering] "Mmmm...You know if we were back in our own Country, we'd be killing each other right now."
Soda Dude: [returning sneer] "Well then it's a good thing we are both on American soil, eh? Land of the Free? Home of the Brave?"
Bobby: "Yes. Very good thing."

Both of them saving face. Both of them walked away. Both of them secretly relieved that the other guy didn't do something stupid and even more relieved that bombs aren't going off in their faces. Never in this city.

Never in this city.

Yeah, Ego?
"So, how are we doing?"
I think we're doing pretty good. We're trying to move away from the list-type of format and closer to something resembling a story. Still no stream of consciousness, but it's getting there.
"You know, I heard a rumor that you want to open up your own pizzeria. That true?"
C'mon. Do I really have to answer that?
"It's not for my benefit, it's for your wonderful readers. How come you haven't worked this little nugget into your blog yet."
I'm saving it for another time. The fact that I want to someday open up my own shop bares little relevance to what I'm blogging about now, for what it's worth.
"Alright, fine. Another time then. You have anything else here?"
I've got one more. It's almost off topic. In fact the only thing that's binding this entry to this blog is that it happened in the shop I was working at.
"Oh...heh. This one? Really? You're posting this one?"
My secret ambitions are yesterday's news, but you have no idea what I'm posting next?
"Again. Not for my benefit." *click*


My relationship with network television was waning at around this time in my life. Aside from the occasional afternoon lineup on Channel 11, or being lucky enough to catch an episode of MST3K (when it was still good), I didn't watch that much television. I missed the hype of Seinfeld and Friends. Didn't get wrapped up in America's Most Wanted or COPS. I'd be screwed if I were on Jeopardy.

I'll take, 'I just watched movies and hid under a rock for 10 years' for a thousand please, Alex.

Television was almost unrecognizable to me. So much so that when Primetime and I were reunited around 1998, it felt like catching up with an old girlfriend...and not in a good way...

Damn girl, you changed. You used to be all sexified, now you look like a worn out handbag. What? Nuh-uh. There's no way. I used protection, it sure as hell ain't mine. What'd you call him? The WB? Then it sure as shit ain't mine, it doesn't even look like me!"

Working 15 hours a day, you have no time to keep up with Ross and Rachel. Working 15 hours a day, the only things you know are the quickest route by subway to get to work, how to prepare mass quantities of dough, and your girlfriend is tired of you. All work and no play makes anyone a dull boy. When you've been properly dulled, you won't notice too much. Except for the finest collection of women this side of the Mississippi. Day in and day out, an almost endless parade of eye candy almost made me forget that I've been standing up since I got to work...when the sun came up. Summertime was particularly awesome.

"Get to the good part!"

Right, well it was a fairly typical Friday night. We were close to closing time. All day has been a steady stream of slices on paper plates, lines out the door, tip jar refills and of course, lovely, lovely ladies. In walked one more. Looking back, I didn't stay too long at this place, but it felt like an eternity working there. It felt long enough. My point is, you get to know your Regulars. I didn't recognize her. At all. Not that it was a bad thing. She was no girl, she had some years behind her, but she still clung to her youth. She was small framed, dark haired, green eyed and whiskey voiced. Oh yeah, commence to flirting...

She got a slice and a ginger beer. I engaged in some mindless drivel, she played along for a few minutes and walked away, and at the time, I didn't regard it as anything beyond that. Now, remember what I said about not watching too much television. Remember what I said about the location of the restaurant. Remember what I said about the clientele. Flash forward a few years later. I'm living in New Hampshire. I'm working days and I catch up on some television when I feel like it. It's the famous Thursday Night lineup on NBC, and I'm trying to find something funny about Seinfeld and Mad About You while trying not to go to sleep. Then comes "ER", and all of a sudden I'm taken back to that one night where I was flirting with a brunette I've never seen before. I almost fainted when I suddenly realized that I flirted with Julianna Margulies.

Ms. Margulies, if you are reading this, I apologize profusely. That was rude of me, and I should have been more respectful....what am I saying. I just hit on a celebrity!!! Snoogins!

Anyway, I think I should wrap this up because it is officially 9/11. My point of these remembrance blogs is not to be maudlin. It is a celebration. New York has always been good to me, and I will always remember the good times. Peace be with you.