Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Zen and the Art of Pizza Making; A Study (WARNING: May Contain Recipes)

Circa 2009
The Old Way; The Way I've Been Doing it for Years...
  • Make Dough the Night Before I Need It.
When I first started, I made the dough the day of instead of the night before. I could get away with it, technically, it was totally possible to do so. However, while it would make a deliciously puffy (albeit difficult to work with) dough, it wouldn't have that same nutty, yeasty, gluteny flavor that is achieved when the yeast and the sugars have time to mingle for at least 18 hours. I eventually learned to make enough dough to be divided and bagged in freezer-proof Zip-Lock bags; using what I need and freezing the rest.
  • Remember the Ratios
When I first started, I used a scientific approach to my dough making; accumulating various methods and recipes, putting them all in a bowl and mixing it up with previous experience. The first few results were as expected...awful...my notes reflected as such, "next time, do this instead of that...use more of this and less of that..."  There was a time where I just gave up. I was presented with a choice; spend time and effort on something trivial, or just give up and order out.

I pouted for a few months.

Then, one day I realized that the little things mean much more to me than the bigger picture, and I jumped right back into it. All I needed was a little more knowledge, a little more finesse. Bread is a living thing and it cannot be constructed as one would build a bookshelf...it must be nurtured. It took a few tries, but I finally hit my stride. The result of which was making dough regularly. So much to the point where I no longer relied on any recipe on paper, it was a "sense memory" thing. Something more akin to a chef or a baker who actually knows what they're doing.

I've been making dough for over ten years now, and still I rely somewhat on measurements. In the beginning, I relied on my chicken scratch notes because it wasn't automatic yet. Then dough making turned into a Friday night ritual to prep for my Saturday night ritual of making it. As the weeks and months pass, I just knew that this much flour meant this much yeast which that much water and so on. For years now, the result of my labor has just been...sustainably adequate. Maybe I got bored. Maybe my taste buds have gone blind and have given up trying long ago. Whatever the reason, I've made no secret that I wanted to change it, but I never dared to do anything for fear of something falling apart. Remember the ratios. Remember the crushing failures of the past.

For years, it has been fairly consistent. And I've been silently indifferent.

  • Never Get the Sauce from a Jar.
Ever. Always make it fresh. I will not bend on that. Always make it fresh. Make it with real ingredients. Forget that the price of fresh produce is going up, grab that basket of Roma tomatoes from the Farmer's Market and get back in the kitchen. So what if it tastes a little...funny? It's fresh! It's...organic 'n stuff! It's supposed to taste like this.

While trying to be as accurate as possible with the construction of the dough, I would "eyeball" the ingredients for the sauce. It would taste different with every batch. That would be okay, because honestly, the dough would vary in taste and consistency every time too, no matter how much attention I paid to it.

This is how its been for years. Homemade pizza would be our Saturday night thing. It would be the thing that holds the family together. It would teach the kids that daddy can cook too, and he can do it better than anything pulled out of a microwave. There was even a moment in time where my ego was so bloated that I considered opening a pizzeria of my own. The problem was that even though I looked forward to every Saturday night and making something that everyone could eat and hopefully enjoy, the end product that I was pulling out of the oven was good. And that's not a complement. It was good. I was shooting for great.

It didn't taste good. I mean, it didn't taste awful, it just tasted...well...off. It wasn't enjoyable. My feelings were confirmed when my daughter takes her slice and picks at it. She usually eats half of it before she quits halfway through, up until recently, she couldn't even do that. I mean, it's PIZZA for cryin' out loud! PIZZA!! If your kid picks at a slice of pizza like some kids push lima beans to the side of a plate, then congratulations, you just made something so horrible that they would rather choke down a Papa John's pizza rather than endure eating what you made. Way to go...you suck.

Things had to change. In doing the same thing for years, I have become slave to the action, I had become complacent. If I took a step outside myself and observed my pizza from another point of view, it didn't matter that it was good enough or not. It was pizza, and it was fresh, and daddy was making it. There could be no wrong coming from this. Only, I could tell. It wasn't right, and I couldn't go through another week foisting a sub-par product to my family. I mean, if I'm not wowing them on a weekly basis, how would I hypothetically survive opening up a shop?

Things had to change.

And so they did...


~***~


Circa 2014
Old Dough Recipe (prep time: 2 Days):

  • 5 Cups High Gluten Flour
  • 1 tsp. Dry Active Yeast
  • 1 Tbl. light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbl. olive oil
  • ~3 Cups warm (between 95° and 110° F) water.


I recommend starting off with clean water. If you don't have access to a Brita Water Filtration System, then a jug of filtered water, the kind you collect in your shelter in case a hurricane rips through your neighborhood? The store brand kind? The ones that are like under a buck each? Yeah, one of those will work nicely.

You'll need around 3 cups, not exactly 3 cups. The reason being is that there is a crucial point in dough making when you have to slowly incorporate wet to dry ingredients. Too much wet, and it'll turn into paste. Not enough, and it's a modern art sculpture. I'll get into the details later.

Warm the water to around 110°. Heating it in a microwave safe vessel is okay, I prefer to warm my water the old fashioned way of pouring it into a small saucepan, placing it on the back burner of my stove, turning the burner to low and busy myself with other things while it gets up to temperature.

While that's working, place flour, yeast, and sugar in the bowl of a KitchenAid Stand Mixer. If you don't have one of these...well...don't fret, the gift giving season is right around the corner. I used to mix by hand for a few years until I got one of these and realized how much my wrists have turned to stone. I recommend the stand mixer, it'll save a lot of time, and it'll save your arms...unless...ya know...you're into that whole "beefy arms" thing.

Anyway, as stated previously, place flour, yeast, and sugar in the bowl and mix on low speed using the whisk attachment. The yeast and the sugar need to do their happy dance in the flour, so you need to play the tune by mixing for 2-3 minutes. Once they're all incorporated, add the salt while the machine is running, and continue mixing for another 2-3 minutes. Not only are you making the yeast happy, you're also incorporating a little air to the mixture...let's get to that later...maybe.

Stop mixing, and replace the whisk attachment with the dough hook. Dump the olive oil into the flour mix, and turn on your machine to a low speed.

Now, here's where you're undivided attention is needed. Not on me, your mix....although...I wouldn't mind some attention...maybe sometime...go out for coffee? Or, I dunno...an invitation to join TSŪ...maybe a gift certificate to Harbor Freight Tools...a Macbook Pro?...HEY! Pay attention!

The reason you need to get your water as close to 110° F as possible is that you need to transfer that water into a measuring cup. Doing so (especially if you're using a Pyrex measuring cup) will drop the temperature of the water by a few degrees. You've removed it from the heat twice (once from the stove and once from the hot cooking vessel), so you'll end up with water that's closer to 105°...WHICH IS OKAY! any lower, and the dough will go stiff. Hotter than 110° and you have a sticky mess on your hands. 105 is the Goldilocks Zone. (You might want to keep one of these babies handy.)

Slowly pour 2 cups of the water into mix while your dough hook enabled machine is running. Increase the speed of the machine slightly. Your goal at this point is to make gluten; to make sure the dough is at the right consistency to work with. Now, there are many different ways to tell if your dough is ready, but the easiest way is to peek inside of the bowl and make sure that the sides of the bowl are cleaned by the dough as it moves around inside. To do this, you'll need to pour more of the warmed water into the mix, a few drops at a time. Once the sides of the bowl are clean, you should be close. Don't worry if the dough sticks to the hook and/or to the bottom of the bowl. A little is workable, if it's too wet, keep mixing and incorporate more flour into the mix with the machine running. Let the machine run for at least 5 minutes, then remove the bowl from the mixer, loosely cover the bowl (they say to "loosely cover the bowl in plastic wrap". I use a clean dinner plate. Works just as well, and its more versatile...stay tuned) with the dough still inside, and let it rest for 5 minutes.

Turn out your dough onto a flat, floured surface and knead by hand. There are many recipes out there that tell you to hand need for at least 10 minutes. That's a bit excessive since the more you knead, the stiffer and unpleasant the crust will be. You will need to...um....knead...but only until there's a good amount of give to the dough; it'll contract (bounce back) if you press down on it. Knead and roll the dough into a ball.

Next, you will need a dough scraper, and a kitchen scale. Your dough ball should weigh in the neighborhood of 3lbs. Use your dough scraper to equally divide the dough ball into 4 smaller balls. These should be around 12 oz. a piece (if you have extra, divide it and spread it evenly as you can amongst your balls... stop laughing).

I could go into a step-by-step on how handle the dough at this point, and I may someday revisit this subject complete with video instruction starring me (you have been warned). But for now, let's see how the pros do it...





After you roll them up, use your plate that you used to cover up your dough earlier and drizzle some Extra Virgin Olive Oil in it. Roll a dough ball around in it so it receives a lite coating. Then you should, as Mr. Gemignani pointed out, place each ball in individual zip lock bags (gallon sized will do the trick). Make sure you get as much air out of the bags as possible, and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Place your balls in the freezer. The longer they stay in there, the better they'll taste....stop LAUGHING! If making pizza the next day, take as many as you need out of the freezer, and place in the refrigerator. Remember to take them out at least 2 hours before baking.

The New Recipe. The One I Discovered a Month Ago:
  • The same as above, except add another teaspoon of yeast and divide the dough to 1 lb. portions. Much better; nice chew, very tender, wonderful aroma and mouth feel.

Now, the dough has been modified for the better, why stop there? On to the sauce!

~***~

 The Old and Busted Sauce Recipe:
  • Roma Tomatoes (I highly...HIGHLY recommend going to your local Farmer's Market for these. The bigger, the better. The ones you get from a supermarket or "Wally World" are just way too small and flavorless and...gross.) Depending on the size, you'll need anywhere from 6-8 (slightly over a quart). Make sure they're ripe. If they're slightly orange and/or not as squishy, the sauce will give a very "bright" flavor, not that there's anything wrong with that.
  • 4-5 cloves fresh garlic roughly chopped
  • (2) 5.5 fl oz (2 small cans) tomato juice
  • 1 tsp. sugar
I'd like to take a moment to point out that the rest of the recipe is not in exact measurements...remember... "eyeballing" So, just like you're Nonna did in the old country...follow your nose...it always knows...the flavor of fruit (that's a 70s reference, kids. Go ask your parents).
  • dried basil
  • dried oregano
  • fresh basil & oregano (optional)
  • garlic powder
  • kosher salt 
  • fresh ground black pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • Lambrusco 
Peel your tomatoes. Again, not getting into how to do it here, so here's an informative video...





Add all the ingredients to a pot and introduce an immersion hand blender to the party and blend until saucy. Place pot back on the stove (the warm part where you boiled the water) and cover until room temp. The residual heat will cook the sauce gently.

Now, this has been my sauce for years. This is the sauce that I've been convincing myself that is the best thing in the universe. The thing is, and I'm basing this on experience, it has a tendency to turn on you the longer it stays in your fridge. I recommend freezing what you don't use. This sauce, while made with fresh ingredients, isn't that good and will turn sour within a month. This is the sauce that I've been fooling myself with. This sauce...for lack of a better term...sucks. So, in order to get out of the suck, I turned to the internet while swallowing the fact that sometimes, I just don't know what I'm doing.

New Hotness Sauce Recipe:
  • (2) 15oz. cans of tomato sauce (30 oz.)
  • (1) 12oz. can of tomato paste
  • 1 Tbl. Italian Seasoning (I know, I know, "how could I?" you gasp,but it's better this way. Trust me.)
  • 1 Tbl. dried oregano
  • ~1 tsp. crushed fennel seed
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
Combine sauce & paste in a large saucepan over medium heat. While that's working, crush your fennel seeds. Don't have one of these yet? Remember...gift giving season...Macbook Pro...FOCUS!

Add remaining ingredients, mix well. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly (making sure not to burn). Reduce heat, cover and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool, apply to pizza....yadda yadda yadda.

Now, the consequence of turning "mouth blind" as it were, is that when you apply something new to something established, there are bound to be repercussions. If done wrong, your family and friends will turn on you quicker than my old sauce taking up way too much room in the ice box. You will become a pariah and turned away from your next book club meeting. If done right, you will witness the initial shock, then the inevitable expression of "what have you done?, then the denial...then the acceptance...then the moment where you forget about the old sauce altogether.




Honestly, I didn't know how everyone would react as I presented my pizza v. 2.0 for my family. My girlfriend went through the stages mentioned above, my infant son raged and fussed until he got a piece of the pizza crust, but the icing on the cake...the image that made my night, was to see my baby girl, fussiest eater on the planet, not only ate the ENTIRE slice of pizza, but it was intact as she was eating it; no picking, no pruning, no uck face... just devoured. Silently. Whole. Proud papa came back that night when a clean plate was in front his daughter.

My reaction upon eating it?


IT TASTES JUST LIKE PIZZA!


Pizza at last, pizza at last, great googly-moogly, pizza at last. I had forgotten what it tasted like. After scalding the roof of my mouth, I was brought back to the pizza of my childhood; I was brought back to the pizza shop on the other side of town that we used to go to on special occasions. I also wondered why I've been denying myself this for years. Why I was so resistant to change? Philosophical quandaries aside, I was finally where I want to be in my pizza-fu. It was wonderful.


~***~


It took me years of muttering to myself of how dissatisfied I was in order for me to get to the point of doing something about it.

And then I actually did something about it.

I was going to title this post, "Defining Madness" or something to that effect. It took me years of muttering to myself like a madman to come to the conclusion that I've spent a lot of time muttering to myself like a madman. Like someone lost in madness. Like someone who does something over and over again thinking the outcome will be different every time.

I was going to frame this revelation in the scope of how my attitude has been changing as of late...

If you can't find it, make it.

If it's not right, change it.

If it's bad, walk away.

If all your good intentions and intelligence and talent aren't putting you in the place you want to be, like say, every time I apply for a job, then perhaps its time to re-prioritize, re-think and recognize other paths in front of me.

If you don't recognize your own capacity, talent and capacity for change, then I don't know what to say. It's inside you. It always has been.

What you do with it is up to you.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Swinging From The Left or What I Did Over The Weekend (WARNING! Contains Mini-Rant)


To every expert and pundit who said that no one would show up.

To every television talking head spinning a web of apathy.

To every 1% Puppet thinking that they can just buy their way into power.

To every person who anchors themselves to their couch thinking that they won't matter.

To Big Oil
To Big Pharm
To Big Agro
To GMO, HGH, and to everyone convinced that ACA won't work.

To every corporation who claims that a raise in wages will kill their business, while at the same time, making sure their workers stay below the poverty line.

To all the suits who think that a pipeline bisecting our country is still a good idea, while changing the subject when asked how this will benefit us.
"Jobs!" they say.
"What jobs?" we reply.

To the Powers That Be who can't find it within their budget to fund a public school, yet find enough scratch for more prisons.

To every Congressman who couldn't get off their ass and get some work done.

...guess what I did this weekend?



Saturday, November 1, 2014

Top 10: And The Award For the Best Line Goes To...

Days ago, I felt it necessary to branch out and construct, maintain and post a niche blog in order to build a portfolio to make myself attractive for freelancing gigs...and the carrot and the horse and the carrot and the carrot and the carrot¹....

So, one of my goals for my new blog is to maintain a news feed in regards to my niche. In my need to do so, I started looking around for news sources where I could draw information from, and in doing so, discovered Quora. It was a recommended site for bloggers who needed topics and inspiration. It's a social site, so all you would do to engage with others is sign up, plug in your interests, and you're off and running. If you're a blogger, I highly recommend signing up with them. It's free, and even though I didn't know what to expect when I signed up, I'm pleased with what I've found so far.

As I was pouring over the subjects, I came across this topic, which off course set me off on a two day adventure of my own to make my own list while cutting my teeth on Photoshop skills...and perhaps...gathering ideas for t-shirts...so, its all good.

The topic is:

If there was an Oscar award for "Best Lines in a Movie," then which lines would have been nominated till now?


At first, I couldn't think of many, let alone one. I used to be all about the movies. For the longest time, it was my drug of choice; memorizing lines, repeated viewings when there was nothing on, holding my own personal marathons, going to independent movie houses to see something other than what Hollywood has to offer.

Now, not so much.

I actually had to think about this question for a second, whereas before, I could rattle off 20 in one breath...in character! I could have gone to my library and pulled out my greatest hits of all the movies that were integral to my generation, but I'm bored with that whole scene now. "Blahblalblah PulpFiction blahblahblah Clerks... wow, I'm so obscure!"

Instead, I chose to look at this as objectively as I could. If I were to compile a list of really great lines from movies from the dawn of the Talkies to now, what would be on it? Well, my list would probably more or less coincide with AFI's list. Impressive as it is, there are one or two that aren't on there. I thought more of the lines that made more of an impression; The lines that I've committed to memory. The lines that would serve as a wolf's song². The lines that were delivered so perfectly, that I could sit around all day and analyze them. The lines that have woven themselves into my life...you know...those lines...here's what I mean... My Top 10 List of Academy Worthy Lines... as compiled by me.

#10 The Princess Bride: As you wish...


*le sigh*




Here is a movie that was released at a time when we all needed a new classic, and weren't really expecting one. This film is all about the memorable lines and moments. Speaking of finding my tribe, I remember sitting at a table with friends while we all recited the entire movie verbatim. Even today, if someone were to randomly post in some random social media forum the line,"Have fun storming the castle!" the responses would be swift, immediate and more than likely, last for days. (Trust me on this one, try it out.) If you're a fan, you'll find your tribe real quick.

I could have gone with any number of lines from this film, but this one is the most memorable. This made my list because this most memorable line didn't even crack AFI's top 100. Shame on you, American Film Institute. Shame.







#9 The Usual Suspects: How do you shoot the devil in the back...?



The first time I saw this movie, it was on video tape. I remember watching this to the end of the credits, hitting the rewind button, watching it again, and repeating the process until the sun came up the next day. What a delicious little gem of a film this was; a gritty and gleeful throwback to the Film Noir era, spiked with enough F-bombs to make Raymond Chandler blush. Skillfully crafted and extremely well written. I tried to not foreshadow too much while constructing this poster...for the...one or two of you who haven't seen this yet, so I'll try not to give any spoilers. I chose this line because of the lyricism of it; there's fear behind it. Palpable horror delivered with legitimate concern. What would happen if you were faced with the same situation, and would you be prepared to face the consequences if and when it all goes wrong?







#8 Blade Runner: The light that burns twice as bright...



I tend to collect lines from movies. Some guys memorize baseball stats. This is what I do. I chose this one as an homage to friends long gone. I picked this one up a long time ago when late night beer and movie binges were the norm. A friend of mine kept repeating this at random times until the context of it began to sink in. Again, it's very lyrical, and it's a subtle reminder of how futile and fragile we all are.






#7 Annie Hall: La-dee-da, La-dee-da


Once upon a time, there was this girl. This girl found it in her heart to date me. This girl loved Woody Allen movies. I think the only Woody Allen movie I've seen up until that point was "Zelig" so, I offered to set a date for a stack of movies, a couch and a coffee table full of take out food. One night she took me up on it and we started with "Play It Again, Sam" and I think we ended with "Manhattan". "Annie Hall" wasn't a favorite, but I did like it a lot, and I promised to call it in the morning. #55 on AFI's list, this line made it into my top ten, simply because my slightly neurotic side has always had a crush on Diane Keaton. Although I could be wrong, and I'm open to discourse on this subject, but I don't think there has been a performer before her who has captured that wonderful mix of trying not to be shy and awkward while being shy and awkward, served with a healthy dose of self-deprecation dolloped on top, a side of ambivalence...and a Diet Coke. This one line spoke volumes about the human condition at the time, and has seldom been matched since. Incredibly charming.






#6 Silence of the Lambs: You know what you look like...?

Yes, I could have gone with the infamous "Fava Bean" line that immediately followed this on in the movie (#21 on the list), but it's been done to death (pardon the pun). The fate of some poor census taker was a nice flourish to the end of a heavier monologue that has pretty much gone unnoticed. Unfortunate, because this part of the dialogue is fantastic.

Some guys collect sports memorabilia. I collect movie lines. It's a habit I started a long time ago, and it has since been my niche of geekdom. I hear a line, sometimes the longer the better, I commit it to memory, and I make it mine. It's what I did. It came in handy when I had to perform Shakespeare. I memorized this speech, only recently. For my own amusement. This one made the list because I like it. I like it because of the delicious creep factor. I love the subtle enjoyment in his voice as he unblinkingly peels Agent Starling like an onion. It's the speech that cements Hannibal Lecter firmly in the pantheon of cinematic villains. The movie is awesome. Anthony Hopkins is fantastic. It's Halloween. Pick a reason.









#5 Taxi Driver: You talkin' to me?

I mean, honestly... How could I make a list of movie lines and not have this on here? That's just plain ridiculous, and in some circles, downright blasphemous.

 #10 on AFI's list, I'm truly surprised that it hasn't edged closer to the top. But I understand, going up against such lines as "Here's lookin' at you, kid," and, "May the Force be with you." Stiff competition indeed, but DeNiro's line from Taxi Driver has found it's way further into the modern day vernacular more often than any other pop culture reference that came before or since. It has made my list not only for it's recognizability, but this scene is "Film Geek 101". Scorsese's patented pan shot, a young and hungry DeNiro going for it in every scene he's in blahblahblah roll the clip!






#4 Casablanca: I am shocked...



A whopping six times Casablanca has made an appearance on AFI's list, none of which are this scene. There is nothing about this scene that doesn't fall flat. To this day, over 70 years later, this scene still holds up. It's still fresh. It still pops. It's timeless. The timing of the lines, the pathos, the blocking (I love the look Rick gives to his dealer in the background while Louis trots off after gathering his winnings). It made my list because it's timeless.






#3 Chinatown: Forget it Jake...


That moment when you've slammed your head against a wall because there is nothing else you can do to control a situation. That moment when you think you've figured it out, and then realizing that you haven't even come close. That moment when your moment in being the knight in shining armor is taken away because there would be no way that would happen.

You know what I'm talking about, right? You're in over your head. You need to get out now because the next words out of your mouth, or the wrong move in the wrong direction will get you in deeper, possibly fatal trouble. Walk away. Walk away and forget it, Jake...

This made my list because I've been here more than once...






#2 A Streetcar Named Desire: Stella!




This made my list for the same reasons DeNiro in Taxi Driver made the list. I believe it is written somewhere that if someone is going to compile a list of memorable movie quotes, the omission of Brando in Streetcar is punishable of up to 30 days in jail and a $2000 fine.

Holy crap, the feels behind this line. The way he squeezes every last ounce of air in his lungs? This is what anguish sounds like. This didn't just make the list because it was more than obvious, it made the list precisely because this one word started a movement in the modern drama, and how it should be performed. A name shouted at the top of his lungs heralded in the new rein of "Method" actors, and the new face of Hollywood, and disappearance of fast-talking, high-trousered actors of the old guard.






And last, but not least... and certainly nothing to do with recent events...

#1 To Have and Have Not: You know how to whistle, don't you Steve?


Oh...
My...
Goodness...

The look on Bogey's face afterwards says it all. We still feel it to this day. It packs a punch so hard that even the manliest man in the room has to say...



Lauren Bacall was a screaming hotty. She was the Mayor McHotty of Hottyville. They carved her likeness on the side of Mount Hotty. Archeologists in future will know her as The Once and Future Hotty and will dedicate a wing in the Hotty wing of the Smithsonian. Hotty.

...She will be missed.






In the course of making this list, about five other lines popped into my head. Keep in mind that this list reflects how I feel at the moment, and will probably change next week.

Maybe you all can help me out. What lines do you consider Oscar Worthy?



¹ Borrowed from Spaulding Gray's, "Swimming to Cambodia"
² Meaning, if you were to blurt out a line from a movie in mixed company, say a party where you're the stranger in town, and two or three people smiled and perhaps laughed a little while the rest of them roll their eyes, you tend to hang out with the people who smiled, because you have found your tribe...your pack.