Monday, February 8, 2016

Playing with blocks



Last week I picked up a dozen full sized and two half sized concrete blocks to mess around with the stand layout of the oven. If this is how winter is going to be, I might as well get going. This weekend was perfect play with blocks outside weather. I had three options in mind. I laid out the first one, Option A, kind of a horseshoe pattern. The tape measure in the picture represents the size of a 2 foot log to be stored under the oven.



I thought this might be a good layout if I were going to use full sized bricks on the outside to cover up the blocks. There is just about the exact amount of space full sized bricks to sit the on the foundation slab. The wall also hugs the electrical conduit. The downside with Option A is there is a lot of wasted space in the back.

Option B takes up a bigger foot print but allows more access to the back. Because the walls are close to the edge of the foundation slab, the blocks would have to be covered with a veneer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The electrical inlet might need a little protection but that should be easy enough to handle. Also, this set up is wider and I think forming up the slab the oven will rest on will be easier since it will be flush with the sides of the stand.


Option B1 is similar basically Option B but with the smaller foot print.


Option C is two “C” shapes of the left and right sides of the foundation slab – open in the front and back. I didn’t even set it up. After looking at Options A and B, I knew I didn’t want a straight flow of air under the oven. Wind mostly comes from the fence side of the pad. I could have added a wall in the middle, but that messed up the space for a two foot log.

Option B wins and it is kind of a relief to be able to focus on one layout now. When I was done, I stacked some blocks to look and the actual height of where the oven floor will be – 50 to 52 inches high. I’ve got to tell you, actually looking at the blocks is very different that looking at a scaled drawing. I was getting nervous at having to build the dome at that height. I’ll need to be on something, maybe a mini scaffold or bunch of small step ladders. To try and shake the nerves off, I broke out the arch I built out of wood a few months. It’s not centered and one of the glued joints is starting to fall apart. But that 2x4 is at the right height to represent the floor and the arch is a cross-section of the oven.
 

That view made me smile (even though one of my badly glued arch joins is failing) and brought me back to the task at hand. I found a supplier for the firebricks I want to use - Duke Concrete in Queensbury. It's a little bit of a haul but they are the only local supplier of Whitacre Greer low duty firebrick. All my research says that's the way to go, at least for the floor. Next step is finding the right used wet saw. I almost pulled the trigger on one, but I chickened out. And more planning. And reading. Lots of planning and reading.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mini Pizza Tour Part 1 - Blaze



On Saturday, I was invited to join some contributors to AllOver Albany for a quick pizza tasting. Great people, good conversation and pizza…how could I say no to that?
 
The first stop on this mini pizza tour was the new Blaze Pizza in Stuyvesant Plaza. There was already a Blaze open in Schenectady but I had never been. I think Lebron James is one of the chain’s backers. Anyhow, it’s chain pizza and I’m a pizza snob so my idea was to go in with low expectations and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.

After entering the shop, my eyes were glued to the dough press. I had never seen one in the wild before.  This Blaze has two of them. The digital temperature on the side read 242 degrees F. I asked the press operator if that was a steam temperature and she said it was. I asked someone who looked managerial on the toppings line and he said something about air pressure. Looking online afterwards, I believe it is the temperature of the platens (the actual plates in contact with the dough). To make a pizza, the bottom platen is sprayed heavily with a Wesson bake release spray, a portioned ball is placed in the center, more spray and then smush. I didn’t time the length of the smush, but during the smush the temperature is all over the place. When the press is opened up, there is a perfect circle of dough with a little lip around the perimeter. It’s kind of Play-Dough-esque. Based on the markings on the dough bins, the dough is a little over 24 hours old before being served. The dough also looked like it was pretty wet and sticky. 

 
From there, the dough is put on a peel and you follow it past a lot of topping options customizing your pizza. We wanted to try there set topping combinations and I think we may have caused a little confusion since everything going on the pizza can be customized. And one thing I will say about the people working there: I’m not sure they could be nicer.


 

I tasted a slice of 4 Blaze pizzas. Here’s a rundown in the order that I ate them. First slice, the Link In: sauce, mozzarella, sausage, red pepper, sautéed onion. The crust was well cooked, didn’t have much flavor but there was a little bit of an off after taste. The sauce wasn’t bad. I thought the sausage tasted like a meatball. There was meatball on a later pizza so it wasn’t a mix up, they’re different. The cheese was good too. I think the option sprinkle of coarse salt and oregano helped the cheese out. I liked the pepper and onion, they had good flavor but if I found myself in Blaze again, I think I’d try something else. I messed up and didn't get a picture of this pie.


Slice two for me was the Meat Eater: sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, meatball, and red onion. Same crust and still without much flavor. I’m really starting to notice that the press gives the dough a weird texture. More like a flatbread/tortilla-ish thing going on.  The sauce is growing on me with a good tomato flavor. The meat ball taste like meatball but different than the sausage meatball, the pepperoni is very salty and the onions were a nice touch. But still, this isn’t a pizza I’d order again.
 

Slice three was the Art Lover: mozzarella, ricotta, artichoke, dollops of sauce, chopped garlic – but they were out of garlic.  I get that it is a few days into being open so things happen, but send someone to go get more garlic. It is a topping on more than 1 of your signature pizzas. Garlic is sold everywhere. The crust is starting to grow on me a little but the texture is really weird.  I’m not sure if the garlic would have helped, but this pizza tastes like right out of the can artichoke and nothing else. I’d skip this one. 
 

Slice four was the White Top: cream sauce, mozzarella, bacon, chopped garlic (missing), oregano and arugula. Back to the flavorless crust but still consistent with the off texture. I didn’t like the white sauce and the bacon was very salty. I did like the arugula but the pizza was mediocre at best. 



In the end, Blaze isn’t for me. I pretty much knew that walking through the doors, going back to that snob thing. The foundation of pizza is the crust and I really don’t like the texture the dough press creates. If I found myself in a Blaze again, I think I would try to come up with my own topping combination probably starting with the tomato sauce and mozzarella and skipping the meats.  There is definitely worse pizza on the market and I would pick Blaze over other fast food places like McDonald's, Burger King Taco Bell or KFC to name a few. However, at a similar price point, I think the food at the higher end chain burger joints like Five Guys or BurgerFi is better. But that's not pizza so it isn't an apples to apples comparison. 

As someone who believes in the pizza cognition theory, I hate that this is going to be many kid's first memory of pizza. All future pizzas for those kids will be judged against Blaze. And that's too bad. While Blaze might be super convenient, there is a LOT of better pizza. The bar should be higher than "it doesn't suck." Unfortunately, I don't think it is. And if you think I'm being hyper-critical of a chain, I'm hyper critical of my own pizzas too. I made a white pizza with kalamata olives this weekend and I would be embarrassed to serve it to anyone. The topping combination was awful. My sausage/bacon/pepperoni pie, on the other hand, was pretty damn good.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Norma's Pizza Update

Just before New Year's, I made a pit stop to meet Norma of Norma's Pizza in Manheim, PA. During the visit, she talked about being closed on Tuesday the 12th because she would be taking the bus to New York City to compete in the Caputo Cup - a kind of big deal pizza making tournament. She was a little nervous and trying to plan out how she was going to get her dough and other ingredients to the city, deal with unfamiliar oven and handle anything else that came up. She said she wanted to go just for the experience. To be able to say she competed.

Well, earlier today Norma won FIRST place in NY Style. I am just thrilled for her. I found out an hour ago and can't stop smiling. Just awesome.



Photos from John Arena's Facebook page


 Photo from member Obsuaced at pizzamaking.com

Monday, January 4, 2016

Near Year's Trip & Pizza Quest

Pretty much every year we pack up after Christmas and head south to Maryland to spend New Years with friends. It's a tradition. Over the years, I've altered the route slightly to avoid the New Jersey Turnpike. If everything goes well, the Turnpike is about 15 minutes faster. But if there is any form of delay, it can quickly turn into hours slower...ask me how I know.

The newer route ventures off into Pennsylvania goes through Allentown, Bethlehem, Lancaster and York before taking a left and heading straight into Maryland down I-83. If you've ever spent time poking around the the forum at pizzamaking.com, you've seen a post by Norma427. She's the forum post leader with over 25,000 posts. And they aren't all "Hi, welcome to the forum" posts. They're serious pizza experiments and tests. This lady is seriously into pizza. She's a bona fide pizza forum legend.

A little east of York, Pennsylvania is a town called Manheim. In Manheim, there is a place called Roots Market. Every Tuesday, there is a big combination flea market, antique sale, farmer's market and auction. It's all day. It's massive. Huge like if the Troy Farmer's Market took steroids and HGH and did nothing but workout in a gym for 10 years...I don't think it gets this big. Here's an aerial shot off Google maps.


Big, right? And that's only one of the markets like this in the area. There's another one on a different day. Once your done being distracted by how awesome this market is and thinking that you would come here weekly if you lived within 50 miles (it's open from 9 to 8 in the winter and 9 to 9 in the summer), it's time to get serious. Inside one of those permanent buildings, Norma has a pizza stand. However, Norma's Pizza is only open on Tuesdays.

For the past few years, I have driven through this this area twice annually. But never on a Tuesday.
This year, we were going to break up the trip with a stay in a hotel. The kids love staying in a hotel and figured we'd find one with a indoor pool so we could take a dip too. The original plan was to split the drive in half...or... we could do 5 hours one day and 1 hour the second day and go to Norma's. My family graciously humored me. And in the end, a long drive followed by a short drive was the way to go anyway.

I got to meet Norma. Here she is in her shop.


We started talking, I introduced myself by screen name and I was quickly invited back to stretch some dough and make pizza.


Norma's main pizza is a boardwalk style. After the dough is stretched, most of the cheese goes on, the sauce is put on in a spiral and then the rest of the cheese gets applied. I tried to copy what she did, but I hesitated with the peel during the launch and made a big football pizza. I had never worked with a dough ball that big. It was definitely different than the 14 inch pies I make at home.



(photo courtesy of Norma)

 
(photo courtesy of Norma)

My second attempt came out much rounder.

 (photo courtesy of Norma)

 My kids were extraordinarily impressed.


Besides the boardwalk pizza, Norma makes a Detroit style too. It's a thick pizza made in a small pan. The cheese goes on first and then after a little baking two stripes of sauce go down the middle. The cheese at the edge of the pan gets crusty and delicious. I don't have a picture of the Detroit, I was too busy trying to stuff it in my face.

Adam Kuban writes up an annual list of pizzas "that haunt my dreams." Norma is working on a hybrid that uses a sourdough starter for flavor and yeast for leavening. She topped that experimental dough with here typical boardwalk sauce and cheese but added homemade sausage then fished with some shredded spinach.



(3 slice photos courtesy of Norma)

This pizza haunts my dreams. That was an amazing slice. I've already ordered the same starter culture she was using so I can start trying to duplicate it.

It is always great when you get the chance to meet people you admire.We could have talked pizza for another few hours, but the market was closing and the kids wanted to jump in the hotel pool before bed. I'll have to look at the calendar for next year. Everyone is game for adding a visit to Norma's to the annual trip.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pizza Tour and a Milestone

I checked in at a handful of sites for work last week. When I parked the car on Friday, I had driven just over 1000 miles. I don't know how truckers do it constantly. There's something about that kind of road trip that inspires absurdly unhealthy eating patterns. At least in me.

On the first day, I had to be in Corning before lunchtime. I made it, had a meeting and found out my second stop near Olean had been pushed back an hour. Time for lunch. There were two well reviewed pizza places on Yelp. Both were just a few miles away and I thought the pictures from one looked better than the other so off I went for a slice at Aniello's.




Nice place. OK slice. The crust didn't have much flavor. The next morning, there was snow on the ground and I drove around the Southern Tier almost out to Jamestown. I also managed to get lost and that added a few miles to the drive. When the sun set, I was in Buffalo. I've run into OG Woodfire Pizza on Twitter and the pizza forum. When I found out he was going to buy at a small neighborhood holiday event, I knew I was going to have to stop for a visit.

I got up to the truck and ordered a maple-pancetta pizza and started chatting while Jay went to work. Once we started talking he said, "Wait. What's your screen name?" And when I told him he invited onto his truck. We nerded out talking about pizza and ovens for almost 3 hours while Jay made pizzas for customers. It wasn't busy, the weather wasn't really cooperating with a cold wind and sprinkles. When a customer ordered, Jay said, "OK, give me 4 minutes." A little under 2 minutes to make it, a little under 2 minutes to cook it and the extra time was used slicing and boxing the pie.

 
During my visit he also invited me to make a pizza in the oven. I could hear Howie Rose: "Put it in the books...December 3, 2015: Jon made a pizza in a wood fired oven." And yeah, even though I need to work on my turning peel skills, it was pretty awesome. Still smiling.

There it is. My first wood fired pizza.


After I left the neighborhood party, I checked into a hotel and wrote out notes on how Jay made the maple/pancetta pizza. It's sweet and salty and cheesy and delicious and would need to be tried at home.

Since there is never enough pizza, I had read that Lovejoy Pizza made a classic Buffalo style pizza. I had followed a few threads on people trying to duplicate this style and was curious. So off I went with my friend Kevin to get a Buffalo Style pizza. It seemed like most Buffalo style pizza was cheese or cheese with pepperoni. We went with pepperoni. I ordered it and was told 20 minutes. This struck me as a little odd. I certainly wasn't expecting the 4 minutes of OG Woodfire but I figured closer to 10. Turns out Buffalo style takes a long time to cook.

While we stood there, I looked around. The place is also know for their wings and I think everything in the shop is coated in a layer of grease. There was a fan pointed at the grill station that was just gross. The only thing that wasn't greasy was the large TV showing the Thursday night football game. They should close for a day and have a cleaning party.

Cleanliness aside, it turns out I don't like Buffalo Style pizza. The dough was oily and flavorless. The sauce was really sweet (although almost all red sauce I have had in Buffalo is on the sweet side). The pepperoni is OK but overall, this was that bland, bready pizza you would expect at a kid's birthday party in a bowling alley. If this is classic Buffalo style pizza, I'm out.




I got back to Albany on Friday afternoon. One of my kids wanted to have a friends family over for pizza this weekend. I had wanted to try something new with my current dough recipe so I made a batch of dough Friday night. Friday night I mixed everything (using a lot less yeast) and did a little kneading. Then I covered the dough and left it in the basement instead of the fridge. About 64 degrees instead of 38. On Saturday morning, I portioned the dough, balled it and put it back in the basement. I made 8 of the doughs for dinner Saturday and left 4 in the basement. Sunday afternoon I cooked up the rest of the dough balls.

I had to give that maple/pancetta pie a try. There are a few things I think I could improve on my technique with the pie, but it is delicious. Definitely adding it to the rotation.



I'm only going to eat salad tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Blast from the past

I had told my kids about these, but I thought they were extinct. Removed by people who put "safety" above all other things. Recently, I saw what I believe to be one of the last of these in the wild: The Playground Merry Go Round.


My old elementary school is across the street from my mother's condo. Every now and then when look longingly at the corner where the merry go round used to be. It's a little, plastic climbing wall now. I had told my kids about it and how much fun they were. I didn't think they would ever get to ride.

I first spied this merry go round after a rain. The trench caused by years of happy little feet running in circles was completely filled with water. Our fun would have to wait. Until today. I spun my youngest daughter around, took a few pictures and then hopped on too.






We laughed a lot and it took awhile for the merry go round to slow down. Then she spun me around and took some pictures of me.



My older daughter was in a dance class during our fun. After the class, spun her around too. No pictures though, it was pretty dark by 5:30. I left pretty dizzy, but with no regrets. I'd totally do it again.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mets... [sigh]

Not surprisingly, my view on sports championships kind of mirrors The Pizza Cognition Theory. In my opinion, when rooting for a sports franchise, no victory will ever be sweeter or more joyous than the first time your team wins it all.

Let me give you an example. I grew up in Connecticut and went to UConn. The UConn basketball team was slowly getting better and would make it into The Tournament. There was a miracle last second full court pass to a buzzer beating shot that basically caused the entire state to erupt. In Connecticut, this play is simply referred to as The Shot.  Unfortunately, two days after The Shot, Duke and freakin' Christian Laettner beat the Huskies with a last second shot of their own.

In the 1999 tournament, UConn went all the way. And they beat Duke for that title too. I remember everything about the night. We were at a co-workers house. I wasn't sure I wanted to go. I need space to pace and yell at the TV and generally support the team. I remember Duke coming back to tie the game. I remember being frozen and mumbling "not again, not again, not again." But UConn won. And it was thrilling. After the get together, we went home and I talked with my brother on the phone until a little after 3. That year, we spoke briefly on the phone almost every Monday night until the next tournament started. "How are you enjoying week 17 of being national champions?"

The UConn men's team has won the championship three more times. It's fun. We talk on the phone after tournament games. But it's never as good or sweet as 1999. And we don't talk about it all year long.

I was 15 in October of 1986. When the first pitch of the famous Game 6 of the Mets-Red Sox World Series was thrown, I was at a Billy Joel concert at the New Haven Colosseum with both my brothers and my buddy Rick. With Connecticut being the buffer between New York City and Boston, the crowd's loyalties were evenly split. Billy Joel would provide updates every once in awhile in between songs. There was a guy nearby watching the game on a itty bitty portable TV that probably cost a fortune - no smart phones in '86. The guy about died at one point. I'm assuming that was when Ray Knight made an error in the 7th. The concert ended but the game was still going. We hurried back to my brothers dorm at Southern Connecticut College and watched the end of the game in a common room. It was amazing. We jumped up up down. We hugged strangers. We celebrated with a beer in my brother's room (It was a long time ago so you can't be mad, Mom).

In the off chance you would like to relive that bottom half of the 10th inning, here it is, brilliantly reenacted in old school RBI Baseball.



The Mets went on to win Game 7 and their first and only World Series of my lifetime (so far). If they won it all this week, it would have been great. But it wouldn't have been as much fun as '86.

I don't watch much baseball. There really isn't time to follow the Mets. Instead, I follow a few people on Twitter who keep track of the Mets for me. Watching Daniel Murphy play was incredible. That was an amazing streak of home runs. Yes, he made some bad errors but without Murphy, there's no doubt Citi Field would have been dark this weekend.

This October was fun. And yeah the Mets lost, but they did it in classic Mets fashion - as painfully as possible. Maybe they'll make it back soon. I'm ok if it takes a little while. My kids will be older and could watch more than the first inning. You only get one shot at watching that first team victory. It would be nice if the girls could really enjoy it.

In other news, Chase Utley still sucks.