Monday, November 8, 2021

Pierogi Day

Yesterday was pierogi day and I do love a good pierogi day. I've posted about pierogi making but I don't think I ever wrote about the origins of the day. Every year, Christmas Eve is at my wife's Aunt Carol's house. There is an absurd amount of food, a lot of fun and games including a holiday themed bingo game with bingo card that date back to the 90s. One of the main foods besides the shrimp and ham are a ton of pierogi.

Well, after I officially married into the family in 2000, being the food nut that I am, I asked for a pierogi making lesson. We picked a day and my wife and I went over to make that year's holiday pierogi. Well, it turns out that I'm pretty good at rolling them out and my wife is pretty good at filling them. The four us (Uncle Lou was there too) started at about 8 in the morning and were done before noon. Aunt Carol was stunned. Normally this was just the two of them cooking which means Aunt Carol doing just about everything and then Uncle Lou boils the pierogi. They used to start at like 7 in the morning and finish around dinner time, sore and cranky with their basement kitchen trashed, and barely on speaking terms.

So from there, we started coming over to make the annual Christmas pierogi. And then my brother in law and sister in law moved back home from North Carolina and the party grew. And then the kids started coming and the event grew even bigger. Aunt Carol has written records for the most pierogi out of one batch of dough and she keeps track of how many we make each year. The number fluctuates with how stuffed they get but also, the blocks of farmer's cheese used to come in all sizes, it's just a straight 3 pound block now. Many hands makes it go quick. They get stuffed almost as fast as the circles get cut, the next batch of dough is usually ready to go before it is needed, and two pots of water are boiling them as they get made. We usually start a little after 10 and are done making pierogi about 2 hours later.

Two years ago, my nephew took an interest in rolling out the dough and cutting the circles. Last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no pierogi making party. Carol and Lou made a batch and delivered them on Christmas eve to all the families that would have normally been at their house. This year, I brought a bench scraper and my nephew was even more into it. I think my job as official Dough Roller may be in jeopardy. Official Dough Roller Supervisor is probably a pretty good gig.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Pizza Sauce Evolution

The sauce I use for my wood oven pizza has been evolving slowly over the years. I specify wood oven, because when I make Detroit style that is thicker than the wood oven pizza. The pizza sauce has gone from almost always being Pastene Kitchen Ready ground peeled tomatoes to various Stanislaus once I was able to get inside a Restaurant Depot. Stanislaus only make those really big #10 cans of tomatoes. But in their product line, I went from 7-11 which are a crushed tomato, to Tomato Magic which is the same as 7-11 except the tomatoes are peeled, to Alta Cucina which are whole peeled tomatoes in a packing liquid. With the crushed tomatoes, I sometimes used them right out of the can and sometimes I combined out of the can with some run through a food mill. I had been running these whole tomatoes through a food mill and including the packing liquid which is something I just assumed pizza places would do. Through all this, the sauce is just tomato and some sea salt. I like to add oregano on top of the cheese. As the cheese greases off a little and starts to boil, that oregano cooks into and seasons the pizza.

I saw an interview with Angelo Womack, he worked at Roberta's when it was just starting out and is now a pizza consultant, and in the interview he mentioned that if you were using the packing liquid from the can of Alta Cucina's the sauce wasn't everything that it could be. So the last time I made pizza, I used only the whole tomatoes and I liked the sauce. But was it really that different?

I had forgotten about wanting to look into this a little further and remembered when opening the can. I was trying to be a little scientific but was making it up as I went. I tired breaking down the can into parts. I'm using grams but they are really just ballpark numbers since there is some tomato left in the can, in bowls, on the food mill, on the counter...there will be rounding errors.

I ran all the whole tomatoes through the food mill using the coarse plate.

Pulp left behind in the food mill: 244 grams

Packing liquid remaining in the can: 876 grams

Tomato sauce that came through the mill: 1614 grams

Totaled up that's 2735 grams. The can says 2.89 kg, or 2890 grams making 155 grams of gone AWOL. I tasted everything. The pulp left behind is awful. Really terrible. Don't eat that. The canning liquid is fine, nothing really special about it. That is until you taste the milled tomatoes, then the canning liquid is definitely lacking. The milled tomatoes are bright and fresh tasting with a tartness on the finish that just isn't in the canning liquid.

I made a blend of the milled tomatoes and the canning liquid to estimate what I'd have if I had just run the whole can through the food mill. I'm not sure this is the right way to estimate the proportions. If I had just pulsed a stick blender in the can, I'd have the pulp in there too. In any case, I made a blend of milled and liquid. There was no way around it, the canning liquid dulled the flavor of the sauce. I added some salt. It helped but not enough. I brought in my wife as a second taster. She agreed. The milled tomatoes by themselves were better. I'd argue that using just the milled tomatoes was like using a different ingredient. 

Since I'm already a little nuts with the pizza, moving forward I plan to only use the milled tomatoes. That amount will get me through a typical wood oven bake with a little left over. Maybe I'll combine the leftover with the canning liquid to make a pasta sauce later in the week. For how often I fire up the oven and the cost of a can of Alta Cucina was under $5 the last time I bought a case, it isn't a big deal or really wasteful.

Where the experiment falls short: I didn't try comparing the two sauces on a pizza. Cooking could change it. I was just so surprised at how different the two sauces were and how much more I liked the milled tomatoes only, I used that sauce in the bake. Since it is just me making pizzas in a relatively small wood oven, side to side comparisons in the past haven't been true side by sides. The two pizzas would probably come out over 10 minutes apart, the oven conditions are constantly changing and it is generally difficult to create an "all other things being equal" kind of condition by myself in the backyard. This could also be less apparent in a more seasoned sauce. Also, if you are going for a sauce with a specific flavor profile, this might not help. I'm guessing most pizza shops either aren't milling the tomatoes (though some definitely do) and are using a combination of canned tomatoes. Maybe like 2 cans of crushed and 1 can of something thinner. When I took that class years ago at DeFazio's, they were using 2 different Stanislaus products with some water in a batch of sauce. There's more than just salt in their sauce too.

Overall, a very interesting taste test. Glad I remembered. It changed the way I will be making sauce moving forward. But the sauce is always evolving. The next change probably isn't too far off. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

El Presidente

I came really close to not saying anything about this, but pizza...

Dave Portnoy from Barstool Sports was in the area this week doing his pizza reviews at a handful of local places.

As someone not into sports, all I know about Barstool is the bad stuff that looks to be pretty well documented...sexism, anti LGBTQ, harassment. This is a quote from a 2017 Sports Illustrated article by Richard Deitsch and Chris Chavez on ESPN cancelling its partnership with Barstool after 1 episode:

At a certain point over the last week, Skipper became more aware of the historical content of Barstool Sports away from the popular Pardon My Take podcast, and specifically, the ugly comments made by Barstool founder and president Dave Portnoy in 2014 about ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder.

I will mention that during the pandemic, Barstool did good work helping out restaurants, but let's just say Dave Portnoy is not in the running to replace Alex Trebek either.

A good way to gauge if a reviewer's tastes are in line with your own is to compare their notes to yours on a visit to the same place. The first Barstool pizza review I saw was for Mama's Too! in New York City. It was the 300th review and Portnoy did it wearing a "Jew Crew" t-shirt. He was unimpressed and gave it a score of 6.8. This review went up in February of 2018. Mama's Too! was one of the places I visited on a pizza tour with some people from the pizza forum. The place stole the day. It was amazing.  It looks like Dave Portnoy and I do not have the same tastes in pizza. Turns out I wasn't the only one impressed by Mama's Too! because in November of 2018, Mama's Too! was given a star by Pete Wells in the New York Times.

From the Time's review:

It is as if Frank Tuttolomondo, the owner and pie architect of this informal but very serious pizzeria on the Upper West Side, has learned how to genetically modify pizza.

From the bits of the local reviews I watched, Portnoy burnt the hell out of his mouth on a slice early in this pizza tour so who knows if he could actually taste anything and each place I saw scored higher than Mama's Too! including one that is pretty close to my house. Trust me, if there was pizza as good as Mama's Too! close to my house, I'd be there regularly.

On top of all the problematic behavior, I don't think Portnoy's pizza reviews are that good either. His highest score locally (DeFazio's in Troy, not close to the house) would also be one of my higher scores locally, but overall, I think the Barstool pizza ratings are more a reflection of Portnoy's current mood as he hams it up for a camera than a real pizza ranking.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Might have some new people poking in from Chuck Miller's blog. I had a nice conversation with him not too long ago and I think that goes online this weekend.

First things first: I was a little nervous during the our talk - looking at a recording camera and speaking is not one of my strengths - so I'm going to mention a few things that I got wrong. Try to set the record straight. 

The biggest and dumbest mistake was saying this blog started in 1998. It was 2008. What's a decade, really? I was going off a vague memory of looking at things online back in an apartment before I was married, but that memory is of a barbecue ListServ-forum-ish thing from back in the day. So this space was inspired by Michael Ruhlman's blog and the names I couldn't remember: Chef Bob Del Grosso and Chef Mike Pardus who had a blog called The Hunger Artist. Before them, I didn't know what a blog was.

The slightly less big and dumb mistake was not clarifying that I am not really a pizza expert. Enthusiast is a better word. That's not to say I don't know a good amount about pizza, but many know more than me. So they would be experts and I'm an enthusiast. Pizza nerd works too.

The last thing that comes to mind is another name I couldn't come up with on the spot. We were talking about local entrepreneurs and the name I couldn't come up with was Cory Nelson. He's the founder of Troy Kitchen and then Cloud Food Hall in Albany. I would bet that whatever project he decides to do next, it will be creative and worth checking out.

Hopefully I caught all my glaring mistakes. On to a blog post....

If you are stopping by from Chuck's blog looking for pizza making tips, I would encourage you to join the pizza forum - It is free, but you do have to send in an introductory post that might take a bit for a moderator to approve (weeds out robots and spammers, plus it is nice to say hello). After that, you have free reign on the forum. 

Pizzas are divided into styles, recipes and techniques abound, plus it is a very friendly community. I've had the opportunity to meet a few forum members in person and they did not disappoint. There's some talk of a New Haven pizza crawl sometime this summer. Going to try to make it if I can. Screen names become familiar and the people behind become "friends." You cheer for their pizza successes, worry about them when they are ill, and miss them when they aren't around.

There used to be a thing on the screen that let you know how many hours you had been logged onto the forum. It's still there, but you have to dig for it now. Anyhow, I remember posting about the first pizzas I made after joining the forum and the clock showed a little more than 10 hours of poking around the forum. This was back in February of 2013 baked using a homemade pizza steel at my former house where the oven went to 550.

The stats say I have spent 72 days, 2 hours and 13 minutes looking at the forum as I type. Here's a fairly recent pizza out of the wood oven.

Practice helps. A lot.

So if you want to get into pizza making, join the forum and poke around. Also a kitchen scale really helps too and you don't need a mixer. Many say hands are better for small batches anyhow. There's even a "fork mixer" that tries to mimic hands working dough.

Thanks, Chuck. It was fun talking to you.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

May 2021 Pizza Challenge

The pizza challenge was to use some kind of green pepper. Any kind.

The first pizza combo that came to mind was one I hadn't made in a while. So one Friday night I made dough thinking that I might get a chance on Sunday. Plans changed and Sunday was out. Oh well. Figured I'd make bread or stromboli with most of the dough. Some might get wasted. No big deal really. It is a little bit of a waste of flour, but not much. On Monday, I came up with an idea. I'm working from home. I could walk out, start a fire and be back at the laptop in a few minutes. Pop out once in a while to toss a log in the oven. Easy peasy.

Well, it turns out prepping the pizza toppings after work is a little bit of a rushed hassle. But what really through me off my game and turned this impromptu bake into an exercise in frustration was nature. More specifically, bugs.

I didn't notice anything during my quick oven visit to light the fire. It turns out carpenter bees have been drilling holes in my roof. There was some kind of ant with wings and I think a hornet was acting like a real estate agent checking out a spot for a nest. And in the back corner of the roof, I could heard a repeated clicking. I think it was carpenter ants eating. So, for the entire bake I was thinking I was going to have to take down a lot of the roof (which was a serious pain in the ass to build) and this threw me off my game. The dough didn't feel right. The stretches weren't right. The launches weren't right (I made a lot of ovals that night).

Yes, I know that a slice of pizza cut from an oval will still taste good. In my online Twitter complaints I was reminded of a Todd English quote: never trust a round pizza. But it was frustrating, I wasn't having fun. Instead I was getting kind of pissed. There were two high points of the bake. The first was trying out a new vegan pizza, a puttanesca. That had sauce, garlic, oregano, crushed red pepper flakes, Kalamata olives, capers and an olive oil drizzle. A light sprinkle of pecorino might be nice or maybe some anchovy, but those would take away the vegan status. Next go around, I'd replace the crushed red pepper flakes and olive oil with a chili oil. Overall, this was still a tasty pizza and it will find its way into a regular rotation. My vegan neighbor liked it too.

The second high point was the pizza challenge pizza. The is a TXCraig1 special. Mozzarella cheese (used both fresh and low moisture), sausage, dried cranberries that have been rehydrated in rum and jalapeno with a hot honey drizzle post bake. This was the roundest pie of the night. Still not quite round, but the dough stretching was not firing on all cylinders.

Not only is this a tasty pizza, but the chef gets a nice glass of cranberry infused rum after everything is all cleaned up. I needed it that Monday. Called an exterminator on Tuesday.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Pizza is fleeting

There's a pizza guy I stumbled across on Instagram. He has a youtube channel and sometimes I check out what he's doing there. It's mainly a more in depth look at what he does on Instagram. He goes by SantaBarabaraBaker and he makes some really nice looking pizzas.

When I first started watching him he was using a pizza steel in his kitchen. He has since moved up to an outdoor, propane Ooni oven. I think he has the Koda 16 model. Would you believe his name is also pretty close to mine? It's Jonathon. His overall enthusiasm for pizza is contagious.

Well, one of his Instagram posts mentioned that he had been interviewed for a podcast titled "What's Good Dough?" which, if you are into podcasts, is available everywhere. Over the past 2 two days, I was able to sneak in listening to the podcast while walking the dog.

In one part of the podcast, he said, "Pizza is fleeting," and I totally get where he is coming from.
The dough will never be exactly like the way it is right at that moment.
The oven will never be exactly the same as it is for a specific bake
The toppings will never be exactly the same, especially produce.
Hell, there is even variation between cans of tomatoes. they will never be exactly the same either.
That moment, that pizza is unique.

In June 2018, we had a birthday party for my daughter. In my mind, those were the best pizzas I have ever made. Everything clicked. The dough was just right, I was giving them just the right amount of time at room temperature before stretching. The sauce was great. Stretching was a breeze. Launching the pizzas in the oven was smooth, all clean launches, nothing stuck. And the flavor, it was the best crust I ever made

Since June of 2018, I have tried to replicate that crust. I've come close. And even if everything were exactly the same, I'm not sure I would believe it was. The day and the event may have elevated those pies in my mind to better than they actually were. But that particular bake, even though duplicating it is unobtainable, that's the bake I chase every time.

Because pizza is fleeting.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

April 2021 Monthly Pizza Challenge

Running a little late here. Wasn't sure what I was going to do for this, had some yardwork projects going on (trying to grow grass but I think I am mainly giving grass seed to birds), not sure about a the timing of a wood oven bake...anyhow, managed to do the challenge just under the wire for dinner on April 30th. Seems fitting to be posting about it a week into May.

The Challenge: Celebration! Add an ingredient that elevates your pizza to something for a special occasion.

Wasn't quite sure what to do. I've been seeing a lot of different, fancier cured meats on pizza and remembered a mortadella-pistachio combination I saw for a Neapolitan pizza some time ago. A little google search and I was able to track down the pizza I was trying to remember from Serious Eats.

Took a break from re-watching Letterkenny to make some dough Thursday night. Had the kids take the panned dough out of the fridge when they got home from school to give it a chance to warm up a bit. Heated up the oven and prepped some toppings and we were off..

The Celebration pie was mortadella under the cheese with crushed pistachio/olive oil stripes. If I make this again, I think I'd try it with a light brushing of dijon mustard under the mortadella. All in all, it was pretty tasty.

I have 4 of this size pan, so I figured since I got to pick one topping, everyone else could pick how they wanted one topped. We had bacon, olive and a mushroom too.

You could do much worse for dinner on a Friday night. On to planning the May Challenge.