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

New 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.