Saturday, June 23, 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

Good cooks are consistent and the only way to be consistent is to practice. Emerson is noted for speaking to consistency. Often misquoted as "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", when he actually said, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin...etc." but he finished that thought quite succinctly by saying: "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." But for the ambitious cook, once he is consistent with one dish, he can move on to perfecting another. In the kitchen, there is never a time with nothing to do.

Over the past couple of months, I've been making the same pizza over and over. It's a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to have a repertoire of meals one can whip up with full confidence that the finished product will be a success. In addition, when there is 'nothing' on hand but a tomato and some cheese, how nice it is to be able to produce something other than a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich!

How much more impressive, too. Now I'll grant you, it does help to have a ball of dough tucked away in the freezer. But that's part of keeping a well stocked kitchen pantry.

The pizza dough I've been using is the "light as air"pizza dough courtesy of King Arthur Flour. This is a nice quantity that mixes up easily for one large or two smaller pies, freezes well, and produces a light, tender crust with just the right bite of chewiness. To freeze the dough: after the first rise, I divide the dough into two balls, wrap in plastic wrap and then place in a plastic freezer bag.

The topping is simply vine-ripened tomato, sliced and allowed to drain on a plate; really good quality olive oil; freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and either thinly sliced or grated mozzarella cheese. I vary the herbs. If using fresh basil, it's added after the pie comes out of the oven. Dried herbs should be added prior to the pie going into the oven. I've been using either a nice dried Italian herb mix from Penzey's or dried Mexican oregano.

I've found that flattening the dough out with my hands is preferable to rolling it out with a rolling pin, but either method does the job. Use only a light dusting of flour on the rolling surface, you don't want to incorporate more flour into the dough, just use enough to keep it from sticking. Letting the dough rest a bit during the stretching makes it much easier to handle, too.

I bake the pie on a pizza stone which is set on the lowest rack in the oven. The secret to a crisp crust is to have a very hot stone in a very hot oven. Preheating the oven at 500°F for a good 45 minutes to an hour is desirable. When ready to add the toppings, first spread a light coating of olive oil over the dough to act as a barrier, to prevent the liquid from the tomatoes making the crust soggy. Then I spread a light layer of grated Parmesan cheese to act as another seal. Same principle as making quiche. The cheese is always the first layer before the other ingredients, protecting the crust from liquid.

I quickly blot any extra liquid from the sliced tomatoes before adding them to the pie and then top the tomatoes with the grated or sliced mozzarella cheese and if using dried herbs sprinkle liberally over the top. The pizza is ready to be transferred onto the pizza stone. I use a wooden peel but a rimless cookie sheet will work. The alternative is to bake the pie on a baking sheet. Heating the sheet first will produce a crispier crust than putting the pie onto a cold sheet. Lower the oven temp to 450° and give it a good 12 - 15 minutes and then start keeping your eye on it. With my oven, the pizza is usually ready in under 20 minutes.

I realize not everyone likes pizza as simply prepared as those above. These are my favorites. The simple, fresh, sweet taste of garden ripe tomatoes, enhanced with a good dark, cold pressed fruity olive oil, blanketed with a rich layer of opulent full milk cheeses acting as a perfect foil for a combination of vibrant herbs. Mouth-wateringly satisfying. Do experiment with other topping combinations, make it a few times, develop confidence and consistency. It's a great item to master.

Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

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