Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I've only been writing about food recently. That seems odd, and yet unsurprising. There's a reason I look like this.

I made a trip to the nearest Williams-Sonoma recently (in Bellevue!). I had to pick up a couple specialty kitchen gadgets, so Williams-Sonoma was the obvious choice. Why is it the obvious choice? Let me share a little experience of ours...

Ames had a cookie press. It was a gift 4 or 5 years ago; the press was from Williams-Sonoma. So we took it out, and realized it wasn't working. There was a problem with the spring in it, so there was no tension on the plunger. As a result, it was totally worthless.

Ames called Willy-Sono, and they told her to bring it in. So in we go, taking a four-year-old defunct cookie press and no receipt.

"Yep, that's one of ours," the sales guy says. He looks it up in the book and tells us they don't carry it any more, but the sale price on it was $35. He gives Ames $35 store credit.

Then he shows us the model that replaced Ames' defunct press, explains why it's better and tells us it cost in the neighbourhood of $10 more. But of course, he assures us, it's a store credit so we can use it on anything.

If we had brought in a receipt, he tells us, he could have given us a refund.

That's for a four-year-old cookie press that's stopped working, with no receipt.

Where am I going to spend my kitchen budget from now on?

So I bought a pizza stone and a french bread pan this week. Are they a little spendy? Absolutely! But they both include a slip that tells me to take them back at any time if I decide I don't like them. I didn't pay extra for the quality (although they're obviously of superior quality to other offerings I've both purchased and researched). I paid extra so I can deal with people who treat me like I matter.

I'm sold.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

That's Amore! (Reprise)

I had previously posted a pictorial step-by-step to how we've been making pizza. The pictures Ames took were fabulous. But two things have made me decide we need a follow-up:

  1. a couple people have asked me about the technique, and seemed to think what I posted before wasn't too clear

  2. we've made a couple recipe and technique adjustments.

From Pizza Reprise

So here's an update of our step-by-step pizza making guide:

The Crust
The place to start is with the crust. I originally used a recipe I found online, but I've adjusted it to our taste. My recipe uses sourdough: I have a starter that took some sweat and tears to get to its current maturity. If you're in a hurry, you can make a starter that works by just throwing a tablespoon or so of dry yeast into two cups of flour and two cups of water; put them all into a jar and put it into the fridge. Feed it once a week. If you want something more authentic, you can check out some recipes on sourdough.com, Accidental Scientist, or S. John Ross. You can also buy a starter from Sourdoughs International, among other places. My own starter is an adulterated biga, as I mentioned before.

So here's the crust:

  • 2 C. sourdough starter

  • 4 C. water

  • 2 tsp dry yeast

  • 3.5 tsp salt

  • 8--14 C. flour

Put the water, yeast, salt, and sourdough starter into your kitchen machine (or bread bowl) and let it sit for 20--30 minutes. Then start kneading. Knead it wet for 10--20 minutes, then add enough flour to make a sticky ball of dough. Turn it onto a floured board and shape it into a ball. Refrigerate this overnight.

That's enough dough for six 16-inch pizzas or 8 12-inch pizzas. Always make the biggest pizzas you can handle! the best pizzas I've ever eaten were 20-inch monsters from Luigi's Pizza in Charlotte, NC. Larger pizzas have better sauce-to-crust ratios, and more manageable slices. I make 16-inch pies, because that's all I can fit into my oven.

The Sauce
The crust is the heart of your pizza: the sauce is its soul. I made horrible pizza for years, until I learned my sauce was too complex. To make truly great pie, use the simplest possible sauce.

  • 8 whole peeled tomatoes from a can. I find S&W is the best, but Hunt's are good too. Don't buy crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce your pie depends on getting this right!

  • 1/2 tsp. salt

  • 1/4 tsp. white sugar. I like to use berry sugar, but granulated sugar works just fine.

  • a hint of oregano. I used to use 1 Tbsp., but I've come to believe that's vastly too much. I now use just enough to see.
    Less is more, in this case.

Rinse your tomatoes in running water, pour off all the liquid. Put all the ingredients into a food processor or blender and pulse until it is a fine sauce. Don't puree!!! there needs to be some texture to your sauce. This is pizza sauce, not ketchup. I use a hand blender and a measuring cup. This picture is old, I use a lot less oregano now. But you get the idea.
From That's Amore

Assembling the Pie
Shaping the pie takes some practice. I can describe it to you, but you need to make a bunch and learn the feel.

First, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it warm a couple hours.

Preheat your oven to 500F.

Put some flour on the counter, put the dough ball on it, and gently pat the ball into a disc. Turn it over several times so both sides are well floured. You don't want to dry out your dough by over-flouring, but you need to ensure it's not sticking. Once you get a fat disc, it's time to start stretching it.
From That's Amore

So lift the dough, and start to gently stretch the edges. The middle will begin to stretch to fit the edges. Once it gets loose, toss it hand to hand. The trick here is to gently tease it into a more or less uniform disc about 16 inches in diameter.
From That's Amore

If you feel adventurous, you can toss it overhead. I have had only small success actually tossing dough. Sometimes it works, more generally it doesn't. Be careful catching it, if you catch it on your fingers, you might well puncture your crust.

Once your dough is more or less the right size, place it on a well-greased pizza pan. Now's the hard part: gently shape it to the pan. Whatever you do, don't push the dough down onto the pan, lift and stretch. Using gentle lifting and teasing motion to shape the dough. If you keep upward motion, the pizza will be looser in the pan.

Once the pizza is in the pan, sauce it. Cover the crust, but don't overdo the sauce. Less is more.

Over the sauce, sprinkle some dried (ground) parmesan. This will add a hint of salt to the pie that's very subtle.

Over the parmesan, sprinkle mozzarella generously. It's easy to overdo the cheese, so use caution. But cover the pie up to the edges.

From That's Amore

I put my pizza stone on the bottom rack and but the top rack on the second-highest level.

The pizza goes on the top rack until the crust and cheese begin to brown. I used to put the pizza pan right on the stone, but I found I get better spring in the crust if I let it cook to firmness on a higher rack with more airflow.

Once the crust is starting to brown, I move the pan down to the stone. From this point, I check it every minute. When it's almost done, the pie will release from the pan. As soon as it releases, I slide the pan out from under the pizza and let the pizza finish on the stone. It only takes a minute or two, but the final couple minutes on the stone crisp up the crust and let the cheese caramelize a little.

If you do it right, you end up with a pie that's a little brown on the top, browned on the edges, and puffy on the edge, thinning in the middle.
From Pizza Reprise

So that's it. Let me know how this works for you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I have a sort of sehnsucht for good lasagna. On Vancouver Island, pretty much any restaurant that advertises lasagna serves a wonderful concoction of pasta, rich brown meat sauce, and toasted cheese in a small casserole dish. What people cook and serve in their homes is more like the traditional lasagna you might find anywhere: a tomatoey, tangy sauce between somewhat dry layers of cheese and pasta.

When I left the Island, I realized that those lasagnas of my youth were in fact somewhat rare. I launched on a long quest to find lasagna, and ended up eating many cubes of layered tomato and pasta. I ordered lasagna in good Italian places, and got a very tangy, creamy, cheesey pile of noodles. The best lasagna I had of that sort was at Fontanella in Charlotte, NC.

But I was longing for the lasagnas of those elder days. The greatest of those is the lasagna of Romeo's Place in Nanaimo, Duncan, and Victoria.

But the key to my search was when I discovered Julianna Pizza and House of Pizza in Charlotte, NC. It was at Juliana that I first recognized a very important correlation, "Say, everywhere I find that makes the kind of lasagna I like is owned by Greeks..." And so I added a criterion to my list of lasagnas: only order lasagna where there is at least one picture of the Parthenon on the walls. I have yet to find a Greek-owned restaurant without at least a picture of the Parthenon on one wall and an ikon of the Theotokos on another.

When we moved back west, I took the opportunity of being back on the Island to revisit my lasagna haunts. Memory hadn't exaggerated the goodness: the lasagnas and baked ravioli were every bit as good as I had remembered.

So a couple months ago, I went out on a limb and googled "Greek meat sauce recipe". I was curious what I'd find. What do you know, I found some recipes for kima. It looked interesting, and got me to thinking...

For a couple months now, I've wondered if I'd been the victim of marketing. Although all the lasagnas I'd truly enjoyed were listed as "Italian Fare" in the menus of those Greek restaurants, what if they were actually Greek fare?

So yesterday, I googled "Greek meat sauce recipe" again, and picked what looked like a winner: http://www.grouprecipes.com/3403/greek-meat-sauce.html. It looked possible, so I decided to try it.

And while I was at it, I spent some time doing some "research" online, and found some interesting articles about Greek pasta dishes (here's one: http://www.in2greece.com/english/food/greek-pasta-dishes.html). And lo and behold, they claimed that pasta with meat sauce is extremely popular in Greece: they're eaten baked and steamed... like the pasta menu items at my favourite lasagna joints.

By now I was pretty sure I had figured it out: places like Romeo's were serving Greek pasta dishes and calling them "Italian Fare."

So last night I made the kima from that recipe. It ended up looking like this:
From Lasagna

That's promising. And the smell... it smells just like Romeo's...

Tonight we assembled it into some crocks we had bought to make onion soup (a story for another time). We used a mixture of cheddar and mozzarella, as we had asked one time what Romeo's uses to top their pastas:
From Lasagna

And we baked them long enough to put a little toast on that cheese:
From Lasagna

From Lasagna

The verdict? It's not Romeo's or San Marcos'. But it's very, very close. Like, we figured out how they make it and just need to tweak the recipe to taste.

This is a major breakthrough for me.