Monday, September 27, 2010


The difference between a bad pizza, a good pizza and a really fantastic pizza can be summed up in one simple word.


If you go out and have a really good pizza, and can't really pinpoint what this one has that another one doesn't, chances are, it's the cheese. Good pizzarias guard three things jealously: their crust recipe, their sauce recipe, and their cheese blends.

Most people assume that "pizza cheese" is mozzarella, but mozz is only a part of the story.

See that? That's the good stuff. Fresh mozzarella. But I've got a secret. Not that great for pizza. Oh, it's got a place in the pizza pantheon, namely on the Margherita pizza, with sliced uber-fresh tomatoes and basil leaves. That's divine, but it's also high art, not really the kind of thing that goes with movie night or tailgating.

The more familiar mozzarella is what we know from the inside of a million pizza boxes and tubes of string cheese and molten hot crunch coated sticks of deep-fried goodness. It's drier than fresh mozz, and melts into delicious webs of stringiness.

And then, there's provolone. Shredded and mixed with the mozzarella, it's a fantastic way to add more flavor to the mild taste of the other cheese. Provolone has a slight nuttiness, and is sometimes smoked. As it ages, it becomes more sharp. Sliced provolone is great for creating layers of flavor in your pizza. Place a blanket of slices over your crust, then top with sauce and shredded cheese to keep crust from getting gummy.

Shredded parmesan is very different from powdery grated parmesan. It melts like mozzarella, but has a real flavor punch. A little goes a long, long way. I buy a quarter pound chunk of fresh parm every month. I use it in a lot of stuff, but those four ounces last and last.

A simple cheese pizza is one of my favorite things. Nothing extra. Nothing fancy. Just a couple kinds of cheese, tossed together on some bread with a little sauce. I can give you this easy formula for pizza success:

1 crust + 5 slices provolone + sauce + 1 c. shredded mozzarella + 1/2 c. shredded parmesan.

Easy to add any topping you want, but trust me. Just once, keep it simple. Stop and savor the cheese.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fear and intimidation in the kitchen

There are really two things that I believe about cooking in general. First, a recipe is a guideline, not tax law or the formula for making aspirin. (Incidentally, I made aspirin once in 10th grade chemistry class, but Ms. DeStefano made us all swear we wouldn't take it or feed it to our siblings or give it to the dog. Apparently, she feared what would happen if we just used the recipe as a jumping off point.) Second, food should always be fun and never be intimidating.

But I admit it. I have been intimidated by paella.

First, there is the fact that "real" paella requires a special pan. The kind that someone's great-grandfather made in Barcelona a hundred years ago, the pan that gets handed down through the family and revered and worshipped. I don't have a pan like that. I've got a nice T-Fal chicken frying pan I inherited from my mother-in-law, and some rusty cast iron, but nothing that seems just right for paella.

And why do you need the special pan? Because the rice is supposed to be perfectly cooked, and yet form a crispy crust on the bottom.

I have avoided making paella since I got married, which is hard because my husband loves absolutely everything that is in it. But then, my grocery store had a special on lobster tails. Small ones. Not really good by themselves. Perfect for paella. Sigh.

But then I decided to embrace the challenge in a new way. Make paella accessible. Use the rice to make a new kind of crust and build it from there.

So I drafted my rice cooker. Possible the first time a rice cooker has ever been used for paella purposes. Also, I cheated shamelessly. My good friends at Goya were called into action. I made a big pot of yellow saffroned Spanish rice, using chicken broth instead of water, and adding a chopped onion and a cup of frozen peas. (Why did I do this rather than mixing my own with the gigantic jar of rice on my counter and breaking into my spices? Because saffron is freaking expensive. And I am freaking cheap.)

Then the oven went on 400 degrees, and in went a cookie sheet that looked a little like this:

Don't be afraid. That's just half a pound of shrimp, half a pound of very small lobster tails, half a pound of smoked sausages, some celery, onion, green pepper, and garlic, all drizzled generously with olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, parsley, oregano and lemon. I threw it in my hot oven and let it roast until the shrimp were pink and the lobster shells were red. Built in thermometers don't just come with Butterball turkeys.

By this time, the rice was done. I left the oven on high, liberally oiled my pizza pan, and spread on the rice to make my crust.

Right up to the edges, filling your pan, keeping it nice and even all over. The oil will crisp it on the bottom but keep it tender on top, just like that handmedown heirloom pan somewhere in Madrid.

And then we come to the artistic part.

I layered on my seafood, my sausage, and the vegetables. I added some roasted reds just because they were in my refrigerator and they kept looking at me.

I will also now make a confession. I think this pizza needs something, and according to the Food Network, it's a hanging offense. Scott Conant and Alexandra Guarnaschelli keep telling me that cheese and seafood are never to mix. I think this pie is absolutely crying for a little parmesan or romano on top. But I have been cowed by the experts and didn't do it. This time.

Next time, I'm tossing the rule book and this puppy's getting a blizzard of cheesy goodness at the end.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chocolate: the Wonder Drug

I am pretty sure that there is nothing that cannot be solved with chocolate. I think the Cold War could have ended decades earlier if there was hot and cold running fudge at the UN. I think Bush and Gore could have resolved hanging chads over good brownies. I think peace in the Middle East would be a hell of a lot easier if everybody's mouths were full of Hershey bars.

The endorphins, the brain chemistry, the antioxidants...there's just no downside. And that's before you even get to the taste.

When my friends and I were pregnant, and in those early days of being a mom, when colic made you question reality and sleep-starved brains warred with hormones that flucuated like the Dow Jones, chocolate was a necessary tool of our lives. We circulated a desperation treat for those late-night cocoa calls, a chocolate cake that mixed in a mug and baked in the microwave. It filled a hole, but it wasn't really...satisfying.

But chocolate doesn't have to be as complicated as the chemistry of cakes and cookies. A chocolate pizza is ridiculously easy, with just four (or five) ingredients that are probably in your kitchen right now.

This last-minute dessert is as elegant as French pastry because, well, that's kind of what it is. It's really a variation on pain au chocolate, or chocolate bread. You've probably seen it in a snooty bakery as chocolate croissants, with buttery dough rolled  around semisweet chocolate.

My version starts with something that is almost always in my refrigerator. Crescent roll dough. I've made it with pizza crust, bread dough, puff pastry, pie crust, pate a choux, etc., but crescent roll is really my favorite. First, it's buttery, and second, it's crazy convenient. Just unroll, press out in your pan, and you're ready to go.

Pretty? Oh, it's just dough, people. It's not art. Yet. That's why we spread on a little butter and sprinkle on a couple tablespoons of sugar. Throw it in the oven at 400 degrees until it's golden brown. Kind of like this.

Better already, isnt' it? Just wait. Next, you take some chocolate chips. I use about 6 ounces. Unless it's been a bad day. Or it's a day that ends in Y. Have the chips ready to go when you pull the crust out of the oven. Dump them on. Let them melt. (You can turn off the oven and just set the baking pan back in to hasten melting if you wnat. Just make sure you only do it for a few minutes. Good chocolate is a terrible thing to burn.)

Holy melted chocolate. Now, you can let this sit just the way it is. Or you can spread it. I prefer to let it retain its organic chippiness, but that's up to you. This is also a good time to point out that you can go with milk chips. Or white chips. Or any kind of chips, mixed and matched.

And that's it. You're done. It's delicious. It's simple. There's no way to make it better.

Unless you go one more step. With melted chocolate, you can throw on all kinds of fantasticness. My personal preference? Peanut butter. Melt a couple tablespoons in the microwave and drizzle over the whole thing. But you can also do chopped nuts, or crushed toffee, or raisins, or marshmallows, or leftover candy canes beaten within an inch of their lives, or...well, you get the idea.

Isn't that the best thing you've ever seen?

What? You don't have crescent roll dough...or any of the other options I mentioned? I've got a secret. A delcious secret. A friend makes the absolute most sought after treat at our local Chocolate Festival every year. People beat down the doors for his grilled pain au chocolate. Doesn't that sounds fancy? It's not. It is, pure and simple, a grilled chocolate sandwich. White bread, filled with chocolate (he uses Hershey bars), buttered and griddled like every grilled cheese sandwich you've ever had. Do NOT tell your children. They'll never eat a normal lunch again.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vampire B-Gone

For some people, the best part of an Italian meal is the pasta. Or the sauce. Or the antipasto. Or the salad.

For me, it is garlic bread. The kind that is absolutely saturated with butter and smells like a can of vampire repellent. Covered with a melted blanket of gooey cheese? Even better.

My husband is unnatural and wrong. He doesn't like garlic bread. He's a very bad Italian, in my opinion, but I'm willing to go with it because he is content, even happy, to eat naked slices of plain bread while I retain possession of all the butter-soaked goodness.

In my opinion, there is no better example of garlic bread the way God intended it than Schwan's Five Cheese Garlic French Bread.

Isn't it lovely? Sigh. The crust is basically just a vessel to contain the butter, and a platform for the cheese. It should come with a vial of nitroglycerin, and I just can't bring myself to care.

It's hard to get exactly the right effect at home. Too much butter and it gets soggy. Too little and it's light on flavor. Not the perfect bread and it falls apart. I've tried it a dozen different ways, and it's always paled beside my ideal. Until now.

My recent forays into the doctoring of store-bought pizza have had an unforeseen benefit. I may have made the best garlic bread ever.

I started with a plain cheese pizza. I used a store-brand rising crust. A DiGiorno knock-off. I followed the package directions for oven temperature.

And then I got out the butter. I melted 2 ounces in a small saucepan, and added the same amount of olive oil. Before it was too hot, I threw in two cloves of chopped garlic, and cooked over low heat. I threw in a tablespoon of fresh parsley from my garden, and a half-teaspoon each of dried basil and oregano. I added a dash of pepper. (I might throw in some crushed red pepper next time, just for kicks.) And most important, I watched it carefully and pulled it off the flame before the garlic turned brown. Burned garlic makes for nasty garlic bread.

When I heard Dracula pass out cold on the porch, I drizzled the fragrant mix all over the frozen pizza. Then I popped it in and...

Yeah, don't be ridiculous. Like I'd stop there. That's when I broke out more cheese. A cup of mozzarella, and a few tablespoons of parmesan. The shredded kind, not the grated stuff in a can. I'm not usually a big ingredient snob, but everybody has the hill they choose to die on, and decent parmesan is mine. At least in this instance.

Then in the oven it goes. No pizza pan. Just straight on the rack, or if you are lucky enough, on a blistering hot pizza stone, like this one.

I've actually got a professional restaurant kitchen pizza oven, a souvenir from the days when my husband actually offered some of the finest pizzas in the greater Pittsburgh area. I love it. But I find it easier to just use my regular oven with a pizza stone most of the time, and a good stone gives you almost exactly the same quality. If you can get the effect of a $1000 oven with a $36 stone, go for it.

When you're done, you get something that looks like this:

It's got everything my favorite garlic bread does, with the added punch of extra herbs and pepper, and the slight background tang of the smattering of pizza sauce, which is reduced to a condiment instead of a starring player by the garlicky butter.

There's also another perk. Eating garlic bread for dinner can get you some side-eyeing. But pizza is clearly a meal, even if it's one that will keep the Twilight crew at bay.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This one's for the girls

On my moms board, that is.

A good idea is always community property with us. It doesn't matter if it's a photography pose, a craft project, or a recipe. If someone comes up with something wonderful, we're always going to share the wealth. That's how we all came to the wonder that is salsa chicken.

I love the simplicity of salsa chicken. Take one slow cooker, add chicken and salsa, and anything beyond that is gravy. Literally. Yum. There are a couple of good recipes for it floating around the board, but my favorite way to do it is to go Iron Chef on it: take the secret ingredient, look at what I've got and make it work. Yesterday, after an unfortunate Lightning McQueen incident led to the destruction of my plans for roasted chicken with Paula Deen's cornbread dressing, I had to shift gears quickly. And I needed something simple since I suddenly had to clean two pounds of spilled cornmeal off my kitchen floor.

I threw my chicken in the Crock Pot, poured on a pint of mild salsa, and started to look around. Now, I've stopped with just the salsa before, and it was great. I've also added a variety of other things. At different points, my salsa chicken has included Velveeta, hand shredded cheddar, mushroom soup, queso fresco, sour cream, homemade bechamel, even mayonnaise. Today, it ended up with a can of cream of chicken soup, some chicken broth, and some cubed cream cheese. Six hours later? Tomato-y, spicy, creamy goodness. I poured it over green chile rice. Heaven.

But it was heaven that had leftovers. And in my house, that means a snack-time application of the Pizza Principle. Except there was a complication. No pizza crust.

That should never keep anyone from trying a recipe, however. Substitutions are part of that whole "necessity is the mother of invention" thing. So I looked around. What could stand in for a crust? Well, given the southwestern nature of the chicken, I drafted some flour tortillas.

But a plain old tortilla isn't going to say pizza. It's going to say drippy mess. That's why there was a quick spray of oil and a turn in a hot pan to crisp it up.

Next, a heaping scoop of salsa chicken, and a smattering of mozzarella and cheddar cheese, and it's ready for the oven.

And 10 minutes at 400 degrees later, I've got a delicious snack out of leftovers, improvisations and odds and ends. If I'd had them, I could have added peppers, olives, or other veggies to bump up the nutritional value. However, oddly, at midnight on a Sunday night, when you're watching True Blood and feeling a little peckish, nutrition isn't the first thing on your mind.

But from now on, I'm making sure I've got a scoop or two in reserve when I make salsa chicken, because this was totally worth the effort.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Listen up!

A while back, I got some feedback on the blog from some people with good suggestions.

First, I was encouraged to provide pictures. That's a great idea, and definitely one that would make things more interesting. Let me give you a short list of why that hasn't happened before:

  1. I'm technologically backward. This means I am dependent on my husband to download my pictures and put them in a place where I can access them.
  2. I am intimidated by blogs with good photography. The Pioneer Woman and Bakerella make me want to go hide under my bed, but I can't because the dust bunnies will eat me.
  3. I don't actually eat pizza every night. Yes, it's a shameful confession, but it's true. Most of these recipes were tested over the course of a couple years, and I'm kind of spur-of-the-moment about which recipes I decide to include.
I'm going to try. I'm turning over a new leaf! Unfortunately, it's almost officially autumn, so my new leaf might fall off my old tree in short order. Sigh.

But here goes. And I think a picture of my son improves almost anything, so here he is petting a pig:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Get your gooey on

Cheese was a great thing to happen to bread for centuries before peanut butter and jelly got in on the act. There is a reason why almost every sandwich is made just a little bit better by the simple addition of a slice of cheese.

But my favorites are always when cheese is the star of the show. And nothing does that like a good old grilled cheese sandwich.

Now, I will pause here to address some issues for sticklers. To me, a grilled cheese sandwich is cheese (classically, in my childhood, American or, better yet, Velveeta) between two slices of the whitest white bread to be found, slathered on the outside with butter. My grandmother insists that this is called a "dream sandwich" and that a real grilled cheese isn't buttered, but fried in melted butter. I think this is a semantical argument that doesn't matter to your clogged arteries. Then there are the people who call it a toasted cheese, which I say is a cheese sandwich on toasted bread and has nothing to do with a griddle at all.

Okay, now that I've gotten that off my chest, we can proceed. Kids love grilled cheese. I defy you to find a kid's menu that doesn't feature them. (TIP: you can even get them at Burger King if you ask nicely.) And the humble grilled cheese is, like pizza, a great vehicle for getting kids to try things they might not like.

Take me for example. When I was a child, I'd have eaten my left foot before I ate a tomato. Unless you put it in a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese with tomato and bacon was my mother's secret weapon when our garden overflowed with tomatoes that I looked at with distrust and contempt. (It also helps if you make the experience special. I remember many a late-night movie date with my mom: just us, some grilled cheese and tomato, and something wonderful on TV late at night while everyone else was in bed.)

But cheese and bread are adaptable, and turning a diagonally cut sandwich into wedges of pizza is a lot easier than putting square pegs in round holes.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich Pizza for Mom

1 pre-baked pizza crust

1 T. butter

½ pound provolone cheese, sliced

½ pound sharp yellow cheddar, shredded

1 large ripe tomato, sliced

½ pound crisp cooked bacon, crumbled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rub bottom of crust (yes, the side that touches the pan) and 1-inch edge of top with butter. Place on pizza pan. (If you are using pizza dough, melt the butter and pour into pan, just painting edges. I actually don't recommend this for this pizza because it makes it harder to shape.)

Top crust with provolone slices and cheddar. Bake 5-7 minutes, until cheese just starts to melt. Scatter tomato slices and bacon over cheese. Return to oven for another 7-10 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling and starting to brown.

Color conundrum – How do you like your cheese? Yellow or white? Many people will argue the point, saying one tastes better than the other, but anyone from a cheese-producing area will tell you, there’s very little, if any, difference. Most manufacturers add yellow dye to their cheese because they know some people won’t buy white. Others, like Cabot Creamery in Vermont, refuse to add dyes to their cheese on principle. While some people say the color was originally added to distinguish where the cheese came from, it really comes down to the seasons. Cows eat differently during the summer months pastured in a field than they do in winter stabled in a barn. Anyone who read the Little House on the Prairie books can tell you how Ma had to ring the juice out of a carrot to make the butter look better in the winter, when the fat didn’t have the same pretty yellow color.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Yoo hoo! Food Network!!!!'s the story.

I auditioned for the Next Food Network Star on Tuesday. They said that they would contact people in 24-48 hours.

As it is now four days since I bared my bubbly soul to the casting chick in a banquet room at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia, I am guessing that I will not be giving Guy Fieri a run for his money anytime too soon. (Although I do hold onto somewhat futile hope. When I was on Food Network Challenge, they said I'd hear by the end of the week. I actually heard from the production company more than two weeks later.)

But one of the things they wanted people to do for the show was to start creating original recipes. At least 30 original recipes, actually, to take into semifinals and callbacks and the thrilling last stage...the month of intense final competition with other contestants in January/February 2011.

Well, I might not be getting called back, but damn it, that call for original recipes has spurred some real creativity in me.

And therefore, you aren't getting any pizza today. Nope, today, the good people (okay, person) at The Pizza Principle bring you...French toast.

I start with an admission. While I adore French toast, it's something I hate to order out because it isn't my French toast. And my French toast is weird and stems from the fact that I am too impatient to fry things properly.

I soak my bread completely in the custard, so saturated with egg that it's almost impossible to take out of the batter without a spatula. And I come damn close to deep frying it. I can't just lightly grease a griddle and let it go. Why? Because I don't let it cook long enough if I do that, and then I end up with grilled bread filled with raw egg. Blech. No, I heat half an inch of oil to a blistering temperature, then ease in the bread and turn once. The result is a crispy slice with a pudding-like interior.

Now we get to the original part.

I spread it with a hearty portion of pumpkin cream cheese filling, top with another slice of crunchy custardy goodness, and then pour on my grandma's homemade brown sugar syrup, pumped up with a little toasted pecan.

Now, if NFNS calls me, I can't use this recipe. But you can. Try it. Sooooo good.

Pumpkin Cheesecake French Toast


8 slices good bread (Hey, use what you've got. If that's Sunbeam, that's fine. But if you've got acces to some really yummy brioche or challah, you'll be really happy you tried it.)
4 eggs
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. cream
2 T. sugar
1 t. vanilla


8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 c. pumpkin
2 T. brown sugar
1/4 c. powdered sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg


1 c. brown sugar
1 T. corn syrup
1/2 c. water
1 T. rum
1/4 c. chopped pecans, toasted

Mix all toast ingredients except bread. Soak slices thoroughly. In a large skillet, heat 1/2 inch of oil (I like canola) to about 350 degrees. Gently add slices to oil, cooking until golden brown on one side and turning carefully to finish. Remove.

Mix all filling ingredients. Place one slice of toast on plate. Add a scoop of filling. Top with another slice of toast.

Mix all syrup ingredients in a small saucepan. Heat until brown sugar is dissolved. Pour over toast.