Pasta & Pizza

30th July
2012
written by scott

Update: Andris Lagsdin, fan of Modernist Cuisine and steel expert has just launched a Kickstarter for Baking Steel, a low-cost slab of pre-cut steel for baking pizzas and breads in just the way I describe below! I’ve tested one of his prototype units and it performs like a champ – even with a single Baking Steel (no double-decker) I was able to produce fantastic, wood-fired-oven-like results on my grill!  I highly recommend this Kickstarter for anyone looking to make pizza or breads at home.

The guys from Tested.com came to Seattle, so I shared with them one of the projects that’s been on my mind lately: making perfect pizzas at home.  In a previous post, I discussed my approach to making great pizza dough.  But, dough is only one half of the equation.  Without a good oven, the best dough in the world still won’t produce quality pizza.

Now, let me first say that there are people who devote their entire lives to pizza ovens – to building them, to studying them, and to understanding how they work.  I am not one of those people, and, although I still have a blank space in my yard that I one day hope to fill with an actual pizza oven, my goal here was to produce the best pizzas possible using my CharBroil infrared grill as a starting point.  But if you want to send me a pizza oven, I’ll test the shit out of it.

There are two keys to hacking a grill into an effective pizza oven: getting it really goddamned hot, and holding the heat.  Getting a grill hot is not so much of a challenge – add enough charcoal and let it burn for long enough, and you’ll have quite an inferno.  Add more airflow or additional oxygen, and your fire will burn hotter and faster.  But, retaining that high heat when you open the lid or add cold food… well, that requires mass.

Physics Interlude!

Mass, like a pizza stone, or the thick floor of a pizza oven, or in this case, 25-lb steel plates, act like a heat battery, storing up heat energy.  I was first turned on to the idea of using steel instead of ceramic brick by Modernist Cuisine, who recommend the technique not only for grills but for household ovens as well.  So, why are steel plates better than a pizza stone?  A few reasons:

  1. Steel is much denser than ceramic materials.  A typical pizza stone has a a density of 0.0625 lbs. per cubic inch.  The steel plates I’m using have a density of 0.329 lbs. per cubic inch – about 5 times as dense.  That means that for the same volume of material, I can store much more energy in steel than brick.
  2. Steel has a much lower specific heat than brick.  This means that it takes less energy to heat a steel block than a brick of equal mass.  So, the steel will heat up faster in the oven.
  3. Steel has a much higher thermal conductivity than brick.  Thermal conductivity measures how quickly heat moves through a material, or between materials via conduction. This means that the heat can move from the steel plate to the pizza crust faster than it could if I were using a ceramic material.

All of these factors are summed up in one convenient measure, known as thermal diffusivity.  And, it turns out that the thermal diffusivity of 304 steel (the grade I’m using) is about ten times greater than the thermal diffusivity of brick.  [I don’t have precise numbers for the ceramic composition of pizza stones specifically, but it will be similar in magnitude.  Some types of steel, like high-carbon steel, have more than 20 times the thermal diffusivity of brick.] 

Do ceramic pizza stones produce good-looking, great tasting pizzas?  Yes, absolutely.  But according to physics, they necessarily do so more slowly than steel.  One of my pizza criteria is a crunchy crust that will support its own weight when held from one end.  I’ve found great success in achieving this texture with a steel cooking surface.  The other advantage to steel, of course, is that it will last nearly forever.  I don’t have to worry about dropping and shattering it, I can use it as a griddle and scrape it clean, and if I need to build an impromptu blast shield, I’m all set.

To hack your grill into a worthy pizza oven, here’s what you’ll need:

To assemble your pizza oven:

  1. Place one of the stainless plates in a corner of your grill. 
  2. Place two of the stainless steel pipe segments on the two far corners of the plate.  Place the other two pipe segments on opposite edges of the plate, about 1/3 of the way back.  These pipe segments will hold up the top plate.  By pushing them back from the front corners, you allow yourself a little more room to negotiate the pizza with the peel.
  3. Place the top plate on top of the pipe segments.  It should sit firmly – you sure don’t want it crashing down on you during cooking.
  4. Install your BBQ grill fan or bellows on the opposite side of the grill, above the open grilling area not covered by the steel.
  5. If your grill has a charcoal tray or basin on the open side, fill it with charcoal.  If not, place the charcoal in a roasting pan or metal dish on that side of the grill.  Ignite the charcoal, turn on all of the burners and close the lid.  Allow the grill 45-60 minutes to preheat thoroughly. 
  6. A few minutes before cooking, start your grill fan or bellows.  This will boost the internal temperature of the grill and even out hot and cold spots.  A cooking temperature between 800°F and 900°F is ideal.
  7. Just before cooking, turn the burners below your steel plate down to 75% power.  This will help prevent the bottom crust from burning before the top crust is fully cooked.  However, I’ve found that the first pizza of the day is usually somewhat sacrificial :-)
  8. Slide your pizza onto the bottom steel plate and cook, turning once, for 2-3 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the top crust is golden brown.  Keep the grill lid closed as much as possible during cooking to maintain the high temperature.
  9. Enjoy extraordinary pizza made at home!

I hope you enjoy the pleasure of homemade pizza as much as I have.  I’ve probably made 50 or so pizzas this summer, and there is nothing quite as satisfying than pulling a perfect pizza out of the grill and serving it to friends.  If you don’t (or can’t) have a grill, this technique works pretty well in a home oven, too.  Place one steel plate on the bottom floor of your oven to act as a heat battery.  Set the other on the top rack. Preheat your oven for an hour on its highest temperature setting.  You’ll need to add a minute or two to the baking time, but the results will be worth it!

14th July
2010
written by scott

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If you caught my post last week on smoking your own salt, you learned how easy it is to turn ordinary salt into an extraordinary seasoning.  But did you know that you can pull off the same trick with flour?  In this recipe, I’ve smoked Semolina flour – the most common kind used for pasta making.  The finished pasta takes on a subtly spicy smoke flavor and is a great match for Morel mushrooms. 

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23rd December
2009
written by scott

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Sometimes there’s nothing like a hot plate of lasagna on a cold winter evening.  If you’re nodding in agreement, for the love of God, stop buying frozen lasagna!  This dish is nearly foolproof, and if you don’t want to make your own noodles and sauce from scratch, you can easily substitute store-bought ingredients.  I chose to make mini-lasagnas since I have a set of cocottes (tiny dutch ovens), but the same recipe will work in an 8”x8” baking dish.

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27th October
2008
written by scott

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This recipe was inspired by a recent visit to Piroshky Piroshky, the small, wonderful-smelling Russian bakery in the Pike Place market.  They make some of my favorite street food, and I can’t make a trip to Pike Place without stopping by for a snack.  On my latest trip, I tried their salmon paté piroshky (a piroshky is a stuffed, flaky, handheld pie) and it was divine.  This “calzone” doesn’t attempt to recreate the salmon piroshky, but was simply inspired by it.  The mascarpone cheese melts away during baking, leaving the rich smoked salmon moist and delicious. 

Makes: 2 Coho Calzones
Total kitchen time: 30 minutes

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20th October
2008
written by scott

greek penne with tomato confit

Slow-roasted cherry tomatoes are really the star of this dish.  The French Laundry uses tomato confit in many of its preparations.  My method isn’t quite as intricate as theirs, but the intent is the same: to sweeten and intensify the flavor of the tomato.  The result is a delicious variation on your otherwise ordinary pasta night.  After baking the tomatoes, to really make them confit, store them in an airtight jar immersed in olive oil for later uses.

Makes: Special pasta night for 2
Total kitchen time: 1 hour (15 minutes working time)

Shopping list:

  • 1/2 lb. cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 oz. (about 2 cups) penne pasta
  • 1/4 cup kalamata olives, pitted
  • 1/4 cup green olives, pitted
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, cut into 1/2” cubes
  • 1 tbsp. freshly chopped oregano
  • ooks&fgbp
  1. Rinse and pat dry the tomatoes.  Slice in half through the stem end.  In a small bowl, gently toss the tomatoes with about 1 tsp. kosher salt and enough good olive oil to coat.
  2. Arrange the tomatoes in an even layer, cut side up, on a baking sheet.  Bake at 250°F for 1 hour.  This is a good time to use your toaster oven, if you’ve got one.
  3. About 30 minutes into the tomato roasting, bring a very large pot of water to a boil.  Even if you’re only cooking for two, use at least a gallon of water if you can.  All the Italian chefs say we need to, though they may be in the pocket of Big Water.  Salt the water.
  4. Cook the pasta to al-dente (10-12 minutes, check the package for directions) and drain well.  Toss together the pasta, feta, oregano and olives with a little more (good) olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Plate, and add the confit-ed tomatoes on top. 

For real tomato confit, Thomas Keller suggest that we blanch, peel, and seed the tomatoes before baking.  If you’ve got the extra time on your hands, please go ahead and report back.  I should be just about done with dinner by then!

03rd August
2008
written by scott

Boursin Chicken with Brown Butter Gnocchi  A few weeks ago I ate at Crow, a fantastic little restaurant in my neighborhood.  They served a gnocchi with brown butter, roasted corn and morel mushrooms that blew my mind.  Honestly, it was so good that I would have kept eating until I developed a food hernia, had there not been a finite portion before me.  Here’s my version, topped with a Boursin- and wild mushroom-stuffed chicken breast. 

Makes: 2 finite portions
Total kitchen time: 45 minutes

Shopping list:

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 6 oz. wild mushrooms (morels are best, but shitake or porcini work as well)
  • 3 tbsp. Boursin cheese (it comes in a small box, available at most grocery stores)
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups gnocchi
  • 1/2 cup corn kernels (roasted, if you can make/buy them this way)
  • 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F and set the top rack in the middle position.  In a large stockpot, boil 1 gallon of water (or as much as you can fit).
  2. If you’re using using dried mushrooms, let them soak for 20-30 minutes in a bowl of hot water to re-hydrate.  Drain and chop the mushrooms into 1/4” pieces.
  3. Prepare the chicken breast by cutting a slit through the side of the breast, being careful not to cut all the way through the other side.  Expand the incision to make a pocket in the breast. 
  4. Reserve half of the mushrooms.  Divide the remaining half and the Boursin cheese between the chicken breasts, stuffing it into the pocket you created.  Wipe away any excess Boursin that may be hanging outside the pocket – it will burn when the breast is cooked.  Salt and pepper the chicken breasts and lightly coat with olive oil.
  5. Bake on an oiled, rimmed baking dish for 20 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F. 
  6. Meanwhile, boil the gnocchi until just undercooked.  This will usually take 2-3 minutes.  The gnocchi will float when they are ready.  Drain the gnocchi and set aside.
  7. In a large, not-nonstick skillet, heat the butter over medium-high heat.  Swirl the butter in the pan and cook until small brown spots begin to form.  This is one of the butter solids beginning to burn, and this is how we’ll make our brown butter.  Raise the heat to high and add the gnocchi.  Toss the gnocchi to coat in the butter and sear them, flipping occasionally, until they develop a very slight golden-brown crust.
  8. Add the corn, remaining mushrooms cinnamon and cloves and sauteé 1 minute more, then remove from the heat. Salt and pepper the gnocchi to taste, then plate and serve.

Of course, you can always serve the gnocchi on its own as a main course.  Try pairing it with a brothy asparagus, mushroom and pancetta soup as a starter.  Or, kneel below a wheelbarrow of brown butter gnocchi with your mouth agape.  You know, whatever works for you.

14th June
2008
written by scott

pizza on the grill
If you asked me my favorite thing about summer, you could be sure that my answer would involve the words “grilling” and “pizza”.  Grilled pizza is an excellent easy supper, especially when you’re cooking with friends.  Go get some pre-made, uncooked dough and a few of your favorite ingredients and dive head-first into your relationship with the grill.  In the pizza above, a simple red sauce, some prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and fresh mozzarella make a great dinner.  Or, if you’re feeling less traditional, try out my other grilled pizza suggestions.

09th March
2008
written by scott

Papardelle with Sweet Potato and Spinach 
Let me start by saying that I would eat the Los Angeles Times (Sunday Edition) if you spread enough Ricotta over the top.  Well, maybe all but the sports section.  Anyhow, this was a delicious, easy and colorful dish that I whipped up for company on short notice.  Keep this one (and, of course, your own variations) in your arsenal for good, quick eats.

Total kitchen time: 35 minutes
Makes: Op-Ed taste like Home & Garden for 4 lovely readers

Shopping list:

  • dried pappardelle noodles (really, just get as much as it looks like you’ll need.  Unlike smaller noodles, the cooked yield isn’t deceptively larger than the dried volume.)
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 12 cups baby spinach (to yield about 1 1/2 cups wilted)
  • 1/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 4 slices proscuitto
  • 4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Preheat your oven (or toaster oven) to 400°F and place the top rack about three quarters of the way up. 
  2. Boil at least a gallon of lightly salted water in the largest pot you have.  This will take some time to boil, so I’ve put it here in step 2 for you.  I know, what would you do without me?
  3. Toss the sweet potato cubes with 1 tbsp. of olive oil and a pinch of salt.  Spread in an even layer on a baking sheet and roast until tender and just starting to get golden corners, about 20 minutes.  Set aside.
  4. In a large skillet or a griddle over medium heat, lightly fry each piece of proscuitto until crispy.  This will only take a minute or two per side, so keep a close watch.  Since proscuitto typically doesn’t come in packages of 4, you can always pretend that you overcooked a slice and sneak a bite when nobody is looking.  It will be our secret.  Once you’re done with your shameful crisping, set the proscuitto aside on paper towels.
  5. Now, cook the pasta.  This will take 15-20 minutes, so proceed to the next step while you’re waiting.  Hey look, we’re multitasking!
  6. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, wilt the spinach until just done.  Be sure that the amount of spinach is not too great for the size of the pan – you want a lot of room for the moisture to cook off, otherwise you’ll end up with gritty, watery greens.  Bad stuff. 
  7. In a large bowl, toss the pasta with 3 tbsp. of olive oil and salt a pepper to taste.  Add in the ricotta, sweet potatoes and spinach.  If you want, crumble in the fried proscuitto, or just serve it to the side like a ham wafer.  Yum!

That’s it, folks.  An unapologetically simple and easy meal.  If you felt this was too straightforward, serve only a small portion of the pasta aside duck confit with a balsamic reduction, jerk.

13th June
2007
written by scott

pizza I’m on a quest, of sorts, to replicate my favorite restaurant’s pizza in my own kitchen. Will it work? Well, I’ve got a lot working against me: no 700 degree brick oven, no special flour or wheat, no commercial baking experience… but on the plus side, even if I fall short, I still end up with great pizza.
Here’s my latest attempt in which some cast iron improv takes the place of a dedicated pizza oven.

Total Kitchen Time: 30 mins + rising time
Serves: 4 teenage mutant ninja turtles

Shopping List:

  • 1 package (1/4 oz) active dry yeast
  • 3/4 cup of 110-degree F filtered water
  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tsp salt (fine/table salt)
  • 1 tbsp + 2 tsp olive oil
  • 2 cups mozzarella (fresh, sliced and pressed dry OR shredded)
  • 2 tbsp tomato sauce, prepared
  • 1 cup crimini mushrooms, sliced
  1. If your oven has a bread proof setting (or a 100 degree setting), preheat it on that mode. Bloom the yeast in the 110-degree water for 5 minutes.
  2. Clear off some counter space and dump the flour into a pile. Add the salt and cornmeal and mix with your fingers until combined. Arrange the flour like a volcano with a crater in the middle. Add about 1/4 cup of the water and slowly combine with your fingertips until it is fully absorbed. Add another 1/4 cup and repeat, trying to work the dough as little as possible. Add the remaining water (or less) until the dough can be rolled into a large ball and no flour spots remain. Avoid adding unnecessary water; you may not need to use all 3/4 cups.
  3. Coat the inside of a medium bowl with 1 tbsp of olive oil. Add the dough ball and toss in the oil to coat. Cover loosely and let rise for 40 mins.
  4. If you have an oven-proof griddle or very large cast iron skillet, place it in the oven on the middle rack. Now, crank your oven as high as it will go and give it at least 20 minutes to preheat. In the meantime…
  5. Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. As much as you can, use your hands to gently stretch the dough into a shape that will fit your cooking vessel (for me, a large rectangle fits my cast iron griddle). Remember to only handle the dough as little as possible – overworking causes the gluten in the flour to activate, leading to a dense, gummy texture. Brush the dough with olive oil on both sides.
  6. Once your oven is nice and hot, carefully transfer the dough to your cooking surface. It should sizzle a bit. Bake for 2 – 3 minutes, or until the bottom crust has started to char a little. Remove the dough from the oven and add the toppings. Return to the oven and bake about 7 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown around the edges.
  7. Remove the pizza from the oven and let it rest 10 minutes. Cut and serve!

The secret to really great pizza is, of course, great dough. This dough is simple and reliable, though it lacks the flavor and crunch profile of my “goal crust”. I’m sure that a few hundred slices from now, I’ll get it right. Enjoy!

09th May
2007
written by scott

grilled pizza With equal parts hunger and bravery, you’ll find that your grill cooks much more than burgers. This recipe is a summer staple for me; as soon as the weather warms up, I start to crave pizza on the grill. Be creative with your toppings – choose 2 or 3 veggies, a cheese and a meat. When I recently made this recipe for some friends, I went overboard (7 veggies was just too much) but the result was still delicious.

Makes: 4 10″ pizzas

Shopping list:
Dough:

  • 2 packages (2 oz total) active dry yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup + 3/4 cup warm water (105F- 115F)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Toppings:

  • 1/2 cup goat’s cheese
  • 1 dz fresh figs, halved
  • 2 Vidalia onions, cut in 1/4 in circular slices
  • 1 lb fresh chicken and apple sausage
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint, torn into small bits
  1. Proof the yeast in 1/4 cup of the warm water for 5 minutes.
  2. Combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, yeast and remaining water. Mix until combined, but don’t over work the dough. Roll into a large ball and coat with olive oil. Cover and let rise 1 1/2 hours or until it has doubled in size.
  3. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll out into ovals (or circles or hearts or whatever shape you like) about 1/8″ thick. These will be really thin, but try to make sure there are no holes or weak spots. Lightly brush each of the doughvals (get it?) with olive oil and set aside until you’re ready to grill.
  4. Preheat your grill on medium. Add the chicken sausage and cook, turning occasionally, until they look right. The cooking time depends on a lot of things, but trust me, you’ll know when they’re done. Slice into 1/4″ pieces and set aside and keep warm.
  5. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook the onions until brown, soft and sweet, about 10 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
  6. Grill the figs, cut side down, about 3 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
  7. Turn your grill down to low and wait for the heat to dissipate. Grill the doughvals until set, about 1 minute per side. Add the goat’s cheese, onions, figs and sausage. Sprinkle on the mint and top with really good olive oil, if you like.

Cut and serve the pizzas. They pair great with a dry white wine and a platter of sliced, preserved meats. Also try any of the following for toppings: {Stilton, apricots, pork sausage}, {Manchego, pesto, shrimp}, {feta, lamb, cucumber}, {mozarella, bell pepper, eggplant}. If things have gone well, you’ll have a whole new admiration for your grill.