Saturday, March 26, 2011

Homemade Pizza Two Ways

When I was little, we used to go to a restaurant that would give kids little balls of pizza dough to play with before the food arrived. It was so much more exciting than crayons and a coloring book. Although I can't remember what restaurant it was that offered this unusual activity, I do remember how fun it was to stretch and mold that dough. It was like all-natural play-doh, but you could actually eat it (or, you could eat it and it wouldn't taste awful).

I hadn't thought about this distant memory for many years until yesterday. As I was making my own pizza dough, the aroma of flour and yeast suddenly brought me back to my childhood. It's safe to say that the scent of fresh dough is one of my favorites, right behind the smell of warm butter and sugar.

Although it's hard to believe, there was a brief time a few years ago when I didn't even like pizza (gasp!). Thank goodness my tastes have adapted, because good pizza is really one of my favorite foods. And when you can make good pizza at home? Even better.

It's my goal this summer to make homemade bread and this pizza was a successful foray into yeast breads. The dough itself was incredibly easy to make. Kneading the dough by hand really allows you to experience the transformation from a shaggy, floury amalgamation to a smooth, elastic ball of dough. After a leisurely rise, the dough was ready to be stretched and adorned with toppings.

I think my favorite thing about pizza is how creative you can be with the toppings. This batch of dough made enough for two medium-sized pizzas and I wanted to make one classic pizza and one that was a bit more whimsical. For the classic pizza, I took inspiration from one of my new cookbooks, Molto Gusto by Mario Batali. There are dozens of pizza recipes in the book, and one that looked particularly delicious combined tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, anchovies, and capers.
Romana pizza with tomato, fresh mozzarella, anchovies, and capers

While that pizza is decidedly savory, the other has several sweet components. The pizza has a base of sweet caramelized onions; fig jam, mascarpone cheese, balsamic reduction, and chopped pistachios finish the pizza, offering contrasting tastes and textures.
Pizza with caramelized onions, fig jam, mascarpone, pistachios, and balsamic syrup

Both of these pizzas are equally delicious (my mom enjoyed the caramelized onion and fig pizza, while I was fonder of the tomato and anchovy one) and their brief sojourn on a baking stone in a searingly hot oven rendered the crust crisp yet chewy.

We couldn't stop "mmm"-ing and "ahh"-ing over this simple yet satisfying meal. With pizza this good and this easy, it's safe to say we will be for a good while longer.
Pizza so good you'll eat half a slice before photos have been taken (*cough* mom! *cough*)

Homemade Pizza
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

If you want to make a plain (not whole-wheat) pizza dough, simply use 3 cups of all-purpose flour. The dough may not need as much water (as whole-wheat flour absorbs more moisture than all-purpose) and may not need as much time to rise, so adjust accordingly. You can use dry active yeast instead of instant yeast. Simply use the same amount of yeast but add lukewarm water (about 105 to 110 degrees F) to the dry ingredients.

Yield: enough dough for 2 medium-sized thin crust pizzas

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting work surface
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Cornmeal, for dusting
2 recipes of pizza toppings (see two variations below)

Mix flours, salt, and yeast in a large bowl. Add water and olive oil and mix until just combined and the dough is shaggy. Pour the dough onto a well-floured surface (I used a large Silpat baking mat) and knead, folding the dough into itself, until the dough is smooth, about 2 to 4 minutes. Form the dough into a ball.
Pizza dough before the rising period

Spray the bowl you mixed the dough in with non-stick baking spray (or drizzle with olive oil). Add the ball of dough to the bowl and coat with the oil. Cover the bowl with a layer of plastic wrap and allow to rise in a draft-free space for about 90 minutes, until the dough has doubled in size.
 Pizza dough after the rising period 
Pizza dough after being shaped into two balls

Once the dough has doubled in size, preheat a baking stone (or an overturned sheet pan) in the oven to 500 degrees F. Transfer the dough to a well-floured surface and gently press the air out of the dough with the palm of your hand. Take half of the dough and pat it into a round with your hands. Using your fingertips, poke dimples into the dough, slowly pushing the dough outward. Once the dough is about 8 inches in diameter, begin to gently stretch the dough thinner. Placing one hand in the center of the round, use your other hand to stretch the dough outward. Turn the dough as you go to evenly stretch the dough.

When the dough is stretched very thin (about 1/8 inch thick), dust a pizza peel or a sheet of parchment with cornmeal. Carefully transfer the dough round to the peel or parchment and add the toppings.

Once the toppings are added, transfer the dough to the oven. If the dough is on a pizza peel, slide the dough onto the baking stone or overturned pan by quickly jerking the peel forward and then pulling it back. If the dough is on a sheet of parchment, simply transfer the parchment to the baking stone or slide the dough off of the parchment and onto the stone.

Bake for 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden and crisp and the toppings are bubbly and delicious.

Carefully remove the pizza from the oven and allow to cool for a minute or two before cutting into slices, serving, and devouring.

Romana Pizza Topping
Inspired by Mario Batali's Molto Gusto

It's important to use fresh mozzarella here and not the the low-moisture, pre-shredded stuff, which won't melt as well and taste as creamy as the fresh kind. Anchovies often get a bad rap for being overly fishy and salty, but the heat of the oven really transforms them. Here, they are not fishy at all but subtly salty and savory; in a word: awesome. However, if you're still worried about an unwelcome fishiness in your pizza, white anchovies are much more mild than the more common brown anchovies, and you may find that they are less offensive to you. The capers add a welcome brininess that complements the creamy cheese and slightly sweet tomato sauce. If you have a favorite pizza sauce, feel free to use 1 cup of that. 

Yield: enough topping for 1 pizza

About 1 cup canned tomato sauce
2 teaspoons dried Italian herb blend (or a mixture of dried basil, thyme, and oregano)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
About ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
8 anchovy fillets, rinsed
2 tablespoons capers, drained
In a small bowl, combine tomato sauce, 1 teaspoon of the dried herbs, garlic powder, and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the tomato sauce onto the pizza dough, spreading it out in an even layer, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Tear the cheese into medium-sized pieces and distribute it in an even layer on top of the sauce. Arrange the anchovies on top of the cheese, making sure to distribute them evenly (I placed whole fillets in the center then put smaller pieces around the edges). Distribute the capers evenly on top of the pizza. Finally, sprinkle the remaining 1 teaspoon of dried herbs evenly over the pizza.
The finished product: pure deliciousness

Caramelized Onion and Fig Pizza Topping

Although this topping has several components, all of the elements are easy to prepare. In this recipe, I use my favorite way to caramelize onions, which uses no oil or sugar (I promise you don't need it!). You can make the caramelized onions ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator for several days. The measurements in this topping are not exact. If you want a sweeter or  cheesier pizza, for example, add more of the fig jam and mascarpone cheese. Instead of mascarpone cheese, a creamy cheese like Fontina, Brie, or Gruyere would also be incredibly delicious.

Yield: enough topping for 1 pizza

1/2 large onion, sliced into half-inch rounds 
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 1/2 cup water
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 to 3 tablespoons fig jam
3 to 4 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions in an even layer. Leave the onions alone for about a minute, until they begin to slightly brown around the edges and stick to the pan. They'll begin to get sticky. Season them liberally with salt and pepper and stir with a spatula. After another minute or so, you'll begin to see a brown film develop on the bottom of the pan (these are the sugars from the onion). Add a few tablespoons of water and scrape the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits. The onions should begin to take on a golden brown color. Continue stirring until all the browned bits have been released from the pan.

Again, leave the onions alone for a few minutes, until they start to stick to the pan and more browned bits develop on the bottom of the pan. Add more water as before. Continue this process as necessary -- adding more water, scraping, and leaving the onions alone -- until the onions are soft, deeply brown, and sweet. It could take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes longer. When the onions are fully caramelized, transfer them to a bowl and either store in the refrigerator for up to a week or use on the pizza immediately.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the balsamic vinegar over medium-low heat until it has reduced to about 2 tablespoons and is thick and syrupy. Reduce the heat to low and set aside until you are ready to top the pizza.

To top the pizza, spread the dough with the caramelized onions in an even layer, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Next, dot the pizza with the fig jam and mascarpone cheese. Drizzle the balsamic syrup evenly over the pizza. Finally, sprinkle the chopped pistachios over the top.
The finished product: sweet and savory pizza heaven

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars

I think every American child has memories of her first peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There's something so truly American about this classic combination. For me, I remember being in kindergarten, making my own lunch for the first time. I quickly discovered that you had to add lots of peanut butter to the slice of bread to get it to spread right (too little and the bread tore).

I don't think I've had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in eight or nine years. That's not to say that I don't enjoy the combination, because I certainly do. I'm actually more of a peanut butter and banana sandwich fan. I perfected this sandwich in my youth: two slices of wheat bread, a whole sliced banana, and a few swipes of peanut butter. The most important part of the sandwich construction was making sure that the peanut butter and banana were properly layered. I would meticulously spread the peanut butter on the bread slice, then add banana slices in one even layer on top. On the other slice of bread, I'd start with banana slices and spread the peanut butter on top. This way, each bite insured that you had the perfect integration and distribution of peanut butter and banana.
But as much as I love those peanut butter and banana sandwiches (and, let's face it, anything with peanut butter in it at all), I don't even buy peanut butter. Our dorm room must be the first that doesn't even have a jar of peanut butter in it. This must be violating some sort of college student code.
Still, I'm drawn to any sort of treat that satisfies my childhood nostalgia: homemade Girl Scout cookies, old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs, homemade mac and cheese, and, perhaps most of all, peanut butter and jelly bars.
I first came across a recipe for peanut butter and jelly bars in Ina Garten's cookbook Barefoot Contessa At Home. This book is one of my favorites from of her collection of cookbooks. I remember being instantly drawn to these cookies, but I never had the chance to make them.
Recently, I began seeing these bar cookies pop up around different blogs that I read, and I took that as a sign that I should make them. This past week, I volunteered to bake for my hall. Every Wednesday, we have "Midweek Munchies" (usually referred to as just "Midweek"), where someone on our floor chooses a sweet to bake. This week was my turn, and baking these bars was the perfect reprieve from all the final work I had to do before spring break.
As far as recipes go, this one was remarkably easy. I'm a notoriously slow cook and baker, and these took only about 30 minutes for me to prepare (in a dorm-room kitchen, mind you). Like my beloved peanut butter and banana sandwiches, these bars are cleverly layered. The bottom of the cookie is similar to a peanut butter cookie base. A layer of jam is then spread over the base before being dolloped with the remainder of the peanut butter cookie mixture. Finally, a scattering of chopped peanuts adds some texture to the finished cookies.
I was actually incredibly surprised by how good these bars were. The peanuts added a bit of saltiness that was the perfect complement to the sweet jam. Everyone on my hall quickly devoured these, no doubt a testament to both their deliciousness and the childhood memories they inspire.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
From Ina Garten

While I was making these cookies, I couldn't help but think about all the different variations I could come up with based on this recipe. Instead of jam in the middle, my roommates and I were dreaming of Nutella for an addictive chocolate and peanut butter combination. We also thought that instead of peanuts, a different nut like almonds or cashews (my roommate loves cashews) would be great in the nut dough. If I give any of these a try, I'll definitely let you know how they turn out. I used strawberry jam in these bars, but you can use your favorite flavor (such as raspberry or fig). Due to dorm kitchen limitations, we baked these in two 8 by 8-inch pans. Use either that or a 9 by 13-inch pan.

Yield: about 36 squares, depending on the size you cut them

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 (18-ounce) jar creamy peanut butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) strawberry jam
2/3 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line either a 9 by 13-inch baking pan or two 8 by 8-inch baking pans with parchment paper and then grease and flour the pan.

Either in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, eggs, and peanut butter and mix until all the ingredients are combined.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture. Mix until just combined.

Spread 2/3 of the dough into the prepared pan and, using your hands or a knife, spread into an even layer. Next, spread the jam out over the peanut butter layer and smooth into an even layer. With the remaining 1/3 of the dough, drop small globs of the peanut butter dough over the jam. Try to distribute the dough as evenly as possible, but don't worry if all the jam isn't covered - the dough will spread in the heat of the oven. Sprinkle the dough with the chopped peanuts and bake for 45 minutes. The top will be golden brown and the jam will be hot and bubbly.

Cool the bars in the pan and cut into squares. Serve either warm or at room temperature. The peanut butter and jelly bars will keep, stored in an airtight container at room temperature, for up to 3 days.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A List

1. Twenty-four hours from now, I will be in the air, on my way across the country to visit my sister in Los Angeles for spring break. To say I'm excited would be an understatement. I am so looking forward to seeing her and this new city. It's sure to be a fun (and relaxing!) few days with lots of yummy, California food.

2. I am continually amazed by the food blogosphere. I'm relatively new to the whole thing. I've been reading many blogs for years (like Smitten Kitchen and The Girl Who Ate Everything), but I've only recently started to read dozens of them. I (naively) thought that after Christmas and New Year's the content would become a bit less dense.  It seems that food bloggers make holidays out of just about everything. Super Bowl Sunday was a major event. The fervor around Valentine's Day was to be expected. I didn't think there were any major holidays coming up in March, but apparently Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day are calls for celebration. I wonder if April Fool's will be celebrated, as well. [Edited to add: I recently saw a recipe for Daylight Savings Time. Do people actually celebrate losing an hour of sleep?]

3. Speaking of strange "holidays," the new "trend" seems to be National [Insert Random Food Item Here] Day. Today is actually National Corned Beef and Cabbage Day (how appropriate). Yesterday was National Artichoke Hearts Day. July 30 is actually National Cheesecake Day. Needless to say I'll be happily celebrating that day.

4. I recently received a fantastic (and fantastically heavy!) package from my friend Lisa, whom my mom met through Ravelry. Through her job, Lisa has access to shelves of books of all kinds. I'm predictably interested in only the cookbooks, and I am so excited to dig into these new titles. The package contained In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, Molto Mario, Heart of the Artichoke, The Perfect Finish, and Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home. (There was also a bonus Vogue Knitting Shawls and Wraps book for my mom.) It's official: Best. Mail. Ever.
Gorgeous figs from a page of Heart of the Artichoke by David Tanis

5. Last week I finally ate all of my raw almonds. I remembered seeing some roasted almonds at the convenience-type store behind my dorm and went to pick some up. Unfortunately, they didn't have plain roasted almonds, but there were two rather unusual flavors: Smoked Jalapeno and Soy Wasabi. I went with Soy Wasabi for... absolutely no reason at all. These almonds are addictive. They're not outrageously spicy - the heat lasts for about five seconds and then you want another one. Yep, highly addictive. Who knew these types of crazy flavors even existed?

6. I'm getting into new music again. Thankfully, my playlists are no longer exclusively songs from The O.C. Progress. Now most of them are from Grey's Anatomy. But they're not all like the typical "Grey's"-y songs, I promise! (You know the kind - a precocious indie woman, with a melody that's either wholly depressing or annoyingly upbeat? Yeah, none of that.) I am currently loving everything by Mumford & Sons, "Off I Go" by Greg Laswell, and "Little Bit" by Lykke Li (pronounced "leek-y lee"; love that music video, too). Give them a listen; you won't be disappointed.

7. Speaking of The O.C., do you remember when I mentioned my idea to write about the show for my English class's blog? Well, I went through with it and it was the most self-indulgent yet fun writing assignment I've ever done for an academic class. I'm continually grateful for this show; it never stops paying it forward. You can check out the blog entry here.

8. Last weekend my friend Catherine and I went to Octane, a "coffee bar and lounge" near campus. When I was in high school, I really took for granted the caliber of coffee that we have at our house. It's surprisingly hard to find "good coffee" (how Ina of me) here, but this was really good. They give you your very own French press when you order, too. The space feels very urban and bohemian. Catherine said that she felt like the guys there were "my type." Hmm... now what's that supposed to mean? 
French press and mug from Octane

9. I baked this week for my hall. Recipe and post forthcoming. I can't wait to share what I made; it was insanely delicious.

10. Happy (almost) Friday!