Dinners Everybody Likes (An Optimistic Series): Pizza!

by Caroline

On the one hand, you might think, “Well, of course everybody likes pizza, what’s not to like?” But that means you do not know about the boys who do not care for tomatoes in any form and the one boy who typically only eats one kind of cheese, a particular brand of Monterey jack cheese, in slices, please, not melted. Once you know about those two limitations on our pizza dinner, you might understand why the meal is a triumph.

Plus, because my kids always eat better when they’ve had a hand in the meal production, we generally make the crust and sauces from scratch (I am seriously considering buying the materials to make homemade mozzarella. I’ll let you know when I do.)  So pizza dinner here is not exactly a quick meal; it’s more like an art project, so we save it for weekends, start early, and take our time.

First, you make the crust. I’ve tried recipes from a number of sources, including The King Arthur Flour cookbook, Gourmet magazine, the Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza and Calzone cookbook (a recipe that calls, weirdly enough, for milk) and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. This past Sunday’s New York Times magazine has a nice piece on homemade pizza (with a crust recipe I’ll try soon) but my favorite comes from Catherine Newman in Wondertime, whose method I have quoted here:

1 envelope (2 1/4 t) active dry yeast

1 3/4 c warm water

pinch of sugar

3 c all purpose white flour

1 c whole wheat flour

1 T wheat germ

1 T ground flax seed

1 T kosher salt

2 T olive oil

Cornmeal to dust your peel or baking pan

It’s nice (but not necessary) to have a pizza stone to bake in the oven, or a barbecue grill, and a wooden peel or cookie sheet to slide the pizzas onto the stone or grill.

Sprinkle yeast over water in measuring cup, add sugar, and let dissolve for about 5 minutes. If any dry yeast remains on the surface after that, stir briefly to mix in. Proceed with one of the following three methods.

Food processor: Pulse flour with wheat germ and flaxseed, if using, and salt. Add oil to yeast mixture and, with processor running, pour liquid slowly into the feed tube. The dough should cohere and form a ball that sits on top of the blade. If it doesn’t, it’s either too wet or too dry, and you should add water or flour accordingly, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing until the ball forms. Scrape dough (it will be sticky) onto a lightly floured counter, sprinkle with flour, and knead 2 or 3 times to form a ball.

Stand mixer: Pour yeast mixture and oil into bowl of mixer. Using paddle attachment, mix in dry ingredients on low speed (adjust dough with flour or water as directed above if it seems too wet or too dry) then switch to dough hook and knead about 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and springy.

By hand: Pour yeast mixture into a large bowl with oil, and stir in dry ingredients until the mixture coheres into a mass of dough, about 1 minute. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, then knead, adding as little flour as possible, until dough feels smooth and springy — 8 minutes or so.

Next, whichever method you’ve used, place dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour, or until it doubles in size.

Halfway through the rising time, start preheating your oven or grill to 500.

Once the dough has risen, flour your fist and punch down dough, then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter, knead once or twice, and use a sharp knife to cut it into desired number of pieces — 4 for 12-inch pizzas, 8 for 6-inch pizzas, or some combination. Shape each piece into a smooth ball, cover balls loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for 5 minutes. At this point you can freeze the dough if you like; it also keeps fine in the refrigerator for a few days — just bring to room temperature before using.


Now back to Caroline: Shaping the dough is where it gets fun for the kids, and I have to let mine play with the dough for a few minutes before we get serious about crust. You can let them experiment with braids and snail shapes, and there’s nothing wrong with baking a few of these oddly-shaped breadsticks on the side. Once everyone’s ready to move on, use the heels of your hands or a rolling pin to flatten dough, then hold it down in the middle with one hand while moving the other hand around the edge, pulling it gently outward. If the dough resists or starts to spring back when you let go, let it rest for a few minutes. You can also try holding the dough up and letting gravity pull it down. Pull and stretch until the dough is 1/4 inch (or less) thick. Pinch closed any holes as they develop.  Don’t worry if the dough isn’t perfectly even or perfectly round; it’s going to taste terrific no matter what it looks like.

Once the dough is shaped, transfer it  onto a wooden pizza peel or cookie sheet that has been dusted with cornmeal (if you’re using a pizza stone or grill) or onto a pan that has been brushed with olive oil, then sprinkled with 2 tablespoons cornmeal. If you’re grilling the pizza, you need to bake the pizza crust before topping it:


Just slide the dough onto the grill (it won’t seep through the grates, nor will it stick if the grill is good and hot), and bake (with the lid of the grill open) until browned on the bottom. Slide off the grill, flip, and top the baked side. If you’re baking the pizza in the oven, you don’t need to take this extra step; just slide the topped pizza into the oven and bake 15 minutes or so until browned and bubbly.


We top our pizzas with pesto, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions. In the summer, we top dessert pizzas with cinnamon and brown sugar and sliced peaches; sliced bananas would work nicely, too. There’s no bad pizza topping in my book, really, go ahead and experiment. If you’re barbecuing the pizzas, close the grill when you bake the topped pizzas:



The finished product:


And then add a  salad and you’ve got a beautiful family supper.


My Favorite Appliance (with a recipe!)

by Caroline

My rice cooker, doing its thing

My rice cooker, doing its thing

Some time ago, we renovated the kitchen here and replaced creaky old appliances with spiffy new energy-efficient models. The dishwasher purrs quietly and uses a fraction of the water our old one required; the oven heats quickly and keeps its heat inside, unlike its poorly-insulated predecessor; the refrigerator maintains a steady temperature and beeps if a door is inadvertently left open.

But the beep seems to be a common feature of these new appliances, and the beep is not something I love.  The fridge beeps, the oven beeps (when temperature is set and when said temperature is achieved), and worst of all, the smallest of all, the toaster oven beeps every time you touch a button. Good consumers that we are, we researched this modest purchase, too, for energy efficiency, effectiveness, cost, and found a model that fit our budget and our kitchen counter. But nowhere in the reviews, not in Consumer Reports nor Cooks Illustrated nor Epinions, did anyone mention the beep. And you can’t just push a button or turn a dial to start this toaster up, you must select Function (beep!), Time (beep!) and then it announces when it has begun (beep beep!) and finished (beep-beep-beep-beep!)

We can’t make it stop.

And this makes me love my quiet old rice cooker all the more. My mother bought this at a church tag sale when we lived in Japan, so it is at least forty years old. It may once have done other things but cook rice — most rice cookers now do — but I no longer have the directions nor any of the inserts. Which is fine, because all I want it to do is steam rice for my family’s dinner, and it does that beautifully, whether I use short grain or Basmati, half quinoa or part brown rice. A light turns on when I press the button, and clicks satisfyingly ten or fifteen minutes later when the rice is cooked. It then thoughtfully keeps the rice warm until we are ready to eat.

And when we are ready to eat, we often serve the rice with whatever vegetable’s handy and then this tofu, an adaptation of a recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is quick and delicious:

Caramelized Golden Tofu

1 pound of firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T peanut oil

2 T soy sauce
3 1/2 T brown sugar

Drain the tofu and, if you have the time, blot it a bit with paper towels. Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over fairly high heat. Add the tofu and fry until golden. It takes a few minutes to color, so let it cook undisturbed while you do something else (really! leave it alone!) then come back and turn the pieces over. Don’t let them get dry and hard, but 5-6 minutes a side should give them some nice color. Remove the tofu from the pan, turn the heat down to medium, and put in the soy sauce and brown sugar. Whisk them together a bit and then add the tofu. Toss well, simmer for  a couple minutes, then add a few tablespoons of water and cook till the sauce coats the tofu nicely. Turn off the heat; let the tofu sit in the syrup until you’re ready to serve.

(Vegan) Cranberry-Orange Bread

by Caroline

or,  “Using the last of the winter’s frozen cranberries to make way for more kumquats”

A recent installment of Pete Wells’ regular Cooking With Dexter column in the NYT magazine offers one of my all-time favorite chocolate cake recipes, one I’ve been making since I was about seven. Our family called it crazy cake and we found the recipe in Peg Bracken’s wry  I Hate to Cook Book. More recently, I’ve seen the recipe in one of the Moosewood cookbooks ; Pete Wells found it in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Wells is baking vegan, aided by his “unlikely allies,” because of his son’s food allergies; we are baking (occasionally) vegan because of my teenage niece’s dietary preferences. No matter how or why you get there, and even if you aren’t a vegan or vegetarian, Moskowitz & Romero’s books are worth checking out. The women are good and funny writers–which matters to me, even in a cookbook; they are your companions through a recipe, after all, and you want to enjoy their company– and they don’t require any particularly unusual ingredients. They cook with food, and thus the recipes produce delicious things to eat.

I’m posting this recipe straight and unadulterated (rare for me) from Veganomicon,  Moskowitz and Romero’s most recent cookbook. I put the vegan in parentheses up there so that people might find this in their searches for vegan recipes, although if baking vegan troubles you, just ignore that part.

1/2 c soy milk (I used almond; I expect you could unveganize this quite well with regular cow’s milk, too)

1/4 c fresh orange juice

1/4 c canola oil

1 c sugar

1 t vanilla extract

2 c all-purpose flour

1 1/4 t baking powder

1/2 t baking soda

1/2 t salt

1/4 t ground allspice

1 T grated orange zest (zest your orange before you juice it; it’s much easier)

1 c chopped fresh or frozen cranberries (if your berries are frozen, don’t bother thawing them before using)

1/2 c chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 325. Lightly grease a 9×5″ loaf pan.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk, oj, canola oil, sugar and vanilla.

Sift in the dry ingredients and mix until just smooth. The batter’s pretty thick, but don’t be alarmed. Fold in the orange zest, cranberries and nuts. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about an hour. Let the bread cool for 15 minutes or so before turning it out onto a cooling rack.