Thursday, December 18, 2008

The pizza / cast iron experiment

I'd been wanting to try this idea for a few weeks because, when I thought of it, it seemed like such an obvious solution to a familiar problem: how to get enough heat in a home oven to cook a good bread-based creation. While obvious, I hadn't heard of the idea elsewhere before, although I'm sure I'm not the first to have thought of it.

My idea was quite simple: stop fighting with baking stones and try the cast iron skillet that I like so much for cooking certain other meals!

First, the picture, so that you can tell whether you're interested or not:

I was determined that this wouldn't be a palaver, though, else it'd take up the whole day. I used cheap mozarella cheese (Black Diamond cheese that was on sale, whereas in the past I have bought a stretched mozarella ball for the purpose). I didn't make my own tomato sauce, choosing to use a bit of Classico pasta sauce instead And here's another thing: shredded cheese on pizza is stupid. It's probably done that way in the pizza restaurants for consistency of distribution and compatibility with a process, but at home you can just cut the cheese into small chunks and distribute it as you would any other ingredient, which is all cheese is -- just another ingredient -- in a good pizza. What else? Not much: a bit of green pepper, a couple of mushrooms, and some leftover frozen pepperoni from the last time I made pizza a few months ago. It went on the pizza frozen.

I've almost always made the pizza dough by hand from scratch when doing pizza, but this time I let the bread machine do the work. Bread machines only fall down in the baking stage. For kneading, they are actually pretty good. I am using a Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine -- an excellent machine, and one of the few I've seen that spends time warming up the ingredients before kneading. This is the dough recipe I used:
  • 160g semolina flour: specifically, the bulk stuff from Foodstuffs in downtown Georgetown
  • 160g bread flour: specifically, some really old Bob's Red Mill bread flour that is probably almost 2 years old
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
The method was the traditional bread machine method: water in first, then flour, then all but the yeast sprinkled around the edges and a dry well made in the middle of the mound of flour for the yeast. I put the machine on the dough setting. Once it had started mixing, I kept an eye on it and adjusted for proper dough consistency by adding flour sparingly until it wasn't too sticky. At that point, I left it and went out to get some more semolina flour from Foodstuffs, only to find that it was more than 2x the price of the old bag I finished off above. Actually, the main reason I went out was to go for a walk, but a walk to Foodstuffs and back is just about the right amount of time for a walk!

Once the bread dough was done, I put my cast iron skillet in the top rack of the oven and turned the oven up to 450F. Then, I dusted the counter with flour and shaped the dough into a floppy round ball. At this point, I noticed I had enough dough for two pizzas so I cut the ball in half, rubbed it with oil, and put it in a freezer bag for another time. You can do this and, when ready to use it later, thaw it and let it come up to room temperature.

With the other half, I reshaped it into a ball, redusted with flour, and rolled it out into an approximately round pizza shape (I haven't yet the skill to toss the pizza around in the air to make it perfectly round, as you sometimes see in shop windows). I then rubbed the now-flat pizza base with olive oil, covered it with a tea towel, and let it sit for about 15 minutes. The oven continues to pre-heat during this time, which is good because it should be very hot (and so should the cast iron).

After 15 minutes, I took the cast iron skillet out of the oven, put it on the cooktop, and lay the dough into the skillet. It started to bubble almost immediately, which is a very good sign! I put the skillet in the oven and let it cook for about 2-3 minutes. My idea in doing this was to give it a bit of a seal and make sure I had some room to take the dough out when the toppings are just done without worrying about the dough being undercooked. It also makes the dough hold its shape a bit better, seeing as it's very elastic when it goes in (part of the funny shape of the pizza in the picture is due to my not being able to get it into the skillet perfectly evenly).

So, once that bit of pre-baking was done, I took the skillet out again and put the toppings on the pizza: a thin layer of Classico roasted garlic & onion pasta sauce, some small chunks of cheese, sliced green pepper, sliced mushrooms, and a few pieces of sliced pepperoni. Then, back in the oven. It was in the oven for perhaps 8-10 minutes after this, and was done as you see in the picture after this time. I only judged it by eyesight based on how cooked the toppings were, really.

This method gave a very nice amount of oven spring -- a fast last-gasp rising of the dough in reaction with the oven heat when the yeast get hyperactive from all the warmth before they realize they're being cooked and are killed. The crust was crisp and the inside was soft and very lightly chewy, which is how I like it:

I was very happy with this result. Also, note that there was no sticking to the cast iron at all. Properly pre-heated and cooked, there should not be.

The skillet I used was a Lodge Logic 10.5" basic pre-seasoned skillet. Nothing fancy -- it cost me $20. I have started collecting cast iron pieces because the value is so great. I even found a cast iron biscuit pan not too long ago -- similar to a muffin pan, but a bit taller.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two sides of the same coin: "Snow Angels" and "Burn After Reading"

For some reason, it often happens that I pick movies to watch in close proximity to each other that have quite a bit in common. I did just that over the past few days.

The first of the two movies is the Coen Brothers's "Burn After Reading", and the second is David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels".

David Gordon Green makes movies that I find externally frustrating. They are often very well-done, and slowly but very evenly paced. They burn and unwind -- nay, unravel -- very gradually and end up having presented a rich story, usually about interesting events surrounding otherwise mundane characters. They're frustrating because they're movies that belong on my shelf, but they are also movies that I don't find myself wanting to watch more than once: when you've seen it once and you know where everything is going, what first appeared to be charming or innocent takes on a new meaning and it's never the same again.

"Snow Angels" is no exception, taking a cast of ordinary characters that seem plain upfront and gradually exposing their scars to an end where we know far more about them than we probably wanted to. This is a movie that absolutely should not be spoiled, so I won't. But there are no twists because everything is wholly plausible and consistent with the characters as they're presented. It's nice to watch a movie that gets its steam from solid dialogue and performance.

There are politics here. There are no bad female characters, and the only good male character is a teenage boy, with the other males ranging on a scale from averagely hopeless to tragic. The teenagers get on with their lives while the adults make a mess of theirs. The women hold everything together while the males fall apart. I don't doubt that this world exists out there in a subculture I'm unfamiliar with, but it's not one that I know very well. The religious figure is the epitome of a hypocrite, yet is not a cardboard cutout and that's refreshing.

This is a winter movie with some beautifully-shot winter scenes, but it's most definitely not a Christmas movie. It is depressing, so don't let the title fool you into thinking that you'll be in for a nice fireside winter tale.

"Burn After Reading", on the other hand, takes no sides. It is a very funny dark comedy where virtually everyone's life is in disarray and all of these lives are hurtling around in space coincidentally not crashing into each other -- most of the time. John Malkovich does the best take on the "John Malkovich role" I've seen to date, and the other well-known actors -- George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand -- all do something that breaks their usual mould.

But why is it like "Snow Angels"? Because characters meet similar fates and go through similar circumstances but have a whole lot less stress doing it. It is an upbeat and funny equivalent to the malaise and depression of "Snow Angels". The latter is probably the better movie of the two, but the former is infinitely more watchable. There are no good guys here, and there really is no message to be conveyed. "Angels" is about understanding, while "Burn" is simply entertainment and says there's virtually no point in trying to understand.

As I said above, I don't think I could watch "Snow Angels" again, but I will watch "Burn After Reading" many more times, I'm sure.

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