Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Pizza, Part Two: The Sauce

I used to be one of those people who slathered their pizza dough with store-bought tomato sauce. And I liked it. Or, I thought I did, because the truth is I was just used to its insipid taste.

But then I realized that there was actually no point in me making my own pizza dough if I was going to use ready made sauce. Something was amiss. It defied the whole purpose of the "eat-things-you-know-what-they-have-in-them" thing I got going on so I decided to start making my own.

I have never looked back. Especially when I can get my hands on some good tomatoes and make fresh tomato sauce. There are thankfully some good tomatoes left, until the end of October that is, and after that, I think I'll have to share with you my other tomato sauce, the one made with canned tomatoes.

Let's start with the fresh tomato sauce, though. This is pretty straightforward, as it should be, since pizza sauce must be a vehicle for carrying other flavors, those of the various toppings, and not be overwhelming and define the flavor of the whole pie. That of course doesn't mean that it has to be boring. Far from it.

Fresh, juicy, grated tomatoes, a little garlic, dried bay leaf and Greek oregano, extra virgin olive oil, sugar, salt, black pepper. That's it. Not that you need anything more. In making the sauce, what you essentially want is to slowly cook it down, for almost forty minutes, until most of the liquid from the tomatoes evaporates and you're left with that concentrated tomato flavor that is felt throughout when you eat a slice of the pizza.

The taste, to me, is perfection. It's exactly how I want a pizza sauce to be; a slightly caramelized fresh tomato sauce with sweet and sharp notes, highly aromatic, with a hint of garlic, a sauce with a deep flavor that is above all, delicious. Yes, this is the one for me. I hope it'll be the one for you too.

Fresh Tomato Sauce for Pizza

Don't be tempted to process or blend the tomatoes. It's best that you grate them because firstly, you get rid of their skin easily and secondly, you don't end up with a purée but with small pieces of tomatoes and their juices, which is exactly what you want.

You can most definitely serve this sauce with pasta too.

Yield: enough for 4 large pizzas

30 ml (2 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, mashed or finely grated
4 medium-sized, vine-ripened tomatoes (500-550 g), grated on the coarse side of the grater
1 large dried bay leaf
A big pinch of dried oregano, preferably Greek
½ tsp caster sugar
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt, to taste

Special equipment: box grater

In a small saucepan, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the mashed or finely grated garlic and sauté for a minute, being careful not to burn it and stirring constantly, until you start to smell its intoxicating aroma.
Add the grated tomatoes, the bay leaf, oregano, sugar, black pepper and salt to taste, and stir well with a spoon. Allow the sauce to come to the boil and immediately turn heat down to low.

Simmer the sauce for about 40 minutes, with the lid half on, stirring from time to time and making sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan, until most of the liquid has evaporated (you don't want a completely dry sauce) and you are left with a thick sauce.
Check the seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if you find it necessary and let the sauce cool. Then remove and discard the bay leaf.
The sauce is now ready to be slathered onto your pizza dough.

You can keep the sauce in the fridge for a day or two.

Previously: The Pizza, Part One: The Dough

Next up: Three of my favorite pizzas. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Pizza, Part One: The Dough

The times when I'm most proud of my achievements in the kitchen, are when I make successful bread and dough of every kind. That's when I feel that I have really accomplished something spectacular.

Sourdough bread, puff pastry, phyllo dough, kourou dough, pie and pizza dough. I get the most satisfaction when I achieve to make a delicious, crusty bread and a buttery, flaky puff. Nothing compares to how they smell, feel, taste. No, they don't and cannot compare to a salad, however detailed and extravagant it may be, or even a chocolate creation, and we all know how I feel about chocolate.

Upside down dough after proofing. Doesn't it remind you of the moon?

There's nothing more satisfying than feeding your family and friends homemade pizza and having them crave for more. And even though I love to cook for my friends and family, I think the time has come for them to learn how to make it for themselves. It is like that old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". The same thing applies here. Learn how to make your own pizza and you'll never be hungry again. You'll never have to eat ready-made, super market freezer isle pizza or those awful ones your neighborhood pizzeria makes,—unless you live in Naples, then you can go ahead and skip this post,—and surely, you don't have to nag your friends to make pizza for you.

As it is obvious by the title, this is part one of the pizza posts, the dough, which will be followed by the tomato sauce and then by a post about a couple of different topping selections which comprise two of my favorite pizzas.

Reshaped dough after proofing

I have been meaning to share with you my recipe for pizza dough for a long time. I've tried a lot of different recipes over the years before I ended up with this one and it is everything I want my pizza dough to be. Puffy, bubbly and crunchy yet soft in the middle and crusty around the edges.

Cut into four pieces

What I absolutely hate, is when pizza dough turns out like bread. It's not supposed to be bread, but pizza. If I wanted bread, I would have made bread. You need those big and smaller holes, the crusty outside and the soft inside, you need the bottom to be crisp and the top to be charred. And here's how to do it.

Four round dough balls

There are certain tips and tricks for making a good pizza dough and one of them is the type of flour you use. The best flour for pizza is the Italian type 00 (zero-zero) flour which is the one I use. Thankfully I can find it easily in Holland. There are some misunderstandings about 00 flour though. So let's get things straight. Type 00 means that the flour has been milled to a fine consistency and it has nothing to do with the strength of the flour. You can find 00 strong flour with high gluten content (12%) to 00 pastry flour with very low gluten content (5%). For making pizza, you need a finely milled flour, Type 00, but with a high amount of gluten, and all Italian brands usually indicate on the package for what purpose the flour is to be used. If you can't find Italian flour, that doesn't' mean you can't make an amazing dough. Choose good quality strong bread flour and you're set.

One of the things that make pizza really a pizza, is a baking stone; a preheated, flaming hot baking stone. If you're thinking, "oh they're too expensive" or, "I don't need it", let me tell you this, if you like baking and eating bread and pizza regularly, then you need it. I bought mine for about 16 euros (cheap!) and I bake on it weekly, either bread or pizza, and the result is spectacular. You can certainly bake your pizza on the back of a well preheated baking pan but it'll not be the same.

As I told you earlier, I like my pizza with a crunchy crust and a rich texture. Surely, that can be achieved with the use of the proper flour and the correct kneading technique but there's also another little something that, for me, is the secret to my scrumptious pizza. The addition of a small amount of milk in the dough. It makes it a little softer and fluffier yet still retaining those all important crusty edges a pizza must have.

So, get ready, and let's make some mean pizza dough.

Homemade Pizza Dough

Some more tips:

On kneading: I usually let the kneading part to my trusty KitchenAid mixer. It does all the hard stuff, but I have made this dough by hand multiple times. You just need to be a bit more patient until you achieve a pliable, soft and stretchy dough that's not sticking to your hands but is slightly moist. It shouldn't by any means be dry.

On proofing: If you want to test whether your dough has proofed correctly or not, do the finger-poking test, which I learned from a wonderful bread baking site, Weekend Bakery. Gently poke the dough with your finger and a) if the dough springs back immediately, it is under-proofed, b) if the dough springs back halfway, it's perfectly proofed and c) if the dent remains in the dough, then it is over-proofed.

On rolling out: The thinner you roll out your dough, the crustier it will get. When I want something lighter, I go for a super thin crust and when I want something fluffier with lots of holes, I roll the dough out a little thicker. This dough is perfect for both kinds of crusts.

Yield: enough dough for 4 large-ish pizzas

350 ml plus 30 ml (2 Tbsp) lukewarm water
11 g (3 tsp) dried instant yeast
15 g (1 ½ tsp) caster sugar
700 g "00" flour for pizza or strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
12 g (1 ½ tsp) sea salt
60 ml extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra for oiling the bowl
50 ml fresh, whole milk, at room temperature

Special equipment: mixer with dough hook attachment (optional), rolling pin (optional)

In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl if you're kneading by hand), add the yeast and the 2 Tbsp (30 ml) of lukewarm water. Massage the yeast with your fingertips into a paste and then add the sugar, the rest of the water, the flour and the salt, in that order.
Note: Be careful not to add the salt on top of the yeast but on top of the flour. If the salt comes in direct contact with the yeast, it will kill it and your dough will not rise.

Turn your mixer on and knead for about 2 minutes on low speed, until it comes together into a rough dough. If you're kneading by hand, it will take about 4 minutes. Then, add the olive oil and the milk and continue kneading either by hand (turning the dough out of the bowl and onto a clean surface) or in the mixer, on low speed, until the dough is smooth, elastic, is not sticking to your hands but is slightly moist.
Note: Not all flours are the same so if your dough is very wet, don't be afraid to add more flour. Add a little at a time though, testing the consistency of the dough. You don't want to end up with a stodgy, stiff dough.

If you're using a mixer for kneading the dough, turn out the dough onto a clean and lightly floured surface and shape it into a ball.
Lightly grease the bowl of your stand mixer (or your large bowl), with olive oil and place the ball of dough inside. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in a warm place, allowing the dough to proof and double in size. (See also notes above for proofing). It will take about 45 minutes to proof, depending on how warm the room you leave it in is.

Once the dough has proofed, take it out of the bowl and knead it for a couple of seconds just to deflate it a bit. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and shape them into 4 balls. Place them on a floured surface such as a baking tray or wooden chopping board, spacing them apart, and cover them with plastic wrap. Leave them to proof for about 20 minutes, until they almost double in size.

At this point, you can continue with rolling out each ball and shaping it into a pizza but if you're in a hurry, you can skip the second proofing and roll out the dough balls into a pizza immediately after you shape them.

To roll out the dough, you can either do it by using a rolling pin, your hands or a combination of both.
Take a ball of dough and place it on a lightly floured surface. Knead it for a couple of seconds just to deflate it a bit and then flatten it with your hands into a disk. Using a rolling pin or your hands, roll it out. In my opinion, it's better to use your hands, starting from the center of the pizza and working towards the edges, using your fingertips to stretch it out, until it's almost the size you want it. Then, allow it to rest for a couple of minutes, because if worked too much, the dough becomes springy and it refuses to stretch more. Then, continue working it until it is as thin or as thick as you want it. I always allow a rim around the edge of the dough to create that puffy, crusty edge.

At this point, you're ready to add your sauce and toppings to your pizza.

Update 25.09.2012 on how to freeze and refrigerate the dough:
If you wish to freeze all or part of the dough, you should do it straight after the first rise. Divide the dough into four equal pieces, shape them into four balls, rub them with a little olive oil, cover them well with plastic wrap, put them in a Ziploc bag and in the freezer. Before you use them, defrost them in your refrigerator and then, allow them to come to room temperature and rest for a bit before you roll them out into pizzas.
You can keep the dough in the freezer no longer than a month.

If you want to keep the dough for a couple of days after making it, you can keep it in the refrigerator. You should refrigerate it immediately after the first rise. Put the whole piece of dough in a large bowl that fits in your fridge and cover it well with plastic wrap. You'll notice that the dough will rise while in the refrigerator. When you want to use it, take it out of the fridge, knead it for a bit, divide it into pieces and shape into balls. Leave them out of the fridge to come to room temperature and proof a bit. Then, roll them out into pizzas.

Next up: The best fresh tomato sauce for pizza. Stay tuned!
And then, 3 different types of pizza!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chocolate brownies, Version 2.0

I wasn't planning on writing about these when I made them yesterday. I was working on another post, something savory and doughy and all kinds of wonderful, but then these brownies happened. They went ahead and stole the show.

I couldn't just sit here and not share them with you. Good things need to be shared, and in this case, as soon as possible.

Back in February, I waxed poetic about my favorite chocolate brownies, but little did I know that they were going to be replaced in my heart only a few months later by these dark beauties. Don't blame me, it's all Nigella Lawson's fault.

These are better and got rave reviews from everyone who tried them. They are fudgy and gooey and rich and moist and dense and they have a small surprise hidden inside; white chocolate chips. Double chocolate threat, double chocolate goodness.

The chocoholic in me has awakened, once again. I think I ate too many brownies for my own good. I'm gonna have to exercise twice as hard tomorrow. Treadmill, here I come!

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies with White Chocolate Chips
Slightly adapted from Feast

As with all brownies, the secret is in the baking time. Bake them for too long and they'll become cakey and crumbly and that's the death of a good brownie. Take them out of the oven a few minutes sooner and they'll be a gooey mess. So, trust the recipe, your oven and your cake tester, or toothpick.

I urge you to use good quality white chocolate with at least 25% cocoa butter content. The cheap white chocolate from the supermarket is generally awful. The cocoa butter content is very low, substituted mostly by other (unhealthy) fats, and all you get is a foul tasting chocolate. I'm not suggesting that you spend your month's salary on chocolate, just be aware of what you use and buy.

You can use either a hand wire whisk or a hand held mixer for these. I opted for the hand held mixer. It's easier.

Yield: 24 large brownies

350 g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
380 g good quality dark chocolate (55-60% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
6 medium-sized eggs
350 g caster sugar
1 heaped tsp vanilla bean paste or 2 tsp vanilla extract
225 g all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
250 g good quality white chocolate chips (I use Callebaut)

Special equipment: wire whisk or hand-held mixer, 32 x 22 x 5 cm rectangular baking pan, baking paper

Butter the bottom and sides of the pan and line the bottom with a piece of baking paper.

Place the butter and the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (bain marie) and melt, stirring often. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the mixture is smooth and melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan and set aside to cool slightly.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius / 360 Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, add the sugar and eggs and beat well with a wire whisk or a hand held mixer (on medium speed), until the mixture is frothy and well blended. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate it.
When the butter and chocolate mixture has cooled down a bit, add it to the sugar and eggs mixture. Beat well with the wire whisk or the hand held mixer (on medium speed), until incorporated. Add the flour and salt, and mix well with a spatula until the mixture is smooth and there are no visible white patches of flour. Add the white chocolate chips and fold them in with the spatula.

Pour the brownie mixture into the prepared baking pan and place on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Bake for 25-26 minutes, until the top has cracked and has taken on a light brown color, and a cake tester, knife or toothpick inserted in the middle, comes out with moist crumbs attached. Start checking at the 24 minute mark to make sure you don't overcook it. Keep in mind that the brownies will continue to cook as they cool down.

Once the brownies are ready, take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool. Then, remove the brownies from the pan by inverting it onto the wire rack. Remove and discard the baking paper and allow the brownies to cool completely. Invert them onto a cutting board and cut them into 24 squares.
They taste better once they have cooled completely rather than warm.

Keep the brownies covered, at room temperature, for 3-4 days.


Sunday, September 16, 2012


Corn used to conjure up the same image for me for many years; stalls on the streets of Athens, selling grilled corn on the cob, their irresistible, smoky smell penetrating my nostrils, commanding me to stop, inhale and occasionally succumb to buying one.

That was for me the best way to eat corn; barbequed or grilled. Sure, boiled was nice, slathered with lots of butter and sprinkled with a generous amount of sea salt and I liked it in salads, with its sweet flavor and vibrant, yellow color livening them up but other than that, I had never done much more with it.

For the last couple of years, things have changed. I no longer view the corn in the same way. I value it, I cherish it and I cook it in many different ways, trying to get the most out of it. Granted, I don't have to try too hard, it's incredibly flavorful on its own.

I don't normally deep-fry things, take a look at my recipes, you'll not find many for deep-frying, actually, you'll only find one, but in this case, this was what needed to be done. Because, this is delicious.

Deep-fried sweet corn fritters. You may imagine something greasy and stodgy but that couldn't be further from the truth. They're light, fluffy and airy and most importantly, unbelievably crunchy. Everything you want from a fritter, that is.

They're not made with a large amount of batter, the corn is the protagonist here, and when you bite into one, the juices from the kernels burst in your mouth. The flavor of the corn is deep and intense and needless to say, the freshest the corn, the better the fritters will taste. They need to be sprinkled with lots of dried chilli flakes, or in my case boukovo, which adds a welcomed touch of heat and spice, and a good squeeze of lemon on top gives them a sharpness that contrasts their sweet flavor.

The only thing you need to be careful of is to make enough, because trust me, they'll vanish within seconds.

Deep-fried Sweet Corn Fritters

Use fresh oil and fresh sweet corn. You'll get the best results and your fritters will be more tasty and light. Don't use canned corn, it's too soft and wet, and the fritters won't be as crunchy.
Also, when you buy fresh corn, eat it as soon as possible, because it releases its sugars and becomes very starchy.

Yield: 4-6 appetizer servings

4 fresh ears of sweet corn
1 liter sunflower oil
200 g all-purpose flour
1 large egg
200 ml sparkling water, very cold
Boukovo or any other type of dried chilli flakes
1 lemon, cut into wedges, for serving

Special equipment: fine sieve, hand whisk

Take the fresh ears of corn and peel off the husks. Then remove the silk, making sure not to leave any stuck between the kernels.
Using a thin-bladed and sharp knife, cut the kernels off the cob. The best way for me to do this, is by cutting the corn in half crosswise with my hands, stand it up on its flat side and cut the kernels off.
Be careful not to cut too close to the stalk. If you do, you'll feel resistance, because the stalk is hard, so you'll know where to cut.
Place all the kernels in a small bowl.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan, add the sunflower oil. Be careful not to use a pan that's too small, because the oil will rise and bubble and triple in size when you add the fritters. You don't want the oil spilling out of the pan.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat. You can check if the oil is ready for frying by dropping in it a 2.5 cm cube of white bread and if it browns in 60 seconds, it is ready. If it browns in less time then your oil is too hot!

In the meantime, prepare the batter. It's crucial that you prepare the batter at this point and not earlier, because this way it will retain the bubbles from the sparkling water and the fritters will be more airy and crispy.

In a medium-sized bowl, sieve the flour and create a well in the middle. Add the egg in the center and whisk (not hard) using a hand whisk, gradually incorporating the flour from the edges of the bowl. Add the sparkling water, pouring it little by little and whisking continuously until it comes together into a somewhat thin batter (not too thin but much like thick cream). Add the corn kernels and mix well with a spoon.

Once the oil is hot enough, deep-fry heaped tablespoonfuls of the corn-batter mixture. Do not overcrowd the pan because they will not be uniformly fried. Fry them for 2-3 minutes, until they take on a golden color and crisp up.

Remove the fritters from the pan with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels to drain excess oil. Then transfer them onto a platter, sprinkle them with some salt and as much boukovo as you want (I add a lot!), and serve with the lemon wedges.
Eat them while they're still hot.