Monday Wednesday Reviews:
To help me blog on a more regular basis I thought I would turn to my other favorite love, cookbooks. This isn’t a story from my childhood of days spent flipping through cookbooks with my mom. In fact, my mother rarely used cookbooks, instead she relied on a handful of staple dinners and Italian recipes handed down from her mother and grandmother. Italian woman rarely write anything down, and my mother was no exception. My sister Amelia and I have had myriad conversations regarding our frustration that she never wrote down the recipe for her lasagna with homemade sauce and have spent the past three years attempting to recreate it from memory. (Amelia has recreated a similar version and now gets requests to make lasagna for the family on an almost monthly basis.)
Ironically my mother has shelves packed with old cookbooks from Martha Stewart and The Joy Of Cooking. But the only time I ever saw her use these cookbooks was to make two things. Birthday punch (which she made for rare special occasions) and a multi-step egg soufflé (which she made on even rarer occasions). For this reason I grew up believing cooking was just something that happened naturally. I imagined I would move out on my own and years of cooking wisdom would magically appear fully formed in my brain.
For this reason, a large part of my college diet consisted of microwave oatmeal, apples with crunchy peanut butter, ramen noodles, cheese quesadillas dipped in barbeque sauce, and frozen vegetables. Occasionally I would stumble across a recipe in a magazine or feel the need to cook my boyfriend a “fancy dinner” (usually the same baked salmon and rice) and break out of my rut for a while. However I still never thought to pick up a cookbook or learn to make myself anything worthwhile.
A few things helped to change this pattern. One, I got married, being a wife, I now wanted to learn to make dinners so my husband Nick and I could sit and eat together (also if I had let Nick make dinner, we would have eaten frozen pot pies every night). Two, for my bridal shower my mother in law gave me a cookbook and had all the guests bring me their favorite recipe to add to it. It was one of the most thoughtful presents I have ever received and really helped teach me to make some great dinners. My third breakthrough happened while wandering through Lowe’s of all places. You know those racks of magazines that cover every topic from landscaping to grilling? I picked up one called “Ultimate Italian”, it had so many delicious looking recipes I quickly added it to our cart of painting supplies and light bulbs. When I got home I read through it and saw a recipe for homemade pizzas from Jamie Oliver’s cookbook “Jamie’s Italy”. My mom had loved him back when he was known as “The Naked Chef” so I decided to try the recipe. I went to the store and bought semolina flour and golden caster sugar, came home and made my very first homemade crust. It was easy and more importantly it was better than any crust I could have gotten from the delivery guy. I was hooked. I knew I had to have whatever else Jamie Oliver was cooking in his book. I went out that night and bought my very first cookbook.
And what a book. Jamie Oliver is the kind of person I want to be friends with. He makes you feel confident and also says fun British words like “meat with two veg”. The book has beautiful pictures of Italian countryside’s, grandmothers making pasta, and (my favorite) a truck bed stuffed with pans of lasagna. This book totally immerses you in the culture. The recipes are made with simple, non-processed ingredients and they really challenge you to use fresh food and know where it comes from. It seemed so obvious when I read it but it had somehow never really occurred to me before. Inspired, Nick and I starting going to the local farmers market down the street and even planted a couple of vegetables in our tiny yard. I loved this book, I loved it so much I spent a whole month making recipes out of it. Until one night after a dinner of chicken tetrazzini (made with 2 cups of heavy cream and twice as much cheese) Nick and I realized eating pasta 5 nights a week was making our pants a little… tight. That night I vowed to cut back on the pasta dishes and dust off my running shoes. But I was a new woman. This book made me realize just how delicious food could be when I put a little effort into it and, that with a little guidance I could make delicious food whenever I wanted. I was liberated and knew this was the beginning of a whole new way of cooking.
This recipe is the first thing I made from “Jamie’s Italy”. The crusts are simple to make and bake up beautifully. I just put all the toppings in small bowls and let everyone make their favorite (Nick and I like Margarita pizza the best). It is also easy to double the recipe and freeze some for later too.
Recipe from Jamie’s Italy by Jamie Oliver
Pasta Per Pizza-Basic Pizza Dough
(Makes 6-8 medium-sized thin pizza bases)
- 1 3/4 lb strong white bread flour (about 3 ½ cups)
- 1 ½ cups fine ground semolina flour or strong white bread flour
- 1 level tablespoon fine sea salt
- ¼ oz envelope active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon golden castor sugar
- just over 2 cups lukewarm water
Pile the flours and salt onto a clean surface and make a 7-inch well in the center. Add your yeast and sugar to the lukewarm water, mix up with a fork and leave for a few minutes, then pour into the well. Using a fork and a circular movement, slowly bring in the flour from the inner edge of the well and mix into the water. It will look like stodgy porridge (How British is that??!) – continue to mix, bringing in all the flour. When the dough comes together and becomes too hard to mix with your fork, flour your hands and begin to pat it into a ball. Knead the dough towards you and your right hand to push the dough away from you at the same time. Repeat this for 10 minutes, until you have a smooth, springy, soft dough.
Flour the top of your dough, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 15 minutes at room temperature. This will make it easier to roll thinly. Now divide the dough into as many balls as you want to make pizzas, i.e. lost of small ones or a few larger ones, but I suggest that 6 is a good quantity for this amount of dough.
Timing-wise it’s nice to roll the pizzas out 15 to 30 minutes before you start to cook them. If you want to work more in advance, it’s better to keep the dough wrapped in plastic wrap in the fridge rather than having rolled-out pizzas hanging around for a few hours. Take a piece of the dough, dust your surface and dough with a little flour or semolina, and roll it out into a rough circle about ¼ inch thick. Tear off an appropriately sized piece of aluminum foil, rub it with a little olive oil, dust it well with flour or semolina, and place the pizza base on top. Continue doing the same with the other pieces and then, if you dust them with a little flour, you can pile them up into a stack, cover them with plastic wrap, and put them in the fridge.
When you’re ready to cook them, preheat your oven to 500F. At this stage you can apply your toppings. Remember: less is more. If you can, cook the pizzas on a piece of granite or marble in your conventional oven- if not, do them one by one on the bars of the oven shelf toward the bottom of the oven. (If you’re going to cook your pizzas on the bars of the oven, make sure they’re not too big- otherwise they’ll be difficult to maneuver.) Cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until pizzas are golden and crispy.