Friday, March 16, 2012

Pizza with caramelized onions, goat cheese, and bacon

It's a shame that this picture is so gloomy, but the last time I made this pizza, it was dark when it came out of the oven and I had to hold back a pack of ravenous, excited beasts (you know who you are, Mike, Sebastian, and David) to get even these moody photos. But let me assure you: This pizza is delicious, by far the best-loved pizza in my household. I think the original idea for this pizza came down from Wolfgang Puck; I am sure it has been bastardized since his original, but the main concept is the same: sweet and slightly bitter caramelized onions balanced against the acidity of the goat cheese and the salt of the bacon. It is a beautiful thing.  

Making the Dough
A good pizza consists of two major parts: the dough and the toppings. Let's start with the dough. Now, I make pizza dough from scratch, but when I first started making this pizza, I would use purchased pizza crusts. Problem with those is that, like many commercial breads, they tend to have a lot of nearly unpronounceable mystery ingredients, so now I make my own dough. It definitely takes more time and a bit more effort, but I think it's worth it. I've found two pizza dough recipes that I like: The one used in this delicious broccoli rabe, potato, and rosemary pizza from Food52, which comes out crispy and beautiful, and Deborah Madison's basic pizza dough from her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is also excellent and takes less time but is a bit less crispy. Here are the directions for Deborah Madison's pizza dough:
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 2 teaspoons (about one packet) dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 to 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3 to 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
Note: I sometimes replace 1/4 cup of the all purpose flour with a 1/4 cup semolina flour, which I think make the crust a little crispier, but that's completely optional.

  1. Add the yeast to 1/2 cup of the water and let it stand until it gets foamy (about five to 10 minutes). 
  2. Add the rest of the water, the salt, and the oil to the foamy water.
  3. Then add the whole wheat flour and enough all purpose flour to make a shaggy dough. 
  4. Pour or scrape the dough out onto a floured board or counter and knead until the dough is smooth. Add enough flour to keep the dough from sticking but no more. The dough should be slightly tacky. 
  5. Let the dough rise in a covered, oiled bowl for about 40-60 minutes. (Keep the dough in a somewhat warm place.) 
  6. Turn the dough out on the counter and divide it into the number of pizzas you want (you can make four 10-inch pizzas or two 12- to 14-inch pizzas). Shape the pieces into balls, set them on a lightly floured counter, cover with a slightly damp towel, and let them rise for 20 to 30 minutes. 
  7. About half an hour before you want to put the pizzas in the oven, pre-heat your oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and start shaping the dough. Take one ball at a time, flatten it into a disk, and start pushing the dough out toward the edges until you achieve the size you want. It's helpful to have a baking board with diameters. When you have achieved the size, shape, and thickness you want, let the disks rest for 15 minutes before adding any toppings. (The thinner you can get the dough without tearing, the crispier your final product will be.)
Preparing the Toppings
When you make this pizza, start the toppings at about the same time you start the dough. That way, all you will have to do is add the toppings to the pizza disks just before you put them in the oven.

The toppings for this pizza are caramelized onions, crispy bacon, and goat cheese. You will also need some grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
  • 3-4 large yellow onions, thinly sliced (get ready to cry)
  • 4 Tbsps olive oil
  • 8 slices bacon, sliced into 1-inch pieces (or you can just crumble the slices after they have cooked and cooled)
  • 1 8-oz log of soft goat cheese (Chevre), crumbled (do this with a fork in a bowl and you will eliminate a lot of mess)
  • grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • dried thyme
  • a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
The most difficult thing to do here is to caramelize the onions properly. I've seen lots of recipes add salt or sugar to the onions, but you need nothing but time, patience, and olive oil. The onions will produce their own sugar, and they will be delicious.

To caramelize the onions, bring 4 tablespoons of olive oil to medium heat in a large pan with tall sides (you will start off with a large volume of onions that will cook down to a very small amount) and then add the onions. Stir the onions to coat them completely with the oil and then basically leave them alone for up to an hour, stirring perhaps once every five to 10 minutes. Don't worry if they get a little crispy around the edges, but don't let them burn either. They should look like this when you are done:

When they are done, sprinkle in half to a whole teaspoon of dried thyme and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you are using them. Set the onions aside.

For the bacon, just cook it until it's nice and crispy and let it drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Not much to do with the goat cheese except to break it up with a fork. Set it aside.

Now, when it comes time to make the pizza, here's what to do. First, make sure your oven is on (500 degrees, remember?). If you have a pizza stone and a peel, now is a great time to use them. If you don't, line baking sheets with parchment paper and set your pizzas down on them.
  1. Sprinkle grated Parmigiano Reggiano all over the pizza dough. 
  2. Add half (or a quarter, depends on how many pizzas you are making) of the caramelized onions and spread them evenly around the pizza. 
  3. Sprinkle half (or a quarter) of the goat cheese over the onions. 
  4. Sprinkle half (or a quarter) of the crumbled bacon over the goat cheese. 
  5. Grate some more Parmigiano Reggiano over the top and slide the pizza into the oven. Tip: If you are using a peel, rub some corn meal or flour into the peel to prevent sticking.  
  6. After seven minutes, check the pizza. If it's a little golden brown on top, the pizza is done. If not, leave it in for a few more minutes. 
Voila! You've got an amazing pizza. And, you've also got a basic dough recipe so you can experiment with your own pizza toppings. Have fun with that.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ginger-banana bread

Warm and cozy as an open fire, soft and rich as a scrap of golden-brown velvet, exotic and strange as a Byzantine ceiling, a beautiful smell blooms from the oven. The experiment seems to be going well. I open the oven and test the loaves for doneness, not quite yet. I slide them back in and wait five minutes. This time, the toothpick comes out clean. I take them out of the oven. After they cool on a rack for a while, I slice some pieces, warm, dense, moist, rich with spices, slightly sweet from banana, and with a bit of crunch from the walnuts. Perfect. My ginger-banana bread turned out just the way I had hoped it would.

Struggling for the last month with high fevers, bronchitis, and an infected molar, I haven't spent much time in the kitchen. Fever and antibiotics killed my appetite and wasted my energy, so it's been a struggle to eat anything at all, and I mostly let my family eat a lot of takeout. Things are rarely ideal, and sometimes they are less ideal than others.

In the meantime, I've been reading Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and getting more and more excited to get in and work with some of the ratios. For a creative cook (especially a mostly self-taught home cook like myself), the book is a gift. Ruhlman breaks down fundamental kitchen techniques into simple ratios. Once you understand the ratios and how the basic ingredients work together, you can layer on and riff from there. The book teaches you reading and writing; with those basics, you can create poetry. It's exciting stuff.

The opportunity to test one of the ratios came as some of my son's bananas grew dark and unappealing. I didn't want to let them go to waste, but they were no longer fit to eat out of hand. Thus banana bread. So I checked out Ruhlman's ratio for quickbreads: 2/2/1/1. Two parts flour, two parts liquid, one part egg, and one part fat. OK. (Note that these ratios are based on weight, not volume.) And I checked out his basic recipe for quickbread/muffin batter, which is based on the ratios. But I got it into my head that I wanted to include some of the flavors from my mother's gingerbread cookies. And I was off and mixing. I was going to make gingerbread banana bread. (Or, as some friends have suggested, baginger bread, ginanabread, or gingy-nanny bread. If you have ideas for a good name, please fire away in the comments. I think I kind of like baginger bread.)

Anyway, this is one of the easiest possible things you could ever make. You'll need two bowls (one for dry ingredients and one for wet), a scale, and a loaf pan. Note: the recipe that follows makes one loaf; I made two because I had quite a lot of dark bananas. Also, you could probably do a straight swap of banana for pumpkin puree, and it would be delicious too.

Measure by weight on your scale, except where noted in teaspoons.

  • 8 oz all-purpose flour
  • 4 oz brown sugar (white sugar will do in a pinch)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground dried ginger
  • 1 tsp finely chopped orange zest
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup mashed banana (about 2-3 bananas)
  • 6 oz milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 oz unsalted butter, melted 
  • 1/4 chopped walnuts (optional)

What to Do

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and butter, oil, or spray a loaf pan. 
  2. Place your dry ingredients bowl on the scale and measure flour, sugar, salt, spices, and baking powder. Mix the ingredients with a whisk until everything is uniformly distributed.  
  3. Place your wet ingredients bowl on the scale, measure milk, and then add eggs, melted butter, and banana. Mix everything together until the egg is evenly distributed throughout the liquid.
  4. Mix your wet and your dry ingredients until they just come together. Scrape the batter out into the greased loaf pan and slide it into the oven. 
  5. Check for doneness after 40 minutes by sticking a toothpick into the center of the loaf. If it comes out clean and dry, the loaf is done. If it's still wet, check in five-minute intervals.
  6. When you take it out of the oven, let it cool in the pan for a while. Then slide the loaf out of the pan and let it cool on a baking rack. It's good warm, but I think it's best completely cooled. 
  7. Watch out for small, thieving hands. Trust me, this bread is not going to last.