October 31, 2009

The Perfect Pizza (part three) – The Attack of the Cherry Tomatoes

Read the first part of the Perfect Pizza – D’oh here, and the second part here.

I had finally determined the flour and water that I would be using for my perfect pizza!  Now, all that remained was to make the tomato topping and find a better mozarella cheese for my pizza.  How hard could it be?

It’s precisely because of the remaining ease of the recipe that I’m convinced that the following (imaginary) conversation took place in the Fat Duck test kitchen when this recipe was being developed and filmed:

Heston Blumenthal:  “Well, there it is, the perfect pizza.  All the home cook needs to do is spend about twenty minutes mixing and rolling out dough, a few minutes making tomato sauce, and then throw on some tomatoes and cheese and cook the pizza.  Simplicity itself!”

BBC womble:  “Heston, I’m afraid that’s not good enough.  You’re the guy who admitted to peeling peas in the ‘Big Fat Duck Cookbook’.  You can’t make it this simple.  It’s supposed to be Perfection by Heston Blumenthal!  This is too easy… the home cook and viewing public will never believe that this is a Blumenthal recipe.  Beyond that, the show time won’t be long enough.  Can’t you have them grind the wheat for the flour or something?”

Heston:  “No one grinds their own wheat for flour.  The Italians have that all figured out, and we can’t possibly better that.  But, I do see what you’re saying.  Let’s see what we can do to make it a bit harder and more fiddly…  What ingredients are we using?”

BBC womble:  “In the pizza crust; flour, yeast, water, salt, malt syrup.”

Heston:  “Well, there’s not much leeway for increasing complexity there.  I guess we could get them to buy rock salt and crush it by hand or using a hammer, but that’s not what I saw in Naples.  I’ve already talked about the water, and there’s really no difficulty in going out to buy a bottle of water, not that I’m even calling for that.  Any rational person should realise that tap water will do. As for the yeast, well, yeast is yeast, and it’s not like I’m making a sourdough crust where we need them to make and grow a starter…”

BBC womble:  “Why not get them to make a sourdough crust??  We could send you to San Francisco to find out how they do it.  It would take up a good five minutes or so in the show!”

Heston (somewhat irritably):  “That wouldn’t make it perfect Neapolitan pizza though, now would it?  Maybe next time we can do an American style pizza instead, and slot the sourdough in there.  What about the cheese?  Maybe we could get them to make their own mozarella?  No.  No one will be able to find water buffalo milk in the UK.  That leaves us the tomato sauce.  I’ve already got them pressure cooking the tomatoes, since you said that opening a can of tomatoes is far too easy, though that’s what they did in Naples.  What if we had them oven drying some tomatoes too?  That would give you an extra few minutes for the show.”

BBC womble:  “Good idea, Heston!  That will work.  But still, it’s not a really big deal to skin and seed three or four big tomatoes.  The recipe’s still too much of a doddle.”

Heston:  “I’ve got it!  What if we make the tomatoes – smaller?!?  I’ve always liked the flavour profile of a good cherry tomato anyway, and, come to think of it, they’re sweeter and more intensely flavoured that any normal tomato you’ll find.  That’s it!  We’ll make them smaller!”

BBC womble:  “I’m liking it, but what will that get us?”

Heston:  “Well, instead of peeling and seeding a kilogram of large tomatoes, which works out to four or five tomatoes, we’ll get them to peel and seed a kilo of cherry tomatoes, which works out to thirty or fourty of the little buggers.  And, hey, I know!  We’ll get them to dry half of the tomatoes in the oven, and make them put a selection of herbs and sliced garlic individually into each tomato half!  That will get them working!  And, now that I think of it, the flavours will be wonderful!  When we do the show, I’ll get my prep cooks to do the tomato skinning and peeling, so it will look effortless.  Does that work for you?”

BBC womble:   “You’ve done it Heston!  Love it!”  (Evil laugh)

Heston:  “Perfect!  I’ll get the staff started on the cherry tomatoes.  In the meantime, why don’t we go have a nice relaxing beverage in the Hind’s Head?  It will be at least an hour and a half before those poor bastards have got things ready to go!”

And off they marched, snickering merrily…

It was now Thursday, and Perfect Pizza Testing Day was scheduled for the following evening.  I had expanded my testing group, though somewhat involuntarily.  Why?  Since I’ve become a housewife, most of the people who I meet up with on a regular basis ask me what I’m doing with my time.  So, I tell them.  This, combined with my frantic appeal for people to take excess pizza dough off my hands, piques people’s curiosity.  Basically, it’s the same thing that happened with the Perfect Chicken:

  1. I tell people what I’m doing.  “Well, I made twelve different types of pizza dough because I’m testing out the recipe for Perfect Pizza in Heston Blumenthal’s ‘In Search of Total Perfection’ to see if it’s truly perfect.”
  2. People tell me that I’m crazy.  “You’re out of your mind.”  I also got “Oh my!  You poor, mad soul.  I really do have to find you a job!” from one of the people I walk dogs with, who happens to be a recruiter with my resume on file.
  3. The same people who doubt my sanity volunteer to test the results.  “So when do we come over for the taste test?”
  4. I invite them over.  “Friday at seven pm.  Bring a lot of wine.”

So, for Perfect Pizza Day, I had about 12 or so people coming over for testing purposes.  As mentioned before, Heston’s recipe makes enough for five pizzas.  So, to make sure that I had enough for both the pefect pizzas, and the “Build your own Perfect Pizza” mayhem to follow, I needed to triple Heston’s recipe.  That was no problem with the dough, although I only had enough Stefano’s flour to make one batch (I made the other two batches with the organic strong white bread flour and figured that no one would notice the very subtle difference).  Note that I did make the pre-ferment for all of the dough batches before getting down to the tomatoes, but I figure that I’ve already saturated the web with pictures of my KitchenAid mixing dough, and though I’d spare the world the details of batches 13, 14, and 15). 

The problem lay with the tomatoes. 

Three kilograms of cherry tomatoes translates one big shitload of tomatoes.  I ended up buying out the supply of cherry tomatoes on the vine at the local Spinneys.  Happily, I also found a different brand of mozarella cheese there (finding balls of mozarella cheese, lovingly stored in their water and tended by a solicitous deli-person here in Dubai is like finding a unicorn in your back yard), since my husband and I didn’t like the one we’d used on our test pizza the night before.  I’m glad I found a cheese that I liked, because an appeal to the local Dubai forum www.expatwoman.com, yielded very little success (but a shared longing for good mozarella).  The ladies online did come up with a suggestion to visit a local restaurant, Bufala, that specializes in water buffalo meat and dairy products, but when I took that suggestion to my husband, the idea was nixed.  So, I’ve not yet gone there, and cannot make any recommendation (but one day I will!).

Here’s what three kilos of cherry tomatoes looks like:


To make the sauce, I first had blanch and peel the lot of them.  Heston recommends blanching them whole, then – and only for the ones that won’t peel easily – cutting an ‘X’ into the bottom of the tomato and re-blanching them.  I decided that none of them would peel easily and ‘X’d them all from the start.  So, I brought a pot of water up to the boil, and filled my sink with ice water.  While the water was heating up, I carefully stemmed the tomatoes (reserving the stems as directed by Heston), then cut an ‘X’ into each and every one of them:


Once the tomatoes were all ‘X’d, I briefly blanched them in boiling water, then plunged them into an ice water bath to prevent them from cooking any further:



 Then I started peeling them:


… and peeling them … :


… and peeling them.  Once the peeling was done, I started seeding them, by cutting them into halves and scooping out the seeds.  I strayed from Heston a bit here; he wants you to cut half of the tomatoes in half and seed them, then cut the rest of the tomatoes into eighths, place those eights into a sieve, then salt them to strain out the tomato-ey juices.  I didn’t stray because of bloody-mindedness or because I had a better idea; I strayed because I didn’t bother to look at the recipe while I was deep into my tomato-fugue-state and thought that I had to seed and halve all of the bloody things.

So, I seeded:


… and seeded … :


… and seeded … :


If you’re wondering why I’m wearing the funky latex gloves in these pictures, it’s not because I normally like to cook with my hands sheathed in rubber.  I blame it on my husband’s supervisor who had invited us out to golf eighteen holes the previous day.  I’m not a regular golfer, and at this point hadn’t been on a course for probably five years.  So, naturally, I held the clubs with a death-grip and succeeded in ripping off large chunks of skin from both hands.  I neither wanted to get acidic tomato juice into the wounds, nor wanted to share any, err, “wound-ooze” with my guests, hence the gloves.  Incidentally, my hands were not the worst served by the golf trip.  We were at a rather posh club which frowned on golfers wearing anything but golf shoes on the course, and insisted that I rent some of their shoes instead.  For me, the brand name “FootJoy” is a misnomer.  I ended up with some fantastic blisters which culminated in missing skin – lots of missing skin – and me playing barefoot from the twelfth hole onwards.  I’m sure the snooty club vastly preferred me doing that to wearing sneakers.  Much, much, much classier.  But I digress.  (And no, I won’t tell you my score.  I can’t count that high.)

Anyway, I was seeding tomatoes.  I left the seeds in one of the pans, and filled the other pan with beautifully halved, seeded tomatoes.  Then I strained the juices from the tomato seeds and pulp, cleaned out my strainer, weighed out half of those halved  tomatoes (which were supposed to be eighths), and put them in the strainer with some salt.  I left them to drain.  This, too, was a bit of a waver from the Heston-approved method, but he didn’t really say what to do with the excess tomato seeds and pulp, and I didn’t want to throw them out without getting every last bit of tomato-ey goodness from them.

Once the tomatoes had drained out some additional salty tomato-water, I threw both the tomatoes and the strainings into my pressure cooker, brought it up to pressure, and cooked it for 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, I started working with the cherry tomato halves that were to be dried.  I covered two baking sheets with aluminum foil, and started setting the cherry tomato halves out individually, so I could lovingly fill each one of them with a slice of garlic (which I had previously peeled and sliced).  Then I said “Sod it!” (well, actually something worse), bunged all of the tomatoes into a bowl WITH  the garlic and herbs (which were supposed to be fresh thyme, bay leaves and basil, but I couldn’t find fresh thyme or bay leaves, and instead used dried), added olive oil, salt and pepper.  I also needed to add three teaspoons of sugar, so pulled out my teaspoon and bag of castor sugar, dumped it in, and stirred gently.


Later, when I went to put away my bag of castor sugar, I looked more closely at it, and realised that I’d added salt instead.  This time I said many, many things that were worse than “Sod it”.  I had thoughts of throwing it out and starting again, but it was late at night, and I honestly couldn’t face the blanching, peeling, and seeding of another 1.5 kg of cherry tomatoes at that time.  I also needed 2-3 hours of drying time, possibly more if my Judas-device decided not to cooperate with me, and just couldn’t be arsed.  So I rationalized that I normally undersalt things anyway, threw in the sugar, and called it good.  I then spread my tomatoes out onto the foil lined baking sheets, and placed them into the Judas-device (my oven).

By now, my tomato sauce had cooked under pressure for the requisite amount of time, so I released the pressure, took off the lid (after swearing copiously for several minutes because I couldn’t get the bloody thing off, then finally realised that I was hitting the button that seals the lid instead of the button that releases it), and started reducing the tomato sauce.  Because I had started with more tomato-liquid than Heston called for, I had a lot of reducing to do.  So I boiled:


… and boiled … :


… and boiled, until I could see the bottom of the pan when I drew a wooden spoon through it:


I let the sauce cool, then decanted it into a large freezer bag, added the reserved, washed, tomato stems (which Heston claims contain a great deal of tomato flavour and aroma), and bunged it into the fridge overnight.  Here’s a shot of the sauce:


There’s not much sauce there, is there?  I hoped there’d be enough for the next day!

Once the oven tomatoes were dried, they looked like this:


Again, a craptacular shot (our main camera had run out of juice, so these were taken with my husband’s cell phone.  The flash is clearly not up to the task, but at least the tomatoes are there in all their dried glory).

These tomatoes were much less dry than the sundried tomatoes you can buy in stores.  They were awfully tasty too.  I did sample a few of them (and nibbled quite happily on the dried basil which was delightfully oily and garlicky), and thankfully my blunder with the salt did not greatly affect them.  I stopped myself from eating the lot, and put them into a dish for the next day:


Again, for all my work, there certainly wasn’t that much tomato topping to go around, especially when you consider the mound that I started with.

With my work for the day done, I tucked everything into the fridge, did the dishes, and went to bed.  Perfect Pizza Day was nigh, and I figured  I needed my rest!

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