October 23, 2009

The Perfect Pizza (part 1) – D’oh!!

Wow – it’s been awhile!  I’ve been on holiday (to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Crieff, Olda Scotia), and to be frank, in recovery from the trials and travails of my most recent quest for Good Enough, which caused marital stress and involved accusations of insanity-above-and-beyond-the-norm.  I’ve had to have a wee rest before revisiting it in my write-up, in order to let the trauma fade. 

“Why?”, you ask. 

All I can say is “D’oh!” 

For my next assault on Blumenthal’s Perfection, I chose to do “The Perfect Pizza”.  It looked pretty simple, as it didn’t seem to call for anything truly beyond the pale in terms of ingredients or techniques.  I also had all of the equipement on hand, barring a pressure cooker, which I’ve been lusting after anyway.  I figured it would be a doddle.  And it would have been, had I not lost my mind.

Each chapter in Heston Blumenthal’s book “In Search of Total Perfection” not only gives the recipe for the perfect “whatever”, but also details the factors that Heston took into account when devising the recipe.  For “The Perfect Pizza”, Heston traveled to Naples where he tried out San Marzano tomatoes, found out about the perfect pizza flour, temperatures in the average Neapolitan commercial pizza oven, and also tested the local water’s PH and hardness/softness.  After he gives you this prologue (which you also see in the television program), he gets down to the recipe.

I shouldn’t have read the prologue. 

The problem is that Heston calls for a specific sort of flour – Double Zero Pizza Flour.  And, of course, I couldn’t find that flour on the supermarket shelves of Dubai (I tried Organic Foods and Cafe, Waitrose, and the Gourmet Station in the rebuilt Oasis Centre).  As an alternative to this pizza flour, he calls for a flour with a protein content of at least 12%. 

Since I couldn’t find exactly what Heston wanted (and was unsure of my ability to attain perfection without said flour), I decided to make dough with three different types of flour to see if there was really a difference.  I chose to use some organic pasta flour, organic strong white bread flour, and the Homepride All-Purpose flour that I had in my pantry.  So, three types of dough for a taste test.  Not so bad, eh?

Then I lost it.  Since Heston had noted that the local water in Naples was quite soft, and also had a relatively neutral PH of 7.2, I started wondering if our Dubai tap water (which is largely the product of desalination plants, has an unknown PH, and probably leans towards the hard side of water classification) would do the trick.  I decided that more experimentation should happen, and bought a bottle of Evian (PH 7.3) and a bottle of New Zealand “Cool Blue” water (PH 6.9).  I was going to make dough using each of the flours, both bottled waters and Dubai tap water, then do a taste test before going on to the actual making of the Perfect Pizza.

For those of you doing the math at home, that’s 9 different dough variations.

Thankfully, Heston recommends the use of a mixer with a dough hook to make the pizza dough.  Of course, had he not done this (and instead gone with the traditional forty minutes of hand kneading), I probably wouldn’t have turned Villa GoodEnough into the Pizza Dough Testing Lab.  As it happens, I have a KitchenAid stand mixer, with dough hook, which my Uncle Rick gave to us as a wedding present.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, although it has earned itself the sobriquet of “The Butter Churn”, mostly because I get distracted when I’m using it to whip cream, usually right before a dinner party is due to start.  After being sent on many, many last minute trips to the grocery store for more cream, my husband has now started buying additional cream pre-emptively, and not telling me about its existence until the first cry of “Oh f***ing h*ll,  I made f**ing butter again!” is sung out.

Back to the dough.  As I said, because I couldn’t find the right kind of pizza flour, and because I wanted to test out the effects of different water PHs (because I read Heston’s bloody prologue and was lead astray), I was looking at making nine different types of dough.  To do this, you need to make a “pre-ferment” of each dough type first.  Here’s the mise-en-place:

mise en place1

To make the pre-ferment, you first mix together flour, water, and malt syrup.  Incidentally, the extremely-specific-about-ingredients-to-the-point-of-obsessive-nit-picking Heston fell over on the malt syrup.  When we were at the grocery store, we discovered that there were about five different types of malt syrup on offer, made, variously, with barley, brown rice, corn, and combinations thereof.  Heston was unspecific about the type of malt syrup.  Heston!  What were you thinking?!?  I feared that my perfect pizza dough would be completely screwed up by buying the wrong type of malt syrup, and entertained the idea of buying all of the different malt syrups and doing further dough testing.  That would have increased my dough yield to 45 different combinations, which would have been achievable, in my mind.  My husband, perhaps suspecting these thoughts were going through my head, immediately thrust the barley malt syrup into the cart and dragged me out of the supermarket aisle.  For this, I thank him.

So, I measured out flour:

pf - flour

Then water (to which I added the malt syrup):



And mixed them together in my KitchenAid for the prescribed amount of time:


I did this nine times, each with a different combination of flour and water, ending up with nine pre-ferments in labelled bowls:


Those of you who’ve been paying attention will have noticed that there’s nothing yet in the pre-ferment that would cause it to, well, ferment.  Happily, Heston doesn’t want the dough to catch wild yeast from the air (because that would be quite chancy, I surmise).  Instead, the combination of flour, water, and malt syrup needs to rest for 10-60 minutes before additional ingredients (yeast and salt) are added.  This is so flavour can develop, which is also the reason for the pre-ferment itself.  This worked out nicely for me, as when I was done with the ninth batch of pre-ferment, the first bit had already been resting for around an hour, and thus was ready for the addition of yeast and salt.

I measured out the yeast and salt (there were four different brands of yeast in the store, but I read the labels carefully and they all contained the same ingredients, so I decided that I didn’t need to experiment with yeast and could just buy one brand):


I poured the yeast and flour into my trusty KitchenAid, added the flour/water/malt syrup mix and mixed it as per the recipe instructions.  I got quite a rhythm going here, and at the end carefully tucked nine different pre-ferments into the fridge for an overnight rest:



That night, rather unusually for me, I had problems sleeping.  It irked me that I couldn’t find the appropriate pizza flour here in Dubai, because Heston really stresses that it makes a major difference to the pizza.  I felt like I had let Heston, and the cause down.  I rolled over different options in my mind, then, finally (after a certain amount of complaining from my darling husband on account of the tossing and turning) had an epiphany.  Since at that point, I sat up and shouted out something like “I am GENIUS!”, my sleepy, grumpy husband didn’t greet my brilliance with the adulation that it deserved.  He didn’t even ask what I had figured out,  and used words that I shall not repeat here as he bid me once again to go to sleep.  Happily, I did.

Read “The Perfect Pizza (part two) – The Day of the D’oh” here.

October 1, 2009

The Perfect Chicken (part 3)- The Chicken Fight

If you haven’t already done so, read Part One of The Perfect Chicken – The Chicken Hunt here, and Part Two here.

It’s 7:30 am, and I’ve rolled out of bed with a snarl in my heart.  It’s time to start the final stage of cooking the “Perfect Chicken”, so it’s ready to serve at 3:00pm today.  Yes, you read it right.  That’s 7.5 hours of cooking.  For a roast chicken.  At this point (since I’m more of an extreme night-owl than a morning person), I’m having one of the conversations that I have with Heston.  I haven’t mentioned these chats before, but since I’ve started my own search for perfection, Heston and I have been chatting a lot.  Pity it’s only in my head.  This conversation went along these lines:

Me:  “Heston, it’s seven thirty in the bloody morning, and I’m up to cook a chicken.  If I wasn’t doing it your way, I could’ve gotten up at noon and had plenty of time to cook it.”

Imaginary-Heston:  “The chicken will be perfect.”

Me:  “It’s seven-thirty and I have to cook it at 60 degrees Celsius for four to six hours.  I’m not even sure that’s safe.”

Imaginary-Heston:  “By cooking the chicken at a lower temperature, the muscle proteins contract and squeeze out water at a much slower rate.  You want your chicken moist, don’t you?  Do it this way and the chicken will stay moist.”

Me:  “But, Heston, it’s sixty degrees.  That freaks me right out.  It’s summer in Dubai right now, and the temperature’s in the high forties.  I get the feeling that I could put my chicken under a glass dome on the table on my deck for six hours and have a cooked chicken by your standards.  Are you sure that there’s no typo??”

Imaginary-Heston:  “No typo.  I worked my arse off to perfect this recipe, and I tell you, the chicken will be perfect.  Trust me.”

Me:  “But… it’s sixty degrees…”

Imaginary-Heston:  “Which one of us is renowned for marrying science with food to revolutionize cooking?”

Me:  “Uh, you are, Heston.”

Imaginary-Heston:  “And which one of us can boast running the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’, huh?”

Me (after checking the recipe again and seeing that 60 degrees is not a typo):  “You.  Fine.  I’ll cook it your way.  But I really hope it’s perfect, Destroyer of Sleep-Ins and Enemy of Night-Owls.”

So, it was time to wake the Perfect Chicken up, and get him ready for his prolonged sauna.  I pulled him out of the fridge, preheated the oven (if it can be called that) and got my roasting tin out.  At this point, though, someone felt that I had already done needless work and that the Perfect Chicken was ready to eat:

pc-readyfor dog

At that time of day, I was inclined to agree, but despite the winning grin and boyish good looks, he did not persuade me (beyond that, I had guests coming for dinner, and really couldn’t tell them that the dog ate it):


It looks like the Perfect Chicken had a great night’s rest!  See how he was drooling?  (I do that too, especially on airplanes and during afternoon naps.  Sexy, no?)


Once the oven had warmed up to 60 (which took seconds), I tucked him into his roasting tray for his long sauna:


I put him in the oven, and then retired to the living room to splash espresso in my eyes in an attempt to wake up.

After about an hour of espresso-splashing and general faffing about, I went to check on my chicken, and learned that my oven should have a career in politics.  To put it bluntly, the oven gauge lies.  I had suspected this before, since I’ve scorched things like brownies, so had bought an in-oven thermometer.  So while the gauge said “60”, the in-oven thermometer said “140”.  Heston, I let you down again.  I whacked down the oven gauge a bit more, opened the over door a bit, then watched like a hawk to make sure that it went back to sixty Centigrade.  While I was doing this, I started to get my veg ready.

First the broccoli.  I cut the broccoli into florets, brought a pot of salted water to the boil, and filled my sink with ice water.  Once my water was boiling, I blanched the broc for a minute, then threw it into the sink:

carrots and broc

Once the broccoli was blanched, I stuck it back into the fridge until it was showtime.  I also cut the carrots into pieces, and flang them into a frying pan with butter, salt, and pepper.

I also started the potatoing.  If you recall, I couldn’t find the Maris Piper potatoes that Heston called for, so decided to do a bit of potato experimentation with the potatoes that I could find.  Here they are:


Red, Local, and Russet Potatoes

First I washed the potatoes off, then peeled them.  I washed them first, because Heston wants the potatoes peels to be cooked along with the potatoes, since the peels hold a lot of flavour.  Heston, being a cheffy-chef with suppliers lined up to provide the Fat Duck with everything that the restaurant requires was able to put the peels into a muslin bag.  I, being a goofball housewife who couldn’t find muslin or cheesecloth at the grocery store (after wandering up and down the aisles, fixed staring at all of the gadgetry on offer) used ladies nude knee-high stockings (US size 9-11).   Since we were going to be judging the various potato varieties on their suitability as roast potatoes, I needed to keep them in separate pots.  So, I tripled up the number of dishes that I had to do, and increased my workload.  SMRT.

It wasn’t just a matter of filling a pot with water and putting a few grinds of salt in either.  Heston wants you to use 10g of salt for every litre of water.  When I saw the amount of salt measured out, I figured that Heston had really lost it.  It seemed a veritable shitload of salt.  Far, far, FAR too much salt.  But, I promised that I would follow the recipe and not second guess, so I reluctantly dumped it in, figuring that I would be serving my guests salty, inedible potatoes.  Anyway, here’s the shot of the potatoing:

the potatoing

The frying pan in the centre is the carrots, ready to go for later cooking.

And here’s the ever-so-delectable shot of the local potatoes with their stocking full of potato peels.  Num, num!!!


Heston’s instructions are to boil the potatoes until they’re just about at the point of being soup (if you’re brave enough).  He helpfully adds that the difference between well-boiled potatoes and potato soup can be a matter of seconds.  Was I brave enough?  Hell ya!  Did I misjudge and get three pots of watery, salty potato soup.  Well, no.  Only one potful, actually.  While the local potatoes and the russet potatoes both held their shape very well, the red potatoes fell to pieces like the McCain campaign after Sarah Palin’s nomination.  Sure there were still a few coherent pieces left in the potato sludge, but most of the potato had dissolved into a pasty white mass, not that I’m making any comparison to the US Republican party.  Though they’re both pretty white and pasty looking.

In any case, I drained the potatoes, threw out the peel-stockings, shook my colander to rough them up (which Heston recommends, again, only if you’re brave enough), and left them to cool.  By this time the chicken was ready to come out of the oven, despite another full-on oven betrayal.  Recall that after setting it to 60C, it had leapt merrily up to 140C, and cooked my chicken at that temperature for about 20 minutes or so.  Well, after I had turned the temperature down again, the Judas-device decided to go way low (about 30C).  Luckily I caught that rather quickly, but between oven-tomfoolery, and frequent checks on the chicken’s temperature with my electronic probe thermometer, I was starting to despair of getting the bloody thing (no pun intended) cooked in time.  By the time I had consistently registered the chicken’s internal temperature at 60C, it had been in the oven for about seven hours, and I knew lunch was not happening at three. 

Here’s how the chicken looked when it came out of the oven.  Pretty similar to how it looked before it went in, eh? 


Note that there’s only a wee, tiny, pool of chicken juice in the bottom right corner of the pan (if you can see it).  Heston was right.  Cooking the chicken at this low a temperature definitely seemed to help keep it moist.  I was still concerned, however, that my bird wasn’t fully cooked, despite all thermometer indications to the contrary (I had probe the damn thing about 20 times at various stages after it was out of the oven).

Once I pulled the chicken out of the oven and drained my potatoes, I was able to whack up the temperature and get ready for potato roasting.  I turned the oven up to 190C, filled three pans with olive oil (to about a centimeter deep), and placed them in the oven to warm up.


Remember this guy? 


Yes, it’s the Imperfect Chicken!  Now that I was onto the final stages of the Perfect Chicken recipe, I was ready to prepare the Imperfect Chicken.  To do this, I unwrapped him, gave him a wingtip-ectomy, plunked him in a roasting tray, ground salt and pepper over top, and drizzled on olive oil.  I then bunged him in the oven, along with my potatoes, which I had rolled in the hot olive oil.



The potatoes needed to be in the oven for about 50 minutes (and turned every twenty minutes), and I figured that the Imperfect Chicken would be done at the same time as the potatoes.

By the way, I also tasted some of the potatoes at this point.  I was certain that I would just taste salt, and no potato.  Heston, I was wrong.  They were absolutely freaking delicious… potatoey-tasting, with just enough salt to enhance the potato flavour.  I should not have doubted.  I am a philistine, and Heston is a potato-savant.  I will not doubt again.

Then I went on to Phase Three of “Keeping the Perfect Chicken Moist”.  We’ve already brined the buzzard, and roasted him for-bloody-ever at an impossibly low temperature, the last step was “The Buttery-Saucing of the Perfect Chicken”.  To do this, I pulled out the reserved wingtips from both the Perfect and Imperfect Chickens, and cut them into small pieces.  I then flang both the wingtips and 100g of butter into a frying pan, cooked the wingtip bits until they were a dark golden brown, then strained the wingtips from the sauce.  During this time, I also turned the potatoes once, put my carrots on to cook, and poured myself a much needed glass of wine.  Here’s the buttery sauce being strained.  Looks lovely, doesn’t it?


At this point my guests arrived.  Thankfully, they’re on Estonian-time, so they were a bit late.  They came in, viewed the chaos in the kitchen, offered to help, and were informed that I had things completely under control.  So, my husband poured them each a drink, and they went out to play with the dog.

Shortly after this, I realised that I did not, in fact, have things completely under control.  I still had to crisp up the Perfect Chicken’s skin, stirfry broccoli, make gravy for the Imperfect Chicken, and Buttery-sauce the Perfect Chicken.  I also had to photograph all of these steps.  Since all of these steps had to happen more or less at the same time (if we wanted hot food), and I’m not an octopus, I summoned the troops (and threw the idea of a blind taste-test out the window).

To crisp up the Perfect Chicken’s skin, Heston recommends heating up a frying pan on full heat for 10 minutes, then coating it with a thin film of peanut oil (though he calls it groundnut oil, since he’s a Brit), and browning the chicken with a pair of tongs.  For obvious safety reasons, my husband did this, while I worked on the broccoli and gravy, and someone else took the pictures. 


The Imperfect Chicken had a lot of chickeny juices in the pan after his roasting, though for some reason I didn’t take a picture for comparison purposes.  I used these juices to make a gravy by dumping the juices into a frying pan, adding flour to make a roux, then finishing by adding some white wine and chicken stock (from a cube).  I feel that gravy is an important part of any chicken dinner, however, Heston completely ignores this critical fact in his Perfect Chicken recipe.  (Sadly, he also forgot about the cheese sauce for broccoli.  While I enjoy broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts, I regard them primarily as carrying devices for a cheese sauce made with sharp cheddar cheese.  My husband regards all of them as crucifers of the devil, cheese-sauce or not.  Why Heston recommends broccoli be served, and neglects the cheese sauce is something I just don’t understand.  That being said, I’m following the rules, so the broccoli went cheese-sauce-less on this occassion.  Never again.)


After the Perfect Chicken had been browned, it needed to be Buttery-sauced.  Instead of making the sauce into gravy like a perfectly normal chef would, Heston wants you to inject the chicken with the sauce.  When he shows this step on the television program, he uses a large stainless steel turkey baster with a needle-like tip.  I didn’t have such a device, nor could I find one in Dubai.  However, I discovered that one could buy syringes in the pharmacy for about 2 AED each.  So that’s what we used.  Unfortunately, while Heston’s tool injects Buttery Sauce into a chicken in about five seconds flat, we found that syringes take a lot longer, require two people (and two syringes), and also involve Buttery Sauce flying around the kitchen and into your Buttery Saucing counterpart.

Here are the two chickens, together at last.  The Perfect Chicken is getting its Buttery Sauce fix, while the Imperfect Chicken is resting:


Ten minutes before the potatoes were to be done, I threw in a sprig of rosemary (from the bush in my backyard) and a couple of cloves of peeled garlic.  (I had also turned the potatoes every twenty minutes since they went in the oven.)  The carrots were merrily cooking along in their covered pan (with only butter, salt, and pepper), so I quickly stirfried the already blanched broccoli in more butter, salt, and pepper while stirring gravy with my other hand.    Once the broccoli was done, we were ready to serve.  Here’s the spread:



Before we all tucked in, we had a taste-testing (and opened another bottle of wine, since the first one seems to have evaporated).  We weren’t very scientific on the ratings, merely ranking both chickens and all three potato varieties out of ten.  Here are the final scores (the four individual scores were added then averaged):

Perfect Chicken:  8.125 / 10

Imperfect Chicken:  6 /10

Russet Potatoes:    8.25 / 10

Red Potatoes:  6.25 / 10

Local Potatoes:  7.5 / 10

It seems that the Perfect Chicken was extremely good, but not absolute perfection.  The panel commented that the texture and moistness of the Perfect Chicken were much superior to those of the Imperfect Chicken, which was stringy and quite dry in comparison (note that only breast pieces were tested).  Not everyone agreed about the potatoes, though the Russets were marked quite highly, and the Reds (which turned into moosh) were the lowest marked.  In hindsight, we should have had criteria for things like moistness, crispness of skin, texture, and overall flavour.  For the next recipe, I will endeavour to break down the ranking into more criteria that add up into an overall score.

The carrots and broccoli were delicious, though strangely, there was quite a bit of broccoli left over.  I blame this on the absence of cheese sauce.  My husband did try some broccoli prepared Heston-style, and grudgingly admitted that with this preparation they were more Vegetables from Heck rather than Vegetables from Hell.  He’s not a convert to the Way of Broccoli yet, though.

The biggest issue with the Perfect Chicken, beyond the mind-bending amount of labour that went into the bird, was that after an insane amount of time in the oven, the thighs still weren’t fully cooked, as you can see below:


After the taste testing, we gorged ourselves on an excellent feast (barring the legs and thighs of the Perfect Chicken), including dessert, brought by our Estonian friends.  It was a delicious apple cake:



Despite all of us being quite full from our main meal, this cake disappeared in no time.  Yum!

So, would I make this recipe again? 

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t do the whole thing over.  The low temperature, long-time cooking made me nervous, and didn’t have great results.  So I think I would probably scrap that, or cook my bird at a higher temperature than sixty Celsius and lower than the “usual” for a longer time (if that makes sense).  That would hopefully give me a cooked bird with crisp skin that doesn’t involve the danger of flinging around a three pound bird in an overheated frying pan (while trying to get the rest of the meal finished at the same time).

I’m keeping the brining step, and the Buttery Sauce (which my husband loved).  I don’t know that I will always be forking over the cash for the likes of a Perfect Chicken, though would do so for a company meal, or for a tasty splurge.  We have chicken here at Villa GoodEnough frequently, and often pick one up in the local grocery store, rather than going on Mission Improbable for it (and paying through the nose).  It’s sad to say, but convenience outweighs the full taste of a Perfect Chicken.  I also don’t like the carbon-footprint of the animals that are flown in (as the Perfect Chicken was).  However, if I could find a good source for locally raised free-range chickens, I would definitely be purchasing some on a regular basis, and keeping one in my freezer. 

I’m glad I did the recipe though.  I learned a lot, and there are definite things that I will continue to do (not only the brining and the Buttery Sauce, but also boiling the peels along with the potatoes, and cooking them in quite salty water).  And who knows?  Maybe one day I’ll be able to have my own chickens!

Next up, The Perfect Pizza.