January 4, 2010

The Perfect Pizza (part four) – What do you mean, you HATE tomatoes???

It’s been an eternity since I wrote part three of the Perfect Pizza saga, Attack of the Cherry Tomatoes, and I think it’s probably safe to say that I’ve finally blunted the horror from my mind.  Mind you, it’s taken therapy, sleep, and an entirely new hobby to help me to forget.  There may have been a couple of beverages consumed along the way as well.  But, the trauma has subsided (though the scars remain… and the dreams of dough), so it’s past time I boxed this pizza up and delivered it to your door.  Here we go! 

As you recall, I had peeled, seeded, swore, and botched up 1.5 kg of cherry tomatoes to end up with about 3/4 of a cup of tomato sauce, and half a (small) bowl of dried tomatoes.  I had also made the starter batches of dough for the pizza judging.  So, all that remained was to make the pizza dough itself, and prepare the toppings for the ensuing pizza party.  Since we were having a mid-sized gaggle of people over (as we all know, a small gaggle is between 1-5 people, whereas a large gaggle is 15+ people, so I’m very definitive in saying that our gaggle was mid-sized), we felt that not all of them would be content with pizzas that were only comprised of tomatoes, basil, and cheese.  So, the day before, when we were buying up the entire cherry tomato selection of the grocery store, we picked up a few more essentials: 

  • Salami
  • Pepperoni (which could only be found in the American-style Slim Jim packages.  This baffled me at the time, but I now believe that pepperoni is a more North American term for an Italian cured/dried sausage, which was more specifically named at our local grocery store.  Or I could have just made that last bit up.)
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Olives (there are about 50 kabillion varieties of olives available here in Dubai.  I chose blue-cheese stuffed olives, figuring – correctly – that the only person to put them on a pizza would be me.)
  • Chicken Breast
  • Green Pepper
  • Feta Cheese
  • Fresh Tomato
  • Ham
  • Cheddar Cheese
  • Mozarella Cheese (both in “wet ball” and “block” form – the wet ball for the perfect pizza, the block for the make-your-own pizza that followed.  I would have made it all “wet ball” mozarella, but the two tubs that we bought were awfully damn spendy)
  • Pineapple (in a tin, which remains unopened)

Despite the fact that some of our guests were Brits, I chose not to perpetrate the British blasphemy of putting canned tuna and corn (though they call it sweetcorn for some strange reason.  Is there bittercorn or sourcorn or saltycorn out there somewhere?) on a pizza, and left those items in the store.  I also had a speech prepared to defend this choice, but thankfully my guests were sensible, right-thinking individuals who did not desire such nastiness, and so my speech was left unspoken.  This was likely better for all of us (though, come to think of it, it would have probably provided at least some variation from my incessant whining about cherry tomatoes and unending batches of pizza dough). 

On to the dough making… you’ve seen this before, but we all like looking at dough, so here are some more pictures. 

I took my starters out of the fridge, and mixed up the dough as per Heston’s directions: 


Then, I measured out the dough balls, and tried to figure out where they could rise.  During the dough testing, I had noticed that the dough tended to stick to the aluminum foil while it was rising, so this time I oiled the foil first.  I couldn’t let the dough rise on the dining room table, as that was needed for party purposes, so had to figure out another place for it to rise that was safe from dogs, cats, and flies.  I believe I was quite ingenious here: 


After the dough was made, and the alternate pizza toppings were readied for post-testing pizza making, we frantically cleaned up the house, and got ready for pizza hour.  Finally, we were ready to go. 

Wait!“, you say.  “When you made the perfect roast chicken, you also made an imperfect version.  In fact, in the rules, you said that you would always make an imperfect version for comparison purposes.  But I have seen no mention of an imperfect pizza whatsoever in the saga of the perfect pizza.  All I’ve seen is you bitching about dough and cherry tomatoes!  Liar, liar, pants on fire!!!” 

Fear not, dear reader.  I did say I would always make an imperfect version of Heston’s “perfect” recipe, using the methods and recipes that I traditionally use.  In this case, it was easy.  Pizza is traditionally made here at Villa GoodEnough using this recipe: 


So, we called two of our local pizza pushers, one that is internationally known and may or may not rhyme with “She’s a Nut”, and a local restaurant where I may or may not have purchased my pizza flour from in an earlier post.  We’ll refer to them as “She’saNut” and “Steve’s”.  In both cases we ordered their version of a Margherita, though “She’saNut” didn’t call theirs a Margherita.  Instead they called it a “plain cheese pizza with tomato sauce”.   We also asked them to deliver for 7:30.  They were both splendidly on time. 

When our guests had arrived (including a couple of additional children), we beveraged them, gave them our newly created, detailed scoresheet, and tried to let them know exactly what was going on and we were after (my dog walking pals and our veteran testers from Estonia were in the know, but their spouses and children and our other guests just thought they were coming over for pizza).  I’m afraid that, this more or less fell on deaf ears.  Ah well.  

Once the “imperfect pizzas” had turned up, we started in on our own perfect pizza creation. 

First, we rolled out the dough for two perfect pizzas.  Then we topped it with a couple of spoonfuls of tomato sauce, and some of the dried cherry tomatoes that I had laboured over.  Thankfully, a little sauce went a long way, so we had some left over.  In this picture you can see one pizza being rolled out, with the other having toppings applied in the background: 


  Finally, we topped it with torn pieces of the spendy-spendy mozarella that we’d bought, and bunged it on the barbeque (which had been preheating for some time). 


My handsome husband worked both as dough roller and pizza cook.  It was about thirty degrees Celsius outside, and the BBQ was set to eleven.  You can see that being a pizza chef was hot, sweaty work! 

After the 90 seconds that each pizza spent on the grill, it came back inside and was topped with fresh basil.  It was also supposed to get a sprinkling of smoked sea salt (which I had purchased) but I just plain forgot.  (In fact I didn’t realise that I had forgot until I was rummaging around in my spice cupboard about a week later and saw the smoked salt.  So shoot me.)  Here’s how it looked once it was cut into testing-sized pieces: 


Pretty damn good, if I do say so myself.  Here’s a close-up: 


We ensured that everyone had a scoresheet, and put the perfect pizza onto the table beside its imperfect friends (which the children, being starving children fresh from a rugby tournament, and entirely missing/not caring about the point because they were STARVING, and it was PIZZA, had already made substantial inroads into) and the testing began. 

How’d it go?  Well, you know how I said that the testing criteria for the Perfect Chicken was highly unspecific?  I think we went a wee bit too specific for this one.  Either that or we should have had a focus group the day before on how to use the scoresheet and score the pizzas.  Or made sure that our testing group understood more of the absolute deadly seriousness in which I regarded the testing and rating of the pizza.  (Seriously – absolutely lovely people, wonderful guests, but completely not understanding of an obsessed woman’s search for definitive answers in pizza creation.)  Or maybe it was me.  Anyway, the results were a bit odd.  Beyond that, you really could see a difference between the perfect pizza and its “imperfect” buddies.  So, a blind taste test it was not.  Alas.  Once again, scoring and testing will need to be modified for the next bout. 

“Quit your blather, woman.  Get along to the results please.” 

Okay, okay.  But first, let’s play an exciting round of “Guess who filed away all of the perfect pizza scoresheets and now can’t find them”! 

Yes, it was I. 


So, from memory.  There were a few people who did not prefer the perfect pizza.  One found it too tomatoey, and doesn’t actually like tomatoes, so that was that.  This person (who shall not be named, but is now about 5 1/2 months pregnant, a fantastic tennis player, and hails from a former Soviet republic which has made amazing strides since its independence and is one of the places that I really, really want to visit), preferred the pizza sourced from “She’saNut”.  One or two preferred the distribution of cheese and topping on “Steve’s” pizza.  The rest were overwhelmingly in favour of Heston’s.  So, in order of finish, we had: 

  1. Heston’s Perfect Pizza
  2. “Steve’s” Margherita
  3. “She’sanut” Cheese & Tomato

And now, a picture of the testing process.  Note the diligent person filling out his or her scoresheet, and the two plates of “imperfect” pizza which had been decimated by the herd of locusts children (we’d ordered two pizzas from each restaurant, so were able to supply more): 


Once the testing was done, we moved on the “Make your own pizza” part of the event.  This was a hoot.  We have a long breakfast bar in our kitchen (which you can see me sitting at during the day of the tomatoes), so we organized a dough-rolling area, and topping assembly line. The kids were up first (with dough rolling assistance from the wimmenfolk who were around): 


Aren’t they beautiful boys?  Nice, polite children as well.  They also loved the fact that they got to make and top their own pizzas (and ate up the results with no qualms at all, despite having filled up on “imperfect” pizza before they made their own.  Of course, my dog was around to offer assistance if necessary).  In fact, the “Make your own pizza” event worked so well with the kids, that I think it’s a great idea if you were having a children’s party.  (Disclaimer:  I have no children, and any such advice I give regarding children/children’s parties/childbirth/child-raising in general should be regarded accordingly.

After the kids were finished with the pizzas, the adults had a go.  They had to roll their own dough.  Interestingly enough, most of them commented: “Well, your pizza was awfully good, but this, this! is a perfect pizza!” (while pointing at / eating their own creations).   For the record, my own perfect pizza is one topped with ground beef, mushrooms, black olives, onion, and feta cheese, and which comes from Hollywood Pizza in Edmonton, AB.  It’s a thick-crust, “Greek-style” pizza, and is absolutely nothing like Heston’s pizza. 

Here’s one of the perfect pizzas: 


And someone else made the Perfect Pac-Man: 


While this was going on, I made some observations on dough rolling technique.  Sorry ladies, but them ones with the Y chromosome were vastly better at rolling out their pizza dough.  Of course, they were also vastly slower, and were more focused on the beer-drinking/bullshitting part of the evening as opposed to the children-wrangling bit, but ladies, if you are having a “Make your own pizza party” for your child, put the dough-rolling into a man’s hands.  They love, love, love to do it too!  

We had another observer of the festivities, but he hasn’t made any comments about the evening, aside from a request that we invite any more dogs to his house (there were three including our own).  He watched from the top of the highest cupboard, and watched very carefully indeed: 

Hey! Where are you going with that pizza?


Finally, after everyone else had made their pizzas, and were happily munching away, my husband and I pizza’d ourselves and joined the group.  It was a very satisfying feeling. 

But enough about the party.  Would I do this again? 

Most certainly.  Once you took away the dough-testing insanity, the pizza dough was very, very easy to make and tasty to boot.  Admittedly, the tomato part of the recipe is a bit fiddly, but you could certainly make a whole bunch of pizza sauce and jar it for a later date.  If you do want dried tomatoes on top, I’m pretty sure that these could be frozen as well.  I am intending to try this recipe again, but this time I’m going to use Roma tomatoes instead of cherry to see if they’re “good enough”.  But if you do have a surplus of cherry tomatoes and some time to kill, I don’t think that you’d go wrong making Heston’s tomato sauce (and lots of it). 

As for time, supposing that you had everything ready to go, making your own pizzas, even in an oven, would probably take less time than it would to order a pizza over the phone. 

Have I done this again? 

Well, no.  Pizza is an unplanned event here at Villa GoodEnough, usually because we’re too wiped out to be arsed to do anything else.  But, honestly, this pizza was such a cut above any takeout pizza that it really should be planned for.  It really is awfully damned perfect. 

Coming up next:  I dunno.  What do you think? 

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!