Musings on Pizza No. 2

Mise en place againPizza was one of those things I thought about when my hot flashes from my ongoing hormone treatment awoke me in the middle of the night this past week. Several times, in fact. As I tossed and turned I thought about my pizza-making process as I recently described here and wondered. I had received some comments about it, too, which prompted my continued meditations on pizza.

I’ve been making pizza that way for years with only minor changes or alterations in the steps, but I first asked myself, “Can I simplify it?” Then came other questions: Can I change the rack height in the oven? Alter the steps? Alter the order of ingredients?  Reduce the number of warnings? I rose the next day determined to experiment.

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Finding a Breakfast Cereal With No Added Sugar

Dorset museli, blue boxWhy is it so difficult to find a breakfast cereal without added sugar? Even your basic, unadorned bran flakes have added sugar in them! And not just a small amount. While I’m sure there are commercial brands of cereal without sugar or some alternative sweetener, I’m struggling to find many (if any) on local grocery store shelves.

I’m not against sugar per se. It belongs in desserts and candy. I like some ice cream or frozen yogurt for dessert at times. And I sometimes enjoy a few slices of candied ginger after dinner. I even enjoy ginger marmalade on toast on rare occasions. But I don’t want candy for breakfast, and that’s what most of the cereals I’ve looked at appear to be.

I want to be able to control the amount of sweetness in my meals, not have it dictated by a corporation. Sugar content, like salt, is too important to our health to have others decide it for me. I’m an obsessive label reader for both sugar and salt content in packaged food, and for good reason: there’s too much of both in too many products.

I wasn’t always a breakfast eater. In fact, for most of my life, I’ve skipped both breakfast and lunch. At most I might have a banana or a cup of yogurt in the morning. A big breakfast for me was a couple of pieces of toast and peanut butter. Most of the time, I just skipped it. I only really started eating breakfast regularly recently, after my surgery and radiation treatment. I found that I needed the fibre and the probiotics to help restore my gut health (radiation played havoc on my bowels). So I started to look for simple, sugarless breakfast cereal for my daily consumption.

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Musings on Making Pizza

The finished pizza

I have to admit that I like pizza a lot. Well, I guess most of us do. I like cheese, and I liked cooked cheese even more, and I like vegetables, so pizza is up there as a mealtime favourite. We don’t eat it frequently, perhaps once month or less often.

These days I make it myself: we don’t order it from a restaurant or pizzeria, although we’ve had it from them when we went out for dinner (back in the pre-pandemic days). Nothing against anyone else’s pizza, but I like the process of making it, so I seldom buy it pre-made.

A pre-mixed pizza dough kit.

Over the past five-and-some decades, I’ve had pizzas in many places I’ve travelled to, including cities famous for their versions of it, like New York and Chicago. I’ve had “authentic” Italian-style pizza at many restaurants, too, here and in other cities. I’ve even had frozen, grocery-store pizzas.

I’ve had it on various dough shells, on flatbreads, on naan, and on bagels. I’ve had it with homemade and store-bought doughs. 

I still think my own production is better than many, if not most I’ve encountered. It’s a relatively easy meal to prepare, and it usually lasts us two nights, so it’s also inexpensive. My method takes a little longer to prepare than some recipes suggest, but I think it’s worth the wait. It’s even better when I have the time to prepare the dough, but I’m going to describe another option here: buying a pre-made pizza shell.

Pre-made pizza shell, one of several brands available locally.

The best pizza is always made with fresh dough, but I’ll admit to a certain laziness: fresh dough takes time to prepare, rise, and roll. Since we often decide to have pizza while we’re shopping rather than planning it in advance, I seldom have the time to make my own dough, even though we tend to eat late (7-8 p.m. most nights). Instead, I opt to buy a pre-made pizza shell, preferably thin crust, at a local grocery store. You can also buy packaged dough mix, frozen dough, or ready-to-heat dough mixes. The prepared shells are adequate for me.

But simply because the crust is premade, doesn’t mean I treat the rest as an instant product. I put time and effort into every step along the way, and have worked out this method over many years of practice and experimentation. The proof of my success is that Susan likes my pizza, too.

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Musings on Making Pasta, No. 5

Mafaldine pasta nnoodles dryingI was back at making pasta this week, trying a slightly different recipe, and working on honing my skills with the pasta machine. As well, I  was hoping to get my recently-acquired mafaldine cutter attachment operating correctly (you might recall reading about the problems I had with it clogging in the previous post on pasta making).

My usual mix for pasta dough is a ratio of about two-to-one tipo 00 flour to semolina. Thinking about that, I wondered if the gluten in the lower-protein tipo 00 flour was not working very well with the different, tougher, and less elastic gluten in the higher-protein semolina. I wanted the semolina for its texture and strength, but I’ve also found my dough sometimes resists rolling, and can break instead of laminating smoothly. Perhaps the mix was not appropriate and had too much semolina. But I thought to try the change of flour first.

I’ve also found that, because I roll a thin pasta noodle, the drying noodles frequently break at the limb of the drying rack. I wondered if the two different glutens were not bonding sufficiently to hold the noodle together (this might also be the result of the weight of the noodle pulling the dough too thinly across the limb; perhaps a shorter noodle might suffice?).

I decided to use unbleached all-purpose (AP) flour this time instead of tipo 00. Many of the recipes I’ve found online and in my pasta books recommend it, sometimes exclusively. I used it in my very first efforts at homemade pasta, but switched to tipo 00 shortly after, when I discovered a local source (I use unbleached AP flour for my bread, too). This time, I hoped the higher protein in the AP flour would provide more and stronger gluten to help the noodles stay intact.

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More Musings on Tea

Oolong teaBack in 1946, while England was still recovering from the deprivations of WWII and under rationing, the prolific George Orwell wrote his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea” with his eleven-step instructions for making what he considered the perfect cuppa.* But do they still stand today? Certainly, his notion of what makes a “strong” tea would be considered very strong by standards today.

As the BBC noted in an article that debunked many of Orwell’s notions about making tea almost 60 years later, “The great critic of Hitler and Stalin, was not above a bit of teatime Totalitarianism himself, it seems.” I personally think Orwell had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote it, but others take it more seriously.  Like other foods, tea invites passionate responses when someone’s tastes or techniques are challenged. Orwell recognized that his list would be controversial, writing, 

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. 

I recently read again Orwell’s piece on tea in the Everyman’s Library edition of Orwell’s Essays (a 1,300-page collection I am slowly, and somewhat meanderingly working my way through). So I thought I might revisit some thoughts on tea. It prompted me to re-assess the contents of my own tea cupboards, and to re-open some of my books on tea.

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Musings on Making Bread and Chili, No. 1

Recent breadLongtime readers here know that before my surgery last summer, along with my pasta making I was an avid, if not always entirely competent, baker. I mostly made bread from “scratch” but sometimes for convenience used an electric bread maker. I made all sorts of bread in previous years, including soda (“quick”) breads, as well as the occasional scone, tea biscuit, and muffin.

I’ve always looked upon my baking (and cooking in general) as a sort of living chemistry experiment. I play with recipes, tweak them, explore different ingredients and processes. I have produced some spectacular loaves, a lot of adequate loaves, and a few bricks. I had a lot of fun, and a little bit of frustration, from my baking.*

In fact, I enjoy cooking in general because it is a creative art. Not that I’m an artist, but I have a reasonable level of competence in the kitchen, I’m willing to try new ideas and recipes, I enjoy experimenting with foods, flavours, textures, and developing my own recipes.

Most recent loafWell, I’m getting back into baking after all this time. My first loaf was in the bread machine: a “French bread” recipe tweaked as is my wont to make it more interesting. In this case, I added roughly two tablespoons of Fiorfiore’s “dry sourdough” mixture (purchased locally at Walmart) to the dry ingredients, plus a tablespoon of molasses (for colour and sweetness because I reduced the amount of sugar in the recipe), and substituted 1/2 cup of AP flour for whole wheat.  And I substituted a bit of 1% milk instead of the called-for water.

Overall, the result was good. Tall, nicely chewy crust, solid crumb. And the latter was important. Plus it tasted good. I think the addition of the sourdough mix really helped.

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Review: The Ultimate Pasta Machine Cookbook

The Ultimate Pasta Machine CookbookThe Ultimate Pasta Machine Cookbook: 100 Recipes for Every Kind of Amazing Pasta Your Pasta Maker Can Make, by Lucy Vaserfirer, Paperback, 208 pages, Published in 2020 by Harvard Common Press, Beverly, MA, USA.

I am disappointed. At almost $40, I don’t believe the book delivers what the title promises. I expected a book with “ultimate” in its title to have a LOT more information on actually using the machinery, and about the various types and styles, with plenty of photos and explanations, but there is very little of that. It’s mostly recipes.

Nothing at all on the differences between types of manual machines or their manufacturers, different attachments (or how to use them), nothing on deep cleaning or maintenance. I wanted technical information, and details, but got general guidance. 

Vasefirer is the author of several other cookbooks and has a good rating on Goodreads, but since I have not read them, I can only comment on this, her latest book. Before I bought this book, I read many reviews on Goodreads and other sites, but now think the writers didn’t actually read the book before heaping praises on it, or at least not with the critical eye of someone using a pasta machine or looking for technical and other details.

As readers here know, I use an Atlas Wellness 150 manual pasta machine manufactured by Marcato, as well as the company’s Regina pasta extruder. I have written about my pasta experiences of late (you can read the recent posts here and some older posts here and others, including my book reviews, here). I have been searching of late for more technical information and descriptions about the machinery, looking through my books on pasta and bread making, as well as online. The best information about the equipment I’ve found so far has been on sites for crafters and modellers using the machines for rolling clay dough!

But I am also looking for technical and even scientific information about flour, gluten, hydration, the chemistry of mixed ingredients, dough formation, and the processes and techniques of rolling and cutting (and what equipment is best for different pastas). 

I didn’t get much if anything of that from Vaserfirer’s book. Let me explain why…

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Musings on Making Pasta, No. 4

Mafaldine attachment cloggedI made another batch of pasta this weekend to test my new mafaldine cutter, but it proved problematic . The dough jammed in it against the blades, so I had to switch to my lasagne ricce cutter, which worked perfectly. Because it got so deeply stuck, I had to remove the blade piece on the new cutter and spend some time fishing tiny bits of dough from the teeth.

I will have to contact the seller and manufacturer to see if there is something I can do to prevent this in the future. I plan to do a test in the near future, not for cooking but just to see if there are criteria that affect it, such as the thickness or the dryness of the dough. The same dough worked fine in the fettuccine cutter and lasagne ricce, so it must be something I wasn’t aware of specific to this device or style, or perhaps the dough itself.

Dough ballMeanwhile, I had decided to make a dough with 100g Tipo 00 flour and 50g semolina, plus two eggs (instead of 1 whole and 1 yolk), 1/2 tsp olive oil, a pinch of turmeric (for colour), and a pinch of salt. Plus water as required to moisten the dough. Just a minor variation on my usual recipe.

It’s an easy dough to make, but I got distracted while mixing and added some water to the flour before adding the eggs. When I did add the eggs, the dough was too wet (eggs add a lot of liquid).  I had to add more of the two flours to compensate until it was finally dry enough to knead. The kneaded dough ball weighed 387g before I left it to rest. That was more than I had planned for.

When the hour of resting was up, the dough still felt a bit too wet, so I sprinkled each piece with flour before rolling, and between laminations did that again. Eventually, I was able to roll and cut the noodles without any issues or sticking. As in the past, I rolled through stages from setting zero to the number six setting on my Atlas machine, which I measured at around 0.66mm for squeezing the dough (and 0.35mm for pushing paper through the gap). This makes a thin, fragile sheet of dough.

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Musings on Making Pasta, No.3

Atlas Pasta machine 01How thick should any particular type of pasta be? Seems like a simple question that could be answered by a basic chart or spreadsheet. But if it has been, I’ll be damned if I can find one online. In my numerous books on pasta, only a few actually give recommended thicknesses for making your own. Anything that deals with dried, store-bought pasta simply deals with the type of noodle and recommended cooking times, not its thickness.

I’ve scoured my many books and the internet looking for this information so I could build a simple chart that told me what roller setting I should use for different flat pastas. I cobbled together bits and pieces of information, along with my own measurements, to come up with the charts below.

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