Because I’m just that nice, let me let you all in on a pizza-dough-making secret I seem to have just figured out, despite having made my own pizza dough for going on two years now. Scratch that — before last week, I thought I was making pizza dough, but it turns out I was making something that was related to pizza dough only via two marriages and three step-cousins. What did I learn? That when nearly every recipe tells you to slowly add your yeast/water mix to your flour, they’re all smoking crack — the key appears to be the exact opposite, slowly adding the flour to the water. Making that one change has led to two of the best pizza crusts I’ve ever made.

So, my standard (honey wheat) pizza dough recipe now stands as:

I start off by putting the honey in the bottom of a bowl that’s big enough to eventually hold all the ingredients, and then I add the water and stir it around a little bit to dissolve all the honey. I then slowly sprinkle the yeast on top of the liquid, stirring it in a little bit with a fork as I sprinkle. I set this aside and set a timer for 10 minutes, glancing over every now and then to make sure that a frothy layer is forming atop the liquid (showing that the yeast is doing its thing). While that’s going on, I measure my flour out into a smaller bowl and mix it up a bit so that the wheat and white is distributed throughout. (Remember to measure your flour correctly!)

Once the 10 minutes is up, I add my salt to the yeast/honey/water mixture, and then start slowly adding in flour. I begin by adding just a little bit and stirring the mixture around with the fork; after the flour is stirred in, I add a bit more, stir a bit more, and continue that process until the mixture approximates the consistency of pancake batter. (At this point, I’ve used around 2/3 of the flour.) I keep adding the flour slowly, but at this point it takes a little bit of care to make sure that each time I add any flour it gets mixed in as well as possible, a process ends up taking another minute or two before I’m done. At the end of it all, I’m left with the result that eluded me these past two years, a dough ball that’s soft and stretchy throughout, easily kneadable, and soft as the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Finally, I hand-knead the ball of dough for 15 minutes, put it into an olive oil-coated bowl, and cover it with a damp cloth to rise for an hour or so. (If I have time, I punch it down and let it rise another 30-45 minutes, although I’m not convinced that this changes things a lot.) At the end, I cut the dough ball in half, freeze one part of it, and make pizza with the other! (Just to complete the recipe, I make all my pizzas with fresh mozzarella, and I swear by Rebecca’s no-cook pizza sauce.)

As I said, I’ve been extremely happy with this recipe, so much so that I wonder if some trick was being played with me for the past two years’ worth of subpar pizza dough. From start of ingredient prep to the end of kneading, it takes me just around 30 minutes; I’m hopeful that now that I have it perfected, I’ll continue to put the time in even after the baby comes in March!

Tonight’s pizza dough recipe, based mostly on Jeff Varasano’s painstaking work:

  • 3 ½ cups of flour;
  • 1 ½ cups of water;
  • 2 teaspoons of kosher salt;
  • 2 teaspoons of dried baker’s yeast.

Following his recommended preparation method, I mixed three cups of flour with all the water, salt, and yeast in my KitchenAid, blended it all together for two minutes (using the mixing paddle and the slowest speed), and then covered it and let it sit for 20 minutes. Following this, I switched to the kneading hook and mixed at the slowest speed for another five minutes; I sped up the mixer (only to the next-highest setting) and added the final half a cup of flour slowly over three minutes more. I again covered it and let it sit for 20 minutes, after which I transferred it to a well-floured cutting board, divided it into three portions, and transferred them into containers that had been wiped with the lightest of oil coatings. These are now in the fridge, and tomorrow evening, I’ll grab one of them, let it sit at room temp for around 30 to 60 minutes, and then try it out!

Since moving to Washington, DC, Shannon and I have been trying to be much better about cooking dinner for ourselves as often as possible, and putting some time aside early in the weekend to plan the coming week’s worth of dinners (mostly so we can make a grocery list and go to Eastern Market to grab everything we need!). Last weekend, while paging through a few of my favorite cookbooks looking for new things to try, I decided that it was as good a time as any to learn how to make pizza, so we added all the various ingredients to our list and penciled it into our dinner plans for mid-week. (Well, we grabbed almost everything; I also ordered a pizza stone online, since I love my pizza crusts crispy.) After finishing up as the attending on the pediatric oncology service on Wednesday morning, I made my very first pizza Thursday evening, and I’m pleased to report that it wasn’t bad at all!

My first pizza.

I made my pizza dough using the basic recipe from The Silver Spoon, and I used Rebecca Blood’s no-cook pizza sauce as a base for my sauce and diced-up fresh mozzarella cheese from the dairy counter at Eastern Market as the only topping on the pizza. All in all, I was pretty happy with how everything turned out (well, except for a near-disaster that made clear to me how important it is that I get myself a pizza peel!) — but my happiness faded a bit once I read through Jeff Varasano’s treatise on his years of trying to reproduce the perfect Patsy’s pizza. (That link appears to be the most popular thing on the internet right now, resulting in Jeff taking the content down; it’s mirrored by the good folks at SliceNY, though.)

After reading Jeff’s observations, I can see about a thousand ways to work on my pizza technique and results. For one, it’s clear that I can put a lot more care and attention into my pizza dough, something that actually sounds like fun to me. Likewise, using authentic sourdough yeast cultures looks like it can improve the taste of a pizza crust about a millionfold, so it’s time to start getting an understanding about how someone like me (who only intends to make the occasional pizza here and there) might be able to use them without it becoming a huge pain in the butt. And finally (since I have absolutely no intention of hacking my oven and using the cleaning cycle to cook pizzas at 800 degrees!), I need to play around with doughmaking enough to understand which parts of Jeff’s recommendations are specific to high-temperature baking, and which parts play an important role even at the more pedestrian temperatures that home ovens achieve. In any event, I can feel a bit of a pizza obsession creeping into my being… here’s hoping for many happy returns on that obsession.

Ok, this makes me sad. I’m a huge macaroni and cheese aficionado; seriously, I’ll eat it almost any time it’s on a menu, and almost descended into clinical depression when one of my favorite local restaurants took its mac and cheese with chorizo off the menu. Imagine how happy I was, then, when the venerated New York Times published a “Crusty Macaroni and Cheese” recipe two weeks ago, alongside an accompanying article that went into a lengthy discussion of how hard a good, homemade mac and cheese is, and how the included recipe managed to make it a lot easier by not using white sauce (the mixture of butter, flour, and milk that helps the cheese achieve a melted, smooth, and gooey state). I printed the recipe and put it aside, intending to give it a whirl in the coming weeks.

Apparently, I’m not the only one that noticed the recipe; along with about a million webloggers, Slate’s Sara Dickerman found it, and was immediately suspicious of its no-white-sauce claims. She made the recipe twice, and got uniformly unsatisfactory results — “leathery shield” and “unpleasantly unctuous” were descriptions she applied to the concoctions she ended up with. That’s dissapointing… but a validation of the fact that there really is no way around putting a moderate amount of work into the perfect mac and cheese. Oh, well!

Getting wedding gifts from people has been more fun than I thought it would be (it’s still a little weird that people are giving us stuff to celebrate us making a commitment to each other!), and one of the things we got early on that’s made me incredibly happy is a Lodge 12” cast-iron skillet. (If you’re not at the point where a wedding registry is in your life, you can get your own from Amazon for the bank-breaking sum of $13, or from Crate & Barrel for $22.) Last night, I decided to use the skillet to prepare part of our first home-cooked meal as married folk, a cut of sirloin steak. Being the dork I am, I did a little research on different ways to make sirloin in a cast-iron skillet, and ended up with a method that was as damn near perfect as I can imagine coming out of my kitchen.

First, I set the oven to preheat to 350º, put the skillet on the largest gas burner, and turned it on to its highest setting. Then I rubbed each side of the sirloin with a generous portion of salt and a little pepper, and let it sit at room temperature while the oven and skillet heated up. Once the oven was heated and the skillet was hot enough (a good test is sprinkling a little water on the skillet surface; if the water balls up and rolls around a little bit before evaporating, it’s perfect), I put the sirloin in — 30 to 45 seconds on one side, 30 to 45 seconds on the other side, then about 3 more minutes on each side. Once that was done, I put the entire skillet into the oven for another eight minutes (with my slightly-more-than-an-inch-thick steak, good for cooking to medium; add another minute or two for medium well to well-done, or take off a minute or two for a rarer meat temperature). Finally, I took the steak out, put it onto a heated plate, and covered it with tin foil for five or so minutes, enough to let the meat contract a little bit while keeping all the juices inside.

In the end, the meat was done nearly perfectly — Shannon suggested that I use a little garlic powder along with the salt and pepper next time. And since the cast-iron skillet is well-seasoned, cleanup was a cinch! The only thing to be warned about is the stovetop cooking step — know that it’ll generate a little more smoke than you’d probably expect, so be sure to have either your stovetop fan running, or (if you’re like us and don’t have one!) have a window open and a nearby fan helping circulate the air. And remember that you might want to disable any nearby smoke detectors!