Articles in Technique
When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there were two kinds of pizza: round and square. The “square” variety was technically rectangular, a deep-dish pizza with a crispy crust and sauce on top of the cheese. Given a choice of shapes, I almost always wanted square.
After moving to California as an adult, I thought it was odd that pizza came in only one shape (round), but until recently, I never realized that the square pizza of my childhood was unique to Detroit.
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My pizza epiphany came during a visit to Texas a few months ago. My husband and I were exploring the hipster bar scene on Austin’s Rainey Street when we spotted a food truck called Via 313. (313 is Detroit’s area code.) Sure enough, the truck was serving up “Detroit-style pizza” to hungry bar-hoppers.
I thought this was a fluke until I learned that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, locally famous for its regional Italian and American pizzas, also offers a Detroit-style pie.
Motor City pizza in Texas and California? Further investigation was clearly in order. How did this regional style of pizza originate, and why is it suddenly appearing in other parts of the country?
A crusty tale
It all began in 1946 with a Detroit tavern called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Soldiers returning home from World War II had developed a taste for European foods, so Buddy’s owner August “Gus” Guerra created a square pizza based on a Sicilian recipe. Because square pizza pans were hard to come by, he improvised with heavy steel trays used by Detroit’s automakers to hold car parts.
Buddy’s Pizza quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and competing Detroit pizza joints, such as Cloverleaf and Shield’s, adopted the tavern’s unique pizza style. Buddy’s now has 11 restaurants in the Detroit area and still makes its pizza using Guerra’s 1946 recipe.
Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations for Buddy’s Pizza, described the defining features of Detroit’s original square pizza. “We place the pepperoni under the cheese, in part to flavor the crust, and so it doesn’t burn during the cooking process,” he said. “We use brick cheese from Wisconsin (a medium-soft cheese similar to a white cheddar), and we place the sauce on top of all the ingredients.”
The result is a pizza with a light-textured crust and caramelized cheese around the edges.
More than six decades after Buddy’s introduced its trend-setting pizza, a Detroit-style pie scored top honors at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Pizza Maker of the Year award went to Shawn Randazzo, a Cloverleaf veteran who launched Detroit Style Pizza Company later that year. Randazzo now owns three pizzerias in the Detroit area.
Although that would have been enough for many restaurateurs, Randazzo has a grander vision in mind. Through his Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Program, Randazzo is helping entrepreneurs across the country introduce their customers to the Detroit style of pizza.
“My big eye opener came in 2009 when I entered my first pizza competition at the [North America] Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, which had over 70 competitors from across the country,” he said. “I was just a five-hour drive from Detroit, but I was the only competitor who had a square pizza with cheese to the edge. I couldn’t believe it.”
When Randazzo’s pizza won the top prize, he realized that most of the world was missing out on one of America’s great regional pizza styles.
So far nine pizza makers have completed the Detroit Style Pizza Maker program, and Randazzo has consulted for dozens of others, including clients from Thailand and Korea. Program graduates have opened pizzerias in Virginia and Kentucky, and one is currently setting up shop in Maine.
Making it right
“An authentic Detroit-style pizza requires a dough recipe that has a much higher hydration level than typical pizza dough,” Randazzo explained. “In bakers’ percentage, water content should be around 70% or more, which aids the fermentation process. The high water content also helps produce a light and airy crust.”
Pizzas assembled in the traditional pepperoni-cheese-sauce arrangement are baked at 525 F in seasoned pans made of rolled black steel. (The original Buddy’s pans were made of blue steel, but the manufacturer stopped producing them a few years ago.) If the positive feedback he receives from former students is any indication, the Detroit pizzavangelist’s efforts are working.
“I believe at the rate it’s been going,” Randazzo said, “Detroit-style pizza will become just as popular as New York and Chicago styles.”
Taking it on the road
Around the same time that Randazzo was wowing pizza competition judges in Ohio, Zane Hunt and his brother Brandon were cooking up a Detroit-style pizza concept of their own. In 2010, the Detroit-area natives rolled out their first Via 313 food truck in their adopted home of Austin.
“When I moved to Austin in the summer of 2009, I was on a quest to find foods that reminded me of home,” Zane said. “Brandon was still in Detroit at this point and we often talked about finding that one spot that served the pizza of home. He moved here a short time later and we ate at about 150 pizza places over the course of a year. Along the way it was becoming obvious that the pizza we loved in Detroit didn’t exist here.”
Determined to bring Detroit-style pizza to Austin, the brothers began a trial-and-error process to perfect their recipe. “Our dough mixture changed more than 75 times,” Zane recalled. “We were like mad pizza scientists.”
Less than a year after they launched Via 313, they added a second trailer to the fleet.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Zane said. “Here we are in 2014 and the style has gained serious steam around the country. It makes us proud to know we’re part of spreading the word outside of Detroit.”
A San Francisco convert
Tony Gemignani, 11-time World Pizza Champion and owner of three San Francisco pizzerias, didn’t grow up with Detroit-style pizza. But he has become an enthusiastic convert.
Gemignani serves a Detroit-style pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, and teaches restaurateurs and home cooks to make it at his International School of Pizza, also in San Francisco. He’s also launching a Detroit-style pizza concept at the D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.
He first sampled Detroit-style pizza 16 years ago while doing a commercial for a Detroit pizza chain, and his interest in the style was rekindled years later by a student in one of his American pizza courses. Gemignani went back to Detroit to research the type, and ultimately added a Detroit-style pizza to the menu at Tony’s.
When pressed by his students to compare Detroit pizza to other styles, he describes it as a sort of Chicago-Sicilian hybrid. But even that isn’t quite right. “When it comes to the process, everything’s a little different,” Gemignani said.
The best way to show people what makes Detroit pizza unique, he said, is to have them taste it. In a recent class that included two die-hard New York pizza fans, Gemignani added two more believers to the Detroit pizza cause. “They were really skeptics about it, but then after they ate it they said, ‘Man, this is [expletive] good!’ ”
He then asked the students how they would classify the Detroit-style pizza. Sicilian? Pan? “No,” they said. “This is in its own category.”
Editor’s note: Black steel pans and pizza-making kits are available through the Detroit Style Pizza Company’s website. This fall, Tony Gemignani will release a cookbook that includes recipes for Detroit-style pizza.
Top photo: Via 313′s Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
Everyone claims to want to cook simple food. As soon as we’re in the kitchen, things aren’t so simple. It’s actually hard to cook simple dishes because we cooks always want to fiddle or add things or just not stand around looking at “simple,” because simple doesn’t require much, that’s why it’s called simple.
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The irony is that once we start our fiddling and the simple dish becomes more complicated, it often ends up not the best thing in the world. Here’s the deal, I think. You’ve got to trust your food. You’ve got to trust that raw food is actually delicious without you manipulating it beyond recognition. You’re not Ferran Adrià, and furthermore, that’s a style of cooking that should not necessarily be replicated.
So in this recipe I’m going to ask you to force yourself not to work too hard, which will mean you’ll have to resist the temptation to add herbs, spices or other stuff, such as truffle oil or kale or whatever. In this simple dish you’ve got to do nothing. There are only six ingredients (if you count the salt), but how they interact is the magic of cooking.
In this preparation, you’ll sauté the escarole, a slightly bitter green when eaten raw. It’s also called chicory since it’s a kind of chicory, along with Savoy cabbage, which is crinkly leafed cabbage with leaves that are more tender than the common green cabbage. Finally you’ll stir in the spinach for the briefest of moments, just until the leaves wilt. Now eat it — don’t do anything else. Don’t garnish it.
Simple Escarole, Cabbage and Spinach
Serves 4 as a side dish
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
¾ pound escarole (chicory), washed well and thinly sliced
¾ pound Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
½ pound spinach leaves
1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic starts sizzling.
2. Add the escarole and cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until a minute past wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, only until it is wilted, about 1 minute.
4. Salt to your taste and serve hot.
Top photo: Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
The chimney top peeks over a fence just off the main street of downtown Point Reyes Station, Calif., wisps of smoke drifting out. The smell of burning wood is accompanied by the aroma of freshly baked bread on the morning air, as the cottage housing Brickmaiden Breads churns out the day’s loaves.
Where to eat and buy Brickmaiden Bread:
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Inside, the yawning mouth of the wood oven is filled with dancing flame, warming the room while owner Celine Underwood measures out ingredients for the next batch of dough.
“Bread is my passion,” she says. “I started baking it when I was a teenager.”
And her passion has become a thriving business with a dedicated following of restaurant accounts and customers throughout the Bay Area who look forward to Brickmaiden’s flavorful crumb and chewy crust. The process that creates the artisan loaves is at once old-fashioned in technique and thoroughly modern.
Wood-fired oven at work all day
All the loaves are levain leavened, meaning a starter is used instead of yeast. The starter is a living thing, sometimes called wild yeast, which needs to be fed everyday and picks up the terroir of the area in the form of bacteria, imparting a flavor and texture that is particular to Point Reyes. The starter is the very beginning of the bread and contributes to Brickmaiden’s characteristic texture and flavor.
The dough is mixed up, shaped and then left in a retarder overnight, where it slowly rises. The retarding process encourages fermentation, which helps break down the proteins in the flour. This makes the bread easier to digest and the nutrients more readily absorbed by the body.
Meanwhile, the vast oven is heating up. It is an imposing structure that is faced with brick and takes up most of the interior of the cottage. Through its wide opening, the brick-lined ceiling is visible, as is the fire that’s building the heat for that day’s bake. It takes 12 to 14 hours to get the oven fired completely, a process that starts with getting the temperature up to 900 F (measured with a thermocoupler buried in the oven as well as a “heat gun,” a type of laser thermometer).
At this point no more wood is added and as the fire burns down to coals, heat saturates the bricks and the temperature begins to drop. When 600 F is reached, the oven is ready for baking. The coals are shoveled into an ash can and the surface stone is brushed and cleaned off. Now the first batch of loaves goes in.
It seems tricky to depend on such a temperamental, time-consuming device, but Underwood loves baking with fire.
“I’m attracted to the simplicity of it, working with the fire element,” she says.
It is a dance of coordination to have the dough ready at the same time the oven is and to get the temperature to hold long enough to bake the supply for each day.
The Brickmaiden crust and flavor
The oven can hold 70 loaves at a time. Brickmaiden does about six loads per day, baking more than 400 baguettes, rolls, Pullman sandwich bread, and several types of round levain. During the busy summer months, the bakers make as much bread as the oven heat will allow.
“There is a finite production capacity with this type of oven,” Underwood says, hinting that she has been looking at other wood oven systems that aren’t as limiting.
The first couple of loads of bread are more caramelized because the oven walls and dome are the hottest. This creates the signature crust that Brickmaiden fans long for, very dark with a deep flavor and rustic texture. The starter and long rise add a slightly sour flavor and impart a moist, almost fluffy interior that stays fresher longer than other breads.
These initial loads bake in less than an hour due to the high temperature the oven still holds. Gradually that starts to decrease causing the bake time to increase so the last load takes 1½ hours to finish. After the bread is done, there is still plenty of heat left in the oven, giving the bakers a chance to cook off all their other products, which include granola, cookies, crackers, biscotti, scones and croutons.
Great bread is made from great ingredients. Brickmaiden gets most of the flour it uses from Central Milling, the well-regarded artisan flour company, including California-grown whole wheat, kamut and spelt. They have also been experimenting with some of the wheat being grown in Mendocino County and are in the process of forming a Sonoma Marin grain-growers group. With the goal of getting things as local as possible, the group hopes to grow, harvest, mill and bake with different wheat and grains in the near future.
Underwood is looking down the road and has many goals and dreams for her operation.
“I hope to have a retail shop soon, house a stone mill and gardens on the property, provide a place for growth and development of young bakers, and create a place that perpetuates building connection to our environment, sense of place, self and community,” she said.
Once you’ve had your fill of fresh bread slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil, here are a couple recipes to help use up the loaf.
Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
Makes 7 or 8 puddings
I found an assortment of wild mushroom at the Far West Fungi booth in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Farmers markets offer good mushroom options. You also can use whatever your local grocer has in the produce section. The puddings make a tasty side dish for pork or poultry and a satisfying brunch or lunch entrée.
1 cup half and half
½ teaspoon salt
5 grinds of fresh pepper mill
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
2 packed cups ½-inch Brickmaiden bread, including crusts, cut into ½-inch cubes. Their levain breads are especially tasty for this recipe
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 green onions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ pound fresh, wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
½ cup shredded cheese — blend of Italian varieties like Parmesan, Fontina, Asiago is delicious, but any sharp, hard or semi-hard cheese will work
Olive oil spray for greasing muffin cups
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 8 muffin cups well with olive oil spray.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg until combined. Add the bread cubes and submerge. Set aside while you get the veggies ready.
3. Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when it shimmers, add the green onions and garlic. Sauté until the garlic is aromatic, then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and cook until any liquid mushrooms give off has evaporated and they are golden and tender. Stir in parsley and cook 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Add shredded cheese to egg mixture then stir in mushrooms, mixing well until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
5. Spoon mixture into greased muffin cups, mounding bread cubes slightly and adding liquid to just under the lip of each cup.
6. Place muffin tin on a sheet tray to catch any drips. Bake until tops are golden and crusty and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes
7. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cup then allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove and serve warm. These puddings can be reheated in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Fresh chives add a springy note and the crusty goodness of the Brickmaiden levain style breads work well in this recipe.
Serves 3 or 4
1 large clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chives, finely sliced
¼ teaspoon Gray Maldon sea salt
2 (1-inch) thick slices artisan bread
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Rub garlic clove on both sides of each bread slice. Set on a small sheet tray.
3. Mince garlic clove and combine with butter, oil and chives in a flat, microwave-safe pie plate.
4. Microwave on high in 10-second bursts until butter is fully melted then stir to combine ingredients.
5. Dip one side of each slice of bread in the butter mixture, scraping garlic mince into the nooks and crannies of the bread. Sprinkle each slice evenly with the salt.
6. Bake for 5 minutes until slightly crisped. Cut each slice into three pieces and serve.
Top photo: Bread at Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes Station, Calif. Credit: Brooke Jackson
Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.
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I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.
Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.
I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.
This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.
That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.
Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.
Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.
I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.
Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses
In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.
It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.
Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing
Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.
For the dressing:
Makes 2 cups
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped chives
For the steak salad:
1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns
1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the dressing:
1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.
If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.
For the steak salad:
1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.
2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.
For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)
3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.
Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry
One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.
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Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”
The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.
The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.
In the mood for Sicilian fish
Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.
In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.
This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.
Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
10 large green olives, pitted and chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
⅓ cup water
1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.
2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.
3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.
I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”
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If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.
I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.
Freezing meals, not just foods on sale
Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.
Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.
The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.
My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.
A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils. When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.
Be careful about what goes in the freezer
I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”
So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.
1 head cabbage with large tender leaves
2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely
1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes
1 can sauerkraut
1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup
Juice of one lemon
1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)
2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked
2 carrots sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.
2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.
3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.
5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.
Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.
Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber
Lime ought to show up more often in cakes; that’s my philosophy. Lemon is great, sure. But there are already plenty of lemon cakes and lemon frostings. No doubt lemon is a cheery and optimistic flavor. But lime is rich and exotic.
Following this line of thought, I ended up with a cake with a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting and a filling of fried bananas. The palate just wants what it wants.
The evolution of cake experiments
My first step down the lime path was obvious — coconut cake with lime zest and a bit of lime juice in the frosting (because I believe fruit-flavored frostings should be sweet-sour). Lime in the coconut, get it? I’m referring to “Coconut,” that 1970s hit song about a woman who mixed lime and coconut juice, got a stomachache and called her doctor, who surprisingly prescribed drinking more lime and coconut.
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The doctor in the song sounded a little peevish because she’d called him in the middle of the night. Still, everybody in the song seemed fine with this prescription, and so did everybody who tasted my lime in the coconut cake.
Next I made a lemon poppy seed pound cake substituting lime juice and zest for the lemon. It was a big hit, because people who love pound cake love it passionately, and because I’d topped it with a cream cheese frosting. I’d noticed that people who love pound cake passionately also have a thing for cream cheese.
When I frosted a cake with lime butter cream and filled it with lime curd, it struck me that I might be binging on limes. Meanwhile, I’d gotten interested in ways to use bananas in cake, but not as banana bread, of which I’m not a big fan. However, I am a big fan of butterscotch, an unjustly neglected flavor in my book.
Finding flavors that complement each other
So I decided to make a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting, just to check off all the possibilities. It was pretty good because this butterscotch cream cheese frosting takes other flavors, such as ground instant coffee, beautifully.
Cream cheese frosting is mostly used on dense cakes like carrot cake, rather than on butter cake, and the recipes tend to make just barely enough to frost a cake. Here was where my banana experimentation paid off, apart from the fact that banana and butterscotch go together beautifully.
Fry some bananas soft with butter and brown sugar, and they make a terrific filling, suavely giving you more cream cheese frosting to cover the outside of the cake.
In retrospect, this was all obvious, so obvious. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But just almost.
Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake
Makes 1 two-layer cake
For the cake:
3 cups flour plus about 2 tablespoons for flouring the pans
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for greasing cake pans
2 cups sugar
For the banana filling:
3 ripe bananas
About ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
The juice of ½ a lime
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
½ stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup brown sugar
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
Juice and zest from ½ a lime
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. Mix 3 cups of flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
3. Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
4. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour into one pan and shake around until the interior is floured, then pour the remainder into the other pan and repeat.
5. Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then pour in the sugar in a thin stream while beating until the mixture is light and the mixer’s motor has reached its highest speed.
6. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
7. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium slow speed, encouraging the absorption with a spatula, just until the flour is absorbed.
8. Add half of the milk and repeat, then another cup of flour, the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.
9. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake pans and bake until the layers are lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. The tip should spring back if touched and a toothpick inserted in the cake should come back without any damp crumbs on it.
10. Set the cake pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the rack until cool.
For the banana filling:
1. Peel the bananas and slice each in half lengthwise.
2. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and arrange the slices on it. Cook over medium low heat until the bananas soften, about 15 minutes. Turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle with the brown sugar and fry another 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with lime juice and leave to cool.
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until most of the foam has settled and the butter has a cooked, but not browned, flavor. Pour the butter off into a bowl and return to the refrigerator until solid, about 10 minutes.
2. Whip the cream cheese in a mixer until quite fluffy.
3. If you have a mortar, grind the brown sugar as fine as possible. Add the brown sugar to the cream cheese and whip until the mixture looks smooth. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Add the zest and juice of the lime and beat until smooth; you may add more zest or juice to taste.
To assemble the cake:
Set one cake layer upside down on a plate. Spread a very thin layer of frosting onto the exposed side. With a spatula, transfer the fried bananas onto the cake layer, then top it with the other cake layer, right side up. Scoop all the frosting onto the top of the cake and work down over the sides with a spatula.
Top photo: Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake. Credit: Charles Perry