No Hard Feelings, Pizza

by Carilyn on September 23, 2020

 

I don’t LOVE pizza. At least not in the way other people do. In fact, when Tim and I were first married, it drove him crazy that I was not a pizza person. Pizza was cheap, easy, and filling – a perfect triumvirate for two starving law students. But I had not grown up eating pizza. Yes, we occasionally got it from our favorite Italian restaurant – Bella Napoli – but only as an afterthought to the Chicken Jerusalem and Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, like special bread to sop up the sauces of the REAL meals. When I did have chain pizza, I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was a lot of bread, bad tomato sauce, cheap cheese, and sad toppings. No thanks.

This ambivalence about pizza has carried on into adulthood. I like it, but I don’t love it. As embarrassing as it is to admit, one of the biggest disappointments of my culinary crusade (often involving dragging unenthusiastic “volunteers” with me) was making a special trip to a very famous Chicago deep dish institution on a “food vacation” and being absolutely underwhelmed. So much bread. So much sauce. So dense. Ugh. And we waited in line (with reservations) for over an hour.

But tonight, I found myself alone in the house after Tim had gone to visit his mother. I sent my usual soup, but stayed back since my own mother had just recently been released from rehab after falling and breaking her hip, still requiring round the clock nursing care. It has been a very rough couple of months (Covid, aside – how do you nurse the elderly when you can’t have contact?!?!), and I have to admit that I have not handled it as gracefully as I would like. I have spent more time than is appropriate on my knees praying for some sort of fix for an un-fixable situation, wishing, as always, that my repertoire of desserts would be the answer to all prayers. Alas, it proved not to be, but once we “sprang” my mom from the dreaded rehab facility, I headed back into the kitchen, first, trying to perfect the honey almond apricot nougat that was proving to be the bane (and raison d’etre) of my existence, and then working on a great pizza dough. (Don’t ask. I have no explanation. I was simply intrigued with comparing dough made from bread dough v. AP flour. OCD much?) Anyway, when it was all said and done, I had a beautiful boule of pizza dough and nowhere to go. So, I baked off a Griselda Cat tray of squishy dough, and ten minutes later I had the most delicate, but lightly chewy/crispy crust. I snacked on it all afternoon, finally whittling it down to a Florida-esque shape before topping it with a homemade red sauce that I started “just because” (I was experimenting with pizza dough, you know, so why not?), and some fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil.

And something in me shifted.

Is this why people like pizza? LOVE pizza? Become obsessed with pizza? Does it really come down to a great crust? The perfect sauce? The ratio?

I still truly don’t know. But I will say that I am much more a believer now than I ever was before. Maybe it was the long, languid swim in the pool I took while the dough was proofing on the counter under a checkered tea towel. Maybe it was that I ate it while standing at the counter while listening to “No Hard Feelings,” by the Avett Brothers. Maybe it was the jammy red wine I poured while I was finishing off the sauce. Maybe it was just luck and desperation. Who knows? But whatever it was, this pizza was worth opening up my computer and writing about it. I won’t know until tomorrow when Tim gets home and I try to repeat it.

I just hope that I am vindicated for hating pizza when we were poor, struggling students. I’m not sure he has gotten over it. But I’m hoping that if I did make a great pizza, we can reach a peace agreement. Kind of like me convincing him that running is the best activity ever.

Never stop hoping and praying (and a little swimming, wine, and the Avett Brothers can’t hurt).

 

*The secret to this very delicate, thin pizza dough is bread flour. I promise it is worth the trip to the store to get some if you don’t have any.

 

Thin-Crust Pizza Dough

3 1/2 (up to 4 cups) bread flour

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons dry yeast (1 packet)

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1 1/2 warm water (110 degrees F)

2 tablespoons olive, plus more for resting bowl

Pour a scant 1/2 tablespoon olive oil into a glass bowl to place your bread dough in for rising after it is mixed and kneaded.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with a bread hook, mix the warm water, yeast, and sugar. Let stand for about 5 minutes.

To this, add the flour, oil, and salt, mixing on low just until incorporated, then turn up the mixer to medium high and mix until the dough forms a ball and lifts away from the bowl. If the dough is too wet, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time. You want the dough to stay soft and light, so don’t add too much flour, but it should not be super loose.

When you have a nice soft ball of dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about three minutes, or until just smooth and soft, like a baby’s bottom.

Place the dough into your oiled bowl and cover with a clean tea towel or plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. If it is going to sit out for more than an hour, put into the refrigerator so that it won’t proof too much.

When you are ready to bake it off, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper, and heat the sheet in the oven for 5 minutes. While the pan is heating, pull off a ball of dough about the size of an orange. Roll or stretch it to your desired thinness. Cover with whatever toppings you choose. Pull the pan out of the oven, sprinkle with a bit of flour, and place your pizza on it.

Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the edges start turning brown and all the cheese has melted.

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Lemon Meringue Bars (or, Bribing My Baby)

by Carilyn on July 18, 2020

I don’t love lemon meringue pie, but Grant was about to head back to D.C. after being stuck with us for three months, and he loves lemon meringue. So, there it is. Poor guy, the courthouse was evacuated, and his judge pushed all her clerks to get out of D.C., and even though he was grumpy about it, Tim and I were thrilled. It is not very often you get to have your twenty-four year old come home for an extended stay, at least when you know he doesn’t intend to move back in permanently.

We spent the first month of the quarantine pretending we were on vacation, swimming, eating, and drinking too much. It was fun, but it was impossible to forget that we were locked down for a horrible reason. Grant had to continue to work from here, so our living room became an office, complete with a copier, fax machine, two computers, a landline, and a whole lot of mess. I tried not to act like it was driving me crazy, which became near impossible when he also took over part of the dining room table. There is A LOT of stress practicing law under the best of circumstances, but especially when your office mate keeps yelling at you to make your bed, pick up your shoes, and stop eating all of her Red Vines.

After the first month, we managed to settle into a pretty good routine (despite the mess in multiple rooms of the house). We all went about our business during the day, and came together for our traditional “Don’t Do Drugs Dinner” every evening at 6:30 just like when the kids were growing up. I loved having another palate to cook for, pulling out some of Grant’s favorites that I had quit making when it was just me and Tim. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Glazed ham and carrots. Pot roast. Wine chicken and pasta. Butter chicken and rice. All of the cooking helped immensely with the stress of worrying about our world.

Especially the desserts. Desserts, for me, are better than medication for anxiety. Give me a layer cake, a sugar cookie, or a cream puff, and I will forget that the apocalypse may be banging on the door. But notice that lemon meringue pie is not on the list of “desserts that work better than Xanax”.

The problem for me with lemon meringue pie is the lemon. And the meringue. Hmmm. I’m not a fan of the taste (sour), or the consistency (gelatinous). But I love my son more than life itself, so off I went, looking for some inspiration.

First thing, I knew I didn’t want to make a standard pie crust. Making the lemon curd and meringue was already going to be a half day endeavor, and I had a lot of miles to get done. Solution, graham cracker crust. Besides being a massive time saver, graham cracker crust adds more sweetness to the dessert, mitigating some of the tartness of the curd. Desserts should be sweet, amiright? So, I’m lazy and have a sweet tooth – no surprise there.

This recipe is fairly easy as far lemon meringue pies go. No separating eggs. No dough resting. No soggy bottom from putting lemon curd on pie crust. When I was searching for recipes, I saw Deb Perlman (Smitten Kitchen) had a lemon meringue BAR. Genius (she always is – I LOVE her). Making it into bars rather than a pie seems like you get a better ratio of everything. I know this is not mathematically accurate, but it FEELS like you get more sweet graham crust with each bite, and in these stressful times, I’m willing to convince myself of just about anything if it makes me feel better.

Grant has gone back to D.C., and I miss him terribly, so I may just make these bars again to remind me of the weird “vacation” we had while being locked in our house.

 

Lemon Meringue Bars

(from Smitten Kitchen)

Crust

9 graham cracker sheets – 1 sleeve – broken up

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

 

Filling

1 whole lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

4 large egg yolks

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

 

Meringue

4 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8×8 baking pan with parchment, making sure to leave extra above the rim so you can pull the bars out easily.

Put the crust ingredients into a food processor and pulse until you get a sand like texture. Press into your pan, covering the bottom and extending up the sides a bit. Bake about 10 minutes, until golden. Let cool.

Start your filling while the crust cools.

Trim the stem off the lemon and cut into thin slices. Remove seeds. In a blender (or your food processor – cleaned), blend all the filling ingredients until very smooth. Pour over the crust (it can still be a bit warm – no worries) and bake for 30 minutes. You want it to be bubbly and brown around the edges. It will not be completely set. Cool for 10 minutes, and then run a sharp knife around the edges or you will never get the bars out after the meringue is on top. Cool completely and then put in the freezer or refrigerator until fully chilled.

Once chilled, remove it from pan and take off the parchment paper. You don’t want to set the paper on fire when you torch/bake the meringue. Put the soon-to-be bars on a baking sheet.

Make the meringue by combining all the ingredients into the metal bowl of your stand mixer, and then place it over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk continuously until the sugar is completely dissolved (160 degrees). Move the bowl to your stand mixer, and whisk on high speed until glossy and very stiff – about 3 minutes.

Spoon onto the lemon layer and use your spatula/spoon/knife to create a wavy texture. Brown with a kitchen torch, or put under the broiler until just golden – don’t over brown.

Cut into squares.

 

 

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