Happy Halloween

Trick or treatAfter four days of battling a horrible stomach virus, we were all well enough to take to the streets tonight for a little trick-or-treating. It was Poppy’s first trick-or-treat experience. Conveniently enough, it’s also the first year she’s been interested in candy. She had a blast, proclaiming, “This candy smells delicious!” after every stop.

Pete wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the outing. He sat in his stroller and sucked his thumb, and when we got home, he went right to bed. He was the cutest little Roo anyway.

A Daring new adventure

A few months ago, I noticed that several of the cooking blogs that I read were featuring eclairs. This interested me for a few reasons:

  1. Eclairs are delicious.
  2. They were all linking to something called The Daring Bakers.

After a little bit of investigating, I discovered that the Daring Bakers is a (pretty huge) group of people who take on a baking challenge every month and then, on the designated day, post the results on their blogs. In other words, it was right up my alley.

I joined the group, and I’ve made this month’s challenge three times already. It’s Peter Reinhart’s recipe for pizza dough, and it’s fantastic. I used my KitchenAid mixer to do the kneading, which makes it really easy, too. The original recipe says it’ll make 6 pizzas, but they’d be tiny little things. I’ve been getting four balls of dough out of the recipe, with one pizza and a big salad being enough to feed the four of us. Keep in mind, however, that the smallest among us eat a grand total of one slice.

In accordance with Daring Baker rules, I followed the recipe as it was written the first time I made it. The following recipe, however, reflects how I’ve made it since that first effort. The main difference is the addition of whole-wheat flour. Reinhart’s original recipe can be found in his book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.”

Basic Pizza Dough
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, chilled
1 cup whole-wheat flour, chilled
1 3/4 tsp salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1/4 cup olive oil
1 3/4 cups water, ice cold
1 tablespoon sugar
cornmeal, for dusting

DAY ONE Yes, it’s a two-day process. But all the work is done on Day One.
Mix together the flour, salt and instant yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the oil, sugar and cold water and mix well with the paddle attachment on low speed in order to form a sticky ball of dough.

Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium speed for 5-7 minutes. The dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom of the bowl. If the dough is too wet, sprinkle in a little more flour, so that it clears the sides. If, on the contrary, it clears the bottom of the bowl, dribble in a teaspoon or two of cold water.

The finished dough should be springy, elastic, and sticky, not just tacky, and register 50°-55° F/10°-13° C.

Flour a work surface or counter. Line a jelly pan with baking paper/parchment. Lightly oil the paper.

With the help of a metal or plastic dough scraper, cut the dough into 6 equal pieces (or larger if you want to make larger pizzas).

Sprinkle some flour over the dough. Make sure your hands are dry, and then flour them. Gently round each piece into a ball. If the dough sticks to your hands, then dip your hands into the flour again.

Transfer the dough balls to the lined jelly pan and mist them generously with spray oil. Slip the pan into plastic bag or enclose in plastic food wrap.

Put the pan into the refrigerator and let the dough rest overnight or for up to three days.

NOTE: You can store the dough balls in a zippered freezer bag if you want to save some of the dough for any future baking. In that case, pour some oil (a few tablespoons only) in a medium bowl and dip each dough ball into the oil, so that it is completely covered in oil. Then put each ball into a separate bag. Store the bags in the freezer for no longer than 3 months. The day before you plan to make pizza, remember to transfer the dough balls from the freezer to the refrigerator.

On the day you plan to eat pizza, exactly 2 hours before you make it, remove the desired number of dough balls from the refrigerator. Dust the counter with flour and spray lightly with oil. Place the dough balls on a floured surface and sprinkle them with flour. Dust your hands with flour and delicately press the dough into disks about 1/2 inch thick and 5 inches in diameter. Sprinkle with flour and mist with oil. Loosely cover the dough rounds with plastic wrap and then allow to rest for 2 hours.

At least 45 minutes before making the pizza, place a baking stone on the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven as hot as possible. (My oven goes to 500 degrees; it worked nicely.)

Generously sprinkle the back of a jelly pan (I used a flat baking sheet) with cornmeal. Flour your hands (palms, backs and knuckles). Take 1 piece of dough by lifting it with a pastry scraper. Lay the dough across your fists in a very delicate way and carefully stretch it by bouncing it in a circular motion on your hands, and by giving it a little stretch with each bounce. Once the dough has expanded outward, move to a full toss.

During the tossing process, if the dough tends to stick to your hands, lay it down on the floured counter and reflour your hands, then continue the tossing and shaping.
In case you would be having trouble tossing the dough or if the dough never wants to expand and always springs back, let it rest for approximately 5-20 minutes in order for the gluten to relax fully,then try again.

You can also resort to using a rolling pin, although it isn’t as effective as the toss method.

When the dough has the shape you want (about 9-12 inches/23-30 cm in diameter – for a 6 ounces/180g piece of dough), place it on the back of the jelly pan, making sure there is enough semolina/durum flour or cornmeal to allow it to slide and not stick to the pan.

Lightly top it with sweet or savory toppings of your choice.

NOTE: Remember that the best pizzas are topped not too generously. No more than 3 or 4 toppings (including sauce and cheese) are sufficient.

Slide the garnished pizza onto the stone in the oven or bake directly on the jelly pan. Close the door and bake for about 5-8 minutes.

NOTE: After 2 minutes baking, take a peek. For an even baking, rotate 180°.

If the top gets done before the bottom, you will need to move the stone or jelly pane to a lower shelf before the next round. On the contrary, if the bottom crisps before the cheese caramelizes, then you will need to raise the stone or jelly.

Take the pizza out of the oven and transfer it to a cutting board or your plate. In order to allow the cheese to set a little, wait 3-5 minutes before slicing or serving.

Did you notice the tossing instructions in there? That was the main part of October’s Daring Bakers challenge. I did toss the pizza dough the first time I made it. It was amusing, but I won’t call it successful. For my subsequent efforts, I picked the dough up and sort of let it thin itself out without trying to send it airborne.

We’ve tried a few different topping options with this dough, but my favorite by far has been Thai Chicken Pizza. I found the following copycat recipe of the California Pizza Kitchen pizza at Recipe Zaar. The recipe makes enough sauce for two pizzas even after I used some of it to marinate the chicken.

I know there are more than a few of you out there who would make excellent Daring Bakers. I hope you’ll sign up. And if you do, let me know!

A waitress with a thing for fangs

In an unexpected turn of events last Friday, I found myself on a college campus with a few hours to kill. My favorite way to wile away my spare time is with a book, but I didn’t have one handy. So I went to the campus bookstore. I briefly considered buying something from the English department’s books-for-class section, but I wasn’t sure whether my purchase would mean some poor, procrastinating student would end up without his required reading. (Rockford assured me later that it wouldn’t have mattered.) I ended up in front of the “popular books” shelf.

I immediately ruled out the Danielle Steele and the Nicholas Sparks titles, and after standing in front of the shelf for a good long time — I’m pretty sure I was making the cashiers uncomfortable — I finally picked up Charlaine Harris’ “Dead Until Dark.” I’ve read good things about “True Blood,” the HBO series that’s based on Harris’ “Southern Vampire Mysteries.” But I nearly didn’t buy the book. Because of the cover. The image on the front of the TV-tie in paperback is lewd, and I was sort of embarrassed to be walking around with it.

I’ve always been a fan of mysteries and books about the South, and I have been known to pick up an Anne Rice book, even though I had nightmares every night for three years after watching “The Lost Boys.” So with Halloween just a few days away, I thought I’d give the vampire book a shot.

Happily for me, “Dead Until Dark” isn’t a horror novel. For a book about murders and the supernatural, it’s pretty light-hearted fare. The book’s heroine is mind-reading Louisiana waitress Sookie Stackhouse, and the novel is set shortly after the world’s vampires have “come out of the coffin.” Sounds a little goofy, right? Well, it’s a lot goofy, but it’s sort of fun, too.

I didn’t find all that much tension in the book’s mystery component. I liked Sookie and most of the other characters quite a bit, though, and it was so nice to be able to sit and read a book with no responsibilities on a cold, rainy fall day, so I enjoyed the book. I have the second in the series on my to-read list.

If you like your vampire tales without a hint of humor or if you don’t like supernatural stories, this is not the book for you. Oh, and that lewd image on the cover? Parts of this book might make Danielle Steele blush. Consider yourself warned.