Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Search of Pizza Perfection

If you love pizza, chances are, you already own a copy of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza by Peter Reinhart, an incredible single subject volume that not only surveys this master baker's favourite pizzerias from Naples to New York City, but offers a wealth of recipes and useful advice for anyone keen on replicating the quintessential pizza experience at home.

My favourite dough recipe from the book is the "Neo-Neapolitan Pizza Dough", which makes a thin crust that seems to stay crisp for longer than the "Napoletana Pizza Dough", thanks to the use of high gluten or strong bread flour rather than all-purpose. The Napoletana dough, of course, is the purist's choice (see S's meticulously annotated adaptation of this recipe). Both are great (as are the other 9 or so dough recipes in the book); it just boils down to a matter of personal preference. Part of the fun is trying them all so as to figure out what best suits your taste. In terms of equipment, if you don't own a baking stone or HearthKit, Peter Reinhart's nifty trick of using an inverted large, flat-bottomed cast-iron pan as a stand-in thermal mass works very well.

The latest dough recipe I've been tinkering with comes from In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal. If you're a huge fan of Family Food, you already know to expect that in order to follow one of his recipes you'll be jumping through hoops, but the results more often than not make the immense effort required worth the while. 8 classics (from roast chicken to steak) have been reinvented in the quest for perfection. Having tried his pizza dough recipe several times in the past month, I must say while it may not be everybody's idea of perfection, it sure brings you that much closer to understanding what perfection, if there is such a thing, might taste like. If you ask me, I think it tastes if not perfect - a term one hesitates to use given the stridently divergent schools of thought as to what constitutes a perfect pizza - then at least an instance of excellence. As does W, my resident pizza fascist, and just about the fussiest person I know when it comes to pizza (or anything else that counts as dinner, come to think about it).

Aside from good dough, the key to pizza greatness lies with heat - the EU pizza copyright proposal specifies an oven-surface temperature of 485°C and a cooking time of between 60 and 90 seconds! Your average domestic oven peaks at a far lower temperature (so the pizza takes longer to cook, which changes the character of the pizza, and not for the better), thus prompting Chef Blumenthal to amusingly recount the hoops he jumps through to buck his Gaggenau's top temperature, and how he manages to cut his baking time down to 90 seconds by inserting a cast iron pan (preheated over high heat for 20 minutes) into the preheated oven with the grill whacked on full, thus getting the heat above and below the pizza as hot and as even as possible. Which, of course, gives me yet another reason to lust after this top-of-the-line cooker - try as I might, my cantankerous oven peevishly refused to get sufficiently hot; my best baking time (with dutifully preheated cast iron pan in place) never got any speedier than 7 minutes.

Short of buying a new built-in oven - something I don't plan to do until we move from our tiny apartment - I would have to seek alternative recourse. Salvation came in the unassuming form of a large, round and red object - the self-contained pizza oven from G3 Ferrari. While it's unlikely to take pride of place on your countertop like say a beautiful stand mixer or dead sexy espresso machine would, it more than makes up for its utilitarian appearance with standout performance. I would go so far as to say with results this fantastic, I am prepared to relinquish any delusions I may have as to being an adherent of that overused Bauhaus mantra. This clamshell-shaped electric gadget has a built-in refractory firestone bed which not only delivers heat evenly but absorbs moisture from the dough, as well as a top heating element on the underside of the cover/lid to ensure the top of your pizza bakes at a similar rate to the crust - coordination of top and crust being critical to a pizza's success. At the highest heat setting, the temperature purportedly reaches a searing 470°C - I don't own one of those neat digital temperature guns that reads up to 500°C, and so had no way of testing this. What I do know is that once I got the hang of it, it consistently took all of 4 minutes to cook a pizza to magnificent doneness, thus shaving an impressive 3 minutes off my previous record with a conventional oven.

Back to the dough. While I can't vouch that my taste in pizza dovetails with yours, Heston Blumenthal's recipe certainly tasted like I am on the right path to pizza nirvana. The secret to its fantastic flavour is adding a proportion of pre-ferment - a small amount of dough left to ferment in the fridge for at least 12 hours - to a larger quantity of dough. The longer dough is left, the more its flavour develops. But the longer dough is left, the more the gluten relaxes and loses elasticity. The answer? Pre-ferment, prepared for flavour, mixed with dough that still possesses extensibility. Subject to the right heat conditions, the dough bakes into a light and crisp pizza crust with an airy, almost delicate interior structure, so full of creamy, bready, toasty flavour that you'll be eating that puffy, golden brown cornicione right down to the last crumb.

We're going away next week so this is my last post of 2006 - here's wishing everybody A Very Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

PS: If you reside in Singapore, the G3 Ferrari pizza oven can be found in the small but carefully edited selection of products available at the retail shop in Shermay's Cooking School. Also, the shop now carries Mario Batali's The Italian Kitchen range of tools (including this wonderfully-designed set of nesting prep bowls in funky melamine and this generously-sized dough separator/counter scraper, as pictured above).

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Bit of News & Some Gift Ideas for the Sweet-Toothed Cook

To the kind folks who take the time to visit this blog, leave a comment or email me, I am both very grateful and extremely apologetic - this past year, if I appear to be stonily silent or am tardy with my replies, please don't think I'm anything less than highly appreciative of your feedback. (Insert appropriate workload-related justification here). Add to that time management issues and a highly nervous constitution, and there you have it - my lousy excuse of an excuse.

My "day job" as a contributing editor of a luxury glossy consists primarily of coordinating fashion shoots and providing style/art direction on set/location - check out this site and a recent fashion shoot that just so happened to be cake-centric. It used to be that in between, I found time to cook and/or blog about the cooking. Recently, I also started taking dessert orders (see this gig and read The Business Times' interview here).

And even more recently, I started work on a very exciting project - I'll be teaching classes at this jewel box of a cooking school (see here, here, and here for details) from February next year. Fabulous chef-owner Shermay Lee, whom many may also know as the author of The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook: Vol.1 & Vol.2 - definitive modern classics on the art of Nonya cuisine - has taken a chance by working with someone who's entirely self-taught and has had no prior teaching experience. For this vote of confidence and leap of faith, I'm deeply thankful. I won't say more now except that the subject of this first series of classes is cupcakes (with other subjects and ideas in the pipeline) and that I'll post the full details sometime in January.

On a completely unrelated note, just in case you've yet to do your Christmas shopping, it's not only that time of the year, but it's also the time of the year when a bumper crop of spectacular new cookbooks hits the shelves. This year's dessert-related offerings are particularly sweet. Below, bite-sized reviews of a handful of my favourite recent titles for a variety of skill levels and budgets:

The Essence of Chocolate by John Scharffenberger & Robert Steinberg
This cookbook from America's premier chocolate make is a must-have addition to any self-respecting chocoholic's bookcase. Packed with useful tips and a wealth of simple-yet-stunning recipes (many of which are contributed by top pastry chefs such as Sherry Yard and Alice Medrich), it's a book I've barely had for a month but which already bears ganache stains and cocoa smudges - a good omen for potential frequency of usage. Amongst other amazing treats, check out the amusingly-named TKOs (pictured above) - a scrumptious recipe from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery, it's a sandwich cookie that's dark chocolate without and white chocolate within, a sophisticated take on a nostalgic favourite.

Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
I actually spent a good couple of hours deliberating whether this tome should take pride of place next to my copy of Baking with Julia in the "Homespun American Baking Classics" section of the bookcase, or in the "Fancy French Desserts" area together with titles like Desserts by Pierre Hermé, Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé and Paris Sweets, such is the comprehensive scope of this baker's bible. For anyone who simply can't get enough of Ms Greenspan's rare blend of wit and warmth, or her immaculately written recipes that hold your hand like an old friend every step of the way.

The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle by Kate Zuckerman
For a tiny taste of the sort of divine inspiration this book offers, see here. But it's not just about recipes for gorgeous, unique and dinner party-worthy desserts. Unusually enough for a "restaurant desserts" cookbook, Ms Zuckerman delves into the why, the what and the how of essential techniques in the sweet kitchen with a just-right level of detail, thus making apparently complex recipes downright accessible.

Chocolate & Vanilla by Gale Gand
Very cute. The fun, flip/cookbook format of this pint-sized number belies the flavour-packed punch of the recipes. Whether you love chocolate or adore vanilla (it's really two little books packed into one slender volume; half devoted to chocolate recipes, half devoted to vanilla recipes) - or better still, both - here's page after page of tempting treats, many of which I found can be put together in a snap even when time-pressed or tired.

Chocolate Fusion by Frédéric Bau
Coming as it does from the maestro himself - Chef Bau is the head pastry chef and director of L'Ecole de Valrhona - it's no surprise that this is no ordinary book on chocolate. In the exquisite collection of recipes, chocolate plays the starring role not merely in desserts, but also in savory cuisine, thus offering a fascinating glimpse of chocolate's endless culinary applications. Very beyond, utterly exceptional, unlike any other, one of a kind - this is the big ticket item to buy for the serious cook who already has everything (including that other Bau masterpiece, Au Coeur des Saveurs).

On yet another unrelated note...

'Tis the season of giving...Please visit
Chez Pim to find out more about Menu for Hope III, the annual web-based initiative that, this year, will be raising funds for the United Nations World Food Programme. Food bloggers around the world have either donated or sourced incredible prizes that anyone from anywhere can purchase virtual raffle tickets to win. The collected money will be donated to the United Nations World Food Programme to help feed the hungry. To see the global round-up of donated prizes, please click here. Every US$10 that you donate entitles you to one chance of winning one of the prizes of your choice - please click here to visit the Menu for Hope III donation page.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A White Truffle Dinner

I don't typically get anxious about having company over for dinner. In fact, I rather enjoy it - why else do it? This past Sunday, however, was an exception. Not because of the guests, but because of the dinner to be cooked. Not because of the recipes, but because of the ingredient-of-honour. The tuber magnatum pico is not to be trifled with - mishandle it, and you might as well be watching those Euros dissipate into thin air.

How did we manage to procure them straight from Alba? Not through any ingenuity on my part, that's for sure. Lucky for us, we have friends who have friends - the former, namely, being the incredibly well-connected and resourceful Chubby Hubby & S.

While the goods only arrived a few days before Sunday, this was a meal W & I have been discussing ever since we ordered the truffles - which is to say, quite a few weeks. After much consulting of cookbooks and wringing of hands (me; W already had definite ideas about which dishes he wanted me to put on the menu), the following ensued. While a multi-course affair, we decided we would blow the truffles on a couple of dishes as opposed to stretching them across all. I think there are few things meaner, more pointless, and ironically enough, wasteful, than a few token shavings - it's imperative to use enough if you are after the full effect.

Porcini Tagliatelle with Poached Egg, Truffle Hollandaise and White Truffle Shavings
This was inspired by one of our favourite dishes from Buon Ricordo in Sydney - fettuccine al tartufovo, or fettuccine with cream and parmesan, topped with a truffle-infused egg. Instead of making plain egg pasta, I flavoured the pasta dough with dried porcini - soaked, cooked, and finely minced - which imparts a distinctive savour. The porcini pasta dough recipe comes from Giuliano Bugialli's Bugialli on Pasta.

I had stored both the eggs (for poaching as well as for making the hollandaise) and the butter (for the hollandaise) with the truffles overnight in tightly sealed jars - the aroma of truffles best clings to foods rich in fat, such as eggs and butter. This allows you to really layer and build a dish utterly permeated with the heady perfume, a foundation of flavour to support the final anointment of truffle shavings.

Pig's Trotters stuffed with Truffled Confit of Pork Neck, with Sage & Onion Polenta and Madeira Jus
No white truffles here; instead, the dish features the earthy flavours of dried porcini, truffle juice, and preserved summer truffles. I've loosely based it on a recipe from Bécasse: Inspirations and Flavours by Justin North, a beautiful book showcasing the much-lauded food from one of Sydney's most critically acclaimed restaurants. It's a dish Chef North says is inspired by the legendary Pierre Koffman.

I have a bit of a weakness for trotters. It may take a bit of effort to coax a thing of deliciousness from this oft-ignored part of the pig. But take the time to lavish it with love, treat it with the same respect you would accord a far more expensive cut, and you'll be rewarded with something so undeniably good, so unctuously satisfying, that even the unadventurous (or unsuspecting - the presentation is fairly elegant) will be asking for seconds.

Carnaroli Risotto with Shaved White Truffles from Alba
An absolute Piedmontese classic, and I think one of the best ways of showing off the white truffle's incomparable flavour. I like Thomas Keller's recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook.

It does, however, depart from traditional technique in two significant respects that would probably make a risotto purist shudder - a two-part cooking method that allows you to make the risotto "base" the day before and shortens the final cooking time to less than 10 minutes, and the last-minute beating in, the mantecatura, of - aside from the usual butter and parmesan - some heavy cream whipped to soft peak stage. This technique of folding whipped cream into risotto is one that Chef Keller attributes to Alain Ducasse - while the cream will "melt" out of its whipped form, it coats each individual grain of rice with greater ease than had it been unwhipped.

Vanilla, Brown Butter & Hazelnut Cake with Warm White Chocolate & Truffle Honey Filling; Truffle Honey Ice Cream; Apricots in Vanilla & Earl Grey Tea Caramel
When I saw the picture of Kate Zuckerman's lovely spin on financier in The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, I knew I had to have the book. It struck me as the blonde, buttery, nutty cousin of this dark and sultry number, and is no less irresistible thanks to the ooze factor. It also struck me as a recipe ripe for playing around with - the very best kind of recipe, if you ask me - and play around I did, keeping in mind the truffle theme. Again, no white truffles here. Instead, that divine nectar known as truffle honey.

The original financier batter in the book uses ground almonds, and the filling is a vanilla custard. I used ground hazelnuts in the batter simply because the flavours of hazelnut and truffle honey are gorgeous together and I had flavoured the white chocolate ganache (which liquefies into the molten centres when the baby cakes are baked) with truffle honey. The recipe for the accompanying truffle honey ice cream (which I've written about previously) comes from Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy.