Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.
~Alice Walker

August is National Peach Month.

Prunus persica, a deciduous tree which bears an edible juicy fruit, was first cultivated in China several thousand years ago. Peach trees are considered the trees of life in their native land where peaches are symbols of immortality and unity. Peaches traveled west via the silk road to Persia, earning them their botanical name. Peaches belong to the genus Prunus which includes the cherry and plum, all from the Rosaceae family. Once discovered by Alexander the Great, they were introduced to the ancient Greeks. Ancient Romans referred to the peach as malum persicum (Persian apple), which later became the French pêche, which then morphed into the English word peach. Spanish explorers initially brought peaches from Asia to the New World as the fruit could be grown in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Columbus brought peach trees to America on his second and third voyages. The French introduced the fruit to Louisiana while the English imported them to Jamestown and Massachusetts colonies.

While there are over 700 varieties, the two basic types of cultivated peaches are clingstone (the flesh sticks to the stone) and freestone (the stone easily separates from the flesh). They can have yellow or white flesh, which is sweeter and less acidic than its more traditional golden counterpart. The downy skin of the peach is splotched with red hues and are usually round with a pointed end, but they can also be flat and disc-shaped. The donut peach, which is flat with rounded sides that draw in toward an indented center, like a doughnut without a hole, is a descendant of the flat Chinese peach.

Even though farmers’ markets are now flooded with this divine fruit, in a couple months a good peach will be hard to find as they are distinctly seasonal. These efficient reproducers are harvested in late summer and early fall because they tend to ripen simultaneously. Peaches are pruned after most of the other fruit crops are done since they can be injured if pruned too early. It is unusually difficult to ship this fruit as microbes like fungi and bacteria can invade the thin, permeable outer skin and feast on the sugars inside, causing decay. Bruising can occur while handling and travelling. Storage also creates issues with delicate peaches. Unlike apples which can be stored up to a year in a low oxygen controlled environment, finicky peaches have a much shortened lifespan.

So, get it while you can — make good of this narrow windowed season and buy these luscious local gems, sink your teeth into the sweet fuzz and let those ambrosial juices freely dribble down your chin. Grin knowingly, then repeat.

Peaches should be stored at room temperature as refrigeration curtails flavor and fragrance. They are climacteric, meaning they that have high respiration rates during ripening and emit large amounts of ethylene gas, so the fruit will continue ripening after harvest. A large peach has fewer than 70 calories, contains 3 grams of fiber, and is also a good source of vitamins A and C.

By now, it must be quite obvious that I love the far from banal rustic nature of crisps. Below is a peach version followed by a basic grilled peach recipe.  At the end is a simple concotion of chilled wine and peaches.

PEACH CRISP

5 large ripe peaches, pitted, peeled (or not) and sliced
Juice from 1 lemon

3 T all-purpose flour
1/4 C tightly packed brown sugar
1 T granulated sugar
1 T raw sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
Slight pinch of sea salt

1 1/4 C all purpose flour
1/2 C rolled oats
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 C raw sugar
1 1/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Toss the peaches in a large bowl with lemon juice. Add flour, sugars, vanilla and salt and gently stir to combine. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oats, sugars, and butter. Using a pastry blender or fingers, blend ingredients until coarse meal forms — soft, tender and workable.

Spread the peach filling in a medium baking dish or casserole and loosely sprinkle with the topping. Place the dish on a sheet tray and bake crisp 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Bake crisp until fruit is tender and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

GRILLED PEACHES

1/2 C honey
3 T Balsamic vinegar
1 t vanilla extract

6 firm, ripe peaches, pitted and halved

Crème fraîche or plain yogurt, for drizzling

Whisk  together honey, balsamic vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl.

Prepare barbecue grill to medium high. Brush fruit generously with some honey glaze. Grill (inner flesh side down first) until heated through, about 3 minutes on the first side and less on the other, depending on ripeness. The idea is to create nice markings on the fleshy inside, but to have the fruit retain its integrity. Arrange grilled halves, cut side up, on plates or platter, then immediately drizzle with some more honey glaze. Ladle crème fraîche or yogurt over the grilled fruit to your liking.

Pourboire:  try a classic Italian libation during the warm months.  First pit, then slice a few ripe fresh peaches, with or without the skin (your preference).  Drop the sliced peaches into a cold glass pitcher and pour in enough medium to full-bodied red wine to cover the fruit.  Allow to chill for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator.  Pour the wine and peaches into glasses and serve.  Cin-cin!

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Lentils & Walnuts

June 14, 2012

God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
~Franz Kafka

Not to be confused with other nuts or wingnuts…those outspoken, irrational people with deeply ingrained, deranged, flagrantly ignorant political beliefs, e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, Fred Phelps and their ilk. The lunatic fringe.

Rather, walnuts are edible seeds harvested from deciduous trees of the genus Juglans, especially the Persian walnut a/k/a English walnut, Juglans regia. Walnuts are rounded, single-seeded stone fruits enclosed in a leathery green, fleshy, inedible husk. Inside the husk is the wrinkly, hard walnut shell, which encloses that kind kernel, which presents as two halves separated by a partition. Walnuts, like all seeds, are living organs which respirate. After harvest, the seeds continually consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide, so storage is crucial.

The common walnut is native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia, extending from western China, into the ranges of Nepal, through present day Afghanistan and Iran, and finally Turkey. Alexander the Great introduced the tree to Greece and Macedonia, so it became known as the Persian nut. Later, ancient Romans imported the walnut tree into nearby conquered lands, such as Gaul and Brittania, where it has thrived since. Some espouse that North American walnuts assumed the moniker English walnuts, since they arrived in the colonies aboard English merchant ships.

The potential health benefits of walnuts cannot be understated — abounding with nutrients, particularly proteins, vitamin E, and essential fatty and phenolic acids, tannins, and flavonoids. They are also rich sources of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. A so-called superfood.

LENTILS & WALNUTS

2 C green lentils (preferably du Puy)
1 1/2 C cold water
2 C vegetable or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
3 fresh thyme sprigs

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Splash of sherry or red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Walnut oil, to taste
3/4 C walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
3/4 C artisanal chèvre (goat cheese), crumbled

Put the lentils in a medium, heavy saucepan with the bay leaf and thyme. Pour over water and stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes. If the liquid is not totally absorbed, simply drain off any excess through a fine colander. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprigs.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat and sauté the onion until soft. Add the garlic for another 1 minute, then deglaze the pan with just a splash of sherry vinegar. Remove from heat. Toss the cooked lentils with the onion mixture, and then season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with walnut oil, add the walnuts, toss with crumbled goat cheese and serve warm.

Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.
~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
, The Mistress of Spices

Somehow, this became a three headed post.

Derived from the Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) which means “fried” or “roasted,” biryani is a rice dish crafted from a sensuously transcendent spice medley and basmati rice layered with curried meats (often lamb, mutton or chicken), fish, eggs or vegetables. Biryani was born in the kitchens of ancient Persia, and was later transported by merchants to the Indian subcontinent where the dish developed even further. Whether made in India, South Asia or the Middle East, regional variants are abundant and often without boundaries, such as hyderabadi biryani, ambur biryani, bhatkali biryani, kacchi biryani, awadhi biryani, mughlai biryani, berian biryani, sindhi biryani, khan biryani, memoni biryani, pakistani biryani, sri lankan biryani and the like. That is a short list.

Yes, I have admittedly been cheating on biryani. The farmers’ market spice merchant has been effusively loyal and ever helpful. Yet, I have been shamefully, almost covertly, buying his superb admix which is damned good. So, it only seemed fair to concoct my own biryani blend (with a little help from my friends). Much like curry or ras al hanout, dry roasting and then grinding your own spice brew at home tends to create a more spellbinding and blissful union.

BIRYANI SPICE BLEND

1 T cardamom seeds
1 T coriander seeds
2 t cumin seeds
1 medium cinnamon stick, cut into pieces
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1/2 T black peppercorns
2 t fennel seeds
2 t caraway seeds
2 star anise
1/2 t grated nutmeg
1/2 t turmeric

Dry roast spices over moderate heat until fragrant. Discard bay leaves. Cool and reduce to a powder in a spice grinder by pulses or by using a mortar and pestle. Store in an air tight container in a cool, dark place.

Now, on to the main course. Guests will be grateful for the effusive, almost contemplative, scents…

LAMB BIRYANI

Dry roast and grind anise seeds, black peppercorns, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds.

1 t anise seeds, toasted and ground
2 T black peppercorns, toasted and ground
3 T green cardamom pods, cracked, toasted and ground
2 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 t cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
2 T garam masala
1 t crushed red chile flakes
1⁄2 T turmeric
1 t paprika

6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
4 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 1 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and minced

2 1/2 lbs trimmed boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
Sea salt
3/4 C plain yogurt

2 1⁄2 C basmati rice
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1⁄2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
4 whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
Sea salt
2 C water
2 C chicken or vegetable broth

1 C whole milk
1 t saffron threads

Mint leaves, roughly chopped
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Cashews, lightly sautéed in butter and chopped (optional)

Heat butter and canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and then just turning golden. Transfer to a bowl and set aside for later use.

Heat butter and canola oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat until shimmering. Add garam masala, chile flakes, turmeric, paprika, anise, pepper, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and 1 cinnamon stick, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Then add garlic, tomatoes, chiles, and ginger and sauté, stirring, another 2–3 minutes more.

Add lamb, season with salt, and cook until lightly browned, turning, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked onions and yogurt, cover and reduce heat to medium and cook until lamb is tender, about 25 minutes. Place lamb in a glass bowl or dish, tent and set aside. Keep the empty Dutch oven available for the layering step below.

Meanwhile, melt butter over moderately high heat. Add the minced garlic cloves and sauté briefly but do not burn. Add the basmati rice, stirring well to coat. Add cinnamon stick, along with the cumin, cloves, and bay leaves, and season with salt. Add the water and stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low to medium low. Cover and cook until the rice is firm and the liquid reduced, about 10-12 minutes. Set aside off of the heat.

Warm the milk with the saffron threads in a small saucepan.

Transfer half the curried lamb back into the Dutch oven, then top with half the rice. Clothe with layers of the remaining lamb and then rice and finally add the warmed milk with saffron. (Lamb–>rice–>lamb–>rice–>saffron.) Cover and cook over low heat until the rice is tender, about 10 more minutes.

Plate and garnish with mint, cilantro and cashews. Consider serving biryani with coconut curry gravy, daal (lentils), regional vegetable dishes, and/or naan bread.

Pourboire: instead of sautéing in unsalted butter and canola, ghee or ghi–a traditional Indian clarified butter–is often used due to its high smoking point and toasted flavor. A recipe follows:

GHEE

1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a lively simmer or quiet boil, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the butter will form a first foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Brown milk solids will naturally fall to the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool for several minutes. Slowly pour into ovenproof container through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

Spinach is susceptible of receiving all imprints: It is the virgin wax of the kitchen.
~Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière

While there are many variations of spinach, generally speaking, there are four main types: savoy, semi-savoy, flat leaf, and baby. Savoy spinach has crinkly, dark green curly leaves. Flatleaf or smooth leaf spinach is unwrinkled and have spade-shaped leaves that are easier to clean than the curly types. The stalks are usually very narrow and tasty. Semi-savoy is a mix of the savoy and flat-leaf. Baby spinach leaves are of the flat-leaf variety and are usually no longer than three inches. These tender, sweet leaves are more expensive and are sold loose rather than in bunches.

Savoy spinach, a/k/a curly leaf spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a cool season green which belongs botanically to the goosefoot family. It is thought to have first been cultivated in ancient Persia, later making its way to China. Ultimately, the Moors brought their beloved spinach to Spain during their several century conquest and occupation there. That began spinach’s journey across the continent.

Catherine de’ Medici, that major political and artistic mover and shaker of the 16th century, became a fervent patron of the French kitchen soon after she married Henri, Duc d’Orléans, the future Henri II of France. The arrival of this plump Italian teenager marked the nascency of classic French gastronomy, and even the revolutionary introduction of the fork to tables there. Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici was so enamored with the leafy vegetable that when she married and moved to France she not only brought her personal chefs with their exquisite techniques, but also brought her adored Florentine spinach.

The English word for this delectable green—spinach—is derived from the middle French espinache from the old Provence espinarc, which is possibly via the Catalan espinac, from the Andalusian Arabic isbinakh, from the Arabic isbanakh, and originally from the old Persian aspanakh. A delightfully tortuous linguistic path. You can almost visualize those old snaky dotted lines tracking the trek of this green on an antiquated map.

The egg strumpet in me re-emerges with this recipe. But, that is another story that I don’t have time to tell.

POACHED EGGS WITH SAVOY SPINACH

2 large scallions, light green and white parts, thinly sliced (dark green reserved)
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 T unsalted butter
1 large bunch savoy spinach, stems trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 C heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs, room temperature

Crushed red pepper flakes

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add scallion and garlic sauté until sweated, about 2 minutes. Add spinach leaves, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until spinach wilts, about 3 minutes. Stir in cream and let simmer for a couple of minutes to thicken some. Discard garlic cloves.

Carefully crack each egg into a bowl, then slide into the skillet, so they fit in one layer. Reduce heat to medium low and season with salt and pepper. Cover pan and let cook for 2 minutes, then turn off heat and let eggs rest, covered, about another 30 seconds until the whites cooked through and the yolks are runny. Season with a pinch or so of red pepper flakes and garnish with the reserved chopped scallions.

Carefully scoop eggs, spinach and sauce into shallow soup bowls over grilled or toasted artisanal bread which has been brushed with extra virgin olive oil.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet (scene V)

Why is fennel such a neglected child? A culinary tragedy of sorts.

It seems incongruous that this versatile perennial herb always warms the bench in cooks’ imaginations…especially given fennel’s illustrious past. In Greek mythology, the wily titan Prometheus smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk. The decisive battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians (490 BC) was allegedly waged on a plain covered in wild fennel. Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder lauded its medicinal properties, and had numerous herbal remedies linked to fennel. The almost omnipotent medieval king, Charlemagne, had fennel cultivated in his garden to serve the household, perhaps to be shared by each of his nine wives. He later regally mandated that fennel be nurtured in every imperial garden. During this era, fennel was used to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits. Later, in the new world, Puritans chewed fennel seeds during church services, calling them “meeting seed.” (Only Puritans would fail to grasp that double entendre, but perhaps Charlemagne was on to something.)

The fennel found in your local market is Florence fennel, or finocchio, which are topped by fragrant, delicate emerald fronds attached to stout stalks that resemble celery. The edible white “bulb” is actually not that at all, but rather concentrated stacked leaves that unpack like the base of a celery stalk.

You are not alone if you have never cooked with fennel, but I implore you to re-evaluate. Fennel has a subtle flavor that is enticing enough solo, but it also blends well and enhances the flavors of nearby foods. It is eaten raw (often shaven), sautéed, steamed, braised, roasted and grilled with a whole host of food mates—a versatile one.

BEET & FENNEL SALAD WITH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE

6 medium beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
2 T white wine vinegar
1/2 T organic honey
1 T lemon juice
1 T orange juice
1 T grapefruit juice
Sea salt
1/4 t lemon zest
1/4 t orange zest
1/4 t grapefruit zest

1/2 C hazelnuts, roasted and chopped

1 fennel bulb, quartered and cored
1 C frisée, torn in pieces
1 C watercress

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly splash them with water, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel using a paper towel. Cut into wedges, put them in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil, then toss.

In the meantime, wash and dry greens and carefully shave the fennel quarters on a mandoline or slicer.

In a bowl, whisk together the shallot, white wine vingar, honey, citrus juices, and a pinch of salt. Allow to rest and macerate while grating the citrus for zest and preparing the hazelnuts. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl while whisking constantly and then stir in the zests and hazelnuts to complete the vinaigrette. If necessary, add salt to taste.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss beets, fennel, and frisée and watercress in vinaigrette to lightly, but thoroughly, coat. (The French believe it takes 33 turns for a salad to be properly dressed.) Drenching a salad with vinaigrette is a cardinal sin which carries a sentence of temporary banishment from the kitchen.

Pizza & Calzone Dough

April 14, 2009

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.
~Yogi Berra

Pizza has a lengthy and storied career despite its lack of a precise birthplace or fixed home of origin…an eternal, jiving gypsy of foods.

Tracing the history of pizza can prove tortuous. Any number of cultures or peoples who mastered the art of heating a mixture of flour and water on a stone could rightly stake claim to inventing these sumptuous edible tables. I will offer an abbreviated, anecdotal (far from academic) version. Chronologically precise? Doubtfully.

Evidence of flat breads have been found at prehistoric archeological digs. Breads we now call focaccia may date back as far as the ancient Etruscans. Focaccia literally means “flat bread,” from the Latin root focacius, meaning hearth.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Pharaoh’s birthday with a flat bread seasoned with herbs; and early historians such as Herodotus, described centuries old Babylonian recipes that bear resemblances to contemporary pizza crust. The ancient Greeks baked round flat breads annointed with oil, herbs, spices and dates which they called plankous or plankuntos. During lengthy marches, soldiers of the Persian king Darius the Great were known to bake a form of flat bread covered with cheese and dates upon their shields. In the epic Aeneid, the classical Roman poet Virgil alluded to the practice of using bread as an edible platter for other foods: “…we devour the plates on which we fed.”

So, a loose thread has developed that pizza gradually evolved from the ancient flatbreads relished by varying cultures in the Mediterranean rim. However, little debate exists that Italy took pizza to today’s level.

Pizza adopted its more current form in pre-Renaissance Naples, where impoverished peasants used limited ingredients (wheat flour, olive oil, lard, cheese and natural herbs) to make a seasoned, garnished flat bread. Later, tomatoes were brought to Europe from Peru and Mexico of the New World. Tomatoes were originally believed to be toxic; fortunately, the poorer denizens of Naples mustered the courage to add this once strictly ornamental pomidori to the crusty dough, creating the first basic tomato pizza.

In the late 18th century, Naples bustled and street vendors bought pizzas from small stands and sold them in slices from lidded metal boxes or narrow boards. A pizza delivered to King Ferninando I and Queen Maria Carolina was said to be so well received that the king had a red tiled pizza oven built at the royal palace.

In 1889, King Umberto I of Italy, and his wife, Queen Margherita were touring Naples. They asked to sample the fare of the most celebrated of the current pizzaiolis, Raffaele Esposito, even though partaking of such peasant fare was thought unseemly for royalty. Not wishing to disappoint, he prepared several pizzas, one of which was patriotically dressed with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes (the tricolors of the Italian flag)…dedicated to the Queen and coined “Pizza Margherita.”

Pizza migrated to America with Italians in the latter half of the 19th century, but did not achieve broad notoriety until after World War II, when servicemen stationed overseas returned to the states craving these newly discovered exotic pies.

The actual word “pizza” may be a derivative of the Latin word picea, a word which Romans used to describe the blackening of bread in an oven. Others assert that the word pizza is rooted in an Old Italian word meaning “a point,” which in turn became the Italian word pizzicare, which means “to pinch or pluck.”

Do not be deluded into thinking that pizza is some complicated dish unworthy of your efforts or too banal for your guests. You can make divine homemade pizzas with little outlay of time or capital.  All that is needed is to craft dough (flour, water, yeast, salt and honey) watch the ball rise, lightly scatter (even underload) with toppings, slide into a very hot oven with a paddle onto an already well-heated stone or steel and cook briefly.  You can riff on classics far and wide too.

Pizza is not only sublimely delicious — strewn with a small bevy of fresh ingredients, it is a visual feast.

PIZZA DOUGH

Extra virgin olive oil to coat bowl

1 C warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast packet
1 T organic honey

3+ C all purpose flour
1 t sea salt
3 T extra virgin olive oil

Pour warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast and honey until it dissolves. Let stand until yeast activates and forms foam or bubbles on the surface, about 5 minutes.

Rub large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix flour and salt in stand up, heavy duty mixer equipped with flat paddle. Add yeast mixture, flour, salt and olive oil; mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Refit mixer with dough hook and process at medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic—or transfer to lightly floured surface and knead dough by hand until smooth. Kneading helps develop strength and elasticity in the dough. During this step, add more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is too sticky. Work dough with hands into a smooth ball.

Transfer to large oiled bowl, turning dough until fully coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then a dishtowel and let dough rise in warm draft free area until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes for quick rising yeast and 1 1/2 hours for regular yeast. Punch down dough and work with hands into a smooth ball. Cut and divide into two rounded equal balls and let rest, sometimes overnight.

Place dough on well floured board or large work surface and roll out, starting in center and working outward toward edges but not rolling over them. Roll the dough to roughly 12 inches in diameter, but always feel free to create any shape to your liking or whim. Transfer to a pizza paddle which is either covered in cornmeal or heavily floured so it can slide off easily into the oven. Lightly brush with olive oil. Then add the toppings, which were chopped, cut, prepared and/or cooked in advance.

A word to the wise—do not overburden pizzas with toppings; rather, try to maintain balance and integrity, always allowing the crust to play a central role in the tasting theater. Too often pizzas are heavily laden with a plethora of ingredients that bury the crust and offer little to the savory character of these rustic delights. So, please use a light hand and err on the side of less vs. more.

With calzone, follow the dough procedure described above; but, once rolled out add toppings only to half of the dough circle, leaving a 1″ border around the half circle. Moisten the edge with water and fold the uncovered side over the filled half. Press the edges of the dough together to seal. Calzones usually take a couple minutes longer to cook. Lightly brush the top with olive oil right after the calzone is removed from the oven.

On cooking pizza: The ideal environment is directly on the tile floor of an intensely hot wood fired or stone oven. As most home kitchens are accoutered with a simple gas or electric oven, we have to accomodate. So, either use a thick, heavy pizza stone or place a layer of unglazed ceramic tiles in the bottom rack of the oven. Crank up the dial to 500 F for a sufficient time to assure that both the stone and oven are fiercely hot.

Gently shake the paddle attired with the already topped dough to make sure the pizza is loose enough to slide onto the hot stone. With a flip of the wrist, slowly slide the pizza from the paddle onto the stone and cook until slightly browned and crisp, about 10-12 minutes. Once removed, immediately grate fresh parmiggiano-reggiano on top. Slice and serve.

No need to worry, readers. Pizzas are a revered food at this table, so topping recipes will follow on the next post and later throughout the blog.

Pourboire: Some fine pizza crafters suggest that once the early kneading is complete, and the dough is divided, you should turn out each piece on a floured surface, folding and kneading each about four times until it forms a smooth ball. Then, set each ball in a lidded glass or plastic bin large enough to allow it to double in size. Settle a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough, then cover with the lid. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours before shaping and baking. This prolonged fermentation not only develops the dough’s structure, it also enables starches to transform into sapid sugars—resulting in a svelte, airier crust.