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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pizza Night in the Valley…

oven readyWinter is the time of discontent. Daylight is short; darkness long. Nostril pinching cold on clear days (what few there are); fear of frozen pipes at night. Even during a “one snowman winter”when snowflakes double up on the roads, the entire world screeches to a halt. And when the cold gives way to the river of air known as The Pineapple Express, downspouts gush; gutters brim and overflow. Short pants and T-shirts are mothballed; bulky layers of sweats prevail. As if all this weren’t discontent enough, Papa Murphy’s “Ten Dollar Tuesdays”go on winter furlough. At times like this, you step up, you find that inner strength and reserve, you draw on resources you never knew you had, you toughen up,…you make your own pizza.

Our new pizza frontier began last summer at my brother Keith’s place on the banks of the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. Keith, twenty years my junior and the youngest sibling in the family, taught this old dog a trick or two about grilling not steak, not brats, not chicken, nor burgers or hotdogs, but pizza, pizza constructed on a sourdough crust foundation.

Sourdough. Ours is a sourdough family, a sourdough lineage traced to Alaska where Granddad Mike, riding on the coattails of the Klondike gold rush of 1889, ran a roadhouse and a freight business. In a land of ice and snow, yeast shivered during the bread making process and prospectors turned to sourdough to get a rise out of their bread, biscuits, and hotcakes. Sourdough manufacture requires a “starter,” a fermented mixture that adds the “rise” to the baking dough. Seasoned prospectors, miners, longtime Alaskans were known as “sourdoughs” (newcomers were branded “Cheechakos) because of their universal use of sourdough. Story has it sourdough prospectors made their biscuits by pouring their starter into a fifty pound sack of flour, mixing the liquid starter to the top layer of dry flour and then forming their biscuits from the dough. Those old time bakers literally doughed their way to the bottom of the flour sack.

When Granddad emigrated from Alaska to Seattle, the sourdough starter emigrated to“The States”with him. I remember the hearty breakfasts in my grandparents’ big two story house in Seattle where he served us up a main course of sourdough hotcakes, hot from the frying pan, edges crispy, crusted from the sizzling bacon fat. There were seven or eight of us around the big dining room table and as soon as our plates emptied, they were heaped again--almost as if the hotcakes sprung from the plates themselves. If it looked like our eating was starting to slacken, we were encouraged to “eat up, eat up” to the point we children felt genuine hotcake intimidation. Only after we nearly foundered, sat dazed and glassy-eyed, did Granddad untie his apron and join us at the table.

At one time I thought the starters in our respective households were all direct descendants of that original starter from The Land of the Midnight Sun; however, my brother Kevin, the official keeper of the “Sourdough Crock,”believes this to be apocryphal. Regardless, Kevin’s “Grail Crock” has been maintained the longest. If not used or worked regularly, the starter will go flat and the “sour” will die. For years in our household Wednesday night would be “breakfast for dinner”and sourdough pancakes were the main course. One year, for whatever reason, the routine came under fire and as a consequence, the starter languished and died. At the family Christmas reunion Brother Kevin brought a replacement starter. But the tradition was doomed, and after a few weeks of inattention the starter deflated and had to be taken off life support. Upon request, Brother would supply yet another starter, no questions asked, from the “sacred crock.”

A surge of nostalgia three or four years ago resolved the Wednesday night sourdough “breakfast” stalemate, prompting a Sunday breakfast compromise our household has sustained ever since. So with a vital starter now at hand, we decided to make the most of it, thus our sourdough pizza crust.

Any sort of sourdough baking requires at least a twenty-four hour prep: the batter infused with starter must be allowed to “work” for that duration, to allow the mixture to “sour up, if you will. The sourdough cook needs to prepare enough batter for the meal plus a surplus to set aside to “start” the next baking project.

Aside from having to plan ahead a bit, the pizza dough is easy to make. A cup and a half of starter and an equal amount of flour are the main ingredients. I set aside a couple tablespoons of water in case the dough needs thinning. Once the dough reaches the correct consistency, two tablespoons of olive oil (note: is there such a thing as “olive oil” these days; isn’t it all “extra virgin” olive oil? ) and knead this into the dough. The oil gives the dough its wonderful elasticity and allows it to be rolled and formed with ease. Next I knead the dough by stretching and folding it back together by hand. For about ten minutes I walk around the house kneading (and exercising) as I go. Before carpal tunnel syndrome sets in, I form a ball and divide it in half with a pastry cutter. Each half will yield a “large” size pizza crust. The halves, rounded, are placed in two oil-lined bowls and covered to prevent their drying out. This second prep step should be done three or four hours before mealtime to allow the dough sufficient time to rise a bit.

Now comes the fun part: building your personal pizza, customizing it, creating a gustatory work of art…. This stage would be a great activity for the kiddos, guaranteed fun, time to allow the t.v. or video games to cool, let the smoke clear a bit. (The little helpers may need some assistance rolling and rounding the crust; I have problems with this step myself, but if round turns out to be a bit oval, it’s no disaster.) While the dough is on the rise, you have plenty of time to prepare the potpourri My wife likes straight vegetarian; I, however, like to include some animal protein with the vegetable selections for some omnivorous balance: diced chicken, turkey pepperoni, sausage…once I sprinkled a handful of shrimp around to give my masterpiece a seafood flair.

After the crusts are rolled and shaped, pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. This allows just enough time for the crusts to rise a bit more. Gently slide the crust onto a sheet of parchment paper. For the construction phase the parchment paper facilitates loading the pizza on the pre-heated stone and the baked crust slides easily from the paper onto a pan or cutting board once it’s cooked. Lightly brush the dough with olive oil to prevent the ingredients from soaking into the crust. For our red sauce foundation, we slather on homemade tomato sauce, half a pint per crust, layer on tomato slices and then the potpourri of ingredients piled on at random and top them off with slabs of mozzarella cheese.

Fourteen minutes later the sourdough pizza, toppings infused and oozing with mozzarella, is removed from the kiln and eased from the stone, readying it for pizza # two.His pizza








Her pizza








So take heed, Papa Murphy’s: two can play at this pizza game. Take a look at this winner…and on sourdough crust, no less….

serve it up

(“What here shall miss,” “will strive to mend.”)

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