Monthly Archives: September 2009

Stretching limits

Tonight I made a pizza. It was, at least as far as I can recall, the first time I made my own pizza from scratch. Which is a little odd, in a way, since I like to cook and have in fact cooked successfully a fairly wide range of dishes. I’d just never gotten around to pizza. I guess it was always just too easy to do take-away. But in our new house we have a monster oven begging to be put to use, and mostly very mediocre at best choices in the neighborhood for take-out pizza. So it was time to learn.

I decided to start with a relatively simple recipe from the Silver Spoon cookbook for Neapolitan pizza. Basically, dough, tomatoes, cheese. Maybe this was my first mistake. In the morning, I went down to one of our local Italian specialty shops, Capone Foods in Somerville, to get a bag of pizza flour. I knew they had this, because it was on the shelf next to the bags of pasta flour, and I had seen them there when I bought a bag of pasta flour not too long ago.

Now, you might be wondering, is there much of difference between pasta flour and pizza flour? Well, I was, anyway. I’d assumed that the pizza flour would be more like bread flour, a high-gluten flour, but was told that, in fact, the pasta flour is higher gluten than the pizza flour.

Actually mixing the dough was easy enough—it’s just flour, water, yeast, and a little salt. It was supposed to rise for three hours, so while we were waiting, we walked down to the What the Fluff festival in Union Square. The What the Fluff festival is a celebration of the invention of marshmallow fluff. The guy who invented Fluff lived in Somerville. Durkee-Mower, the company that makes Fluff, is now in Lynn, but that doesn’t really stop anybody. The WTF fest is a very popular even in Somerville. There are games for kids, like Fluff Bowling and Fishing for Fluff. Local merchants have booths set up, and there is baking competition. The only real problem is that the actual event isn’t quite up to the number of people it draws, so mainly it becomes an exercise in getting shoved about in a crowd and not getting to actually see very much. Aside from the spectacle of seeing who could lick Fluff off of a plate the fastest, I’d have to say the potential of the Fluff festival is not quite fulfilled. Also, I waited in line for a while to get a T-shirt, and they didn’t have the one I wanted in my size. Poo.

By the time we got back, the dough had risen. Time to make the sauce. The sauce was simple: crushed and strained tomatoes, a little salt, a pinch of oregano. Goes on raw, cooks in the oven.

My real difficulty came when I tried to make the crust. The dough was very, very sticky. I really had a hard time getting control of it. I ended up having to try two or three times, and ended up with a crust that was smaller than I wanted and had too much dough at the edges.

As I said, I like to cook, but when things start to go badly in the kitchen, I get upset, and start cursing at everything, and banging things around. I lose patience, and get sloppy, and rush, which just makes things worse. The dough stuck to the board I was stretching it on, it stuck to the peel (and yes, I had tried to use a little cornmeal to keep it from sticking), and the the cheese tried to slide off onto the baking stone. Which was really, really hot, and doesn’t like to have high-fat foods placed directly on it (the stone is hot enough for fat to burn instantly). I just slammed the door shut and fumed for a few minutes, already thinking about where dinner was going to have to come from, since I was pretty sure the pizza was ruined. This is why there’s no photo for this post. I was too angry to think about it, and when it was done, I was too hungry.

Remarkably, though, what came out of the oven was actually edible. Was, in fact, not awful. Not great, not quite what I had planned, but I’d had worse. In my struggles with the dough, I’d knocked much of the air out of it, and it was a tad overworked. The sauce and cheese were good. Even with the difficulties I’d had, it was still better than most of the local pizza shops. Whether this says more about my cooking skills or the lack thereof among the neighborhood pizza crews, I don’t know. But I’ll have to try again—I’ve got the stone and the peel, and three and a half pounds of flour to get through.

Baking and whining

I started this blog, as I said, to goad me into actually doing a little work, and it has worked somewhat. I haven’t been posting as much as I’d planned, but I have been getting through some of the photo scanning I’d been meaning to do. I’ve also been baking. In the last week or two I’ve baked a tart, a torte, and a batch of cupcakes.

The baking started with a party. My wife decided to make an angel food cake for this party. I also wanted to bake something for the party, so I figured the best plan would be to make something that would use up the egg yolks that would be left over from the angel food cake. I decided to make a lemon tart. When I started to make the tart, however, I realized that I had misread the recipe I had intended to use. The recipe called for whole eggs, not yolks. At that point, however, I was more or less committed to the tart. So I went ahead and made it anyway. And it was good. The angel food cake was also good. Our desserts were a hit at the party.


But I was still left with all the yolks. I found a recipe for a chocolate torte that used only yolks. And buttercream frosting: more yolks. Not quite all 12 yolks, but enough to not feel like I was letting too much go to waste. However, the torte did not need all of the buttercream, which I had made with a coffee flavor. So after we ate up all of the torte, I made a batch of cupcakes. Chocolate, of course. Cupcakes seemed like a good idea, because I could bring some of them to work and get my coworkers to eat them. One of the advantages of a day job is having coworkers who will consume your excess production.

I guess if you always bake stuff from mixes, you never have this sort of problem. No leftover ingredients. But I hate to waste food, or throw stuff away unused. Even when it’s gone way bad. There’s a couple of eggs in the fridge and some cream that’s gone off that I really need to toss, and I’ll feel bad doing it. I failed to find a use for it all.

I feel bad about food waste at restaurants. Every Saturday morning we go to a local diner for breakfast. Some of the breakfast specials they make are quite a lot of food, and pretty much every time we go, there are lot of people leaving a lot of food on their plates (remember, we often sit at the counter, where you can easily watch everything that goes on in the diner). To be fair, many people take the leftovers, and it’s impossible on a practical basis for a restaurant to design a standardized portion that’s going to be good for everyone. I gather that this is part of the appeal of places like the Cheesecake Factory: customers more or less plan on taking home leftovers.

And yet, there it is: food that’s grown, harvested, packaged, shipped, cooked, and thrown away. I don’t quite understand why. Do people feel comforted by the enormous portions that they aren’t going to eat? Would they feel cheated if the portions were smaller? I know a little bit about how the restaurant business works: portion planning and control are essential to keeping a restaurant profitable. So these places wouldn’t routinely produce a wasteful amount of food unless they believed that the large portions were actually part of what brought in customers.

I guess it could be worse: people could actually eat all that food, and be even fatter than they already are. Clearly, the market system is not producing a very efficient distribution of food: enormously excessive quantities of food are being pushed out toward some segments of the market, while others get not enough. Admittedly, it has always been this way, to some degree, throughout human history, but at what other time has obesity been such a widespread problem? At what other time have we seen significant numbers of children being diagnosed with Type II (“adult-onset”) diabetes?

I wouldn’t expect much help from the government here. Congress and the regulatory agencies are too friendly to the food producers. A very large portion of the grain produced in this country goes to cattle feed and the commercial food processors to make HFCS and hydrogenated fats, the “food plasma” that ends up in various shapes in brightly colored boxes on the supermarket shelves. It gets federal farm subsidies so that the resulting meat and plasma will be cheap for the consumer. Eliminating these subsidies would help balance the food mix better, but the farm-state representatives and lobbyists will never let it happen. So the government mandate to produce cheap food contributes directly to weight-related health problems.

Okay, hardly an original observation. Nor do I have a particular solution to offer for it. But if I can’t have a pointless rambling rant on a blog, where can I?

Gahh. I think I need a cupcake.

A Drive in the Country

Today we went on a little road trip, just because it was a nice day. A coworker with a common interest in old diners recommended the Agawam Diner in Rowley, MA. It was reported to be worth a trip, both as a well-preserved dining-car diner and for decent diner food. It also happened to be not far down the road from the Clam Box of Ipswich, which I’d also been wanting to try.

We drove up Route 1, past such local landmarks as the Hilltop, Kowloon, The leaning tower of pizza, and the orange mini-golf dinosaur. We stopped at the site of the defunct Bel-Aire diner, sadly closed and abandoned (for at least four years now, according to Google searching). Vines were visible growing inside the vestibule. Perhaps some venturesome and wealthy patron will someday find the funds to relocate this classic 1950s-vintage diner to a location where it would do enough business to stay open. Nearby we counted two or three boarded-up motels, including one directly across the street. Two local strip clubs had full parking lots, though.

The Agawam Diner has had the good fortune to escape this end, though it is the last of what was once a chain of four. In fact, when we got there, the place was packed, so we decided to keep driving and go by the Clam Box. The Clam Box had a line out the door and down the block a ways. As much as I like fried clams, I’m not up for long lines.

So what is there to do in Ipswich besides eat? Antique shops. And flea markets. And more antique shops, really, as far as the eye can see. So we se a sign for a flea market, and go in.

Find #1: An Argus AF 35mm camera in decent condition. Five bucks, with an intact leather case. Not a steal really: five bucks is about what the camera is worth. This camera dates from around 1937, but the Argus was the first relatively inexpensive (a list price of $15, compared to, say, a Kodak Retina I at $57) 35 mm camera made in the US, and it was pretty popular in its day. Used Arguses (Argi?) are still abundant and commonly found gathering dust in antique stores and flea markets. So I hardly need to buy this camera. But as I say, it does seem to be well-preserved example. The shutter and focusing mechanism seem to be working okay, and the glass is clear. And it is kind of a funky 1930s art-deco bakelite artifact. So what the hell, another toy to play with. I’ve got some FP4 in a bulk loader–I can make up a short roll to test.

As I go to the table to pay, the guy says, “Do you know anything about cameras?” I’m wearing my “Got Film?” T-shirt and carrying my Nikon F2, so I say, “yeah, a little.” He’s just happy to get rid of the thing.

Find #2: We go down the road a ways to check out more antique stores. At one, I find two boxes of #25 flashbulbs, each with a dozen bulbs. Twelve white and Twelve blue. The blue bulbs have a better balance for color film. Judging by the packaging, I’d guess these are late-60s vintage bulbs. The box gives times for two versions of Kodachrome discontinued in 1974, so before then, anyway. Original sticker price: $2.59. My price: $5 per box. Press 25 bulbs fit the flash tube for my Speed Graphic, so I can use them as soon as I finish rigging up the shield. I have found a clip-on diffuser that fit, so all I need is something to keep the glass shards contained. One of the dangers of using 40+ year-old flash bulbs is the occasional burst bulb. The bulbs are actually plastic-coated to prevent shattering, but the coating can fail.
I discovered this by direct experience.

We did get back to the Agawam diner for dinner. And indeed, the Agawam is very well maintained. Nice chrome exterior, nonworking jukebox selectors at the booths, Formica counters. It was busy, but we snagged seats at the counter with no waiting. I actually like being at the counter at a diner, especially a curved counter. You can watch what’s going on behind from there. We’re sitting next to the dessert station, mainly various types of meringue and cream pies, fairly usual diner offerings, along with some fruit pies. At one point I watch a waitress do a fairly sloppy job of slicing a blueberry pie, mashing it so the filling runs out all over the pie tin.

After spending the day driving around and seeing signs for clams every hundred yards or so, I give in to suggestion and order the clam roll. Not the strips; whole clams. And these were definitely whole, with necks. Some places cut the siphons because they can be kinda chewy, but some places leave them on. I’m okay with that. Strips are usually made from sea clams, not shore clams. They’re cheaper, but I don’t think you get a good clam flavor unless you have whole clams. The batter was decent–not quite as crisp and light as you’d get at a good clam shack, but okay–not too thick or crunchy, a frequent failing. The roll is industrial-grade hot dog roll, but toasted in butter. Fries and cole slaw. I don’t eat the cole slaw.

I decide on what seems a safe choice for dessert–chocolate cake. And it’s actually okay, better than I was expecting, though there was a white-frosting filling that was less than good. On the whole, a satisfactory diner experience.