Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chefs for a night...our Perfect Pairings adventure

I recall getting the phone call from our good friend Angie....asking me about the idea of a one night only event at The Stock Market restaurant in Bonifacio High Street.  'Just one night with a fixed  menu...with you and Isca as featured chefs.'  Sounded simple....after all, we could pull out dishes from what we knew we could do and do well, put them together and serve them up, right? Wrong. 

While I do enjoy cooking, doing a sit-down for a paying audience in an actual restaurant made me nervous and anxious but oh so very excited.  I immediately told Isca about it and she felt exactly the same way.  As chefs for the night, we would get a share of the night's purse...something that barely registered and we immediately agreed between the 2 of us that our share would go to our parish's church construction project.  So we agreed.

There were about 6 weeks to prepare and we needed to come up with menu options for what was initially a 4 course dinner - salad, appetizer, main course, dessert.  Scouring our memory banks, we came up with a template containing various options for each course.

We met with Angie, the restaurant operators/chefs and the Ad Agency that was handling the event's PR to discuss the menu options and timetable.  Ideas were exchanged and some excited views on food were tempered with the reality of having options that were appropriately costed  and would set up the kitchen to properly prepare, plate and churn out each item on the menu.  

The next steps were refining the recipes, the cook and taste test.  Options had been narrowed for the final selection and we excitedly put together a market list.  There were high hopes for a porchetta, which we had served at dinner parties before. The phyllo-wrapped tenderloin, however, I felt would be the winner....the ingredients were simple, they could be assembled and prepared in batches and I had not prepared it in a while so there was an air of mystery about it.  The week-end before the taste test, I tested and put together the recipe for a leek-potato gratin.  We were ready for the cook and taste test.

As we visited the kitchen and prepared the food for tasting,  one of the kitchen interns was assigned to help me.  Being addressed as 'chef' for the first time was both embarrassing and, I'll admit, flattering.  Having spent done a short course at a culinary school, I sort of knew what it took for anyone to be addressed as 'chef' in a working kitchen.  I did try to correct him initially but as the day progressed, I just let it slide.

We prepared the dishes for the tasting - The appetizer and salad choices - grissini with parmegiano, arugula wrapped in prosciutto, 3 crostinnis -  gambas, chorizos and dulong on sun-dried tomato cream cheese and finally, caesar salad.  Entree choices were porchetta, scampi e funghi cream pasta and a tenderloin steak, topped with mushroom duxelles and boursin, wrapped in phyllo pastry

After the taste test and a lively discussion, we decided to have an all seafood appetizer plate, a soup and a fish option for the entree.  I suggested a tuna tartare, a roast capsicum and potato soup and a roast halibut with Isca's mediterranean style topping of tomatoes, capers and basil.  The beef tenderloin was selected as the other main.

Isca and I were particular about specific aspects of the dishes  and while we had help from the staff on the prep work,  there was stuff we did ourselves - the gambas, salad dressing, soup, mediterranean topping for the fish, assembly of the phyllo wrap and the tuna tartare.  We also oversaw the preparation the staff did for the rest of the dishes, following our recipes.

For a while, it truly felt like standing at the helm of the kitchen,  making choices and decisions as the food was prepared and cooked.  Isca took care of the front of the house, preparing a brief training plan for the servers, sharing details about the dishes and telling them how to manage greeting, serving, payments and questions.

The press releases, I think understandably, thrilled us and helped publicize the event.  Not a few people have come up to us since then assuming we own the restaurant.

On the night itself, as people came in, we were all over the place, meeting and greeting our guests, spending a little time with each person and going in and out of the kitchen to ensure things were going smoothly.

It was hectic, nerve-wracking, fast-paced but above all, it was SO MUCH FUN!  Just a few people we spoke with indicated they were not so happy with the food for one reason or another. But this was a tiny, tiny minority compared to the complements we received from many, many others.

At the end of the night, when the last guests had left, we applauded the wait-staff, the kitchen staff, the restaurant operators...hugs and kisses and thanks for Angie who thought of the evening and made it all possible.

Would we do it again? a heartbeat.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Callos in the land of typhoons

Whiling away the time post-Ondoy found me trying to deal with the stress that the news carried and thinking about how lucky we were with our own situation, with nary a drop of water causing any damage.

As I finished watching yet another public service program, I turned to the net and found an earlier Callos post in the 80 Breakfasts blog.  I realized I had decided to give this recipe a try and in fact had a few packages of good-looking ingredients in the freezer.  (I once again realize how food-obsessed I am when I regard frozen meat as 'good-looking.' ....just like prawns can be sexy and tomatoes, voluptuous. But the meat was, in fact, just that...clean, neatly packaged NZ tripe and oxtail...good-looking)

Until then, I was still a callos virgin but I was determined not to die as one...picturing myself on my deathbed, whispering in a hoarse voice,  a lone tear rolling down my cheek...'my one regret in the kitchen is not giving myself the opportunity to cook a good pot of callos.'  The priest looks on sadly and continues the sacrament he's there to perform.  Rather morbid, this scene but I'm happy to say it exists only as a faded recollection of what might have been...I have seen the light, sliced the tripe and simmered the first attempt was, if I may say so myself, in my own inimitable and humble way...FANTASTIIIIQUE!!!

Years of eating it, reading recipes about it, tasting wonderful versions of it (our friend Boyong Baytion's version stands out) and scoffing at terrible attempts at it, have culminated in the 3 day version I just made and enjoyed.  The inspiration came from the post I mentioned above plus the many years of side comments Isca has let loose on how much she loves the stuff.

The callos of my mother was the template in my mind.  Tripe with ox feet simmered in a tomato-ey broth, chorizo, bell pepper and chick peas swimming amongst the meat, we would eat it with a dash of tabasco and a cucumber salad on the side.  Again, one of those comfort food meals we remember fondly.

Well, I've waited this long and wanted to make sure I got it right the first time.  In the spirit of Total Quality I started the process that took 3 days to complete before it starred on the dinner table.

There were, I thought, several flavor boosters which I noted in the post that I read on 80 Breakfasts.  There was the slow cooked and reduced broth..the same broth used to soften the tripe and oxtail, getting an additional kick of flavor with the addition of Majestic (ham) hambones.  It also called for a load of roasted and peeled bell pepper which added another layer of smokey flavor in the background. Cayenne pepper was a surprise - then I realize it saves time instead of putting tabasco yourself, haha.  This warm spice wasn't obvious in the first sort of subtly crept up behind the familiar callos taste melange, lending a pleasant and gentle nudge of chili.  Then the familiar paprika, tomato, chorizo combined with the textures of well-cooked (good looking) unctuous tripe and oxtail as well as garbanzos. Very well put together.

On the second day, I felt it was going to be a homerun so I prepared a batch of pain a l'ancienne dough...which I baked the next day as the pot simmered on the stove. 

Aahhh, the land of typhoons, or anywhere, for that matter.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Food Memories

I grew up in a home of good food and my food memories are quite rich. While we did have the staples of sinigang and adobo, mechado and pansit, there many other dishes which, when I mentioned to friends back then and even today, would elicit wide-eyed questions about our family's culinary habits.

Let me go through a top of mind list of what were 'typical' fare that we had along with the staples mentioned above. The food is circa late 60's through to the 80's.

Tapadera - thinly sliced beefsteak, seared after a marinade in maggi and then arranged in a baking dish with upright slices of beef layered alternately with mashed potatoes mixed with sauteed bell pepper.

Red beans and mayo - boiled red kidney beans which was spoomed over rice and then topped with a dollop of mayo. This was eaten with a breaded beefsteak, seasoned on the table with Lea & Perrins.

Summer salad - back when only iceberg lettuce was available on the supermarket shelves, we would have Sunday lunches with nothing but salad and fixings - cheddar cheese cubes, sliced picnic ham, frozen peas, sliced tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, canned white asparagus all tossed with mayo and eaten with garlic bread. This was a family favorite.

Chili con carne - Beans and ground beef in a slightly spicy tomato-based sauce, eaten with bread. A later variation to this had no beans spooned over hamburger buns, eaten with pickles and fries...sloppy joes.

Tacos - when the only tacos available then were 'Tito Taco'in Uni Mart and the ones served at Nina's Papagayo, we would have tacos at home with shells from the PX store and ground beef, onions, cheese, onions, hot sauce and cabbage.

Corned beef casserole - This was a PX canned good fantasy and one of the first dishes my mom taught me how to cook. This was simple - a can of cooked Hereford corned beef, sauteed with onions, a can of Libby's sweet corn kernels and a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. These would be layered in a casserole pan - corned beef, corn and cream of mushroom, like a lasagna..and baked in a warm oven for 10 min. Mixed with rice or eaten with toast, this was a 'hit the spot' meal.

Eggplant parmiggiano - Fried eggplant and sauteed ground beef layered alternately with parmesan and mozzarella cheese and then baked in an oven...delicious hot or cold.

Langlang - This was a recipe from my grandmother...a sotanghon soup on steroids...loaded with black fungus, carrots, chicken, shrimp, meatballs...a meal i itself.

Roast Chicken with bread stuffing - We'd have 2 chickens, roasted and stuffed with a very dense, very flavorful stuffing made from white bread, milk, celery, chicken liver and served with a pan giblet gravy - again a special Sunday meal.

Dolores Macaroni - A recipe originally created by my grandmother's cook, Dolores.  This was baked macaroni with chorizo bilbao, chicken, nestle cream, cheddar cheese - dense, flavorful food that was omnipresent for our birthday parties.

Roast Beef and Mashed potatoes - I don't know what cut of beef my mom used but we would have roast beef cooked, as I recall, well done or overdone but we didn't care and didn't know any better. It was dry in the middle but had a rim of crisp, flavorful fat on the edge of each slice. Served with buttered beans, mashed potatoes and a rich pan gravy, it was another special meal that yielded no leftovers.

Pizza - I already mentioned in an earlier post pizza day was a happy day in our home. Swift's beef pepperoni and Che-Vital cheese on top of a Del monte tomato sauce base..all washed down with Pepsi from Pedrong Kuba in the corner store.

Baked beans - Our baked beans were canned pork and beans amped up with a touch of molasses, catsup, onions all mixed in a casserole dish and topped with strips of bacon. We typically had this before Christmastime, when my mom would be baking fruitcakes, the dining table would be full of either fruitcake ingredients or fruitcakes cooling from the oven. We would eat baked beans and beef tapa on our own little TV trays.

Sukiyaki - Glass noodles, thinly sliced beef, carrots, chinese cabbage, black fungus, tofu swimming in a sweet'n soy broth.  Eaten with a raw egg broken into individual bowls.

Cabbage rolls - ground pork, seasoned with just salt, rolled up in wilted cabbage leaves together with carrot and potato slivers.  This was simmered in a broth and eaten with soy sauce and calamansi and for some reason, was served side by side with fried fish.

My parents like to host parties and also served up what I thought was atypical fare that grew more complex and varied as I grew up.

We sort of developed a rather sophisticated palate  as other dishes were added to the home repertoire - beef stroganoff, lobster or prawn thermidore, mock chateaubriand, smoked pig's knuckles, cannelone, paella, roast turkey with oyster or chestnut stuffing, cabesa de javali (a mix of pork face, chorizos, vegetables encased in aspic), ox tongue many ways -  estofado, pastel, con setas, coquilles saint jacque (scallops in a white wine and cream sauce), boulliabaisse. 

The food memories are endless, varied and memorable.  They became the basis for our preferences growing up and also instilled in us a curiosity to want to taste and cook more. We also learned to appreciate, be curious about and crave for a wider variety of food from a simple sinigang to a well-made shrimp bisque.

Food memories are different for everyone....mine have cut across the boundaries of home-cooked and expanded beyond to places I have seen or want to see.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A week and a day in Provence II

Market days in Provence are very much like everywhere in France with purveyors gathering on a designated street, square or park once or twice a week. In preparation for this, we got hold of a few books, "The Markets of Provence," by Patricia Wells and "Provence and the French Riviera" by Rick Steves. Wells' book provided a daily guide of Market days in each of 7 towns in Provence - Monday in Cadenet, Tuesday in La Tour d'Aigues, Wednesday in Saint Remy, Thursday in Aix en Provence, Friday in Bonnieux, Saturday in Apt and Sunday in Isle Sur la Sorgue. Rick Steves provided a more in-depth guide of the famous as well as the out of the way places to visit in Provence.

Driving from town to town, in and around the Luberon valley and the surrounding hills was a pleasure. Well paved, with ample signage that made it easy to get around and, best of all, no traffic. It's not a surprise to me that Ducati chooses the South of France when it releases new models for test drives. What I would give to ride a Ducati along these plane tree-lined roads...well, someday. But I digress.

We arrived on a Saturday and between settling in, stocking up with Super U supplies and our first home -cooked meal (we had just spent a week in Paris), we didn't get to our first market until Sunday - at the village of Isle sur La Sorgue, in the last few hours of market day.

Merchants were packing up but we did meet Johann, an artisan (and you'll hear that word a lot in Provence) nougat maker. He had huge blocks of handmade nougat - lavender, chocolate, vanille, which he sold by weight and cut with a huge 2-handled knife. The nougat was excellent - chewy, sweet but not to sweet, the main flavor lingering in the back of your mouth instead of greeting you full-on.

The next stop was Provencal linens....jacquard table clothes and napkins in Provencal colors and designs. After an excited purchase, we continued exploring....crafted leather, some white asparagus and other vegetables, purple garlic until we found a place to stop for a late lunch - braised rabbit and linguine for Camille, a seafood salad for myself, Croque Monsieur for Lucas and Iya and, upon the suggestion of our charming waiter, a sausage andouilette for Isca.

The rabbit was tender, flavorful, braised in a red wine and thyme-based sauce....a new experience for Camille, who had (perhaps understandably) never had rabbit. I told her what to expect- a combination of veal and chicken and I was glad when she validated this with her first bite. My seafood salad was, with the exception of the generous and fresh portion of mussels, octopus and prawns, OK but not exceptional. The 'surprising' discovery was the waiter-suggested sausage andouilette. 'Surprising' can be taken many ways, mind you. This was one of those 'HELLO GUESS WHAT I'M MADE FROM' dishes that is not shy about its ingredients and their unique taste. The sausage is made from tripe and maybe other cow parts, seasoned lightly with garlic and herbs and, I suppose, cured before being pan-fried. I could not help thinking of a less-seasoned and 'tripe-ier' tasting callos madrilena in sausage form. Certainly not a winner in our books, but memorable nevertheless.

The next few days, we went to the other markets in St. Remy, Lourmalin, Gourdes, Aix en Provence, Le Beaux as well as visits to Rousillon, Le Beaux, Avignon and Nimes.

The markets were similar and, as I mentioned, we saw many of the same merchants selling their wares, moving from town to town. The produce was amazing! Huge cherries, heirloom tomatoes, purple garlic, white asparagus. There were artisan bakers, cheesemakers, charcuteries, a stall that sold nothing but foie gras products; fresh and cooked. There was a chicken rotisserie on wheels, olives and other preserves. It was a wonderful, appetizing and totally confusing place to be...what to taste, will it keep, can we finish it - all questions asked in quick succession.

It was also in St. Remy where we visited the sanitorium that Van Gogh was confined and, strangely enough, inspired to do a lot of his finest work....many of his now famous paintings were actually painted based on scenes around the estate. What a sad story of a brilliant artist...the kids recognized reproductions and the inspiration of the originals we had seen just a week before at Musee D'Orsay in Paris. The hospice was actually a very pretty albeit gloomy place, perhaps not helped by the life and tragic death of its most famous patient.

For most of our first few days, we had spring rains and when we had our first day of sun, we immediately planned for a dinner on the patio with a view of the pool, the forest and the valley. With a well-stocked larder and an equally well-equipped kitchen, we whipped up an excellent dinner of barbecued ribs, cheese pasta, Coke, baguettes, white wine and ice cream. The weather was great, the company, incomparable and the food, satisfying.

The visits to Provence's big cities and other sites were also exciting. Having spent the past few days in little towns, it was a sort of country mouse feeling, walking the more crowded sidewalks of a city. A bit overwhelming to have longer, wider streets, buildings, higher than 3 floors and traffic lights on every corner.

In Nimes, we saw a Roman Coliseum; a remnant from the days when Provence was an extension of the Roman empire. Today the colosseum is still used for bull fights. Nimes is also the place where denims originated - the cloth from Nimes or 'de Nimes." Unfortunately for Nimes, it was an American, Levi Strauss who cashed in on this fabric during the gold rush in San Francisco.

There was an excellent food find in Aix en Provence - this extremely good, extremely rich, nice and chewy and apparently very popular cookie made from almonds and sugar...calisson...wonderful. We chanced upon a cart selling this confection..surrounded at this time, by a hoard of japanese tourists - I guess it was in their guidebook...not in ours, this one.

In Marseilles, sampling onion and meat pastries from the Arab quarter served to sate our hunger in preparation for dinner's main event. While in Marseilles, we couldn't refuse the opportunity to have a taste of bouillabaisse.....which we did. It was good, yes, but not entirely memorable. The broth is served up first, with toasted baguette slices and cloves of whole garlic, to be rubbed on the bread. These were then topped with a dollop of rouille and set afloat on the broth, to add texture and an additional layer of flavor to the already complex flavors of the soup. The fish and shellfish were served next...flavorful but frankly, I've had better. It was all about the experience, I suppose...if one could choose a place to have bouillabaisse, where else to have it but in Marseilles, naturellement.

On our final night, we figured we needed to clean up our pantry purchases. We invited M. Peuch, the local realtor's representative, who ran the office that took care of summer properties of the out of towners. He seemed hesitant and reluctantly agreed to come. We prepared osso bucco, grilled pork chops, butter-fried potatoes, baguettes and salad. To start, we had foie gras and a headcheese terrine and we finished with cheese, ice cream, coffee and fromage blanc. We had beer before dinner, a Chateneuf de Papes red with dinner and M. Peuch brought a bottle of champagne to have with dessert. So while our guest, who arrived at 6:30pm on the dot, started out the evening a bit formal and reserved, as the night wore on and the bottles were killed one by one, he warmed up, smiled, ate (and ate everything, by the way), laughed and had a good did we. The night ended at 12:30am, a fitting end to a lovely week and a day in Provence.

All in all, our stay in Provence was one of the best trips we've had. We dream excitedly of our next visit and hope it won't be too long before we can go again.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Week and a Day in Provence I

After many years of enjoying reading about Provence, I finally had a chance to spend a week and a day there, exploring, eating, cooking in a place I had only enjoyed vicariously, thanks to Peter Mayle. This, I thought, was certainly not a typical family vacation destination but it certainly turned out to be one of the best and most memorable ones. It was, for me, a dream come true after many years of only seeing Provence in my mind's eye. I have to thank my wife for insisting that we go when we did, children and all, while I thought, with apprehension, about the complexity of travel in a non-English speaking country, with 3 children in tow.....looking back, what a treat it was for all of us.

Back in 1994, I didn't even know where Provence was, thinking all along, it was a generic term for a province in France. Thanks to Peter Mayle, the author of 'A Year in Provence,' and his series of other 'Provencal' books , this all changed. I picked up 'A Year' in an airport bookstore in 1994, while on a business trip and was immediately captivated by the idea, the concept, that place called Provence, a region located in the south of France, beginning in the Rhone Valley south of Paris and extending up to the southern Cote d'Azur. Mayle's picture of Provence was a fascinating glimpse of a place with centuries' old villages, castles, farmland, vineyards and recipes. He is well-known for his mouth-watering descriptions of the many dishes he has sampled in Provence. One critic went as far as saying he had introduced a new genre of writing - dinnerotica.

In my mind, I could see olive groves and fruit orchards, cobble stoned villages, festive market days with the freshest of produce, artisan bakers and cheese makers, castles and fountains and good, rustic country food.

We got to Provence by way of TGV train from Paris to Avignon, rented a mini van, loaded up the kids and took the scenic route to Puget sur Durance, a little town (pop. 138) where we stayed in the summer residence of a very good friend, Sarge. The weather, late spring, early summer was damp and cool but we didn't really notice since the 1.5 hour drive through plane tree-lined country roads was scenic and comfortable.

The house in Provence was owned by a dear friend from work, with whom I had coincidentally shared a fondness for Provence through the Peter Mayle books. Many years ago, he intimated his plans of someday owning property in Provence and extended a standing 'future' invitation for me and my family. We've fortunately kept in touch and he has fortunately fulfilled his dream of owning the voila!

The house was on top of a hill, tucked a bit away from the main road of the little town. A very charming and well-decorated house, it had 4 theme-decorated bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a home theater, the requisite barbecue grill, a forest for a backyard, wild rosemary and thyme growing on the fringes of the property and a view of the valley and the hills of Luberon overlooking the wooden swimming pool deck. It was, in a word, perfect....a perfect welcome to Provence and a perfect realization of the mental picture I had in my mind's eye.

We settled in, met by the house's official caretaker, M. Peuch, who gave us the house keys and a quick tour before taking us to the local grocery, Super U (Pronounced..Super Ooh), for provisions.

Super U was oooh...a treat!...we were all fascinated by the produce. I immediately made a beeline to the meat section where I selected a few fresh saucissons (that looked like chorizos or longganizas), I also got a saucisson cru (a cured sausage Provencal farmers would have for breakfast with a baguette and marc, a harsh raw red wine), a slice each of pork and foie gras terrine, a baguette, goat cheese, a block of beurre sale de Britaigne (Brittany butter with fleur de sel flakes) and a bottle of Bandol Rose. Pork belly, eggs, a jar of herbs de Provence, potatoes, ice cream and a tub of fromage blanc and we were on our way.

Getting back home, we immediately began preparations for the evening meal. The saucissons were fried, the wine chilled, the saucisson cru and goat cheese plated. I confess I had an excited curiosity about food I had only read about. One of these curious foods was saucisson cru....the farmer's breakfast.

Saucisson cru is a small, dark, plump and dry sausage, probably just air dried and cured and not given to any smoking or heat treatment. I had read about this sausage many times in the past and was almost relieved I would finally be able to taste it. I excitedly sliced the specimen I bought from Super U and took a bite. tasted....strong...raw...rough. My illusions of and excitement for Provencal food momentarily showed cracks on the edges. The sausage tasted of...pig. No, not pork which is the stuff of grilled pork chops or crisp skinned lechon. It tasted of pig...the four legged, oink, oink, squealing, snorting belching animal. Those of you who have been around the live animals to enjoy their total porcine aura will be able to totally relate. Imagine that aura in a bite..a mouthful of piggy-ness. Then again, I thought back..I shouldn't have been surprised...saucisson cru translates to ' dry or raw sausage.' I guess there's at least one thing I do NOT have in common with Provencal farmers.

This was the only little disaster in the rest of the meal. The other sausages were excellent, one delicately seasoned and the other lightly spiced...sliced into links, pricked lightly and sauteed in a pan, they were wonderful. The terrines and goat cheese were rich, flavorful, fresh and delish. The Rose, slightly chilled went down well with the meal.

One of the winners in the meal (and another of my food dreams) was the 'beurre sale,' the salted Brittany butter. It's churned from the rich cream from brittany cows, which is in itself a 'close your eyes and savor the moment' moment...the clincher is the addition of fleur de sel flakes.

Fleur de sel, "flower of the salt," is salt that 'blooms' on the surface of shallow pools of sea water that evaporate to yield sea salt. As the water evaporates, a thin layer of salt 'blooms' on the surface. This is carefully skimmed from the surface and dried separately from the salt left after the water has completely evaporated. These thin crystals are fleur de sel.....coveted as the salt of choice by chefs around the world.

These delicate flakes are mixed into the rich butter and they do not dissolve but retain their thin, crystal, flaky structure and texture. As your tongue is coated with the rich flavor of the Brittany butter, you encounter this very subtle saltiness that is confirmed by lightly crunchy salt flakes that give in to your teeth..the combination of flavor and mouth feel is sublime. Of course, a fresh baguette is the perfect palette to carry the flavor and texture.

The meal was finished with ice cream and fromage blanc. Fromage blanc with sugar or honey is a great finish to a meal...sweet, rich and only slightly, slightly tart....almost a cross between creme fraiche and really good whipped cream.

A cup of espresso, and the meal is over...Bienvenue a Provence.

More to come.

Friday, July 24, 2009

When the moon hits your eye.....

Like a big pizza pie..

I grew up eating pizza. As a boy, we would have special days at home where my parents joined forces to make home made pizza. Papa would mix and knead the dough…with the scent of Fleischman's activated yeast permeating the air. Mommy would then roll out the dough, slather it with tomato sauce, top it with Swift’s beef pepperoni and sprinkle it with grated Kraft cheddar cheese. This was a happy meal at home, washed down with Pepsi from the corner store, pizza days were good.

My own experiences making home made pizza have not always been as successful and satisfying.

First there was making the dough, which, before I studied breadmaking, typically had a 50% success rate. Before I truly understood how to make dough, I may as well have been shaping mud or sand. It just felt so elusive, the technique...the dough would come out too sticky or too dry....sometimes it would not rise unless I stuck a bicycle pump in was just not an encouraging endeavor with me.

Exit from the breadmaking class...great. Now I knew how to make the dough...I was still all thumbs at shaping it to become a passable pizza.

As late as a year ago, I couldn’t really figure out how to properly shape pizza dough so it came out even and round. I would recklessly flatten it with a rolling pin or manually shape it, coaxing it with my hands. I'd end up making a doughy, floury mess - all over the counter, the floor, my forehead, my clothes. My dough would tear or stick to the rolling pin, pan or counter. It rarely came out round and had, what I would call, at best, a 'rustic' shape (note: rustic...chefspeak for 'messy') other words, it had a distinct amoeba-like shape..sometimes an amoeba in the early stages of mitosis....Vs the circle I was trying so desperately to make. On more than one occassion, I would re-hash the randomly shaped dough and cheat the situation by folding the dough over, nonchalantly saying, "I felt like making a rustic calzone today," as if this was my original plan. I stared through the kitchen windows at yellow cab and jealously observed the cooks turn out pie after pie of perfect roundness.

I felt as if the flour in the canisters had a secret conspiracy to prevent me from true success in the pizza arena. The dough had a mind of its own, opting to go free form and resisting all attempts at disciplined circular shapes.

I’m glad I pressed on.....I kneaded to find a good dough recipe and shaping technique.

I did research on different flour combinations and techniques......reading cookbooks and surfing the net. After many, many attempts, I’ve finally settled on a recipe for the dough that uses 3 kinds of flour. I also found a simple and effective technique for shaping the crust. Peter Rheinhart (look him up) is my hero. These plus an oven that heats up like the devil, and the transformation to a bespoke pizza is almost magical. I finally had a pizza that, in my heart, mind and palate, was finally passable.

Topped with a combination of 2 or more cheeses - mozzarella of course, plus parmesan, edam, fontina, gouda or emmenthal, then a choice from a wide range of cold cuts; maybe a subtley-seasoned italian sausage or a more assertive paprika and garlic-laced chorizo pamplona, add olives, capers or tomatoes, fresh herbs...the palette is most accommodating.... ...generally celebrating with most ingredients and turning out a hot, cheezy, gooey, thin and just barely crisp, slightly chewy pizza.

Today, I scoff and spit at the thought of any flour or dough conspiracy. Ha!...and pweh! No more shapeless pies or accidental calzones! I have seen the light!

If I could, I would grow a graceful moustache like a regular Papa Picolino. I would happily sing 'Finiculi, finicula' as I deftly mix the dough, knead and shape it into uniform and deliberate circular pizzas and top these with any combination of ingredients that might be available. I would slip the pizzas into the oven and, at the right moment, take them out and triumphantly serve them up, as I sing the closing bars of 'Nessun Dorma.'....Vincero, vincero! (I win, I win!)

Really...there are few things that can compare with a good home made pizza....that's amore!