They say it’s not what happens to you that matters but what or how you react to it that is important.
At the risk of being sacrilegious, my mom wasn’t a particularly good cook. She hated the kitchen, felt like it was a prison and that preparing meals, day in and day out, was some sort of damnation sent from on high. It showed in the product.
I do have to share one caveat. In the land of Cuban cooking she rocked the house. To this day, I model her black beans, flan, and roasted pork.
“forever eat listlessly prepared meals of mediocrity or roll up the sleeves and figure it out”
But for anything other than the cuisine of her homeland, her kids had to make a choice: forever eat listlessly prepared meals of mediocrity or roll up the sleeves and figure it out. And now, as a result, all three of her kids are pretty fly behind an open flame.
I fancy myself just shy of “chef” caliber. Afterall, I did not attend any culinary institution. Not easily intimidated in the culinary arts, I oftentimes pull random ingredients or ideas from one recipe, mix it in with another interesting recipe, with a generous dollop from a third source. It is not uncommon for me to peruse the cupboard and/or refrigerator to create dinner from an amalgam of seemingly incongruent ingredients.
Measuring cups or spoons are rarely taken out of their drawer, as I prefer to taste, smell, or intuit my way through the preparation of a dish. A sprinkle of this, a dash of that – some of my masterpieces never to be repeated because I cannot remember exactly what I did and did not take notes. I’m okay with the notion that some experiences are, by definition, once in a lifetime.
Back in October, my son came home from University for fall break. Given the cooler, early fall temperatures, my partner suggested we light up our backyard wood-burning pizza oven. Yes, it’s a lot of work to get the oven cleaned out, reloaded, and hot enough for pizza making. And yes, one must hunt and gather various and sundry toppings to make the experience interactive and engaging.
The dough is equally important to the success of wood-fired pizza making. Without the perfect dough, well, the pizzas come out kinda mediocre – unevenly baked, pockets of burnt crust, or bad combinations of too chewy and not chewy enough.
The One Ingredient:
“Yeast scares the fuck out of me.”
Do you know what ingredient is essential to dough making? The one, seemingly innocuous, inexpensive to boot, packet of Fleishman’s yeast.
And while I can maneuver my way around a savory dish elegantly, nothing stops me in my tracks more suddenly than yeast. Yeast scares the fuck out of me. Those dishes with a mere four or five ingredients — flour, water, sugar, and salt — bring me to my knees. All time stands still. I am rendered useless — reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading the recipe. How warm does the water need to be? Is that a bubble coming up from that off-putting smelling bowl of Saccharomyces cerevisiae? How does a single-cell organism make me so nervous and apprehensive in the kitchen?
I am someone who is terrible at following directions. (Remember that mean “quiz” they gave us in fifth or sixth grade where there was a very long list of ridiculous commandments, the first of which was “Do not begin until you have read ALL instructions,” BUT, if you had actually read all the instructions first you would have seen that the last one told you to IGNORE all those silly directives — yeah, you can only imagine which kid I was.)
“There is no creative way around the temperature of the water or the number of minutes — one just has to WAIT for the chemistry to initiate.”
And, that in a nutshell, is why I don’t do yeast. There is no creative way around the temperature of the water or the number of minutes — one just has to WAIT for the chemistry to initiate. Literally, I must use a timer to work with such a compliance-demanding element. Don’t touch it. Don’t stir it. Leave it alone.
The good news is I’m capable. I can constrain myself just long enough to create perfection in the world of pizza dough. And while the actual act of making the base for an entire evening of family creative shenanigans is dull as nails, there is no disputing that a pizza is only as good as its crust. Further cementing the notion that not no matter how not-sexy it is to create the foundation, success depends on it.