Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pizza with seminola flour. Huh?

Pizza dough from a box? Yep. Just add water.

Cognitive dissonance. It's what happens when you thought you knew something and someone (or something) comes along and tells you something significantly different.

I like learning new cooking techniques. I like it much better when it seems the person teaching the class actually knows what he's talking about.

One of our local cooking stores held a class on pizza making. I assumed that the class would be led by someone from a local pizzeria, someone who makes pizza dough, tosses pies, tops them and bakes them on a daily or almost daily basis. A seasoned expert in all things pizza. This did not seem to be the case. Far from it, in fact. 

Professional chefs have confidence. They don't waste movement. Their hands move to precisely the right place, their motions precise and accurate. When they snap the bowl into the mixer, there's no fishing around: their hands move, the bowl clacks into place. Removing the bowl is equally precise. The dough hook goes on or off with a deft lift and twist that's done so fast it's almost invisible. Hand kneading dough is like some kind of sleight of hand where an irregular mass comes out of the mixer and after a couple passes of the hands becomes a smooth, uniform ball. When chefs chop ingredients, the knife moves in rhythmic uniform arcs. The knife moves away, leaving perfectly sliced product on the bench. They use bench scrapers to lift the dough as they work it, leaving no trace on the work surface.

This didn't happen.

Mispronouncing "semolina" as "seminola" was not a great way to start. When people in the class start repeating the word, it becomes comedic. When they pass the box of semolina flour with the word clearly spelled right on the label, and people still say "seminola" it becomes surreal. Even my spell checker knows it's "semolina"!

It was kind of scary watching him chop ingredients, using what looked like a $200 knife, the kind that can be sharpened to the point where it will slice through a fingernail with virtually no resistance.

He was slicing stuff without even bending his fingers down. There are two reasons for bending your fingers down, as he would have learned in cooking school. One is to keep from chopping the tips of your fingers off, as this is bad form and can spoil your sauce. The other is that your bent fingers guide the knife, making for more accurate cuts. No cognitive dissonance here, since finger bending has been repeatedly stressed at ARC, along with using a rocking motion on the knife. He did more of a vertical chop, slightly bent fingers. Scary, but his fingertips did look intact. For now.

He tossed the onions and mushrooms in the oil at the same time, instead of sweating the onions first and then adding the mushrooms. Not a big deal. Unless... don't onions have a longer cooking time than mushrooms? Or could this be the right method? Cognitive dissonance. He did pre-heat the pan before adding the oil, so everything's in sync there.

According to my mixer's manual, you're not supposed to use the dough hook above speed two. More to the point, a high speed would probably result in the mixer throwing flour all over the counter. A mess. Yet, he said setting four was OK. Maybe the speeds on mixers of the same brand aren't the same across models? Cognitive dissonance, again.

He made up about a quart of sauce. A pinch of salt, about four fresh basil leaves cut up, about one clove of garlic. To one quart of canned crushed tomatoes. One lousy pinch of sea salt. Throw it all in the blender, give it a whirl and it's ready to go. No cooking required. No oregano, either. I guess it's OK if the pizza is going to get spiced with pepperoni and chili flakes later, but it seems that this sauce would have tasted like raw canned tomatoes prior to getting spread on the pizza. Cognitive dissonance again - but I'm thinking that if the sauce were reduced down a bit, the garlic cooked and maybe a bit more herbs and spice then it would just give that much more flavor to the pizza.

They heat their oven to 425° for pizza. Another attack of cognitive dissonance. Don't you want to max out the oven for pizza? Professional ovens are 600° - 700° F or even hotter, so I would have thought the procedure would be to preheat to maximum with the pizza stone inside, slide the pizza onto the stone with a peel, wait about ten minutes, remove the pizza with a peel, slice and serve on a wood serving board. They removed the entire stone with the pizza on top. Now, maybe I'm crazy but if that stone stores heat and was over 400° F, isn't that pizza going to keep cooking on the stone? Is that a good thing? Cognitive dissonance again. Wait... slicing pizza on a stone will dull your fancy knife, too. Won't it? Isn't that why you slice on wood or a plastic cutting board?

Then, there's the whole peel thing. They only used wood. Wood peels are great for sliding the pies into the oven, since pizza doesn't stick to them if they've been floured properly. You can make up the pizza on the peel, slide it onto a hot stone in the oven, and ready the peel for your next pie. You use a metal peel to remove the pie, since a cooked pizza won't stick to it, the blade is thinner and the peel won't scorch from contact with the hot stone (the wood peel has less contact with the stone since the pizza slides off the inclined peel). Yet, there there were: wood peels. That dissonance thing again, but not so much. Wood peels with short handles? Pretty, but I want some distance between my knuckles and a 500° oven. Give me a long handle, please!

This is a store that likes "starters" and "mixes". One of the pizzas came from a box of pizza dough mix. I don't really know what's in the box, except that there are two packets. Each will make a pizza. So, presumably they contain yeast, flour, salt and probably other things that I'd know if I'd bothered to read and note the ingredients. So, if they're all into fine cooking, what's with this "pizza crust in a box"? You might think the idea would be to sell the fancy mixer, a scale, some herbs, a pizza stone, a brush for cleaning, a peel or two and have people make their own dough. It's really not that hard if you do your formulas by weight.

Speaking of which, their formula for flour was in cups, not ounces. Depending on how firmly it's packed, there can be a couple of ounces difference in the amount of flour in each person's "cup". Weighing the flour removes this inconsistency, so why not mention it? They sell scales, after all, and this could generate even more revenue on top of pizza stones, pizza stone cleaners, box mixes, doodads, cheese slicers, gadgets, herbs and whatnot.

They made one pizza with a stand mixer. Equal parts all-purpose flour to semolina flour (a.k.a. seminola). Add salt, water. Not surprisingly, when we got to taste the pizzas after the class, the from-scratch dough version won. In my opinion, at least. The crust had better rise, and seemed a lot more tender. Maybe mixing to develop gluten and fresher yeast do make a difference. The semolina flour gave it a different texture and changed the flavor a bit, so it might be worth a try to experiment with the stuff.

They also mentioned "fresh yeast". This seemed to imply cake yeast, sold in cubes for professional bakers. So I asked if they sold cake yeast. No, it's not cake yeast. Fresh means that the yeast has not yet reached its expiration date. No mention of SAF Instant, so I guess they don't sell that, either.

He never tossed a pizza, nor did he shape one by hand. Everything was done with a rolling pin. When he wanted a border, he formed it by hand. Funny, when tossing the pie would have given him the thicker border automatically. Tossing was not even mentioned. Perhaps it doesn't work with the box mix dough? Still, tossing pizzas is a lot more dramatic and impresses your friends more than going over a ball of dough with a rolling pin. Unless you drop it on the floor. Or your head.

So, in the end I came away with the idea of adding semolina flour to some future pizza, if I want to add a second formula to my repertoire. I just didn't feel like I was in the presence of a master. Worse, I felt like I could have given this talk and covered the subject better, thanks to my training at ARC (pizzas, calzones and piegatas* with Chef Teresa) and my experiments with pizza dough and formula development.

* This blog now comes to the top of the search heap for "pizza piegata". Maybe it's a milestone, but I'm still light years away from getting a zillion hits per day. Click here for more on pizza piegata.

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