Prosciutto Pizza

How Pizza Should Be

When the brick oven is about 900 degrees F, a pizza like this cooks in a minute. This is Melanie’s favorite pizza, and no one is allowed to make it but her. I have quizzed her on the order of ingredients, as she has her own special process.

Ingredients

Pizza Crust made with Italian “00” Flour

Olive Oil

Pizza Sauce (see Tomato Sauce recipe on this site)–just a little

Prosciutto

Mushrooms and Black Olives

Italian Mozzarella Cheese

Fresh Peppers and Vidalia Onions

Rotate the pizza every fifteen seconds or so, or be ready to say “Don’t eat the burned part.” That also keeps the crust from catching fire.

Like a folk tale, the elements of this pizza must be deployed in the proper order. As far as fiery pizza goes, I had to let the fire cool down from 1083 degrees F before I could make the second one, a pepperoni pie. The rebuilt brick oven is turning out to be a flamethrower.

Brick Oven Rebuild, Part Two–Fire and a Brick Arch

Phoenix

The Romans still rule when it comes to arts, crafts, and architecture, and I include cooking and rhetoric as arts-sorry, Plato and Socrates. The Greeks did bring the idea of brick ovens to the area that is now known as Naples in Italy, but the Neapolitans perfected it, as is apparent from the 33 brick ovens unearthed in Pompeii. I’m just happy to have one back in functional condition.

Speaking of Roman specialties, they were absolute masters at building arches, like the parts of the aqueducts that are still standing. They are amazing examples of engineering and strength, and the door to the domed part of the oven would have been an arch as well in a Roman oven. The angle iron holding up the flat slanted front of this dome is easier, and less expensive as well.

It’s on to building the chimney, re-insulating the dome, and one last addition-

Walls!

The entire enclosure is to be walled in with brick on all four sides, brought about by our 900+ leftover bricks. To use that many bricks on this oven would require a 34′ high chimney like the one on our house, and I am not that tall. Melanie, who has a Degree in Ancient and Medieval History, as well as a minor in Latin, wants this oven to be named Phoenix. I believe the phoenix myth could easily have come from the role of cooking in human evolution, with fire and the resulting heat being the mechanism that creates cooked, and therefore more easily digestible food (see the work of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human). I won’t even talk about how good the wood fired pizza is.

The Gazpacho Police Are Coming for You

The South is famous for such things as laid back folks, college sports, good food, a variable climate, and elected officials of questionable intellectual capacity. One, in fact, fears that a Spanish soup is trying to hunt her down.

The honorable US Representative for northwest Georgia apparently doesn’t know from Gazpacho. She stated, in her typical ranting fashion, that the Speaker of the House was sicking the Gazpacho police on her. I am of the firm conviction that a Gazpacho bath would be the best remedy for removing any skunk smell that a person might have.

Some countries do in fact have food police, in particular, Italy (sorry Spain, but we had to switch countries). The Carabinieri (think Italian FBI), which is actually part of the Italian Army, in fact has an agricultural division, that enforces Italian and EU food laws. Olive oil fraud is a major illegal activity in Italy, (author Tom Mueller estimates that 75-80% of the extra virgin oil sold in the US is fake) and wine is the number ten export. So the Carabinieri are charged with everything from dealing with organized crime to enforcing European Union Egg Directive 1028, which requires inspection and labeling of eggs. Italians really hate that last one.

Which in a round about way brings me to the topic of Ur-Fascism, a term coined by the great Italian writer Umberto Eco. His 1995 essay of the same title, published in The New York Review of Books, has become justifiably famous. Eco recalls winning a writing award given by the Italian Fascistas when he was only ten. He said all he had to do was agree with them.

The distinction Eco makes is between Italian Ur-Fascism and Nazism. Ur-Fascists are dangerous, but almost comically incompetent. Unlike the single minded and ruthlessly efficient Nazi party, the Ur-Fascists were and are primarily interested in lining their pockets and running off at the mouth. My favorite sentence from the essay has to be the following: “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.” From that point, Eco outlines his analysis of fascist rhetoric, now usually called the Fascist playbook. Don’t read it and then watch the news, and really don’t dare to watch C-span afterward.

So we should probably add one party rule and Ur-Fascism as a Southern trait. Recently both Alabama and Mississippi were ranked as two of the most corrupt states in the Union by a good government group. Alabama is using Covid relief money to build new prisons, while having a former football coach as a senator, who couldn’t name the three branches of the US government when asked. He should have punted.

The South, everything from soup to nuts. Especially the nuts.

December 16–Pizza al Fresco

Mangia

Yes, winter in the age of climate disruption. Technically this was late late last fall, but with temps in the mid 70’s, it might as well have been late late spring. In this situation, the only thing to do is light up the brick oven, and eat some pizza outside.

Our pizza sauce has evolved over the years, and I will simply list the secret ingredients, soon to be secret no more. Here it goes:

Balsamic Vinegar

Garlic Paste

Italian Tomato Paste in a Tube (like the Garlic Paste)

Homemade Pesto, frozen in an ice cube tray

Home canned local Tomatoes

It is possible to screw up the sauce even with these ingredients, but it can only be accomplished with some difficulty. Go easy on the vinegar and the paste, and all’s well that eats well.

I will resist the temptation to make another bad joke about Al Fresco. I could hurt his feelings.

Genovese Style Pesto

Bring Out the Marinara Sauce

Munich has a Beethoven Ambassador, the brilliant young pianist Sophie Pacini, but Genoa in Italia has a Pesto Ambassador, one Roberto Panizza. Pesto alla Genovese even carries a special designation from the Italian government. Leave it to the Italians.

I am all out of basilico Genovese, the only basil officially allowed for their genuine pesto, so I made this with just garden variety sweet basil. I also substitued sunflower seed kernels for the mandated pine nuts.

Ingredients

Basil leaves, enough to pack a Food Processor

Sunflower Seed Kernels

2 cloves Garlic

2 pinches coarse Sea Salt

Time to turn this into a paste. Give it a few buzzes with the processor. There isn’t a lot else that these things are good for.

Add the following.

1 cup grated hard Cheese

The standard cheeses are parmesan and peccorino, but all I had was piave, so I used that. Buzz that in, then start to drizzle in olive oil. Keep adding until you get the consistency you want–the current standard is a paste. Then I preserve mine by freezing them in an old ice tube tray, and then storing the cubes in a zip-lock freezer bag. Then my processor gets a break for another week or more.

The framework for this recipe comes from Panizza himself, and an interview he gave to Domenica Marchetti for the book Preserving Italy. That’s why the man is the Pesto Ambassador.

Pickled Sweet and Sour Peppers with Capers

Free Oatmeal Cookie Recipe

Our seventies vintage Mirro-Matic has a couple of new parts, and pressure canning has gone into overdrive–it will process 16 pints at one time. Our local supermarket, not to mention the entire tomato farming regions of Italy, could go bankrupt.

Speaking of Italy, these pickled peppers are a take on a classic Italian condiment. Their’s is preserved in olive oil, but it’s pickle country here. This will make two half pints.

Ingredients

8 sweet Peppers

1 clove Garlic (I used Elephant Garlic)

A few Capers, chopped

White Wine Vinegar

Sugar

A wine glass of Water

Salt (not much)

Olive Oil

Cook the peppers and garlic in olive oil, just until they are soft. Dissolve the sugar in vinegar and water–the sweetness is up to you. Combine all with the capers, and pressure can, or just use an interminable hot water bath. Or find a Mirro-matic at a flea market.

My mother almost burned down our house, because she let a pressure cooker boil completely dry, and the top blew off of it. No one was harmed, but we thought our parakeet was a goner. A little fresh air, and he was chirping like crazy again. Don’t let that happen to your Budgie.

Outdoor Kitchen, Old School, Part Four–A Shrine to Italian Flour, and Pizza Dough

“00”” in Italy Means Extra Fine

Now that the brick oven just needs just needs some trim and a little more paint to be completed, we dedicated the prep end to Italian flour, in particular the style that Naples made famous. That’s a cover of a bag of extra fine Italian flour, that I framed and painted with homemade gold glitter paint, in true shrine fashion. I just happen to come from a county that has a convent, a monastery, and a huge shrine, which has its own television and radio networks.

At any rate, this flour makes the best pizza dough, and is required by the city of Naples if you want to call your pizza authentic.

Pizza Dough

1 1/2 cup Italian “00” Flour

3/4 cup Water

2 teaspoons Yeast

Olive Oil

I always cheat by leaving a little of the water out, and dissolving the yeast in it with a touch of sugar, after I have mixed up the dough (flour, water, and olive oil) with our Kitchenaid. The dough hydrates while the yeast is rising. Let rise, and this will make two large pizzas. For large quantities, I use one cup of flour per pizza.

Just last weekend I cooked five pizzas in less that an hour for a ravenous horde of folks. They would have been more impressed if I had had a portrait of Pope Francis back there, instead of a flour bag. Maybe I should email the Vatican about that.

Focaccia Bread with Fresh Tomatoes and Rosemary

Ready to Slice

When I was growing up, there were essentially two kinds of cheese–Cheddar and Velveeta. Cheddar meant your family was in the dough for a change, and Velveeta was for when you were almost broke. We mainly had Velveeta, until American cheese singles came along.

How times change–now I am making regularly a classic Italian snack, in a piece of Lodge Tennessee made cast iron. The ingredients here are all either local or Italian.

Focaccia Dough

1 1/2 cups Tipo “00” Fine Italian Flour

Salt

1 tablespoon Italian Olive Oil

3/4 cup Water

2 teaspoons Yeast

1 teaspoon Sugar

Mix all the ingredients together, or dissolve the yeast and sugar in some water first. Knead, let rise, and and shape it as if making a pizza dough. This amount of dough will make two 11″ x 7″ Focaccia.

Toppings

Simplicity itself.

One medium Tomato, sliced, from the Festhalle

Hard Cheese, Grated

Chopped Rosemary, Rosemary grown by yours truly

More Olive Oil

Get Out the Grater

Freshness is the key to all Italian dishes. This cheese was new to me, when I stumbled across it at our supermarket, as a two for one deal. It’s a typically superior hard Italian cheese, this one being from the Italian Alps. It is considered to be the northern Italian equivalent of Parmesan, at a much lower price. That, alas, will not last long.

So there are more than two kinds of cheese, after all. The Piave is every bit as good as Parmesan. In a fit of nostalgia, I once bought organic American cheese singles from Whole Foods. That’s yuppie to the point of crossing over to the dark side.

Italians and Their Egg Yolk Rules

Some of These Eggs will have Orange Yolks

Italians buy their eggs according to the color of the yolks. Yellow yolked eggs are labeled giallo dell’uovo, and the prized orange yolked egg is called (actually) red yolked egg, rosso d’uovo. I’ll do chemistry first, and then the backstory.

Since Dr. Leroy Palmer first published his research in 1915, it has been known that yolk color is caused by the chicken’s diet. Different carotenoids called xanthophylls are the determinants. More recent research has narrowed down the two main chemicals to Lutein and Zeaxanthin, and one scientist has determined the first is the source of the yellow yolked egg coloring, and the latter for the orange color. That led me on the search for the second one.

Veg! Feed the birds leafy greens, corn, wheat and carrots, as all are good supplements to the diet. This supports my observation that their favorite food is Dandelion greens. I can start a chicken riot with those every time.

Now to the backstory. I was fascinated by the great food book by Bill Buford called Heat. He became so fascinated with Italian food that he goes to Italy regularly to learn from the best of the best cooks. Even though he was the fiction editor for The New Yorker magazine, he was born in Mississippi, and knows his eggs. Hence his experience with a woman who is a legendary pasta maker in Italy.

Bill describes the master of pasta, and why he went to study with her:

It was also why I’d got so interested in the egg, because on my first morning, watching Betta prepare the dough, I saw that an egg was a modern pasta’s most important ingredient, provided that it is a very good egg, which was evident (or not) the moment you cracked it open. If the white was runny, you knew the egg had come from a battery-farmed animal , cooped up in a cage, and the pasta you made from it would be sticky and difficult to work with, exactly like the unhappy batch that Betta produced one evening after Gianni fell asleep, having had too much wine at lunch, and failed to buy eggs from the good shop before it closed and had to drive to the next town to the cattivo alimentarii, the nasty store, and pick up a dozen of its mass-produced product. The yolk was also illuminating. The nasty store’s were pale yellow, like those most of us have been scrambling for our urban lives. But a proper yolk is a different color and, in Italian, is still called il rosso, the red bit …

Heat, Bill Buford

Poor urban folk, deprived of all the goodies. I have a mixture I now feed my birds. The basic bit is as follows:

16% Protein Organic Chicken Crumbles

Corn and Wheat Scratch

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

Carrots

Various Greens in Season

Maters, Precious

Other Fruit and Veg that are left over (Squash and Pumpkin are especially good)

Ours yolks just keep getting more and more orange. I may one day even get one of the legendary red tinged yolks.

The Medicis, and the First Drive Through/Walk Through/Pick Up Window

There was a good reason that the Medicis ruled Florence and Tuscany for centuries. Besides funding guys named Leonardo and Galileo, they performed many public services. One of the Medici popes even hired an artist to paint his ceiling, though the ceiling happened to be in the Sistine Chapel, and the dude’s name was Michelangelo.

The most interesting invention of the Medici family these days was the take out window, aka wine window. Leave it to the great journalists of Agence France-Presse (French Press Agency) to catalog these gems (for a picture of one, go to the reprint of the article by the website Raw Story).

This is how it happened: the Medicis returned to power in Florence in 1532, and wanted to promote both agriculture, and give the average wine drinker a price break. It was a PR miracle, as both farmers and drinkers were thrilled with the setup. The solution was genius in its simplicity.

First, there needed to be strict regulation. The Medicis only allowed wine windows in palaces, and the selling had to be direct from winery to customer–no middleman. A drinker could only buy 1.5 liters at a time, though apparently there was no limit to the number of windows someone could visit. This rule also assured that there could not be the creation of a monopoly.

Then 1634 rolls around, and everyone’s favorite plague, the Bubonic, hits Florence and Tuscany. Even then, before the germ theory of disease transmission, one local writer noted that the use of wine windows protected people from contracting the disease, in that there was a thick stone wall and a heavy wooden door between buyer and seller. In current terms, there was enforced social distancing.

Fast forward to the present, and everyone’s second favorite plague, Covid-19. Suddenly long unused wine windows are back in operation, except this time there is an entire menu. Various bars are selling wine, as well as mixed drinks, coffee, gelato, and sandwiches, through the windows. The association called Le Bouchette del Vino has an excellent website with a tour of the wine windows of Florence (some saucy French person translated that as “wine holes”). AFP reports that there are officially 149 wine windows in central Florence, and a grand total of 267 known wine windows in the entire province of Tuscany.

So grab some Chianti or even some Morellino di Scansano, and take a virtual tour of the wine holes on https://buchettedelvino.org/home%20eng/home.html. It beats riding on a plane for eight hours with some already addled anti-masker.

Ciao!

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