As someone who spent an entire two months working at a fast food joint, every year at this time I have to celebrate the anniversary of the great Pizza Hut heist. This particular robbery involved three young women who were teenagers, all of whom were packing AKs.
The locale was Bessemer, Alabama, part of the Birmingham Metroplex. When you have a new AK, the impulse is to use it, so they decided to knock over the local Pizza Hut. And they were not after the bread sticks.
The news for this trio went from bad to worse. Anyone who has worked in retail lately knows that hardly anyone pays cash–it’s all on the plastic. The teenager’s reward was twenty something bucks and change, which they promptly lost in the parking lot. Then the police, who must have mistaken the Hut for a doughnut shop, nailed them right away.
Moral of this story? Don’t mess with the Hut in this state. It’s enough to make Mikhail Kalashnikov proud.
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.
1 1/2 cup Italian “00” Flour
3/4 cup Water
2 teaspoons Yeast
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.
To quote my man Will Shakespeare, this is the “The stuff that dreams are made of,” as adapted by Bogey and John Huston in The Maltese Falcon. I woke up at six in the morning with the taste of tomato sauce in my mouth. It was then that I realized that I had been dreaming about it, possibly all night long..
It was a classic example of one part of what Dr. Freud said that dreams are made of, and this is not a particularly good translation, but it is the standard one: “the day’s residues.” For lunch the previous day I had a slice of leftover brick oven pizza, and it was still superb warmed up. It had Vidalia onion slices, Italian mozzarella, and a crust made from Caputo 00 flour from Italy. The star was still Melanie Jane’s tomato sauce. That’s what I dreamed about. Here’s her recipe, which will sauce two pizzas.
1 quart locally grown home canned Tomatoes–I believe these were Romas
1/2 of a diced Onion
Italian Tomato Paste in a tube–Tuscan, in this case, the brand being Tuscanini. (Aside–I had to buy this, as Toscanini is one of our favorite conductors of classical music, and his daughter married my wife’s favorite pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.)
Italian Pesto in a tube
Italian Garlic Paste in a tube–the secret weapon used by many pros
Oregano and Thyme
Salt and Pepper
This is considerably more complicated than what most Italians would make, but we aren’t Italian, at least the last time I checked. MJ then cooked it down to a concentrated strength, which gave me just enough time to get a roaring fire going in the brick oven.
Did it ever get hot. All I had was oak dead fall pieces, and they created an inferno. I didn’t burn the crust–I actually burned the sauce, as you can see from the little black line on my slice in the picture. I’ve never had that happen before.
It was still delicious. As I always tell people, don’t eat the burned part.
Having received three books on Tuscan cooking for Christmas, I am now even more against processed or imported food than before, and in favor of nothing but local food. However, there is always an exception to every rule, and these Italian ingredients in a tube are mine. The packaging is minimal, the product stays fresh forever, and these will turn any bland dish into something tasty.
The Pesto paste is basil, sunflower and olive oil, salt, pine nuts, and garlic. Having made pesto in the past with sunflower kernels instead of pine nuts, due to the cost of pine nuts, this is a winner. A small amount of this is all that’s needed in most pasta sauces.
The Garlic puree is, well, pureed garlic with oil. I grow garlic, but sometimes a tube snatched out of the fridge is much easier than chopping and smashing. It is also very inexpensive, and there is no jar to clutter up things.
My favorite, however, is the tomato paste in a tube. Even our local supermarket carries one brand of this. The triple concentrated version in the picture is a superb product. I use it to fortify sauces made from our sometimes watery local tomatoes, instead of cooking the sauce down for an inordinate amount of time. The double concentrated paste will work as well, but has less of a punch.
So there we have the Italian flag, which is often referred to as basil, garlic, and tomato, because of the colors of three favorite Italian ingredients (sometimes mozzarella is used instead of garlic). All this just makes me crave for a pizza margherita.
There actually is a process involved in building and maintaining a fire in a brick oven. Begin with completely dry soft wood, and then add hardwood if you want to build up a bed of hot coals. Here I start with yellow pine, and then go to a pine/oak mixture. We might as well start at the beginning.
Aristotle said a good plot had a beginning, a middle, and an end, in his Poetics; a good brick oven fire begins in the front, is pushed to middle, and then to the back. This is especially true for all applications involving cooking meat or pizza.
TV chefs will bring out something dramatic to light a fire, like a propane blow torch. I use two cardboard egg cartons and one match. The results are the same–fire.
Time for a break now that the fire has been pushed to the middle of the oven. This tool keeps me in firewood.
That’s a 24 volt electric chainsaw. I liked it so much I bought a 24 volt weed whacker, and a 60 volt lawnmower to go with it. I charge up the batteries with a solar generator, which is in turn charged by a single 100 watt solar panel. I’m inching toward sustainability, and did I mention the thirty percent tax credit on solar panels and batteries?
Push the fire to the back, and sweep and mop for pizza. A pie with sliced Vidalia onions makes all the work worth it. And I get to play with matches, and a chainsaw.
The forecast for Sunday was for a high of only 93 degrees F, so I decided to build a 900 degree F fire, and cook a couple of pizzas. Why the hell not?
Fortunately, I spent most of my time indoors, making the crust and sauce. I will do a step by step explanation of this process in a series of posts, but here’s an outline of what to do. I will also give an alternative cooking method, for those who do not have a bakery-sized brick oven. The following is for a Pizza Margherita, one of the originals, and still the best.
Dough for two Pizza Crusts–1 1/2 cups OO Italian Flour, salt, water, yeast
Pizza Sauce, preferably made with Italian or locally grown Tomatoes
Italian Mozzarella Cheese
The basil goes on after the pizza comes out of the oven. It probably wouldn’t look too sporty, otherwise, after a couple of minutes of this.
Other than eating this, the best part is smelling the basil cook on top of the really really hot pizza, right out of the brick oven. Simple and complex–the heart of a good pizza.
Herr Orff, one of my German Professors at the University of Alabama, came to class one Monday, and said, “I had some of that food that you people eat every weekend. What do you call it? Pit-sa. It was very good.” That actually is the correct pronunciation of the word pizza-if you’re German. Good thing he didn’t eat one of these. He might never have gone back to Deutschland.
Believe it are not, according to latitude, we are farther south than Italy. However, Italian food can be simple and complex at the same time, just like Southern. Much of our cuisine is also based on la cucina povera, or poor people’s food. So here’s a Southern take on a few Italian classics.
These are the last two tools in the catalog of devices needed to cook in a brick oven. One is the first tool needed, the other one of the last, but also one of the most important. We’ll begin with my trusty industrial sized mop.
My wife eventually gifted this mop to me after she found it to be too big and bulky to use in our house. I immediately drilled a hole through the handle, tied a piece of accessory cord threaded through the hole into a loop, and hung it on the rafters on the oven. It’s been there ever since.
The mop is the final cleaning tool used before baking either bread or pizza in a brick oven, as the baking is done directly on the brick surface of the oven. The brush takes away the larger bits and pieces, and the mop finishes the job. Usually two passes with the mop is necessary to provide a surface suitable and clean enough for cooking. Some dispensation must be made to provide a way to rinse the mop off between passes-I have a lawn hydrant adjacent to my oven.
This mop occasionally gets set on fire while making pizza in a 900 degree F oven, but the cotton part can be replaced, and has been. I think these are still made in the US, and can be found fairly easily. I also use it for mopping the slate top on my Rustic Cabinet, which is connected to my brick oven. Would also be great swabbing the deck of an eighteenth century frigate.
The first tool anyone starting a fire in a brick oven is going to resort to is a fireplace poker. This one was made by an Amish blacksmith in Ohio. It’s the best I have ever seen, as it can multitask. It’s thick steel and hook end make it perfect for lifting the lids on cast iron Dutch/Camping ovens. Best used with a pair of welding gloves, as it’s only drawback is that it can only reach so far into a brick oven. That’s when the scraper comes in handy.
So gear up and get to cooking. We plan on doing just that again this weekend, unless we get walloped by the tropical storm that is currently lurking on the Gulf Coast. Our current forecast is for two to four inches of rain. Guess that’s why I put a roof over my oven.
Two essential tools for the efficient use of a Brick Oven are a scraper and a brush. Many people buy them separately, but why? This old US made scraper/brush combo is over fifteen years old, and has years of use left. And I leave it outside hanging on the oven.
Just last weekend I cooked pizza for nine people on the hottest day of the year, with a blazing hot oak/pine fire, and never even broke a sweat. I could do that because of the efficiency of the scraper/brush. Let’s begin with the most useful side–the scraper.
The scraper side serves two important functions, which are scraping, and bulldozing. As a scraper it performs both maintenance and cooking functions. The long handle allows its use as an ash remover, as it reaches all the way to the back of even a large oven. Many modern ovens, like mine, have an ash slot where the remains of yesterday’s fire can be easily scraped away.
Secondly, if you’re making bread or even just baking, the scraper allows one to reposition the fire and/or coals easily, which is a skill that I will address in a later post.
If you’re into pizza or baking, this thing can bulldoze any fire into the back of the oven, which is a necessity when making pizza. Once that is done, it’s time to put the brush to work.
That rather dangerous looking wire brush is really a preliminary clean up tool. It removes most of the ashes from a working fire, as well as small embers and stray pieces of wood. It prepares the surface of the brick oven for the final tool that is needed for the cooking of a pizza–a mop. That will be one of the last two tools I will discuss, but that is a whole another post.
When I first bought my copy of The Bread Builders, from which I took the design for my brick oven, I loved the cover. It was a picture of a hippy looking dude with tattoos all over his arms, taking a round loaf out of a bread oven. Only most of his arms were covered up by a whacking big pair of welding gloves. Why welding gloves?
Check out the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the official group that lays out the rules for traditional pizza. First, it can only be cooked in a wood burning oven. Second, it has to be cooked in a temperature range of between 806-896 degrees F. 900 degrees F is also a common metric. That’s hot enough to burn the soot off of the interior of the bread oven. And in fact, it does. Hence the need for welding gloves.
My new pair of gloves are identical to what my original pair looked like, though they are still blue (they won’t stay that way long). I left my old pair outside on the oven one night, and a varmint, probably a raccoon, absconded with the right one. The bad news is that I am right handed.
So it was time for Amazon once again. Fifteen years later, they were still the same price. Our corporate overlord Bezos comes through again.