Rolling With the Dough

“You don’t want to stand rigid like a tall oak that cracks and collapses in the storm. Instead you want to be flexible, like a reed that bends with the storm and survives.” -Deepak Chopra

I love Spring break.  It’s the rare occasion I’ll allow myself the debauchery of a full week of pizza-binging.  So, as you can imagine the Luther family Spring break vacation is a highly anticipated trip.

But, this year with a pandemic on the rise I reluctantly canceled our long-awaited travel plans to New Smyrna Beach, Florida.  With potential lives at stake, beachside pizza loses all it’s fun.

One thing was for sure though, I was in no-way-shape-or-form going to settle for any old boring staycation-pizza.

I decided that for the vacation vibes I was after I would just go on a week-long Tour-de-Pizza hitting all my favorite Madison spots.  A trip around all the local joints would surely lift my spirits.

Then Wisconsin governor Tony Evers restricted all dining-in restaurants and bars, closed all non-essential businesses and recommended everyone stay at home.  That idea was squashed like a dough ball.

What else could I do besides frozen pizzas and no-contact delivery? 

As I mulled it over, it became apparent that social distancing and self-isolation would provide a great opportunity to dial in my home-made pizza skills.

So, while everyone else was grasping for TP I cruised the grocery store for the core pizza essentials and set out to create my own destiny.

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I even took the idea one step further and decided to recreate the New Smyrna Beach pizza I was counting down the days for. 

For months I’d been daydreaming of a pizza in New Smyrna Beach from a restaurant called Third Wave Cafe.  Last year Tess and I stumbled across the little spot while frolicking down the main drag Flagler Avenue.

On a whim, we ventured into a dark, unmarked entrance outlined with palms.  Walking in was like going from the grey scheme of Kansas to the technicolor of Oz, as we discovered a lively tiki-themed bar complete with live music and a new American menu that highlighted wood-fired pizzas.

Third-wave’s concoctions were something you’d expect to see on a trendy big-city pizza menu, not in a little beach town.  This year the pie I looked forward to the most at Third Wave was called the “Honey Baby”: A sweet and spicy combo comprised of Calabrian chiles, spicy soppressata, and drizzles of honey.

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Creating the “Honey Baby” at home. 

We started with a ball of cooled, pre-prepped pizza dough that we tossed on our flour-dusted counter and went to town stretching.  I had a brief stint in the pizza biz after college, so I called upon all the dough stretching skills my muscle memory could muster.

Our primary goal was a faux wood-fired crispy crust and for that, we turned to the gas grill.  After a liberal drizzle of olive oil, we tossed the bare pizza-skin on the grill, heated to 500°.  We were after a par-baked crust and it didn’t take long for the dough to start getting firm and bubbling up.

Next, it was time to dress the par-baked crust with cheese, sauce, and toppings and finish it in the oven.

I took a trick out of my all-time favorite pizzeria Gus’s playbook and used slices of mozzarella instead of shreds.  On top of that, I sprinkled diced-up hot cherry peppers, pepperonis and sent the pie off to a preheated 450° oven.  Once the crust and cheese were golden brown I removed it from the oven and then drizzled it with raw organic honey.

It was spicy, sweet and savory; exactly what I was looking for.  To quote the late, great Tanners from the sitcom Full House “Whoa “Honey” Baby!”

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What pizza taught me:

The bright side can be easily lost in troubling times, but it’s always there.  On my mission to salvage my Spring break pizza-eating session, it took a few pivots but I found my way.  The next few months will probably take similar adjustments, but by being adaptable we will prevail on the other side.

What I’m eating: Homemade pepperoni, hot cherry peppers, mozzarella, and honey drizzle.

What I’m reading:  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft -Stephen King

Put the Cheese in Your Hands

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare

Have you ever looked down at your slice and wished there was just a little more cheese?

With every pizza there’s always the risk of “poorly-portioned-mozzarella-melancholy”:  The sorrow you feel when you get a slice with lack-luster cheese distribution.  We’ve all seen that one spot on the pie that’s showing just a little too much red and not enough shreds.

But, I’ve stumbled across the solution; a quick, cheap fix that will surely prove to be even more essential than the parmesan and red pepper flakes:

A pizza-patching kit.

Also known as a spare bag of mozzarella cheese in the fridge for filling in those dreaded cheeseless gaps. For $3 or less you provide yourself some extra cheesy insurance that can save the day any day of the week.

For many, this concept is a total “no duh”, an age-old no-brainer to step up any pizza, but for folks like myself who’ve always just settled for what they’re given, it’s an awakening.  I will no longer bear the anguish of inadequately allocated cheese on my pizzas.

It works especially great on frozen pizzas and take-n-bakes where you never know what sort of machine malfunction or light-handed cheeser could screw up your balance.

Most recently I brought out my bag to beef up a take-n bake pepperoni pizza from Aldi’s on Madisons Westside.

I grew up giving Aldi’s a bad rap (maybe because my only impression was from the dingy Janesville location as a kid).  But, it appears they’ve revamped their set up (they’re actually under the same umbrella as Trader Joe’s) and their take-n-bake pizzas and cheese sticks are surprisingly awesome and super cheap.

Last weekend it turned out though that the toppings on the pizza I grabbed got shuffled around a bit leaving a few slightly barren areas.

Before.

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I was in the mood for “next-level” cheesiness, so I took out my pizza patching kit, did a quick waltz around the pie like a fairie sprinkling pixie dust and voila, I found what I was after.

After.

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That pizza patching kit is a force multiplier. 

In military science, a force multiplier is a skill, a tool or strategy that will give you a leg up and enable higher output and better results with minimal additional effort.  That’s what I got when I put the cheese in my hands.  With my trusty bag of mozzarella, I’m no longer at the whim of the fates I can take any pizza from good to great.

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Final Product

What I’m eating: Aldi’s take-n-bake pepperoni pizza (with extra mozzarella from the fridge).

What I’m reading:  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life –Walter Isaacson