I was quite happy last weekend when, after a month’s hiatus, we resumed our weekly dinners with Emily and Mike. They grilled some excellent buffalo burgers, and Em made a delicious strawberry sorbet for dessert. And there was bourbon, Taboo, and fireworks. Just a wholesome family gathering.
Early in the week, Nick and I came up with a game plan for our turn the following Sunday: grilled pizza with homemade basil pesto, tomatoes, and mozzarella and goat cheeses, with a berry cobbler for dessert.
Then, Friday night, Nick comes home and tells me he ran into Emily as he was coming up the stairs.
“Yeah, so Emily ran out and hands me this piece of pizza. With pesto sauce.”
“They stole our dinner plan for Sunday?? Bitch! Wait, did they use fresh tomatoes?”
But then we decided that since they didn’t grill the pizza, nor did they make the pizza dough from scratch, it wasn’t really the same thing. (It also had tofu on it… which ours most certainly would not. Although Nick said it was actually pretty good.) Plus Emily and Mike insisted they would be happy to have pesto pizza a second time. So, it was on.
Pizza is one of Nick’s signature dishes. Several years ago I bought him a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer for his birthday, and ever since then, he’s been making amazing pizzas with really amazing dough made from scratch. And I have to admit- the first time I saw him kneading pizza dough may have been the moment I realized he was the man I wanted to marry.
The first pizza we made together weighed approximately 30 pounds (this is an approximation, after all) and the inch-thick crust was loaded down with four different cheeses, pepperoni, and olives. A friend who ate one of the earlier pizzas said, “You can only call this pizza because I don’t know what else you would call it. But it’s really in a league of its own.”
Since then, our pizzas have gone through several stages of refinement. Last night, the same amount of dough that went into that first pizza was split into two- one to be topped with basil pesto, mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, and goat cheese; the other with a simple tomato sauce, mozzarella, smoked gouda, parmesan, and pepperoni. And the dough itself had black pepper and rosemary in it.
I made the pesto with basil grown in our backyard, and almost directly following this recipe from Epicurious. I was intrigued by the step of blanching the basil which is supposed to help keep a vivid green color. The one difference was based on the pesto recipe in the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook, in which they suggest toasting garlic cloves before making the pesto. This is intended to tone down the garlic a bit, and I think it worked well.
I bought the goat cheese from Firefly Farms at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market. When I asked the guy which cheese he’d recommend for pizza, he responded with, “So you know how to cook pizza with goat cheese?”
“Yeah, I’ve done it before.”
“So, you know not to put the goat cheese on until after the pizza is cooked?”
I have no idea if this really makes a difference- I’ve always added it on top prior to baking, and it always seemed fine to me. But this dude seemed to know his cheese – and this was some really good cheese – so I decided to follow his directions. (How good was this cheese? So good that Nick and I both felt compelled to comment on their Facebook page… within a minute of each other. Apparently we’re going to be that couple. You know, the people who are a little too into cheese.)
A mixed berry cobbler (with berries of the blue, black, rasp, and straw varieties) was a perfect follow up: light enough to not destroy us after lots of dough and cheese, but still indulgent and yummy. It was very difficult to resist eating leftovers for breakfast this morning, but I know when I’m enjoying it for dessert tonight, I’ll be glad I held off.
So, there are my general thoughts on the meal, and here are the specifics:
Pesto (for Pizza #1)
Toast 1/2 cup of pine nuts. I accomplished this by heating them in a small pan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when most of them are a golden brown color, and let cool. After they’ve cooled, chop them in the food processor.
In the same skillet, toast 2-3 cloves of garlic, unpeeled, over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until spotted brown (about 7 minutes). Let cool and then unpeel.
Blanch four cups of fresh basil in boiling water for two seconds and then submerge in a bowl of ice water. Drain and pat dry. (This was less than successful for me – I got impatient waiting for the water to boil and it wasn’t until I had already dumped the basil in that I realized it wasn’t boiling as much as I thought it was. So I left it in a couple more seconds, which was probably too long because most of the leaves got quite dark. Oops. You know what? The pesto still tasted very fresh and basil-y and wasn’t terribly dark.)
Add ½ cup of fresh grated parmesan, garlic cloves, basil, and ¼ cup + 3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil to the pine nuts in the food processor, and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Tomato Sauce (for Pizza #2)
Nick’s tomato sauces are usually quite robust- with lots of tomato paste, red wine, and garlic. So last night’s was very different- he peeled about 3 ripe tomatoes and smashed them in a bowl, added about two tablespoons of tomato paste and some chopped fresh basil, and a little salt. That’s it. And it’s all that it really needed.
As much as Nick usually does not follow recipes, he has been relying on the same Wolfgang Puck recipe for pizza dough for a number of years. There has been some experimentation, some trying of an Alton Brown recipe, but he always comes back to this one. He’s a little loose when it comes to particular measurements, but it’s pretty close. He did mix in some fresh rosemary and cracked black pepper this time. And instead of letting it rise under a warm, damp cloth, he just covered it in plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm window sill. And it turned out great.
Nick talks about food with his friends almost as much as I do, and he often comes home from work with tips from his boss. The suggestion this time? If you’re going to grill pizza, here’s what you do: throw the dough on the grill first, before you put anything else on it, about 90 seconds on each side, with the grill set on the lowest heat setting possible.
Then add your sauce and toppings, and throw it back on the grill, still at the lowest heat setting. Grill until cheese is melted, remove, slice, and serve.
Pizza #1: pesto, sliced tomatoes, sliced bocconcini mozzarella. Season with salt & pepper. Just as the pizza was taken off the heat, we added goat cheese.
Pizza #2: tomato sauce, sliced fresh mozzarella, grated parmesan, grated smoked gouda, pepperoni. Season with salt & pepper.
Mixed Berry Cobbler (from Bon Appetit July 2011)
This was really, really good. The one tough part was that the dough was super-sticky, and it was hard to roll out and cut into rectangles. Fortunately I had read on Epicurious that several other reviewers had the same difficulty, so I was anticipating it and just rolled with it. It ended being more like spreading it out on a board and dividing into eight even handfuls, and then plopping each handful on top on the berries and kinda spreading into a rectangle-y shape. But it worked out- it looked decent and it tasted wonderful.
I’m not going to repeat the recipe here, since I followed it exactly. But I will say that I used 2 cups of blackberries, 2 cups of raspberries, 2 cups of blueberries, and 1 cup of strawberries, and I liked that balance. Oh, and obviously this must be served with vanilla ice cream.
PS: Special thanks to Em for helping out with photos during the pizza assembly. Also, Emily felt that it was important for me to show what kind of kitchen space I’m working with. So in case you were under the impression I have a spacious, high tech kitchen…
Yup. Our “counter space” consists of my parents’ very first dining room table (e.g. a 40-year-old table) set up on bed risers.