Thursday, July 4, 2013

Goodbye to Pizza Town

Pizza from the BBQ grill. Gluten-free of course!

During the 1980’s and ’90’s, Hoboken New Jersey was a great place to live - especially if you loved pizza. One did not have to go far to find a slice; in fact it seemed there was a pizza joint on every block. You could get thin crust or flexible crust, topped with anything your heart desired. In the back street neighborhoods there were delis selling thick Sicilian-style slices, the dough sweet as honey, rich with olive oil and rosemary, topped with a  minimal smear of tomato sauce.

    I was totally addicted to this simple, delicious and nutritious food, and could have dined on it nightly - and might have, were it not for the fact that my wife Leslie had celiac disease and needed to avoid such things. Nonetheless we’d decamp once a week to a corner pie stand, where she’d eat antipasto and I’d stuff myself with pepperoni decorated, gooey cheese slices - perfect at a buck fifty each.

    Such paradise was not to last - paradise never does. One tragic Friday the ATF swept into our favorite joint, chasing everybody out and padlocking the door. We never knew the reasons but the place never reopened. That was about the time Hoboken’s demographics were taking a precipitous shift: young people with lots of money swarmed the place, sending real estate prices skyward and driving restauranteurs towards classier - and boozier - fare. Being a “foodie” I appreciated entrées like squid ink risotto, but peasant food has a deeper allure. Pizza joint after pizza joint seccumbed to yuppie pressure and Hoboken, tragically, went choc-a-bloc with bars disguised as gourmet dining spots.

    And then came 9/11. Many of those young Hobokenites worked in New York City’s finance industry, and not a few of them perished. A pall settled over town; when it gradually lifted, the populace seemed more cavalier, more solipsistic. Hoboken emerged from the tragedy less a community, more a city in search of its soul. Which most distinctly did not include working-class foods.

    Shortly thereafter I joined Leslie as a verified Ceilac. Pizza - along with many other excellent foods - dropped from my menu. Tempted as I was I never cheated with a slice; I’d just been too sick pre-diagnosis. Occasionally we’d walk slowly past one of the remaining joints, inhaling deeply. We called it “drive-by dining,” a verisimilitude of the real thing, stimulating but unsatisfying.

    We moved away from Hoboken in 2005 and haven’t looked back. I have, however, continued to miss pizza - deeply, profoundly. It’s true there are quite a few good gluten-free varieties now, and plenty of recipes too, but finding great pizza that’s also safe, and doesn’t include an offensive surcharge, is no easy matter.

    When I began working on a gluten-free flatbread mix for my new business, Luce's Gluten-Free Artisan Bread, pizza was on my mind. Whatever I was to come up with had to be adaptable so as to produce this delicacy. It also had to be dead-easy - the kind of product a child could make. And it had to be reasonably priced.

    Viola OMG Flatbread Mix. Its origins are a bit more Middle-Eastern than Italian, but it
"Greek" Pizza from OMG Flatbread mix
does make incredible (and incredibly easy) pizza. Add 3/4 cup water to 1 cup flour, mix, spread thin on a big sheet of parchment, bake for 1 or 2 minutes on a very hot pizza stone, then withdraw from the oven, spread toppings, and send the pizza back to the hot place for a finishing 5 to 10 minute bake.

    Just as I got OMG Flatbread on the market this past June, a heat wave settled on the Eastern US. I lost interest in kitchen baking, and I’m sure most of my customers did too. That’s when I began looking longingly at backyard BBQ grills.

    I say “Longingly” because I have neither a back yard nor a BBQ grill (nor a front yard for that matter). Still, I have options. The lake that Leslie and I frequent in the summer - Deer Lake - is lined with picnic tables and BBQ grills. It’s also surrounded by a magnificent hardwood forest, from which visitors are encouraged to collect dead wood for their fires. The grills are primitive - using them is cooking at an absolutely fundamental level - but there had to be a way to adapt them for baking.
Hardwood fire in a minimal grill. Deer Lake, NJ.

    Before I did I needed to cope with the fact that OMG Flatbread Mix, when formed into standard dough, was too slack. Any flatbread big enough to merit the name “Pizza” would fall through the grill slats. Just making the dough drier wasn’t such a great solution - too dry and the breads cracked like a Nevada salt flat, and the difference between too wet and too dry was extremely tight. So I began trying additives.

    It turns out the best is a natural food product: Cassava flour. Not Cassava starch, but flour. Used throughout South America and large portions of Africa, Cassava flour is usually used by itself. It makes a bland bread to be sure, but it adds resilience to dough, allowing stretch while resisting sag. With a bit of trial-and-error I learned that adding 20 grams of it to one cup of OMG Flatbread Mix, then shorting the water down to 5/8 cup, produced a very nice pizza dough indeed.

Fire-scorching toppings for the day's pizza

    All gluten-free doughs are sticky, thanks to the xanthan gum we use as a substitute for gluten, so the trick with grill-top pizza becomes transferring from work table to hot grill. You can’t just pick the dough up and toss it, or shape it and then stick a peel underneath. At home I form the pizza on parchment, but that’s an arrangement that doesn’t work atop a live fire.

    At my Deer Lake picnic table work station, I elected to use a multi-faceted strategy, first spreading out a large sheet of aluminum foil, then smearing this with olive oil, then dusting with a blend of coarse buckwheat meal and white rice flour. I shaped the pizza atop this, then covered it with a second sheet of foil. Next I turned my attention to building a fire. The half hour it would take me to obtain a hot bed of coals would allow the pie to rise.

Pie on peel.

    The Deer Lake forest yielded both oak and hickory. Once I had twigs flaming I piled on some wrist-thick branches and let the fire rip. The one adjustment the picnic grills have is height. I kept the metal grills right against the flames, and then the hot coals. I wanted that heat to sear my pizza.

    Turning back to the foil-encased pie, I peeled away the top sheet to see the dough had risen slightly. I’d not expected more - not from such stiff dough - so I dusted a pizza peel with more buckwheat flour and a tablespoon of dried rosemary and flipped the pie onto the peel. Next came the tricky part: separating the remaining sheet of aluminum foil. Fortunately it came away easily and the pie showed every tendency to skid on its peel.

Can you almost smell this?

    The fire was now perfect. I raised the grill 4 or 5 inches, slid the pie onto the ferociously hot steel and baked it a minute. Smoke rose - I turned the pie 90 degrees and let it go another minute, then grabbed a bowl of sauce, a cutting board with mozzarella cheese, and the toppings, and flipped the pie.

    By now the grill’s heat had been mostly absorbed by pizza, so I was able to smear on sauce, arrange cheese and sprinkle spices without fear that I’d burn the bottom. Then came the part I’d been sweating: using those big sheets of foil to wrap the grill, trapping heat as well as hickory-oak smoke and melting the cheese. In 10 seconds I realized the foil sheets weren’t big enough. I looked at our picnic basket in desperation. There was a stack of newspaper, my fire-starter stack. I unfolded a wad and used it atop the foil, plugging the smoke gaps (and praying the rig wouldn’t catch fire.)

Very rudimentary oven

    It worked. After 5 minutes the cheese was melted, the bottom was nicely browned and crisp as a saltine. I peeled away my makeshift oven and Leslie and I sat down to a feast.

What I'd not accounted for in my planning was the way melting mozzarella absorbs flavors. It's the fat - one perfect reason never to use a skim milk cheese. The pie was  divinely smoky, with a crisp crust and tender crumb. The perfect BBQ pizza.

.  .  .  .

And the next day, I made two!

    Who, we asked ourselves driving away from the lake, Even needs Hoboken? Not us. Not any more.

OMG Flatbread mix, parchment sheets, coarse buckwheat meal, fine white rice flour, and Cassava flour may all be purchased at Luce's on-line store. Click HERE.

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