Chosen Families, Chosen Homes

As on most Saturdays, I have a batch of vegetable stock simmering away on the stove. Today, the pot includes the trimmings from a couple of enormous leeks I bought at the market this morning, a couple of slightly overripe hothouse tomatoes, a bulb of fennel that failed to make it into last week’s dinners, the other half of a celery root (the first half went into a roasted vegetable pizza), a huge carrot, a few less-than-perfect green IMG_0249beans, an onion, three small potatoes, a couple of orphan courgettes (zucchini), a handful of garlic cloves that were too tiny to bother peeling, some odds and ends of dried mushrooms, sprigs of parsley, coriander, and mint, some sea salt, a bay leaf, and a few peppercorns. This is a pretty typical spring stock. By summer, the celery root and carrots will go, to be replaced with corn cobs, basil, and bright summer tomatoes.

Before 2013 — the year I emigrated to New Zealand — this would be the weekend I would be making hearty, autumn stock with caramelised onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery, and mushrooms. That bold, dark, flavourful stock would then get reduced to become the foundation of Thanksgiving dinner. It would flavour the cheese and nut loaf that filled in for turkey at our vegetarian celebration, as well as provide the base for mushroom or sage and onion gravy. Some would go into a hearty vegetable soup for the night before. During Thanksgiving week, it seemed there was stock simmering on the stove all the time. It smelled like comfort. And home.

All the time I was growing up, my parents and I lived far from our extended family in Wisconsin. So, traveling there for Thanksgiving was impractical. We were just three — Dad, Mom, and I — and Dad hated turkey, so a big Thanksgiving bird presented something of a challenge as well. But, wait. This (mostly) isn’t a sad story of Thanksgiving deprivation. Rather, it is a story about chosen families.


An early Thanksgiving. My first, perhaps?

My first chosen family consisted of my mother’s best friend in Washington, Aunt Suzie, her daughter, Kamie, and Suzie’s mother, Grandma Ambler. [One year, when I was living at their house during an internship, I made the mistake of mentioning to Grandma Ambler that I liked popcorn. I was, subsequently, nearly loved to death by popcorn. I still can’t eat popcorn without thinking of her.] Kamie was , and remains, the pesky little sister I never had. In latter years, Suzie became my Mom-away-from-Mom. And when I was little, every year, we rode “over the river and through the woods” to Suzie’s house for Thanksgiving. And Christmas. And Easter. July 4th was at our house — fireworks and all.

In 1967, my Dad got a job teaching German History at the University of Georgia and we moved south. WAY south. So far south that they still had dry counties. Mom threatened to call and having the moving van turned around. Eventually, Dad became a sort of bootlegger, driving to Fulton County — the closest county where one could purchase hard liquor — once a month to lay in a supply for all the boozers in our neighbourhood. arcadeBeer, fortunately, was a bit closer. For that, we drove to Arcade, Georgia:  a town in nearby Jackson County with a population of 229, according to the 1970 census, no liquor tax, and one package store that sold whatever beer had fallen off the back of the truck for deeply discounted prices. Apart from cheap beer, Arcade’s other claim to fame was as one of Georgia’s notorious speed traps. Athens is much bigger, now. So, I gather, is Arcade.

It took a while, but we gradually built a new chosen family in Athens: Dad’s best bud, Jim, his wife Betsye, and their daughter, Lexi (the second pesky little sister I never had) and Ben and Neva and their various grown daughters. The holidays rotated. Ben and Neva did Christmas. Jim and Betsye did New Year’s Eve. And we did Thanksgiving. The bird, gallons and gallons of mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pie. Always pumpkin pie: the one on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can, which is the last pumpkin pie recipe you’ll ever need. Trust me.

Libbys pumpkin pie

The Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe. Now you know everything you need to know about making pumpkin pie.

My contribution was the stuffing. Next to mashed potatoes and gravy, for me, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner was the stuffing. Which, in my lexicon, is stuffing, even if it never sees the inside of a bird (or anything else). You may choose to call it dressing. I’ll forgive you. My Dad had a fabulously productive chestnut tree in the front yard. And yes, it was spreading (but not spreading enough for a village smithy). So, starting in the early 1980s, when the tree started producing fruit, I started making chestnut stuffing, and never looked back. At least, not until Dad, growing old and tired of picking up the prickly outer shells, cut down the tree. Turns out, when run over by a lawn mower, they become potentially lethal projectiles.

Chestnut stuffing — chestnut anything — is a labor of love. First you have to cut an X in the shell (not even as close to as easy as it sounds), then either roast or steam the chestnuts, then peel off the still really, really tough shells. But it is worth it. The meat of the chestnut is rich, musky, and a bit chewy. It makes gorgeous turkey stuffing, but it is an even more rewarding vegetarian stuffing, cooked in a dish instead of a bird.

Apart from the chestnuts, there was nothing tricky about my stuffing. It had all the usual suspects: a package of Pepperidge Farm dry stuffing mix (I’ve tried making my own croutons for stuffing out of home baked bread. It isn’t worth it. I don’t sew my own shoes, either), a couple of chopped celery stalks, an apple or two, some poultry seasoning, a lightly sautéed chopped largish yellow onion, and enough vegetable stock. How much is enough? Enough. It depends on how wet (or dry) you like your baked stuffing. I like mine pretty mushy; more like bread pudding than pilaf, if that makes sense. With lots and lots on gravy on.


Preparing chestnuts for chestnut stuffing. Judging from the hair and the vintage 1970s decor, this was early 1980s. As 70s wallpaper goes, though, this wasn’t bad.

When I moved back to Washington to pursue my brilliant career, I found that the trip between DC and Georgia was a bit too long to make twice in a month’s time. My priority was to go home for Christmas, so I was a Thanksgiving orphan. Most years, I returned to the folds of my original chosen family — Suzie and Kamie.  I spent Thanksgiving 2000 glued to CNN, following the unfolding drama of the “hanging chads” (in case you missed it, Bush won in a TKO) unfold in Florida, with a great bottle of wine, and a turkey TV dinner. A couple of years, I flew out to spend Thanksgiving with my friends Karen and John in Corvallis, Oregon. A long weekend of eating beautiful Oregon produce and tasting Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Heaven. The year my father died, Mom and I spent Thanksgiving (and Christmas) at home, watching Jane Austen DVDs, trying not to cry and pretending the holidays weren’t happening. I don’t remember what we ate. If we ate. Grief made everything taste like sand.

In 2009, I married the love of my life, and we built our own little chosen family with our neighbours (and dog sharers) Pete and Anita, some years, with their son Mike and his lovely bride, Mary Beth. As Mike and Mary Beth are almost vegetarians, we established a new Thanksgiving tradition. I made the cheese and nut loaf and gravy, they provided sides, and Anita made the pumpkin pie. Most years, I also made some roasted brussels sprouts. In addition to kale, I fancy myself an evangelist for all misunderstood brassicas. We proved that it is possible to eat yourself into a coma without a single turkey being harmed.


Our last Thanksgiving in Virginia, with Pete and Anita. And that is not a dog at the table.

This will be the first Thanksgiving since we moved to New Zealand that I won’t be out of the country on travel on the fourth Thursday in November. It won’t be Thanksgiving here. It will just be the fourth Thursday in November. I have an accordion lesson scheduled. It’s just another day. Moreover, it will be just another spring day. There are no environmental triggers here that say : Hey! You! It’s almost Thanksgiving! The farmers’ market was full of fresh asparagus, favas, spinach, and strawberries — none of which rode here on airplanes or cargo ships. There are no specials on turkeys, or cans of Libby’s pumpkin stacked in the aisles at the grocery store. In fact, cans of pumpkin are hard to come by, here. You have to find a store with a special “American food” section, and then, you may or may not find a can of Libby’s pumpkin.

I think I will try, though. Maybe a Libby’s pumpkin pie is just the right thing to bring a little Thanksgiving to my new chosen home in New Zealand. In her touching new memoir/cookbook, My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl mentions that she roasts her Libby’s pumpkin a bit to caramelise it and intensify the flavour. While, in general, my position is “don’t mess with the Libby’s pumpkin pie,” maybe I’ll try that. A new pumpkin pie for a new chosen home in a land without Thanksgiving. And, in time, we will build a new chosen family. We are making a good start. They know who they are. And perhaps, in another, year, our new chosen family will come together for a chosen Thanksgiving, not to honour the autumn’s bounty, but to celebrate the promise of spring.


In Search of the Perfect Pizza Crust: Part Deux

The early 1990s were a pivotal period in human history: the Soviet Union collapsed ending the Cold War, the United States became, for a while, the world’s unchallenged “hyperpower,” Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States, and Susan and I discovered Bobolis.

lenin boboli-pizza-crust

The late 1980s were the black hole in my pizza universe. The years between January 1985 and June 1989 were a wormhole of studying, drinking, and bad fast food . . . and drinking. After I separated from my first husband, I made it my personal goal to 1) get a Ph.D. in military history, and 2) drink all the beer in central Ohio. I eventually accomplished #1 and fell just short of #2. My two roommates and I were each living on the princely sum of $385/month, which paid for rent, utilities, books, beer and food, pretty much in that order. We lived on chicken wings (on BW3 nickel wing days), beer, White Castle burgers, beer, Mickey D’s Happy Meals (cheeseburger and strawberry shake for me), beer, and lots and lots of bad pizza and beer. Notice a pattern here?

Historical note: BW3 — Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck — eventually dropped its third W and became the national chain, Buffalo Wild Wings. We ate at the very first one. Now they have a NCAA Bowl Game. I wish I’d bought stock.

The original BW3, including the satellite dish that beamed in MTV and enabled my lifelong adoration of Billy Idol.

The original BW3, including the satellite dish that beamed in MTV and enabled my lifelong adoration of Billy Idol.

The measure of a good pizza was size (the bigger the better) and price (the cheaper the better). Since I lived with two (male) roommates, fellow military history grad students, in a crappy apartment without a workable kitchen, making my own wasn’t an option. There was one excellent pizzeria, Panzera’s in Grandview, Ohio, a few miles outside of Columbus, but it was neither cheap nor close to campus (which meant driving, which meant gas) so it was definitely a special occasion thing. It was family run and had the best pizza I’d eaten since the sad demise of The Capri. Their vegetarian pizza (with green peppers (capsicum), onions, mushrooms, hot peppers, and black olives) opened my eyes to the possibilities of pizza without sausage or pepperoni. They also cut their pizzas into squares, which I thought was very cutting edge and sophisticated. Their crusts weren’t as good as The Capri’s, but they were pretty close: not to thick, not too thin, not overloaded, just right.

Panzera's pizza: note the avant garde slicing style. I liked the ones on the

Panzera’s pizza: note the avant garde slicing style. I liked the ones on the “corners” with a low crust-to-topping ratio, the sign of how good the crust was.

Unlike Capri, Panzera’s is still in business. If you find yourself in Central Ohio, go there. Eat Pizza.

Eventually, I plodded through to the end of my eye-wateringly boring dissertation and headed to Washington DC with my shiny new Ph.D. to light up the policy analytical world with my brilliance. I landed at the Institute for Defense Analyses, where I finally met the sister I never had. Susan, our third chosen sister, Elizabeth, and I bonded over dogs. Specifically, over Peanut – my beautiful, blonde, but not too s-m-a-r-t rescue mutt – and (a bit later) Crackerjack – a pesky, willful, and smart-when-it-suited-him cockapoo with a highly-developed taste for shoes, blueberry muffins, and pizza crust.

Peanut and Crackerjack, circa 1993. Peanut was a beauty, but as our friend Elizabeth put it, not very

Peanut and Crackerjack, circa 1993. Peanut was a beauty, but as our friend Elizabeth put it, not very “S-M-A-R-T.”

When I took off, in 1993, on a mission trip to Palestine, Peanut and Crackerjack (who was less than four months old at the time) stayed with Susan, who, amazingly, was still speaking to me when I returned three weeks later. Over the coming decades, we Three Musketeers — Susan, Elizabeth, and I — shared many adventures in travel, food, wine, and butterflies.

And Susan and I bonded over Bobolis. Specifically, Bobolis topped with fresh summer tomatoes, roasted sweet corn, basil, and fresh mozzarella. Sometimes we played around with the formula – goat cheese instead of mozzarella; frozen corn and canned tomatoes, or grape tomatoes, in winter; a little chicken here, a black olive there (but only on my side: Susan hates olives). But for the most part, about once a week, we would share Bobolis and a bottle (or two) of wine. It was a friendship made in heaven.

The Three Musketeers at the Virginia Wine Festival in 1994-ish.

The Three Musketeers at the Virginia Wine Festival in 1994-ish.

Now, Boboli pizza crusts – with their high sugar content, additives, and alarmingly long shelf life – are not the kind of food I generally advocate. I haven’t had one since I started making my own pizza crusts 20 or so years ago. But at the time, when I was still teaching myself to cook and intimidated by yeast, they seemed just the ticket. Way cheaper than a restaurant pie, they also provided control – at least – over toppings. I’m sure if I ate one now, I’d find it pretty revolting – sort of the way I feel about the other great junk foods of my past, like Twinkies and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. But in 1993, they provided the most convenient and user-friendly canvas available for me to begin my homemade pizza journey.

And my journey moved steadily forward. After Boboli came the bread machine era. My Dad was a bread machine early-adaptor. Mom made awesome fresh bread, but she rarely went to the trouble of making it once I left home and it was only the two of them. The bread machine was their perfect solution – the loaves weren’t too big and the whole process was pretty easy. Over the years, Mom developed some plausible bread machine adaptations of classics. Eventually, I got one for Christmas, too. Sadly, the thermostat (or maybe it was the timer) on mine went fluey early on, resulting in whole-wheat hockey pucks. But I kept the lumbering beast around because it made some pretty awesome pizza dough. It was just the thing when I was living alone, becoming increasingly adventurous in the kitchen, and wanted to make the occasional pizza-for-one.

What I never seemed to be able to accomplish, though, was that crispy, blistery, slightly tangy crust that is – for me, at least – the pizza crust ideal. I tried switching out flours – bread flour made the crust too springy and hard to roll out. I tried special pizza crust flours – the best one is from King Arthur Flour, but you have to be organized enough to remember to order it.

I got a pizza stone, which improved my homemade pies dramatically. But then there was the problem of getting the pizza crust onto the stone. I bought a pizza peel, which looked impressive hanging in my kitchen, but which usually resulted in disaster. I tried cooking the pizza part of the way on a cookie sheet, then sliding it off directly onto the hot stone. That worked pretty well, but the crust still didn’t have that magical, blistery crispness.

Two developments sapped my motivation: Trader Joe’s came to Northern Virginia and a new pizzeria, Valentino’s, opened in Alexandria. Trader Joe’s sells a pretty darned good pre-made pizza dough. You can buy a package or two to have in the fridge for those spur-of-the-moment pizza cravings. Valentino’s is a New York-style pizzeria, and the pizza was awesome. It had the added benefit of being on my way home from work. And they had plenty of vegetarian options, so Simon and I didn’t end up eating the same pizza combo week after week. That, plus the fact that Simon and I had work schedules that meant that we usually only ate dinner together a couple of nights a week, put a pin in my pizza baking.

Moving to New Zealand reawakened my pizza mojo. There is an excellent local pizza chain, Hell Pizza. We are partial to “Purgatory” (feta, spinach, sun-dried tomato, garlic, mushrooms, onion and kalamata olives) and “Limbo” (blue cheese, mushrooms, caramelized onions, tomatoes, and kalamata olives). Hell now advertises that all their pizzas are free range, so we can take comfort that all the little pizzas run free before they are popped in the oven. But Hell pizza doesn’t have that perfect pizza crust that my pizza soul craves. It did, however, have one very awesome ad campaign:

So, once we settled into our little lifestyle block in the Western Hills of the Hutt Valley, I made it my mission to learn to play the accordion and master the perfect pizza crust. Not necessarily in that order. And with a little research and a lot of practice, I’ve got pretty damn close to the perfect pizza crust. The accordion will take a bit longer.

Here’s the bottom line: it turns out that all these years I’ve been trying too hard. Homemade pizza dough is easy. It’s not as easy as falling off a bike, but it is so easy that there is no excuse not to make your own.


The Perfect Pizza Crust: A Tutorial

Making your own pizza crust has numerous advantages that you’ve heard dozens of times before: its cheaper than restaurant pizza, it doesn’t have lots of baddititives, you can control the fat, salt, and sugar content, and you can top it with whatever you like. Even potato chips and pickles.

It is also fun and rewarding.

And if you serve it to your non-pizza-crust making friends, they will say “ooh and ahh” (because they will be too busy chewing to say more), and everyone will think you are very clever, indeed!

I have settled on a few basic things that you must remember when making your own version of perfect pizza crust:

  1. You can make pizza crust at the last minute, but you cannot make perfect pizza crust at the last minute. You must plan ahead, at least 24 hours. They key to pizza crust that is the perfect combination of blistery, crispy, and tangy is time. But it takes less than five minutes to set the dough up, and then it just sits happily in your fridge for a day or two. Then, on the day you are planning to bake it, take the dough out early in the day and let it lounge around in your kitchen until it looks like a science experiment. This was, until recently, the greatest barrier to my achieving pizza crust nirvana.
  2. Use plain old unbleached all-purpose flour. Bread flour has too much gluten and will make your crust harder to stretch and tougher. Fancy pizza flour blends are not worth the extra cost. And weigh your flour. That way the ratio of dry to wet ingredients will always be right.
  3. Stretch your pizza dough onto a sheet of parchment or baking paper, and let it rest there. When its ready to bake, you can just shift the paper on to a baking sheet or pizza peel, and shift it directly onto the pizza stone. Don’t let anyone persuade you that you can do the same thing with cornmeal. It will end in tears. And who wants uncooked cornmeal all over their pizza crust?
  4. Use a pizza stone, or baking tiles. The key to perfect pizza crust is to cook it fast at very high heat. If you don’t have a pizza stone and are too poor to go to the building supply store and buy a few unglazed ceramic tiles, you can start the pizza on a baking sheet and the transfer it midway through baking directly on to the oven rack. I leave my pizza stone on the bottom rack of my oven all the time.

So, here’s the drill:

Start by putting 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of active dry yeast in 1 1/4 cups (355 ml) warm (verging on hot) tap water. Don’t use quick rise (bread machine) yeast. Set it aside and let the little yeasties wake up and start farting. After a few minutes, it will look like this:


Measure 497 grams of all purpose flour into the bowl of a standing mixer or food processor. That’s 3 1/2 cups if you don’t have a kitchen scale.


Add 1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5 ml) salt (I used pink salt here, but kosher, table, or fine sea salt work just as well)


When the yeast has demonstrated its liveliness, add 2 Tablespoons (30 ml) of extra virgin olive oil. You’ll end up with a bubbly concoction that looks like this:


Attach the paddle to your mixer (or the metal blade, if you are using a food processor) and run, or pulse it for a few seconds to incorporate the salt and flour. Then, gradually (but not too gradually) pour in the water/yeast/EVO mixture.

Some recipes will tell you to add the flour to the liquid, but I find adding the liquid to the flour just works better.

Let the mixer run until the dough starts to come together into a shaggy glob. It won’t really come together in a smooth ball — if it does the dough might be a bit dry. It should pretty much clean the sides of the bowl, though.

IMG_0200 IMG_0202

At this point, you can take the dough out of the bowl and put it on a well-floured surface. It will look a mess:


Now, gently knead the dough for just a few turns to coax it into a smooth, but still slightly sticky ball:

IMG_0209 IMG_0204 IMG_0206

Put your lovely batch of pizza dough into a plastic bag and pop it into the fridge, like this:


Go to bed.

When you wake up the next morning, you’ll find those little yeasties have been doing their thing all night, and your fridge now looks like this (this is a real, untouched photo):


This recipe makes enough dough for two good-sized pizzas, so at this point, you want to take the now risen and VERY sticky dough out of its overnight bag, knead it down a few turns, and divide it into two more-or-less equal parts (the kitchen scale helps here):


If you are only making one pizza today, put the second ball of dough back in its overnight bag and into the fridge to become pizza another day. Take the lucky ball of dough, that gets to be pizza today, and put it in an appropriately-sized bowl with a bit of EVO. Twirl the dough around in the EVO to get it nice and oiled up. Cover that baby up with some plastic wrap and put it in a nice warm place until about an hour and 30 minutes before you plan to bake your pizza.


By then, your dough will have risen away happily and look like this:


Turn your oven on to 260C or 500F, or as hot as it will go. Make sure your pizza stone is in the oven, if it doesn’t live there. You want that puppy HOT.

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured surface and gently knead it a few more turns, just to incorporate the oil and get it back into a more compact ball. Then cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 30 minutes, and up to an hour.

Now, it’s time to stretch your crust. Start with your nicely-rested dough and shape it into a rough circle, like this:


Then move it over to a sheet of parchment. Making generous use of flour, stretch the dough into the appropriate shape and size. Or you can toss it, but if you know how to toss pizza, you probably don’t need my help. If the dough is being stubborn, you can use a rolling pin, but try not to. My oven is tiny, so to achieve maximum pizza surface area, my pizzas are ovally rectangles:


Now it needs to rest again, for 30 minutes or so. And it is ready to bake. I always pre-bake my crusts for about 5 (no more) minutes before I put on the toppings. It keeps the crust from getting soggy. You can brush it with olive oil, but I don’t. Just slip the crust and the parchment on to a flat baking sheet or pizza peel, then directly on to the baking stone. It will get lots of fun bubbles on the surface, but you can press those back down when you take it out to put on the toppings.


After this initial baking, you won’t need the parchment to move the crust around, so just slide it back on the baking sheet or pizza peel and put on your chosen toppings. I usually start with the thin layer of cheese, but you know what you like.


Put the assembled artistry back into the hot oven for another 8 minutes or so.

Take it out of the oven.


Slice it.


And eat pizza.