Preconceptions of Eats

December 2 of 31 December-ish posts

I’ve been dabbling in making pizza as of late.


Except having just been in New York City and now having a trip to Chicago planned for later next year, defining what exactly kind of pizza in which I’ve been dabbling is not so clear.

Pizza is bread with stuff, right?

After watching a dozen videos online with titles something like “ranking styles of pizza” or “why is New York pizza better than Detroit pizza” my brain has been aflutter with the actual definition of the food I’ve been trying to create, let alone setting down a strict approach that would serve me for the long term.

I have this preconception of pizza, and it comes from the fact that I grew up eating a very specific variety of medium-crusted disc with a slab of various meaty toppings sluiced between a layer of sauce and a top layer of cheese. I also worked for a summer in a pizza chain (formerly) called ‘Panagopolous Pizza’ (but now and since rebranded to ‘Panago’ likely because they got tired of people trying to order Greek food, as what happened to us numerous times over that summer in the mid-90s.)

All that is to say: pizza, at least the mental picture of pizza in my head, is something very, very specific and yet, open to interpretation.

Who or what are you leaving behind in 2022?

Preconceptions of eats.

I mean, that’s the goal, at least.

I’ve been dabbling in pizza-making lately, and none of that pizza I’ve made recently fits neatly into my former preconceptions of what my mid-90s self would have considered pizza made so-called correctly.

Up until the aforementioned “lately” I’ve long strove to make good pizza at home. I added a cast iron pizza pan to my collection about five years ago, and that fourteen inch circle of seasoned iron was the latest (and one of the greatest) additions to my pizza-making toolkit. Amazing crusts, for one. But alas, still merely another kitchen gadget geared at my goal of matching that mental image of the perfect pie.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach.

Not that seeing the thing in your mind that you want to create and striving to replicate it is at all a bad approach. Arguably, it is the foundation of understanding and education. By many measures, it is the core of becoming better at that thing you are trying to get better at. Practice by immitation.

I can’t say we ever really managed it tho.

That is, I can’t say that trying to create the pizza that existed in my mind’s eye was a goal that I ever really reached. We made great dough and in the last year our sourdough crusts have been tasty and devine. We’ve dabbled in ingredients and cheeses and sauces and temperatures. The thing is that homemade pizza in a standard home oven probably cannot ever compete with what any local pizza joint can crank out every five minutes with high-heat pizza ovens. Our idealized pizza was restaurant pizza and I don’t live in a commercial kitchen.

Preconceptions fall hard.

New York pizza is a style of pizza that seems to be as much religion as it is culinary art form.

Sitting in a little shop a couple blocks from the 5th Avenue branch of the Public Library, I don’t know if we found the best pizza in NYC, but we certainly found a great example of it. Three burly guys-guys behind the counter asked us to pick our slice and then they heated it up in a big slot of an oven before serving it on a paper disc and a checkerboard sheet of parchment. We folded it in half and bit into it and sat facing out onto the sidewalk where folks strolled by.

I could almost certainly find a recipe for that, a million recipes for everyone else’s attempt to replicate that, but there is more to it than making the dough just right or finding a spice that fits the right New York jive to call what I created New York style pie. As much as sitting on a wobbly stool overlooking a bustling street with sirens wailing in the distance, I just don’t have the tools in my house to do what they do in that Big ol’ Apple.

So what’s my point? That I can’t make good pizza as I imagine it? That good New York style is out of reach? That probably the same barriers hold true for Chicago, Detroit, Neapolitan, whatever. Just why bother?

My point is that pizza is all of those things and more. Pizza is a set of tasty food whose definition is broader than the narrow subset of examples that I happen to hold in my own personal mind. Pizza is bigger than my preconceptions of pizza.

I’ve been dabbling in making pizza lately and it looks nothing like any other pizza that I’ve ever made.

There’s probably a style, a name, a geography that belongs to whatever the pizza I’m accidentally making now most closely resembles. I’ve been making pizza that works with the tools I own. And it’s turning out really well.

Thick, hearty crusts that more closely resemble focaccia than pizza crust. Salty cheese blends. Spicy thick tomato sauce that doesn’t turn watery in my lower-temp oven. Cured meats and pickled peppers and even more cheese mostly on top, but loose along the edges of the big cast iron frying pan in which I cook it. I cook it in stages. I cook it to a crusty, crunchy dark brown. I cook it so that those cheese bits fall down the edges and fry on the sides of the pan. I cook it until the meat is curling and the cheese is bubbling and the crust is crisp and cracks when you take a bite.

If I could go back to the mid-90s and serve it to myself I’d probably like it, but I may look sidelong at my time travelling doppelganger and tell him it wasn’t exactly pizza.

So, who or what are you leaving behind in 2022?

I’m officially leaving that guy behind. I mean, I think I left him behind a long time ago. But I’m leaving him behind for reals and for good, I think.

Pizza is more than what’s in my head. Just like bread or doughnuts or cookies or other kinds of amazing food that I’ve been striving in mediocrity to replicate precisely at the cost of actual good flavours. Preconceptions of eats have been holding me back, I think, and next year, both overthinking it and completely ignoring my own brain.

I’m going to try to change that. Not just for pizza, but for a lot of things. Bring on 2023.

Fail Up Friday: Waffle Cookies

Do you ever have those days when you try something and it’s a complete and utter flop… but you learn something from it? That’s failing up. And my new Fail Up Fridays series are a chance for me to share some of my utter flop moments with my readers.

Y’know… like that time my daughter and I tried to make cookies in a waffle iron.

Dubunking the Internets

I occasionally watch a YouTube channel hosted by Australian baker Ann Reardon called How to Cook That. I think she started her channel to demonstrate her next level baking and decorating skills, but what has started to capture the fascination of the web recently and seems to be lighting a fire under her subscriber base (at least reading into some of the comments she makes about the popularity of those types of videos) is her series on debunking cooking myths.

See, it turns out, the internet is not a uniformly noble and honest place. It turns out there are people of questionable moral character (gasp!) who post things that are provably untrue. I suppose this earns them short-term attention which can be mobilized into clicks and views and all those things that the unknowable artificial intelligences doling out advertising revenue seem to like. In short, people post crap because crap is easy and makes them money.

Countering this kind of misinformation are people like Ms. Reardon who leverage the power of good sense, knowledge of video trickery, and just simple, basic experimental evidence to demonstrate why things don’t work the way they are often portrayed online.

This is important, because even the most eagle-eyed among us are easily fooled by gimmicks and simple answers and quick fixes… and those things can be wasteful, destructive, and even dangerous.

Waffling on Facts

I’m pretty sure it was one of those kinds of dishonest “hacks” videos that germinated the seed of curiosity in my brain and made me think I could turn our electric waffle iron into a high-speed cookie baking machine.

Now, I’m not saying this will never work. I’m not saying you cannot cook cookie dough in a waffle iron and produce something resembling a waffle-shaped cookie. That said, pondering the science of baking and heat and logic, making a cookie in a waffle iron would likely require a very specific cookie dough with the right consistency of dough or batter, a particular quality of gluten development balanced with enough oil to crisp things up while not liquifying in the griddles of a waffle press. It could use some food science know how that exceeds my expertise as of yet.

It could be figured out tho.

It was just not as simple as the video we had watched implied. It was not as simple as squirting some refrigerated grocery-store cookie dough from a tube into a hot waffle iron and emerging victorious with a crisp, hot waffle cookie.

What emerged from my waffle iron instead is pictured above.

And the lessons learned , the failing up, was not to give up or that failure was the end, but rather for my daughter and I to try and understand why it didn’t work, what might make it work, how to look online for multiple sources of information confirming a method or idea, and (most importantly) how much work it can be to clean burnt cookie goop out of a waffle iron.

My recommendation, though, is to forget the waffle iron… that you’re better off cooking a monster skillet cookie in a cast iron pan anyhow.