Pizza and Beer

Food Blog March 2013-0802Sometimes, a week calls for pizza.  But you don’t want the delivery variety dripping with grease and lazy with a smattering of mix-n-match toppings.  You want something fresher.  Better.  You want the feel of dough you can stretch under your hands and control over the size and shape of the pie and choice in the quality and variety of ingredients.

Homemade pizza.

N. and I have often talked about pizza memories, and how, when we were kids, pizza just wasn’t the same without a side of root beer.  It had to be in one of those hard plastic molded glasses, and it had to be with a clear straw.  And sometimes, you forgot you’d ordered root beer instead of Coke or Pepsi, and that first gulp with its spicy depth would be a tremendous surprise.

As we got older, the “root” part of the equation melted, and suddenly it was pizza and beer, plain and simple, one of the mother food and beverage combinations (is that a thing?  Like mother sauces?  It should be.  After all, beer is the third most popular beverage worldwide, and variations on pizza have been around since ancient Greece).

As I thought my way through this pizza plan this week, I wondered whether they had to be separate.  I mean, yeast makes bread dough and beer possible.  Beer is liquid, and there seemed no logical reason why it couldn’t be substituted for the water I’d ordinarily use to make a pizza crust.

Once this idea was lodged in my head, it wouldn’t go away.  This just seemed too perfect.  Beer and pizza, kneaded together – a truly complete meal.

Even though beer is essentially water with yeast and flavorings, I wasn’t sure what would happen when I mixed the two.  I heated a bottle of amber ale in the microwave with a couple teaspoons of honey, just until it was body temperature.  When I added the yeast and engaged the lightest of stirs, the whole measuring cup erupted with bubbles and I had a head at least three inches high.  This slowly collapsed, but I took it to mean the yeast was satisfied with its new spa treatment.

Food Blog March 2013-0772I used a combination of bread flour and whole wheat flour, and produced a spectacularly nutty tasting dough that was also the stickiest I’ve ever worked with.  It slithered and dripped off of my stand mixer’s dough hook and plopped thickly into the oiled bowl I coaxed it into, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that after its six hour chill in the fridge it turned into pizza crust.

Food Blog March 2013-0777When I liberated it and faced it again, it wasn’t the easiest dough to work with, but it did work.  It wouldn’t deign to be tossed like a pizzeria pie, but I stretched and spread and pushed it across a cookie sheet liberally spread with cornmeal, and it turned into a rustic, bubbly, delicious crust.  Topped with mozzarella, sausage, and sun-dried tomatoes, it baked into a glorious symphony of assertive flavors.  We sprinkled on a few leaves of fresh basil while it was still steaming hot, and declared it one of my best homemade pizzas. Food Blog March 2013-0780This is a sticky, wet dough, but it works.  I’m going to make it again and tweak the quantities of flour and olive oil, but trust me: this is worth fooling with for the flavor alone.  The beer comes through right at the end of each bite as a deep yeasty earthiness.  It lends the tiniest bit of bitter flavor that contrasts really well with the fatty sausage and tart sun-dried tomato.  And really, why shouldn’t it?  It’s beer, and this is pizza.  They were made to be together.

Food Blog March 2013-0797

Beer-crust pizza

12 oz. beer (I used an amber ale.  I think a darker brew would be even better)

2 tsp honey

2 tsp yeast

¼ cup olive oil

2 ½ cups bread flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp salt

¼-½ tsp black pepper Food Blog March 2013-0774

Heat the beer and honey in the microwave (or a small saucepan) until the liquid is body temperature – you should feel only the slightest heat when you dip in a curious finger.  This took about 45 seconds in the microwave for me.  It will take longer if your beer has been refrigerated.

Swirl the mixture to distribute the honey, then sprinkle the yeast over the surface and set it aside for 5 minutes.  If you stir the yeast in, you will get a tremendous amount of foam on the surface, so in case of overflow I think it’s better to just let it sit.

While you wait for the yeast to perk up, combine the flours, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.

When the yeast and beer have married to create a thick foam, stir in the olive oil, then add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients.  Using the paddle attachment (if you are using a stand mixer), combine at low speed just until ingredients come together into a rough, uneven dough.  Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and knead on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes.

This dough will not pass the windowpane test.  It will not even stay together particularly well.  It will seem like an exercise in futility and disaster, and you will be sorely tempted to add more flour.  But if you resist, and plop it into an oiled bowl, and cover that bowl with plastic-wrap and leave it in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, it will turn into something more like normal pizza dough.  I promise.

Food Blog March 2013-078390 minutes before you intend to bake, take the bowl of dough out of the fridge and set it on the counter to finish rising and come to room temperature.  After this time has passed, and the dough is considerably increased in size (it may not quite double, unless your counter is quite warm), stretch it to your desired shape – it easily makes a thick 9×13” rectangular crust, and might be coaxed into 2 medium sized, somewhat thin round crusts – on a cornmeal or flour speckled board or tray.  I just doused my cookie tray with cornmeal and pressed and pushed the dough directly on it until I was happy with the shape.

Food Blog March 2013-0789Food Blog March 2013-0786Food Blog March 2013-0792When adequately stretched, add toppings and bake in a preheated 450F oven for 12-15 minutes, or until puffed, crisp, and golden.  Wait 5 minutes before you cut it, to give the cheese time to congeal just a little.

Food Blog March 2013-0804We ate this in embarrassingly large squares and left enough in leftovers to serve as lunch the next day.  Cut slightly smaller and for slightly less voracious eaters (or if you add a side salad), this would be an adequate dinner for 4.

Spiking your stuffing

The one part of Thanksgiving dinner I refuse to make from scratch is the stuffing.  I don’t know why, but no stuffing has ever lived up to the Stove-top brand blend my mom puts together: one box of turkey stuffing, one box of cornbread stuffing, mixed up and tossed together and then, rather than just stirred into boiling water, baked in a casserole dish for twenty minutes or so right before serving, so the top is crusty and crunchy.  This is easy to do, since it takes my dad at least twenty minutes to get the turkey carved.  This is smart to do because it makes a texture contrast and provides a gravy sponge.  Other stuffing mixes I’ve tasted, and the homemade one I attempted this past year for A., who doesn’t like celery (have you ever tried to find a stuffing mix without celery?  Impossible!), just haven’t measured up.

And then, Bittman.

“26. Chop corn bread into cubes. Sauté cherry tomatoes, scallions and corn kernels in butter or oil. Deglaze the pan with beer, then empty the pan over the corn bread. Bake in an oiled dish or use as stuffing.”

You guys, this was amazing.  And given how you now know I feel about stuffing, that’s saying something.  Amazing.  Here’s what I used:

6 cups (roughly) corn bread cubes, toasted (use your favorite recipe)

4 TB butter

6-8 beefy green onions

1 pint red cherry tomatoes, rinsed and dried

1 cup corn, fresh or frozen (if frozen, defrost it first)

Salt and pepper

12 oz. beer (I used Drifter)

I made a pan of cornbread from my favorite recipe in a larger pan than usual; I thought this would result in a slightly drier bread, so it wouldn’t become mushy when the liquid was poured over it.  The cornbread was still pretty moist and springy, though, so after it had cooled for a while I cubed it, scuffed it around in the pan a bit to separate the clinging pieces, and tossed it back in the oven at 400F for fifteen minutes or so to get some toasty edges and dark golden spots on it, then set it aside to cool completely.  This worked beautifully and I’d recommend it, especially if your cornbread is moist and cakey.

While the oven was occupied by an herb-stuffed chicken (again, I know.  I can’t help it), I melted the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sliced the green onions, using the white and green portions.  I tossed these little rings into the sizzling butter along with the corn, and agitated them gently.  When the onions were soft and the corn just beginning to caramelize, I added the cherry tomatoes and seasoned the whole skillet with salt and pepper and, on a whim, a few shakes of garlic powder.

I turned the heat up to medium high for just a few minutes until the cherry tomatoes started to burst through their skins, spilling pulp into the mix, and the corn had browned delightfully, leaving the kitchen smelling like summer.

I then switched off the heat and poured in a full bottle of beer, nutty, yeasty, and brown (Drifter is a pale ale, so it has some body and depth – I wouldn’t go any lighter than pale ale, and might in fact prefer something darker: a brown ale like Newcastle, or even a porter if it’s not too strong).  The aroma changed from summer to fall harvest in an instant as the beer fizzed over the vegetables.

After scraping the bottom of the skillet gently with a spatula to remove any persistent browned bits, I poured the whole steaming bubbling mass over my pan of cornbread cubes and tossed gently to distribute the liquid evenly.  Then I stowed the pan in the oven: 350F for 25-30 minutes until the top is deeply golden and just crunchy.

We ate this with roasted chicken and creamed spinach.  Vegetarians shield your eyes, but the chicken just collapsed so beautifully across my carving board that I felt I had to show you:

But the stuffing!  The stuffing was incredible.  The cornbread soaked up the beer, and the sweetness of the bread plus the sourness of the ale created this yeasty glory I couldn’t stop eating.  And I don’t like beer.  It was just such a perfect liquid for this dish, contributing just the right amount of malty bitterness.  The tomatoes got richer and sweeter in the oven, as did the corn kernels, and they partnered with the green onions to make such a good accompaniment to the cornbread that I’m almost tempted to add them into the batter in my next pan.  Or maybe into a compound butter to spread on top.  That would be better, texture-wise.  Green onions, cherry tomatoes, and corn: three musketeers. 

This stuffing was gone in two days.  With only two of us eating.  It was that good.  If you’re in the Northwest, where Spring is shunning us, make this now while you still need your oven to keep warm.  Accompanying some baked sweet potatoes and leafy greens, this becomes a vegetarian meal.  If you use oil instead of butter and have a good egg replacement, it could be vegan.  If your cornbread is free of wheat flour and you use gluten-free beer, it could be gluten-free as well.  However you make it, make it.  This one is too good not to try.