Humor me one more birthday? Two in a month, I know. But two's a big one, no? After all, it's not every day you double your age, overnight. And with all that walking and talking behind you, you can focus on the really juicy bits, like ditching the high chair and skipping naps and broadcasting the occasional (no-not-monkey-jammies-POKA-dot-jammies-the-bluuuuue-ones-peas!) opinion. Besides, I'd like to do right by that smile.
Honestly, I could begin and end right there, left corner to right. She really is all that, just spunk, twinkle and boo! A party with pigtails, a diplomat from planet Happy. All you need to know, really.
What's missing, though, is all I didn't know, all she taught me, teaches me, patient and slow. I mean, I knew it all, obviously, with two boys under my belt. Plenty of parenting technique may elude me. (Most of it, maybe.) ((Okay, some days, all of it.)) But personality-wise? I'd seen it all, night and day. I was ready, prepared, completely naive.
I did not, for example, know little girls. I didn't know "What flavor cake?" could be answered "Pink!" Didn't know how she'd take so to little bald babies, tuck them under her arm and walk them around, murmuring "Mmmm... I wuuuv you... ummm... nice hug." Didn't know she'd switch up not two minutes later, barreling at me with blocks and an over-sized war cry. "Missile! Uh-TACK!! Shoot! Pshew Pshew Pshew!" (Still that grin, though. Sort of undermines the whole ferocity angle.) Didn't know she'd lay claim to sugar and spice and tails and snails besides, because, goodness gracious, why ever not?
I never knew washing hair could be simple. Or quiet. Or quick. Or — stop me now — all of the above. I'd no idea a toddler could whisper, or nod, or say "yes" and "shooz me!" to people and chairs. Or add, automatically, "please" after everything. I'm fibbing; it's "peas". That "L" is so tricky. But everything, that part's no stretch at all. I never dreamt that a toddler's two favorite words might be "Right there!". Tied with "Like that!" That anyone might be more particular than me. Oh dear.
I didn't know someone One could count all the way to three. Genius!, I thought. Survival, I realized. Forget a room of her own. A third kid's got to know what evenly divided looks like, if she wants to land a wedge of cookie, all her own. I had no idea a girl so small could call dibs on seats, so fast. "Grocery store", I muttered yesterday, planning tomorrow. "In the BACK!" I heard, from two rooms over. Seems a certain someone likes the big bottom basket, the one where big brother sits. Or sat. Now he walks.
I never knew twelve tons of gumption could squoosh into thirty three inches. Don't remember writing Gung-Ho on the Birth Certificate's Middle Name line. But "Zoë do it" is the refrain of our days, right now, with "By self" and "See mama!" thrown in for good measure. I was a little startled this week when "I can't!" cropped up. Until I realized, in Zoë, it means only, "I'm having trouble. I'm stuck, and I have no intention of stopping. So HELP ME NOW, peas, since I don't speak 'give up'."
I didn't think she'd one-up me in the responsibility department so soon. I've heard of young kids going on twelve or twenty-one, even, but she, I swear, is two going on forty two. Ate raisins with a fork, before she could walk. Gets her own bowls, and cups, and extras for the boys, also. She so called me on it when I kicked that toy car under the island, the other day. Later, I thought. (Ka-wack!) "Put away!", she declared, and did. (Insert blush here.) You can see what a clean castle she keeps.
I certainly didn't think homemade pizza would become part of our line-up. For years, I ranked DIY pizza right up there with, oh, homemade toilet paper. As in, why on earth ever bother? After all, decent, inexpensive versions are widely available. The pizza, they'll even deliver. And every last one of my attempts this past decade yielded something like old Sears catalog crossed with Cedar bark (the pizza, I mean; I've yet to try the t.p.). Charcoal black on the edges, pasty white in the middle, I'd perfected a pie that was both burnt and raw. Magical, really.
So magical, in fact, I vanished it from our kitchen for ages. But this year, prompted by a plucky new sous-chef and Ohio's odd habit of cutting round pies into square pieces, we gave pizza another go. And I'm so very glad, as we're finally, I think, getting the hang of it. Understand: we're not turning out world class exemplars, wood-fired wonders that inspire accolades and cult followings. But I don't really want an imported inferno in my kitchen, or for that matter, a following.
What I wanted, what we've finally figured, is how to easily, reliably, turn out very nice pies, with crispy thin crusts and gold bubbling tops and whatever bits and bobs suit people's fancy. Which, in the end, is the second best part of a DIY pie. (The first being, obviously, the company). We can please Little Miss Mushroom and Mr. Pepperoni Only and me, and my love of a sort-of-white pizza, sharp with three cheeses and fragrant with Rosemary and worth every last ounce of flour on the floor. I'll save details for the recipe notes, below, but suffice it to say, if you ask me now, homemade pizza's child's play.
Pizza: Part I — Tools and Tips
Let's do this in two parts: playbook and recipe. Because more important than any ingredient is HEAT. And, after that, a calm cook. These 5 P's — big tools, little tips — finally turned homemade pizza into something I looked forward to making and took pleasure in eating. This is just what works for us. I'd love to hear what works for you. (P.S.: Just picked up my February Saveur, and lo and behold!, found this same advice on page 94. Guess we're on the right track, then.)
:: Pizza stone: These heavy stone circles hold and transfer heat beautifully, cooking that raw dough almost on contact. EIght minutes takes a pizza from start to finish on ours. I'm not big on gadgets, but I wouldn't attempt pizza without a stone. (Again, anyway. I have, many times, and am so over peeling baked-on dough off of sheet pans.) We like this one. It's an investment, for sure, though not much more than two pies, delivered.
:: Preheat: Stone and oven both, at 500°, a full hour. No joke. Your basic home oven (and mine is just that) can take on pretty awesome powers if you give it time to get up to temperature. Remember to put a rack on the bottom position, and your stone in while the oven's cold (to prevent cracking), and you're well on your way to brilliant crisp crust.
:: Patience: With the dough. Springy dough drove me mad for years. I'd roll it out, sproing!, back it would go. I'd roll again, schwoop!, and up it would curl. I tried everything; even, one day, reading the directions, which said to let the dough rest a spell before rolling. Worked beautifully. After rising (homemade) or removing from fridge (storebought) and dividing into serving size balls, give that dough 20 minutes to relax, and you'll follow suit when it comes time to roll.
:: Parchment: Cornmeal's lovely in cornbread, nasty under pizza. Instead, I slide my rolled crust onto a square of parchment to keep it from sticking to the stone (you need something). The parchment comes out of the oven black as midnight, but don't worry: it doesn't flame, and the pizza slides off beautifully. Without that raw, gritty crunch.
:: Peel: Just a wide, flat metal paddle on a long wooden handle, a peel seemed so specialized I resisted it for years. Silly me. I love my peel with a passion, because it allows me to get all those fragile, floppy raw pies into that blistering oven without incident, every time. And, better, to get them back out without incinerating my arm hair. (The only thing worse than dropping a raw pizza upside down on a 500° oven floor is bumping your arm up against a 500° element. Trust me, on both counts.) You could buy one new, but my advice is to pick one up for $3 at your local goodwill, where there's almost always a thicket.
:: Paste: Avert your eyes if you're at all orthodox, because this is pure heresy. Pizza sauce is so simple, just simmered-down tomatoes, seasoned the way you like. But between the dough and the toppings and those ten floury fingers, I always pull it too early, and end up with sad little watery spots. So one night I cracked a can of tomato paste, instead, and I've never looked back. Completely inauthentic, I know, but it fits my bill: a rich, intense smear of tomatoey twang, ready to rumble.
Pizza: Part II — Red, White and Blue Pizza
Adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything
Years ago, I stayed with good family friends in New Jersey (Hey ho, Bobbi and David!) while interviewing for a Cloisters internship. I didn't get the internship (note: New York buses may run three hours late; best take a cab), but I did taste my one and only official White Pizza, which more than made up for it. My version's not at all traditional, what with the tomato paste and blue cheese, but I love it dearly.
To top 1 medium or 2 personal white pizzas:
2 Tbs. tomato paste (I like Muir Glenn), or sauce of your choosing
3 ounces parmesan or pecorino romano, freshly grated
3 ounces mozzarella, freshly grated
2 ounces blue cheese, freshly crumbled
2 Tbs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Olive oil, for drizzling
Combine all three cheeses and rosemary in a bowl.Pizza Dough:
Yields 1 large, 2 medium, or 4-6 personal size pizzas
I'm not one to staunchly advocate DIY dough; the fresh store bought variety can be lovely. It is dead simple to make at home, though, and for me often easier than getting out the door. My standby is Mark Bittman's, which I love for the splash of oil in the dough (essential, I think, for good stretch and body). That said, I'm eager to try Jim Lahey's. I always double the recipe, below, and stash half in the freezer for next time (freezes beautifully).
1 tsp instant or rapid-rise yeast
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 - 1 1/4 cups water
2 Tbs. + 1 tsp. olive oil
Combine half of flour, salt, yeast, 2 Tbs. oil, and 1 cup water in stand mixer. With paddle attachment, blend 60 seconds. With machine on slow, add remaining flour gradually, until dough becomes a sticky ball that pulls away from the sides.
Turn dough out onto floured work surface and knead by hand a few seconds to form a smooth, round ball. Grease a large bowl with remaining oil, and place dough ball inside. Cover with a clean cloth or plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm spot, until dough doubles in size, 1-2 hours. Dough can also be refrigerated for a slow rise, 6-8 hours (great for making in the morning or evening before).
To roll dough and assemble pizza:Move rack to bottom position, put pizza stone on it (cold), and turn oven on to 500°. Preheat oven and stone for 1 hour.
When dough has risen, knead lightly, roll into ball, then divide into equal pieces in the size you desire (4-6 for individual pizzas). Roll each piece into a round ball, place on a floured surface, and cover with a cloth. Let rest 20 minutes, while you grate cheese and assemble toppings. Have parchment ready.
After dough has rested, roll one ball on a lightly floured board to desired size. I like mine cracker thin and roll it within an inch of it's life. 1/4" will give you a standard, thin-medium crust. Move rolled dough to parchment, and parchment to peel. Top pizza dough (on peel) with a smear of tomato paste, a thick (not heaping) carpet of the rosemary-cheese mixture, or your toppings of choice. Drizzle olive oil on exposed edges, and slide pizza onto stone with a flick of the peel. Pizza will be done in 6-8 minutes, when crust is golden and cheese is bubbling. Slide peel under pizza, lift up and out, and let cool just a moment. Enjoy with your favorite kitchen help, age unimportant.