18 July 2009

Pizza Italiano (Cooking with Q)

Well, it's not really Italian, this pizza—it's some crazy, ill-equipped American kitchen version—but it was just so much fun to listen to my son test out his best (and quite good) Italian accent while saying "Pizza Ital-ee-AH-no!" Not to mention the mischief of tossing the dough up in the air and catching it. His eyes grew wide: was I really going to allow throwing food? Not only allow it, but encourage it? I could see him wondering whether I'd gone crazy and also giving thanks for his good luck. We didn't at all accomplish what we should have with the dough: it was way too thick for one thing. But it was a good experiment. We used frozen whole wheat pizza dough purchased at Whole Foods, and then went to town on it. Of course there were no instructions for proper thawing or whether we were supposed to let it rise (or if that had already happened, pre-freezing). The dough never did rise, though I did try to give it time to do so. By way of excuse, I'll admit that the closest we've ever gotten to homemade pizza in the past is dressing up English muffins with sauce and cheese and baking them in the toaster oven like my parents did for me when I was little. This was not really much different. I cranked the oven to 425 degrees F, scattered some cornmeal on a baking sheet and did my best to coax the dough out into a flat circle. Tomato sauce next, plus shredded mozzarella. Then broccoli, because that's what my son likes on his pizza. (Yes, he's six and he has always eaten broccoli, I don't know what I did to deserve such an easy, varied eater!) More mozzarella, then some dollops of ricotta. In the oven for fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, I lost count. Mostly, I just looked at it by eye, pulled it when the cheese was bubbly and the crust looked sufficiently browned. The crust was a bit dense, way too thick for its texture, but it tasted good anyway. Q was happy with the taste of the pizza, and clearly with the escapade of making it. Definitely an experience worth repeating, especially if I can educate myself a bit better about how those pizza guys spin and toss the dough to some objective other than a good laugh.

12 July 2009

Saint Phanourios Cake Version #1

Here's a post I meant to put up a while ago.

Meet the Greek Orthodox Saint Phanourios, patron saint of the Lost & Found, if you will. Those of you who know me already, or know me through other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, are probably aware of my current interest in Saint Phanourios and his phanouropita, which translates as "St. Phanourios's pie" (think of the more familiar spanakopita, or spinach pie). In fact, the phanouropita is not a pie in the traditional Greek form that features phyllo, nor is it what an English speaker would conjure with the word. I've seen the saint's honorary recipe called a cake, but that's misleading, too. Really, if you imagine a sweet bread loaf, more like a fruitcake—I know, but let's forget the wretched Christmas cakes with chemical cherries—that's the right idea. I'll call it spice cake; that's better.

I may post more in the future about the saint, his cake, and my search for the right recipe. For now, though, a preview. On July Fourth, I made my Phanouropita Version No. 1 (not very patriotic, I realize), and overall I think it turned out pretty good. I am still tinkering, so do not want to post a recipe, but I am sharing pictures.

Of the ingredients, I will say that there are two ways to make a phanouropita. One of them corresponds, more or less, to the religious requirements of the Orthodox Church for Lenten (fasting) days. That is NOT this version! This one has butter and is doused with brandy. And though it might not pass muster for various church observances . . . It came out tasty.

Of the process, I will say that I had quite a day of it. First, a full 64-ounce container of orange juice managed to slip from my hand and crash to the floor, splitting down one of the edge seams and splattering juice all over the kitchen and dining alcove floor. First sticky mess to clean. Second, while measuring out the sugar needed, somehow a big rush of it came out of the canister and dumped all over the counter... and onto the still somewhat sticky floor. I was waiting for the third incident, and also wondering if these uncharacteristic accidents were somehow serving as a message from the saint (was this not a good day to bake him a cake?), but luckily a third accident never materialized.

In addition to creating quite the disaster zone in my kitchen, I accomplished the ultimate biceps workout—on one arm only, so that if I start to seem asymmetrically built after many attempts at the recipe, I will offer that up as penance to the saint as well. A full nine minutes of using a wooden spoon and my own sweat equity to stir a very thick batter and I began to suspect I'd never survive a day as a traditional Greek housewife; I was confronted with my soft American upbringing right away. I wondered how anything so difficult to stir could come out as anything other than a giant paperweight in the end, but luckily that was not the case.

There was one other faux pas, though.

It is imperative that you give the cake away. Some say to seven different houses/families, some say in nine equal pieces. You're allowed to taste it yourself, once you've met the requirements of slicing or distributing in nine or seven, but probably it's best to give the whole thing away. The idea is a display of Christian charity, so giving it to those in need is best of all. I'd packaged up some slices—there were some people I determined must taste it, though I would not classify them as needy—a couple were reserved for homeless or hungry people I'd meet on the street. New York certainly has no lack of those; I see them all the time.

So, on Sunday, July 5, I set out to take the bus up First Avenue to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East 74th Street. Without the phanouropita! In my haste to leave my apartment, I left the slices on the kitchen table. Like training myself to go to the grocery store with a reusable shopping bag (for months after I purchased my first one, I kept forgetting to have it with me when I went out on errands), I guess I'm just not in the habit of carrying food around with me in my purse. Perhaps I should make a habit out of it, especially leftovers: heaven knows there are people who need them more than I do. OK, I arrive in front of the Cathedral and, to my dismay, a man is standing right in front of the entrance, begging. His message is that he's hungry. He'd be the perfect recipient for the phanouropita, if I only had it with me. I gave him change instead, which was all I had with me anyway, and immediately felt like I had failed my newfound friend, Saint Phanourios. Next time, I will do better.