You stay classy, Irma Rombauer

I realize that there are some pretty serious pizza dough pioneers out there, but I would like to submit that our very own Irma, of the immortal Joy of Cooking, knows a thing or two about making a pie in a pinch. Obviously, in an ideal world–where all doughs are fermented to perfection and flavors abound from the flour alone, aided only by a few choice additives–I would have had enough foresight to make my pizza dough eons before I needed to bake it, thus providing a sufficient time frame for said fermentation. However, in a realistic world, I found myself in need of a pizza dough about three hours before I knew I would find myself in need of a pizza. Since I’m not willing to starve myself in the name of fermentation, I turned to Irma and her pretty stellar pizza dough recipe for those who can’t plan ahead.

In a jiffy, I combined:

10.6 oz. water

2 1/4 tsp. yeast

17-18 oz. white wheat flour

1 TB vital wheat gluten (this I added just for giggles to give my dough a protein boost and to hopefully enhance the texture)

2 TB olive oil

1 TB salt

1 TB granulated sugar

I kneaded for a good 10 minutes and ended up with a nice soft dough.

There is a fair amount of yeast in this dough, since it is intended to be a quick riser and not a slow fermenter. With this in mind, I didn’t mind taking the cheater’s time crunch route by sticking the dough in my slightly warmed-up oven to expedite the rising process. I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of flavors out of the flour, and I was ok with that–the dough was still going to be lovely and delicious. In Rombauer I trust. After about two hours in the warm oven, the yeast gang had used its force to expand into the glutenous strand territory, and it was ready for some toppings. They say a pizza is only as good as the crust, but there is really no denying that delicious toppings are kind of important. Homemade red sauce, a nice sharp cheddar, and some Applegate pepperoni (for the pepperonitarian in us all) got nice and friendly with the beautiful, smooth olive oily dough base. I intentionally added as little flour as I felt comfortable using when making the dough so that it would be elastic and supple and easy to stretch, and it definitely met these expectations.

It’s a bit hard to see what the dough is like under this sea of meat, but I can affirm that it felt and looked very promising for a two-hour quick crust. I stuck this smothered masterpiece into a 425 degree oven and baked it for what felt like a good long time, although I don’t honestly remember how long it took (perhaps 30+ minutes?) When it emerged it was crisp and crackling and all kinds of melty.

The dough puffed up just enough to provide a sufficient base for the cheesy madness going on above, without being overwhelmingly thick and messing up my preferred crust to toppings ratio. The whole thing was chopped up and demolished with great immediacy, and I almost forgot to stop and take a moment to evaluate my crust–the only part of the pizza that actually pertains to my flour, water and yeast theme. From what I remember in my pizza delerium, the crust was nice and crunchy on the outside, and soft and rich on the inside. It had a definite flavor (i.e. yeasty, olive oily and salty) that supported the tasty trio on top quite nicely. A lot of quick pizza doughs end up very, well, doughy and thick and flavorless. This particular dough could almost have fooled me into thinking that a bit more time had been invested in it, as the texture and flavor were both so pleasant. Alas, my short term memory isn’t so terrible as to forget that the dough had only been started a matter of hours earlier.

I accept the fact that not all doughs are created equal, and that a dough that’s been given a long fermentation at a lower temperature will always out-perform a quick dough. However, it’s impossible to replicate a 24-hour fermentation in only 3 hours, and, being human, we sometimes need dough in a pinch. In these instances, I find that Irma is my go-to pizza dough lady, and I am more than happy to crack open the Joy and use it as it was intended to be used–for regular ol’ people making regular (or even stellar) ol’ meals.

I eat my words–and my quick bread

Tonight I ate humble pie–or more accurately–Irish soda bread. I was passing some serious judgement on quick breads in my last post, and I would like to formally rescind my hasty evaluation. Comparing quick breads and yeasted breads for flavor and texture is a silly endeavor. A quick bread is a quick bread is a quick bread, if you will. In my mind, I’ve somehow come to associate real, good bread with the intimate process of weighing, mixing, kneading, waiting, adjusting. This effort and personal involvement somehow infuses a mental flavor in the bread–you love to eat it because you know it rather well. Because a quick bread, as its name implies, can be made in a jiffy, it carries none of this flavorful significance, and for this reason I dismissed it as an option.

When work went on a bit longer than I expected today, my plans to make a yeasted bread tonight were thwarted. I simply didn’t have enough time before I fell into a deep sleep to make, ferment, and bake a nice yeasty loaf. Although I felt like I was cheating, I decided to bust out the baking soda and make a quick bread.

Having little experience in the quick bread realm, I opened up a tiny little book called the Irish Baking Book by Ruth Isabel Ross, because who better to turn to for quick breads than the Irish?

I opened the book up to the very first and most basic recipe for “brown soda bread,” and in a matter of seconds I had a ball of dough ready to bake. Weird. The recipe, in all its simplicity, was as follows:

Combine: 4 oz. white flour, 12 oz. whole-wheat flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda. 1 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 1/4 cups buttermilk. (I substituted 4 oz. of oat flour for 4 oz. of the whole-wheat, just for a little extra flavor, and, since I was lacking in buttermilk stores, combined a little milk and yogurt to achieve a similar consistency and flavor.)

The finished dough felt so strange and crumbly and unfriendly. It didn’t want to be kneaded, it didn’t want to develop glutenous strands, and it certainly didn’t want any yeasty fellows munching away at it. This was a solid rock of simplicity–traditionally and in actuality a product of necessity, not of luxury. The dough ball, while small, looked like it could do some damage if thrown with any amount of force.

Feeling like I just wasted some fine ingredients on a brick of dough that couldn’t possibly bake into anything remotely delicious, I skeptically shoved the thing in my 400 degree oven and waited for almost a half hour with very low expectations. While the loaf that emerged still had the hefty, dense feel of its cousin dough ball, the magical stuff known as baking soda had rendered a definite transformation. It was like sticking one of those little pill-sized tabs into the bath water, and soon discovering an awesome dinosaur washcloth floating around. Here I had a magically appearing loaf of bread.

This hearty little loaf took literally no more than 45 minutes from first mix to first bite. And first bite was a pleasant surprise: definitely dense, but distinctly flavorful and comforting. Its main flavor was wheat–just what it should be–but the dairy played a nice supporting flavor role, and certainly worked in tandem with the baking soda to create a moist and soft crumb. I added a slab of butter to the equation, and I was definitely in business.

Considering this soda bread on its own, and not as the cheap brother of yeasted bread, I was filled with appreciation. I got all of the warm-fuzzies one gets from smelling baking bread, enjoying the warmth of the oven, and eating the piping hot first slice, but I didn’t have to set aside a whole afternoon to make it happen. This is not to say that I will be making quick breads from now on–far from it–but just that these breads certainly do have a well-earned place on the menu.

Thanks, Ireland.