It all started innocently enough. A regular member of my Basic Food Group (we cook together frequently) noticed a sale: Buy a liter of an especially pungent, unfiltered Sicilian olive oil we were all using anyway and get a free pizza “kit.” None of us would normally fall for a pre-packaged product; we have from-scratch standards, damn it. But the term “free” does have its appeal; the products, including freshly grated mozzarella, looked good; and it was the excuse for a party. Not that we need one.
Then, before we could coordinate frequently incompatible schedules, a portable ceramics kiln fell into the collective lap. Most people would immediately think clay pots. We thought crusty pizza.
Christopher, the recipient of the device — which is about 18 inches in diameter and 18 inches tall and consists of doughnut-like segments banded together — offered to do a test run at his and his wife Trisha’s house south of downtown. So one night we plugged it in on the concrete front porch and settled back to watch the temperature rise.
The thermometer we had at hand was a standard-issue oven variety whose dial stopped at 500 degrees. Or maybe 600. In any case, the needle forged on past the theoretical limit, and by rough extrapolation we determined that after about an hour the temperature had reached, let’s say, at least 750 degrees. Time to put in the sacrificial first pizza, for which purpose a frozen Tombstone had been recruited.
Now, the putting-in and taking-out was bound to be tricky, as the only access to the kiln’s interior was through a removable top. We had to get a somewhat floppy unbaked pizza onto the floor of the kiln, which we’d fitted with a pizza stone, without draping ingredients all over the interior. And then we had to extract the finished product intact, without burning ourselves.
The insertion proved to be reasonably easy, in part because Christopher had modified a spatula by bending the blade at a 90-degree angle to the handle. This was also to be the extraction method when the pizza was done. Or, more accurately, overdone. The top still looked relatively edible after about four minutes, assuming it had been edible to start with, but the bottom had turned to carbon. RIP Tombstone.
Fortunately, there was a backup pie, and this time we were determined to watch more carefully and to sprinkle the stone with coarse cornmeal to act as an insulating blanket and facilitate removal. The better-baked pizza, this time a generic brand, was lousy but at least we had proved to our satisfaction that, with a little tweaking, the device could work.
But we realized another challenge, too: A custom crust (from a recipe in Jim Lahey’s My Bread) was going to be way floppier than the pre-fab product, and getting it into the kiln would not be easy. Fortunately, Christopher had been thinking about this. It pays to have artist-mechanic types as a part of any group. He scrounged a piece of stainless steel, torched out of it a rough (almost lethally jagged, in fact) circle, and cut a bendable 1-inch-square tab to provide purchase for a lock-grip pliers. We now had a means of inserting and removing the stainless pan and could use a conventional peel to transfer the pizza to it. Speed was still of the essence, as 800-some degrees is not to be taken casually. The rematch date was confirmed, assignments made … let the baking begin.
But not without one more test firing on the afternoon of the event. In went another sacrificial purchased pie. We gauged the temperature this time with a borrowed pyrometer (it was not really much more accurate than the oven thermometer, but it looked way cooler). And the stainless sheet was lowered into the belly of the beast. Four minutes later the test pizza emerged looking far better than it had any right to. Assembly of the pyro pies could begin in earnest.
Cynthia, whose Italian heritage makes her “genetically prepared” for just this kind of project, had arrived early to help pull things together for a dinner that also included a pork roast with potatoes and fennel, two vegetable sides (one with spicy roasted carrots, another with kale and black olives), a three-layer chocolate cake (a birthday was also involved), and pistachio semifreddo. We would not go hungry — or thirsty, for that matter, as non-cooking guests brought wine.
Four pizzas would precede all of the above, and, not knowing exactly what other topping ingredients Trisha and Christopher were bringing, Cynthia and I decided to be ready with potatoes, onions, and more fennel. The potatoes, at Lahey’s suggestion, were thinly sliced on a mandoline and then submerged in salted water. The mandoline was also employed to slice the fennel and onions. Thinking that the crust would be done long before the potatoes and onions were, we decided to sauté both lightly in advance. Now we were ready.
And here’s what resulted. The potato pizza with onion, fresh rosemary (the plant was hardly a yard from the scene of the crime), and an obligatory drizzle of olive oil — yes, the oil that launched this project — was the simplest and thought by some to be the best. Most impressive was certainly a pie piled high with sliced oyster mushrooms from the Pearl Farmers Market bedded on ash-coated goat cheese and strewn with garlic. (More olive oil is a given.) Also far from shabby were pizzas of smoked scallops over ricotta with fresh basil, and the fennel with more onion and fresh thyme. Maldon salt was sprinkled freely; pepper was ground with abandon.
Along the way we learned that we needed to reduce the diameter of the pies a tad. And one serious ceramist, not present at the party, did express after-the fact concern at the thought of cooking pizzas in the same oven in which toxic-if-ingested glazes might have been fired. “I wouldn’t do it in mine,” she said ominously, but hey, there wasn’t any obvious residue. We noticed only salubrious effects, in fact.
True, I don’t yet have the electric bill for about three hours of peaked-out power consumption, but the experiment was worth it regardless — leaving the BFG with the obvious challenge: What next? Cooking in the dishwasher and on a car’s engine block has already been done. Fancy freezing and foaming devices are out-of-reach. So maybe it’s time to go backward instead of forward and try something almost primitive — a pit in the backyard, for example. Stay tuned. •
p.s. The pizza kit has not been used to date. Oh well; at least it was a catalyst.
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