Pizza: American Tradition

Today’s post deals with pizza- what we made at my house growing up versus the versions that generated from combinations of cultures and across borders and boundaries.

When I was a kid, it was the pizza made on a cookie sheet. I do not recommend this unless the cookie sheet has the air layered between metal sheets. Dark metal cookie sheets are not the best for making pizza. From there, the evolution went to round pizza pans, and then large rectangular pans as my family caught wind of Costco and divested its inventory of at least three if not six of the massive rectangular cookie sheet pans.

Crust? Always fresh, and usually I was the one to make it. Shaping was either Mom or me, and then it was a case of “build-your-own” using jarred spaghetti sauce and various toppings Mom par-cooked in advance to speed general cooking. If not that, if the pizza had sausage, then that makes sure that the basic material receives cooking time prior to when it contacts the crust. NEVER make a sausage pizza without the sausage pre-cooked unless it is Chicago-pie style, and then I’m not sure how they get it cooked. But cook sausage!

My family was anti-pepperoni due to household changes following a relative’s bout with cancer, and honestly, when you get used to pizza without it, you don’t need it with it. Carcinogens are not worth it. Flavor is one thing, but fresh ingredients and plenty of them make pepperoni redundant and nearly unnecessary. What was typical on our pizzas? Light onion, green pepper, mushrooms, black olives, and if memory serves correctly, Canadian bacon or for it to go meat-less was fine, too.

I also grew up first with Domino’s and then with Pizza Hut. Neither are bad, but their price points do not relate well to the product when comparing to local places versus chains. Little Caesar’s used to have a different menu strategy. “Hot and Ready” pizza did not come about until the mid-2000’s when the company almost died. Their price point is typical for most pizza now. Cheap, ready to go, and while not exactly nutritious, it fills people up. American comfort food.

When we got older, there was an introduction to a pizza place called “Generous George’s” as they opened a location in my home town after their primary location the next town over. This place did TOPPINGS! The pizza was literally a few inches thick, and that is with a medium to thinner crust, and not a deep dish. It was also large enough that one slice could easily feed a person, period. If you handled a second slice, that was sheer insanity. If you wanted thicker crust, heaven help you. It was fun for its time, but the place went out when the first few years were over and owner’s kids graduated from high school. They stuck to their original location in Alexandria.

I changed time zones and states, and the next place that came to attention was “Pizza Pipeline” a local pizza place in Utah that offered free delivery coupons for the dorms including a $5 pizza with unlimited toppings. They made a monster of me. Favorite combination was shrimp, fresh-cooked tomato, black olives, green peppers, light onion, Canadian bacon, regular bacon, (possibly pineapple) and my word, that thing was incredible.  I was there during its hay-day and it changed hands, changed menus, and no one replaced them successfully when they went under. After they were there, $5 pizza was almost palpable, but it was never actually $5. Not sure if they are still in business.

I almost never ate pizza on the mission in LA, so there was nothing specific for comparison there. I’ve had CPK in other locations, often with fabulous results, but nothing in particular comes to mind from the time spent actually in LA.

Got home and went back and forth with school, and when I had to clean out the house, found Valentino’s. Now knowing what New York pizza is like, this is New York (Manhattan-style) pizza, but made by Armenians in a small place off of the crazy stretch that is the conjunction of Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike. Getting there wasn’t easy, but neither is DC traffic, period. You have to be an official animal to make it through the area alive and with your brakes lasting for more than two years.

Valentino’s pizza was the place to go when you didn’t want to be home, nothing else made sense, and they played Frank Sinatra just before it was cool again. I will admit that I once came out with a slice where I think that someone accidentally put a cigarette butt on it, and since I was eating in the dark outside because I could, it was a rather unpleasant experience. Other than that, though, a slice was huge, and their BBQ chicken pizza (I think I’m getting that right) was what got me through Fridays when insomnia, grief, numbness, and constant massive calamities otherwise made life simply unbearable.

Moving back to Utah, pizza was chain stuff. I got an internship in New York, and accidentally stumbled upon the first pizzeria in America- Lombardi’s. So, to give the menu a whirl and I have literally never had better pizza before or since. If this is where it came from, my word… no tampering necessary! The pizza had ricotta, basil, mozzarella, and some topping that I normally put on a pizza on my side while the friend who aided in the excursion had what I described on her side. It was literally so good that I remember it six years later. We got there during an unusually slow time, waited 15-45 minutes for a table, and then had the best pizza of my life!

Since I rarely went to Little Italy, especially after Italy won the World Cup the day before during that year, most of the time, I went for whatever was local. I lived in New York during the summer, not the typical springtime internship  period. The heat was enough to kill a person, and probably did. But the pizza… before it gets so hot that all that you can think about is veggies or fruit, the pizza of choice is margherita. Only margherita. Toppings muddy the purety of the sauce, the basil, light cheese. Just enough of everything to keep it all together. I learned more about Italian pizza in one New York summer than I knew existed in all previous experience. Gluttony paved way to purety of substance. When pizza is refreshing, you know that you have glory in your hands and your mouth.

Utah pizza improved from the wasteland that followed the absence of Pizza Pipeline with the Boston-Italian Stallion that came to town, and then there was a pizza place that opened down the way that had pizza-buffet. I never thought that potato on pizza could be good. They proved me wrong. Also liked their buffalo chicken pizza.

A family-friendly but pricier pizza place in town was Brick Oven, and if family came in or there was an event, take them there. Their root beer is good, but drink the apple beer. There is nothing like apple soda (root beer but instead it’s made with apples) on the planet, and it’s one of the things that I miss about that place. Brick Oven is this crazy, semi-intimate place decorated to reflect the locations that used to be there while now the pizza place takes up the whole block. Brick Oven was my second dinner when I first came to town. Ironic or perhaps a closure that it was also one of my last after many years living there.

Moving to another pizza capitol proved changes and rivalries that seemed to date to the Great Fire. While I have had Uno in other places and yes, it was extremely good in those places (biscuit-style crust is literally to die for in Northern Virginia although I’ve never ventured into the tourist landmark), I learned about the trifecta that is Giordano’s, Lou Malnati’s, and Gino’s East. Chicago has deep dish, “pie” style, and non-pie style, non-deep dish.

To the tourist that I still feel that I am, deep dish is the only “real” Chicago pizza. It’s arranged strangely, however. Akin to having soup in a bread bowl, but more constructed, Giordano’s has at least two-inch tall crust, and then it’s toppings inside (including cheese on the bottom) and then sauce on top. It’s good, and it makes for great leftovers.

When I want Gino’s East, or food that I know will be good and takes extremely minimal effort, I go to the grocery store and pick up a personal but hefty pizza at two pounds. After trying it once, I knew that I liked it. I have had the flat pizza in the actual restaurant, and that works, but I can make flat pizza. Not sure how to make the taller stuff without a special pan for it.

Lou Malnati’s is a king of pizza. It is different from Giordano’s, but wow. Have the salad first. You’ll thank me later. From there, butter crust, and the crust is almost a sour-dough effect going on. the top edge, pinched up, lets you know that this (hopefully) never hit the fridge for long before it got to you. In their case, instead of sauce, it’s more like tomato chunks on top. With toppings included, oh my word. That’s a mean pizza. So good it almost hurts going down, and that’s the way I like it.

Perfect example of Chicago right there. Not too classy, not too gritty, just …perfect. It’s almost as if you went to the neighborhood and came back and the suburbs don’t exist but the bricks and the buildings and you know who you are, and nothing else matters. That comes in a bite of this pizza. Or else it did for a historian-writer out with new friends after a life-challenging and changing conference where the conversation was fun and it was simply beautiful. Lou’s is boss. I have their pizza, and I think immediately of the times that I eat it. You can’t get this in the grocery store, but that’s okay. Gino’s takes care of that for me. Giordano’s has your first taste of Chicago. Lou’s follows it up with a power punch and sends you thinking, “Man, I love this town!” Lou’s is about the people. The food just hits in a rainbow-spectacle that makes you want to dance or roll out the door.

A combination pizza made for a small Church group a little while ago included cooked chorizo with a sweeter crust. That was unexpectedly good.

That is where my pizza forays have me now. Windy City, and I’m thinking about making pizza dough and of the items that I have on-hand what would work for a pizza? I have ingredients to make dough without issue. Adding diced tomatoes, basil, …shoot. I am not a regular cheese eater, and that may be my downfall. Note to self- keep some mozzarella on-hand. Even if ricotta is more incredible on a pizza, keep the basics there.

Just like with other aspects of life- you live it, you learn the ways that it works or does not work. I prefer the wood-burning ovens to coal, although coal gives a different flavor. It’s strange to think that I now go for the oven’s effects combined with the freshest stuff that I can find, and simple but clearly good efforts. Grow your own herbs and tomatoes if you can. If there is time, figure out what you want in your sauce. Although spaghetti sauce will work in a pinch, add more herbs to it. There are never enough herbs in those sauces, and spicier makes up for the sugar that otherwise nearly overpowers. Chunky sauces on top, crushed sauces on the bottom. Cheese can become a liquid in these events, but make sure that it is fresh, too. Low fat or part-skim is fine. Anything other than quality does not a good pizza make.

Pink Stuff and Orange Stuff: Summer Jello Desserts for the Over-Heated

These are recipes made up by my Mom in the 1980’s. It was summer: hot, sticky, sweaty, nasty mess in Northern Virginia before we got central AC working. The dessert is extremely simple. Jazz it up however you want.

Pink Stuff

At least one big package raspberry jello (go for the name brand.) In the 80s, there were only big packages and little packages. And we’re talking American Jello. Compare sizes against the products of Jello in other countries. You want the stuff with sugar in it. Sugar-free only if you are used to it, diabetic, or need it for some other reason. I can taste the difference, but tweak as needed.

Instead of using water to prepare it, use white grape juice.

Soft set jello.

Add around 2 8oz. containers of raspberry yogurt. We had the type with fruit on the bottom so we’d have to mix it up first. (For those in Northern Virginia, store brand Giant yogurt.) In other areas, store brand yogurt works well.

Using beaters, beat in the yogurt to the Jello until well mixed/incorporated. The Jello should change from deep red to pink. Hence, the name.

Chill till hard/scoopable by spoonfuls. We usually made this and kept it in the fridge, eating it for snacks during the day as a child.

Orange Stuff:

Same idea, except use apricot Jello (sometimes hard to find), and if you have to use store brand, no worries. The flavor and amount if more important than branding. Instead of water, use orange juice. Add apricot yogurt at the yogurt mix-in stage. I prefer this to pink stuff, but both are great. Parfaits are fantastic, though you will find yourself with preferences between the two.

Do not use metal bowls if possible as the acid reacts. I recommend glass as once a ladle left in the pink stuff dyed my Mom’s ladle pink, but the ladle was plastic.

Potential serving suggestion: Upon finishing beating yogurt and Jello together, pour into desserts cups, bowls, or glasses. Finish chilling. Before serving, pipe or spoon a dollop of whipped cream, a raspberry or Mandarin orange segment (appropriate to the flavor) and a small either mint leaf (for Pink Stuff) or chocolate shaving or similar adornment for the orange stuff. Play with the edible decorations as you like!

Desperation Casserole

This is a recipe for the days when it’s too hot to cook, but you have to cook. It was Sunday, and the ingredients were what I had on hand. I try to follow a tenant of faith that requests no shopping on Sunday. Typically, that means purchasing items ahead of time. Often, what you have is what you use. This recipe could be good for college students or  someone with more time than means who wants a simple recipe that worked.

Any of the ingredients can be used either frozen or thawed, cooked or fresh, or however people want to do it. It may take more or less work, but there is nothing that says that it has to be JUST so. This isn’t one of “those” recipes.

Ingredients:

1 1 lb. link/chub or sausage meat (ingredients in said sausage included beef and pork as the main meat items, spices, but not a bunch of fillers and junk. And no casing.)

1 bag (abt 8 ounces or 1 lb.) frozen green peas store-brand (Jewel/Ralph’s/Giant)

1 bag. Roasted Potatoes w/broccoli, onion, and red peppers (herb and garlic) meant to be cooked in a skillet, but I improvised- can’t remember what brand

1 can cream of chicken soup

1/2 can (after emptying out the cream of chicken soup) water

1/3 c-1/2 c Ragu Alfredo Sauce

Directions:

Spray a glass 9×13 pan with nonstick spray. I used canola oil type, but unless using the type with flour in it, it shouldn’t make a difference.

Next, cook the sausage. Since my sausage was frozen solid, first I unwrapped it and next microwaved it in a bowl for five minutes. This did partly cook the sausage, but not completely. After transferring said sausage to a pan with olive oil in it, I finished cooking it, breaking apart into inch or so pieces. Maybe it was more than 1 lb. In any case, it was enough that breaking it into 1 inch by 1/4-1/2 wide pieces was enough to cover a 10″ pan in a single layer. Turned off the sausage and let cool.

Meanwhile (while cooking said sausage) I mixed the cream of chicken soup, the green peas, and potato and veggies in a larger-sized plastic disposable Tupperware type container, added water, and got the mixture to a consistency that looked creamy although the veggies were still chunky, akin to a green bean casserole look. removed cooked sausage meat from pan and stirred into creamy veggie mixture being careful to avoid excess grease.

Poured mixture into baking dish/pan. Spread it out for an even layer. Added Alfredo sauce on top and mixed in a little.

Baked in 350 oven for around 20-30 minutes or until the top seemed melted together and the sides showed the mixture boiling. Removed from oven and let cool for maybe five minutes. Served.

No extra salt or seasonings necessary. Did dishes while the pan baked. Had chocolate pudding for dessert. Good comfort food on Sunday when reading a book in the sun room with a breeze.

Cherry Limeade Pie: New Family Tradition

Due to popular demand (3 friends), I am posting this recipe. It is from the comments attached to Easy Key Lime Pie, and is great for anyone who has less than three to four hours to go from purchasing ingredients to assembly, baking, and serving. Depending upon the city, that includes commuting time.

General Recipe Requirements:

  • Two 8-9″ pie pans (heavier is better for this recipe, but disposable also works.)
  • Oven (Any size, but not microwave.)
  • 3 bowls: one large one for mixing the key lime pie filling, medium for mixing graham cracker crust base (trust me, it’s worth it), small one for melting butter
  • Whisk
  • Trash can or Receptacle w/liner for discarded egg remnants/shell, cherry pie filling can lid
  • Spatula for scraping the bowl
  • fork for mixing up the crust
  • knife for cutting off the butter since you don’t need an entire stick
  • can opener
  • measuring cups and spoons

Ingredients:

  • 1 can cherry pie filling (whatever type or style suits you best; I prefer the most cherries I can get and typically buy generic versions on sale, with sugar added) Enough to top at least one 8-9″ pie +/-. It is more as a garnish that you add after cutting the pie and before serving.
  • 1 can of whipped topping (I prefer the Land O’Lakes heavy whipping cream because it is the real stuff, but if you choose to make literally real whipped cream for this, feel free. One half to one pint should do.)
  • 4 egg yolks; could be five dependent upon the size of the eggs, whites not required.
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz. variety)– you can always add more. This is to start.
  • 1 c key lime juice: Do not bother juicing limes. Go to the store and buy a bottle of Nelly and Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice in the yellow bottle in the juice aisle. It is milder than traditional Persian lime juice and a little less potent. More refreshing than tart. At least use a half cup of the key west stuff and I have put in a 1/4 c of regular lime juice to substitute the other half cup as needed. Same result, less effort.
Crust:
  • 1 box of crushed graham crackers or Nilla wafers. I do not mind using pre-made graham cracker crusts (rub the inside of the crust with the ground cinnamon before adding filling and it’s almost comparable but not quite for substitution purposes). Most boxes of graham crackers will list the needed ratio of sugar, butter and graham crackers for making crusts. For use of this blog, the ratio comes from Graham Cracker Pie Crust. If crushing your own graham crackers, start with cinnamon graham crackers.
  • If using 2 c pre-crushed graham crackers, add up to 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon and perhaps a few shakes of ground nutmeg. If using fresh nutmeg, grate off 1/4 -1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg. Mix with the 1/2 c melted butter (I use the microwave for melting this, 5 seconds at a time) and 1/3 c melted sugar. 
Bake crust in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for 8 minutes if you want. It matters less that the crust bakes ahead for this recipe since it is only butter, sugar and the dry ingredients.
Filling:
Start with the eggs in the large bowl and whisk them to make sure that the yolks break up. Whisk in the sweetened condensed milk and make sure that all elements blend well. Finally, add the lime juice and continue to whisk. The filling will not ever turn green. If you want the color of fake key lime pie, then add food coloring or grate in some zest (lime peel without the pith). Natural key lime pie is a light yellow color and needs no extra zest. The juice will curdle the milk and egg mixture akin to ceviche. That said, the pie still must cook.
The crust is the sugar, graham cracker crumbs, butter, and spices described earlier and then patted into place on greased pie plates. Recommendations to grease using either butter or spray. Either way is fine. Add filling to the pie plate(s) dependent upon how much there is of the crust base and the filling. Can make up to two pies dependent upon ingredient amount and how deep of a pie.
Bake pie for approximately 15-17 minutes or until the center of the pie does not jiggle much and is smooth. The idea is to cook/set the custard properly before chilling. From oven, take out and allow to cool a little. Place in fridge, covered gently with either dome top, inverted plate or other item that will not touch the nice glossy surface. Can be served from the cooling station fresh, but usually better a little chilled.
When serving, add whipped cream either to the top of the pie or to individual pieces. I added a light layer of whipped cream and then covered over with cherry pie filling when I last did this. When cut, I added more cherries because I wanted to. Serve however you like. Usually best with milk or similar acid-eliminating item. Lemonade is too much citrus for this drink. Water works well.
Eat and enjoy!

Holiday Traditions: Family History through Traditions of Material Culture

I might just be learning something in my Public History major. The term, material culture, from what Wikipedia says,[1] “refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.” One interpretation can be that that means how the lace doily or the medal or the PUMPKIN PIE makes sense between people. My family is big on food. We are nowhere near Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving picture,
see right (don’t sue me for sharing the pic) but we do our best.

Small departure from possible other blogs, you cannot get away with writing about Thanksgiving unless you talk about family traditions. That is where material culture comes in. The positive memories of Thanksgiving keep the tradition alive. Black Friday came AFTER Thanksgiving. Despite retail America’s reluctance to admit otherwise, Thanksgiving is a legitimate American holiday and it gets celebrated whether they want to jump straight to Christmas from the 4th of July or not.

My family has changed much over the years. Growing up, the basics of the meal composed most traditional dishes sans the sweet potato or yam dish because I’m not typically a marshmallows fan but I can eat them. I do not go after them, however. My family did not stick specifically to a tradition or custom because it was there (meaning part of the national holiday culture), but adapted it to our personal needs and requirements. I think that many families are like this. A tradition means something when it becomes personal. Besides, five sides in addition to the meat entrée and dessert was plenty.

Although my personal plans include traveling this year, I can mentally go through the entire meal and prepare it with minimal paper/online recipes. Thanks, Mom. This may be silly, but I am going to prove it. (For anyone with any questions or other ways of doing this, feel free to comment below the post. I’m always looking for fun recipes.)

Basic Menu:

Turkey breast (cooked breast side down, 15 min/pound, 325 degrees. Thermometer does not pop out. Safe, juicy, yummy, oh my word-good!) DO NOT SLICE turkey until it’s rested for at least 15 minutes to a half hour. Just don’t. Thank me later.

Ocean Spray whole berry cranberry sauce (whole berry: Somehow that was better for you?) I don’t care if it’s generic. I just want some form of the sweet-tart concoction on the plate, and I don’t know that many people who want to make the stuff when it’s less-expensive to buy it. *shrugs*

Mashed potatoes with garlic powder and salt to taste (beat with a beater after mashing- makes a difference). You can add onion powder and pepper if you would like. My Mom made them with a little milk, and sometimes added parsley flakes. Simple good food.

Green bean casserole (One family member’s favorite, another despised it.) We make it simply: cream of mushroom soup, cream of celery soup (secret ingredient), milk, cut green beans. No onions needed for the top. Simply cover with aluminum foil. Because I’m the one that loved it, I got opening cans duty. After a while, it hurt your hands to make it, but I could live off this stuff.

Corn- niblets (open can, pour into bowl, nuke, add salt/butter if desired; life goes on).

Stuffing (we actually like Stove Top, although I now prefer whatever the type is that has chunks of celery and bread in it).

Some people have any number of other dishes to add. Pumpkin pie is Libby’s recipe, double the spices (triple if doubling the recipe), add a little vanilla, and make the pie crust from scratch. Honestly? Pie crust is not rocket science if you take about fifteen minutes and tastes fantastic. Just choose whatever you want and go with it.

That long explanation of my family’s food traditions for one holiday should help you to think of what your family does. If you were not commenting on traditions either mentally or to a coworker or family friend when reading the food part, I would be surprised. Food elicits passion. It helps establish communications and is a form of communication in itself. A good meal can settle wars. Other good meals start relationships. Humans bond in material culture over food. Think about this for a few moments, and then choose to write down your family’s specific holiday recipes.

It may be something small, but people writing down recipes (and especially family-modified recipes) are how a recipe survived in my family since the 1880’s and my Great (multiple times) Grandma Baker. I am not making up the name, and her chocolate cookie recipe survives, albeit in a slightly changed form. I have both the original recipe and my Mom’s modified form. If your family has a “secret” recipe, you don’t have to share it, but write it down. Although oral history is a valid, useful, and amazingly accurate way of communicating history most of the time, the numbers change over years. Make sure that your teaspoons and tablespoons or ounces and grams don’t get modified too far.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, your family, and write things down while the tradition-leaders still can make corrections. When they’re gone, they’re irreplaceable.


[1] I like Wikipedia. It may not be “scholarly” but I use it all the time because it works and helps. And the fact that anyone can review it makes it relevant.