Archive for the ‘Focaccia’ Category

I Want My Umami


Pissaladière: umami francaise

Yeah, yeah, I know: you hate anchovies. You think they taste like hairy fish.

This is the point in the conversation when my Mother would chime in, “But that’s the best part!”

While I didn’t share her enthusiasm for certain items that have received that endorsement over the years, when it comes to anchovies I agree with Mom. They’re good. As she would say, “You just haven’t had them prepared properly.”

A while ago I mentioned in this space that I used to have a waitering gig where I prepared Caesar salads tableside. Folks would crow about how much they loved Caesar salads – until they saw the little fish filets waiting to be thrown into the bowl. Like some eager but poorly dressed party-goer, they were not admitted to the disco, the folks at the table turning their collective thumbs down with the certainty of an experienced bouncer.

Little did they know: a Caesar salad without anchovy is like a Twix without the cookie inside. It’s just not the same thing.

I think what I am saying is fairly obvious: no one eats anchovies solo, they are almost always part of a recipe, and the flavor they add is vital. Don’t leave them out (please).

A huge problem is those little tins of anchovies that people buy. Don’t buy those. Perhaps more than with many other ingredients, this is one item where it pays to buy the good stuff, and it costs very little more to do so. Here’s my “blind side-by-side” taste test: Anchovy from the tin tastes like a salt attack. Quality anchovies (usually sold in little glass jars) are somewhat salty, yes, but not hairy, and are much more complex in flavor, adding a certain nutty quality to what you are preparing. They are subtle, and in certain recipes folks will be unable to put their collective finger on what that “other” flavor is. (Even better and less salty – when you can find them – are White Flat Anchovies.)

The Japanese have a word for the other flavor: umami, which translates (albeit loosely) as “good flavor.” Their assertion is that this “savory-ness” is one of the basic tastes your tongue is tuned to receive, along with sweet, and sour. The Japanese have an ingredient they often use to “game” the umami of food: MSG.

Of course, mention MSG to someone and you are likely to get a negative reaction. I’m not here to advocate its use, I avoid the stuff too. If you flip through cookbooks from the fifties and sixties you will see it listed as an ingredient along with salt and pepper. Chances are that Mad Men’s Betty (Draper) Francis has a container of “Accent” meat tenderizer in her cupboard, a product that was comprised mainly of MSG.

Many post-Moo Goo Gai Pan headaches, body aches, and who-knows-how-many-other-physical-maladies-real-or-imagined later, MSG finds itself the subject of the same fear and loathing as saccharine – so much so that most Chinese restaurants post on their menu that they don’t use the stuff.

What’s the big deal? I contend that there is no need for MSG at all; that’s why there are anchovies. As a laboratory for my use of the anchovy as umami ingredient we need go no further than the south of France.

I have a friend who lived in Nice while working for an American computer company. While there, she was turned on to a local specialty called Pissaladière. If you are unfamiliar with Pissaladière, the little slip of paper in your fortune cookie says that this is your lucky day to learn something new.

Quite simply, Pissaladière is an onion tart cross-hatched with anchovies, and dotted with Nicoise olives. Its big buddy is the Pizza. What I love about Pissaladière is that on paper it is a collection of flavors that you and I think of as being fairly aggressive.

But keep in mind that we are talking about food from the Riviera, a resort, a vacation spot, and that is the spirit that pervades the taste of the ingredients: a little laid back compared to their everyday selves. The tone here is harmony.

So while onions are usually spiky, here they have been caramelized to the point of sweet jamminess. The nicoise olives are mere dots that lend their mellow woodiness, and the anchovies are sort of the life of party, lending – yes – their saltiness to counteract the sweetness of the onions, all from the comfy chaise of crunchy pizza dough.

And while the basic ingredients sound simple, this is actually an exercise in blending and layering flavors so that the finished product tastes only like the sum of the parts, yet somehow transformed.

You can find my recipe for Pizza dough here, but caramelized onions are a bit deceptive. It is easy to think of them as just onions, sliced, and sautéed in a pan. Instead, I recommend you think about this less as a vegetable and more as a jam. These onions require a bit of babysitting; the more you stand and stir, the more you will prevent scorching or burning them and the sweeter and suppler they will become. You want silk, not a pile of brown onions. (A teaspoon or two of brown sugar early on – just after the onions have started to look translucent – is a worthy cheat that will yield great results.) Expect to spend about a half hour, perhaps more, “keeping an eye on” the onions.

Pissaladière makes a great hors d’ouevre with a chilled Rosé, or with a salad, as a great main course.

…and it’s a great umami “fix.” Who needs Doritos?


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Life (As We Know It) May Never Be The Same

Olive Rosemary Focaccia

Olive Rosemary Focaccia

Okay, I’ll grant you that my headline is, perhaps, a bit overly dramatic. But for folks who like to cook, it can be fun to find a new product that promises to shake up the game a bit. I imagine fly-fishermen feel this way about new lures (you laugh, but a new lure can make a big difference when you’re standing mid-stream in your waders.)

(What is this: Field and Stream?)

A few months ago I wrote about how much comfort I get from having a stock of pizza dough waiting in my freezer. Go ahead, make fun of me. Chalk it up to some odd food-related neurosis.

A few days ago I went to the freezer and realized that not only was the pizza crust cupboard bare, but I had also run out of yeast. Later, at the supermarket I blindly reached for the yeast in its usual spot and my hand landed on a packet that just didn’t feel right. Upon closer inspection I realized that I had picked up a packet of Fleischmann’s Pizza Crust Yeast – a new product.

I use the term “new product” very loosely to describe any yeast. Even the freshest package of yeast purchased from any supermarket contains the progeny of yeast strains that could be hundreds of years old. (Fleischmann’s dates back to the mid-19th century.) It’s not tough to propagate yeast. It is a very robust single-celled organism.

A few years back a chum bequeathed to me a baggie full of goo. (“Michael, my cherished friend, I present you with this baggie full of goo.” Ahhh, friends!) The bag of goo was actually the “starter” of a yeast coffee cake that was going around like the baking equivalent of a chain letter. I remember that it came with very detailed instructions which required me to feed the starter every day by opening the bag of goo, throwing in some flour, sugar, and water, closing the bag, and then squeezing the bag of goo to mix in the flour, sugar, and water. I had to do this every day for at least a week – I’ve forgotten the actual length of time – and it used to make me think of throwing meat to the lions the Romans kept under the Coliseum that chased slaves for sport. I’m not sure why my mind went there.

Finally after following this exercise for the prescribed length of time I was allowed to bake the cake from the recipe that was also supplied. The cake was very good, but I’m afraid I broke the chain by not putting a small sample of the goo in a fresh baggie and passing it along to someone. By that point everyone I knew had been “yeasted.”

But what I was doing with the baggie was propagating the yeast. Commercial yeast is grown using basically the same technique. The difference is that when you buy the little packets of yeast in the supermarket they have cleaned away everything but the yeast.

Okay, back to me standing in the baking aisle of the supermarket, holding the Pizza Crust Yeast. “Hmmm,” thought I, “Does it make the pizza taste different?” Reading the package, I learned that taste isn’t the focus of this new product, rather, convenience – time – is the focus. The concept is that you can now make pizza dough from scratch without having to wait for the dough to rise. By adding some dough relaxers and conditioners to the yeast packet, Fleischmann’s promises that you will immediately be able to roll out a 12” pizza crust without fighting the “snap-back” which happens when the gluten in the crust doesn’t allow you to shape the crust without it snapping back.

I think this warrants a session in the Butter Flour Eggs Food Laboratory, don’t you?

As much as I love pizza, I thought for the purposes of testing that I needed to make the crust without sauce and cheese so that I could really compare the crusts – taste and texture – unadorned. But that sounded kind of dull, so as a compromise I decided to make a simple Olive and Rosemary Focaccia.

I started with the Pizza Crust Yeast. The recipe and instructions on the Pizza Crust Yeast are geared towards a strictly manual process, i.e., a wooden spoon and a bowl or two. My first experiment was to see how well it would do in a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. The answer? Fine, although using their recipe yields a sticky dough which makes cleaning the bowl of the mixer a bit of a task, but not bad enough to raise any flags. Yes, the dough was extremely compliant when being shaped into the pan, happily settling itself into the corners.

The resulting Focaccia was a bit sweet, had a very cakey texture, and the crust was missing the tooth-shattering crunch I like. This actually wasn’t a bad thing. The Focaccia reminded me a bit of King’s Hawaiian Bread. While it didn’t make a great Focaccia, it did get my imagination going on other things I could make using the same technique. A fast yeast coffee ring came to mind first, but then my mind went to other combinations, including Honey-Whole Wheat bread sticks, and Breakfast Pizza (bake the crust first, then top with eggs and sweet sausage, and return to the oven to bake.)

I’ll experiment further, and publish the results when I come up with something good. In the meantime, some folks may like the sweet, cakey Focaccia, so you’ll find that recipe here. It was certainly fast and easy, and I’ll be curious to see how the yeast performs in my pizza recipe which uses much less sugar and a bit more flour. By the way, bread is out of the question. Fleischmann’s advises that the product is not suited to bread baking.

The other Focaccia, based on my usual pizza crust recipe was, by nature, a lengthier project. I think I’ll stick with it for now. The aforementioned crunch of the crust, plus the slightly fermented, yeastier flavor that are the results of the longer rise are what I like about Pizza and Focaccia.

But I like this “new” yeast. Anything that gets folks into the kitchen baking with and for their family gets my vote.

Sorry. Life as we know it is still very much the same. But the thought of making a quick yeast coffee cake will keep me going.


Click here for my recipes for Olive and Rosemary Focaccia.


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