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Tips, Tricks and Useful Tidbits

In response to my earlier post on making homemade pizza with The Best Pizza Dough You Didn’t Make, my buddy and I got into an interesting discussion about pizza stones.  While our conversation centered mainly around topic number 4 below, I thought I’d share my entire collection of thoughts re: pizza stones for those who may be interested.
1. Why use one: Crispy, crunchy, gloriously crusty crusts! They do wonders for frozen, leftover, and fresh pizza alike.  They also work well for reheating soggy leftover sandwiches, burgers, french fries, etc.  A lot of people like to use them for baking cookies, biscuits, scones, etc. in order to achieve a lovely crusty bottom. Personally, I don’t like the idea of alternating between sweet and savory uses due to the residue that naturally collects on the stone, but that’s just me!
2. How to use one: To optimize effectiveness, you must do two things: preheat it and keep it naked. A cold stone is totally ineffective, so make sure the stone is already in the oven when you turn it on to preheat. (In fact, I just keep my stone in the oven on the bottom shelf all the time – it’s kind of heavy and cumbersome to keep having to move it around, and it does just fine hanging out in the oven). The second, yet equally crucial, component of effective stone usage is that your food must be placed directly on the surface of the hot stone. Do not place a layer of anything between your food the stone – no foil, no parchment paper, nada. You should lightly oil the stone the first few times you use it to prevent sticking (after the first few uses, the stone absorbs enough oil to where you won’t need to do this anymore). But otherwise, there should be not a blessed thing between your food and your stone. It has something to do with the magic of science and the hot porous stone sucking away excess moisture.
3.  Where to get one: I’ve been using this one (available on Amazon) since 2007 with great results. I bought my first one 4 years ago; it cracked after 3 years of residence in the bottom of my oven, and the identical version that I replaced it with is still going strong: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000297YAS/ref=wms_ohs_product_img_T2
4.  My thoughts on Alton Brown’s substitutes: Once upon a time, back when I was in law school, I watched an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown recommended using an “unglazed quarry stone tile” as a cheap and easily accessible substitute to a storebought pizza stone. I promptly went to my neighborhood Home Depot to collect such a tile and test this theory out. Except…I couldn’t figure out which tile was the right kind of stone/slate/material. There were SO many types, and not a single one was called an “unglazed quarry stone tile.” Asking the employees yielded no illumination, especially when I made the mistake of telling them what I was using it for. I finally sort of just closed my eyes and picked one, brought it home, scrubbed it down, and tentatively tried to bake a little pizza on it. I honestly can’t tell you whether it turned out okay or not. All I remember is images flashing through my mind of the dirty, dusty piles of tiles at the hardware store where I’d gotten this one from. In the end, I was so freaked out by the idea of cooking with and eating off of something that had come from a dirty hardware storeroom, and that had never been intended (and therefore treated in any way) for use with food, that I just chucked it and called it a day. Since then, I’ve been using the $15-$20 iterations mentioned above with great results. So I say, why take the risk? Spend a few extra bucks and buy a stone that was intended, cleaned, and treated for cooking purposes. Not a chunk of rock (or, as Alton is apparently recommending nowadays, a piece of terra cotta pottery) that’s traveled through lord knows how many layers of dust, dirt, and grime from trucks, storerooms, and showroom floors, and been exposed to heaven only knows what sorts of chemicals and substances. I think peace of mind and a painless tummy are well worth the extra $14, don’t you?
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A lot of recipes call for melting chocolate (whether alone or  with a buddy – butter, sugar, etc.) using a double boiler or similarly-rigged setup, like so:

My friends, I’m here to say, why bother with all that fuss when a microwave works just as well?

Now keep in mind, I’m not one to sacrifice quality for the sake a few less dishes to wash. I DO value efficiency and take shortcuts whenever I can, but ONLY if said shortcuts do not make any discernible difference to the final outcome of the dish. And melting chocolate in the microwave is, in my book, a perfectly acceptable shortcut.

So here’s my tried-and-true method:

1. Zap in 20- to 30-second increments.

2. This one’s crucial: MAKE SURE TO STIR THE MIXTURE BETWEEN EACH ZAPPING. Stir until everything is combined and nothing seems to be changing anymore, usually a minute or less. If the result is not yet a smoothly melted mixture, continue with the next zapping.

3. You want to stop zapping BEFORE the mixture has completely melted. You should attain the smooth finished product by stirring the nearly-almost-but-not-quite melted mixture vigorously, allowing the residual heat to finish the melting. Do NOT try to let the microwave finish the melting – you run a very high risk of scorching this way (see below.)

Two things to look out for when melting chocolate: scorching and seizing.

Scorching is a fancy word for burning. Scorched chocolate sucks. It’s gross and smelly and unsalvageable. Very sad. Carefully following the advice in steps two and three will prevent scorching. Each time you stir, you’re allowing the residual heat to do some of the work, you’re cooling the mixture a little to prevent overheating, and you’re distributing the heat evenly to ensure that there are no hot spots that could develop into scorchment. I definitely just made that word up.

Seizing is a fairly icky phenomenon that occurs when a little bit of excess water gets into the chocolate you are trying to melt. It yields a lumpy, unappetizing mess – but fortunately, it IS salvageable! If your chocolate seizes up, just stir in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, shortening, or cream (basically anything seriously fatty) per 6 ounces of chocolate over low heat. Et voila, your chocolate will be good as new. More or less. Or you could just avoid getting any water in it in the first place. Just sayin’.

One of my favorite cake-decorating techniques is the simple swirl. You can play with all sorts of variations on it, and it looks like it was a LOT more difficult to accomplish than it actually is. Always a plus in my book!

Begin by frosting your cake with a white or light-colored base – cream cheese or vanilla frostings would be the likeliest candidates. I imagine a swiss meringue buttercream would work well, but I’d be wary of trying a whipped cream or straight meringue as the base for this because they might be too delicate to withstand the swirling process. But if anyone gives it a try, please let me know how it works out for you!

For the swirl, you want to choose something that is deeply colored – either really bright, like a red jam, or super dark, like chocolate ganache.  You could go for a more subtle effect by choosing something that doesn’t pop as much, i.e. a creamy coffee frosting or a sunny lemon curd. But generally, that “wow” factor is created by the stark contrast between the background and the swirl.

You also want to work with something that is somewhat runny in consistency. Not completely liquid, or you’ll end up with a giant mess. But if it’s too solid, like a stiff jam, then it will be difficult to obtain optimal swirliness. If using something on the stiffer side, like a jelly or caramel, I recommend warming it up before using it to swirl. Don’t get it too hot, or you’ll melt your frosting base and, again, end up with a giant mess. Just warm enough so it’s nice and runny. If necessary, add a little water or milk to thin it out.

To create the swirl design, pipe thin, parallel stripes of your swirling substance across your cake. Depending on the swirl-to-base ratio you’re looking for, you can also pipe perpendicular stripes across the cake, creating a crosshatch pattern. The thickness and proximity of your stripes can be altered according to the desired swirl-to-base ratio as well. (See? Lots of room for variation!)

Once your stripes are laid out, use a toothpick or the tip of a small knife and cut stripes across the cake vertically, horizontally, and on both diagonals. Behold, the result of this technique on a cream cheese base swirled with vertical stripes (NOT a vertical-horizontal crosshatch) of raspberry jam  :

Or, if you’re fairly confident in your swirling abilities, go nuts and create a free-form swirl pattern all your own!

Here’s a more free-form version of the technique that I did using a crosshatch of  thin chocolate ganache swirled into a cream cheese frosting base.  The ganache was really pretty runny, which elevated the swirls to a lovely marbling effect:

Another free-form edition – this one is a crosshatch of caramel au beurre sale (salted butter caramel) swirled into a sweetened sour cream base:

Go nuts!

So I went through a major pizza-making phase back when I was in law school. I tend to go through phases like this fairly regularly: I get obsessed with making and mastering one particular – and generally somewhat complicated – thing and using it in as many ways as possible. Past phases have included marshmallows, fresh pasta, and vanilla extract. The most recent phase was caramelized pecans, but I think this weekend’s adventure has replaced that with homemade tortillas. But I digress.

So when I went through this pizza-making phase, I perfected (imho) my red sauce recipe and acquired a pizza stone and pizza peel. That’s right, I don’t mess around. But the one thing I couldn’t master was making the actual dough – it was just too time consuming and difficult to work with for me to truly master it.

But, my copious reading on the subject (my phases always include copious reading) led me to a wonderful little tip that I realize not too many people are aware of: you can just buy balls of pizza dough from your favorite local pizzeria! It NEVER occurred to me to even ask before reading this tip, but now it seems perfectly obvious. Of COURSE you can buy dough from pizzerias – they have it on hand, so why not?

Here are all the reasons why buying dough from your favorite local pie shop is AWESOME:

1. The stuff keeps well in the fridge and freezes fantastically, so it’s great to keep on hand for quick weeknight dinners. If you’re supercool, you can roll it out into disks before popping it into the fridge/freezer, and then you’ll REALLY be good to go on a moment’s notice.

2. Usually they’ll sell you the same-sized ball that they use to make their pies, so you don’t have to deal with figuring out portion sizes. Just divide into individual- or family-sized portions, drop in ziploc bags and toss in the fridge or freezer (depending on when you’re planning to use them. I find that my handy bench scraper (pictured below) is the best tool for dividing up dough.

3. It’s really cheap. ($2-$4 for a ball of dough big enough to feed a family of 4)

4. Top with your homemade sauce and fresh toppings of choice, and you can have a MUCH healthier dinner than any take-out, delivery, or frozen option can provide. Controlling your toppings means controlling the amount of fattening and/or preservative-laden crap that goes on top. And of course, ramps up the tastiness factor significantly.

5. Few things are as mouth-watering as the smell of fresh pizza baking in the oven. No way can take-out, delivery, or frozen options compete in the deliciousness category.

Sometimes, I come across a product in my kitchen, and I think to myself, “Surely this has more uses for it than just the one or two that I bought it for…right?”

Waxed paper is definitely one of those products. It’s pretty much ubiquitous in kitchens of all varieties, from the busiest professional kitchen to the tiniest of home kitchens. I figured there must be more to it than a good way to keep my cakes from sticking to their pans – and boy was I right! Check out this link for a long list of the many uses of this super-product:

http://www.cookingvillage.com/cv/kw/tiptionary_results/0,1755,sLang%3Dus&sLet%3DW&iSCat%3D545,00.html

But remember, waxed paper WILL smoke and burn if used simply as a baking sheet; its uses in the oven are limited to those that protect it from direct exposure to the heat of the oven. So don’t try to bake your next batch of cookies on it!