Monday, May 21, 2012

The Pizza Dough FAQ

Previously I figured that to make real pizza dough I needed to plan around making the dough and letting it rise.  I typically went about this by using a breadmaker, but it was tiresome to start the dough an hour and half (or so) before making the pizza for dinner.  It was more of chore than anything else and the results were usually less than stellar.  Kind of accidentally I came across this no-rise pizza dough recipe that I've now been using for years:
http://recipes.robbiehaf.com/T/272.htm
The trick is priming the yeast and just stirring it into the flour.  The resulting product actually tastes much better than the risen variety which has a knack for tasting too much like bread instead of pizza crust.  I'm lucky in that the hot water comes out of my tap at just the right temperature, but before I had discovered this I used a thermometer to figure out the proper microwave time needed to bring cold water up to the proper temperature.

The recipe works great but I have several caveats.  One big fault with this recipe is that it doesn't give a weight for the amount of flour, so your results may be inconsistent when not performing the kneading step that I mention in the next paragraph.  I'll also point out that I use this recipe on both a 16" and 14" pan (I've never done the 12" that's inferred in the recipe).  The 16" comes out pretty thin and the 14" a bit thicker (obviously), however...

Whenever I make the recipe the dough comes out wet so I knead flour* into the dough until it doesn't stick to anything (continually flouring hands and work surface as the flour gets absorbed).  This usually adds another quarter cup or so of flour to the dough (this step is required for the 16" pan).  After kneading I'll put the dough in a bowl that has a little bit of olive oil in it and let it rest for about ten to fifteen minutes so that the dough is workable (otherwise it's like trying to stretch a rubber band out over the pizza pan).  I should note though that Mrs. Sandmich and Sally like the recipe as printed, but the dough is really hard to work with, like a ball of half congealed Elmer's glue.  If you can get it down into the pan (probably using oiled dough and hands), the crust will come out thinner and crispier, if...

I use a two phased approach where I put the pizza in the pan and put the pan on a hot stone that's been preheating in the oven.  So after the pizza has been in the pan sitting on the stone for about six minutes or so (when the dough is done enough not to fall apart) I then transfer the pizza directly to the stone using a metal pizza peal (obviously with some oil in the pan to help it to keep from sticking).  I would suppose a good alternative might be to use one of those pans that has the holes in it, but I've never used those so I can't speak to their effectiveness.  If you cook it in a regular pan with no pizza stone, the pizza will come out as if it was cooked on a giant slice of lightly toasted bread.  I got around this on occasion by putting the pan right on the bottom of the oven for the last minute or so, but your timing has to be impeccable: it worked great a few times, but I gave up on it after burning three pizzas in a row**.

Some other notes:

  • She says to use a "heavy spoon", but I use a wooden spatula.
  • Reading over past missives, it looks like at one point in time I would put a tablespoon of olive oil into the water/yeast mix.  I'm not sure why I got away from this as it really helped the dough as I recall (made it easier to work with and added a level of internal fried crispiness to the crust).***
  • I make a crazy amount of pizzas (Sunday and/or Saturday is usually pizza day, but the crust is so easy to make that I've cranked it out for dinner during the week on the odd occasion) so I keep a big container of yeast instead of packets.  I measure it out to about two and half teaspoons of yeast instead of using the packets.
  • Your skills might be better than mine, but I've never been able to do the 'wooden peal' method where you make the pizza and then slide it right onto the stone.
  • When not using a stone (maybe using the 'bottom of the oven' method), I transfer the pizza to cardboard, otherwise moisture will build up under the crust and make it soggy.
Why this recipe is cool:
  • After a bit of practice this pizza can be cranked out faster than a pizza can be acquired from a local pizza shop, especially if you're having it delivered.
  • It's easy to change up the cheeses and toppings so the variety is much better than a pizza shop as well (ruben, chicken BBQ, and cheesesteak pizzas are constant favorites).
  • It can be cheaper (not by much mind you).
What might not be appealing:
  • If you want something besides pepperoni there's going to be a bit of prep involved.  Vegetables, especially mushrooms, should be precooked.
  • The inevitable kitchen mess.
  • It can be more expensive (putting higher end cheese, sausage, and bacon on the pizza can lead to some sticker shock).
*I no longer do this.  I make the dough in my kitchen aid using a bread hook and work flour into the dough until it no longer sticks to the sides of the mixer.  If it already isn't sticking I just let it run until the dry pieces are absorbed.  I can double the recipe pretty easy in my normal sized Kitchen Aid, three is possible at lower speeds but no more than that.  This method also has the advantage of not kneading the dough as the mixer is constantly tearing it apart so the dough doesn't have to "rest" as long (if at all).

**Another strategy that I've used in the past is to put the dough in the pan, poke many holes in it with a fork and then pre-cook it before assembling the pizza, as even on the lower oven shelves with the thinnest pan the toppings will be done well before the crust gets crispy.  However I consider this a non-starter as the crust usually turns out lobsided and it still doesn't get crispy as the moisture gets trapped between the dough and the pan and the crust winds up self-steaming for however long you leave it in there.

***I still don't add oil to the mix, oh well.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Radio Notes

Could broadcast radio get any worse?  I keep getting this post half written and then the owners of the radio stations shuffle up the formatting (for the worse) in order to double their listener audience from one to two.

A fun example from a few years ago was when Clear Channel made their staff at 106.5 listen to Christmas music for two straight months and as a thanks for their tolerating listening to Michael Jackson's 'Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' 500 times the corporate conglomerate fired the lot of them and replaced their "Top 40 with 80s" format with a 'throw everything on the wall and see what sticks' strategy.  (They actually changed it further, letting listeners pick "anything" to be played on the station.  "Anything" of course is limited to the same meager pile of 500 songs that their computer was going to cycle through anyway).

Then there's the local FM station of talking jackasses, and when the jackasses aren't talking you can bet that they're playing a song by AliceinchainsMetalicaAcdcMotleycrew.  Or then there's the FM sports talk channel which is notable for being the best thing on half the time.  Anyway, it's slim pickens so I typically listen to the iPod in the Fit, but in the Kia we have satellite radio.

We had Sirius when we had first gotten the vehicle (for free, Sirius, not the car unfortunately) and I liked it okay; however, it's Mrs. Sandmiches car and she never listened to it so we let it lapse.  Of course it wasn't but a few months later that Sirius began trying to get us back in the fold and eventually they gave us an offer we couldn't refuse.  It's still okay, but in their effort to cram in more channels they have compressed the audio streams to within an inch of their lives.  What was once near CD quality is now somewhere around FM quality (so long as what you're listening to doesn't bust out of the bandwidth channel and you get a hollow, tinny sound approaching AM quality).  I guess it's worth it though for the 'Chill' channel if nothing else, though the SiriusXMU had this great tune that I ended picking up:


Despite it's flaws, combing through Sirius is still easier than combing through the local college radio channels (which, Cleveland has several good ones, when you can tune them in).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Video Game Roundup

It's been a while, so let's catch up...

Y's: The Ark of Napishtim

Good Enough for Cosplay
The thing about most Final Fantasy games is that some trick is required to beat them.  Whether it's unlocking hidden weapons (7,10), holding on to every super potion found in the game (12), or going in with a specific configuration that the boss is susceptible to (the rest, except for 8), it doesn't matter how much you "grind" your characters as you will have your ass handed to you on a plate if you didn't check Gamefaqs before walking past the last save point.

I played this Y's game on the PSP to satisfy my JRPG jonesin' while (for the most part) traveling, so it took some time to get through.  Being a portable title it's a little shorter than a full blown console game and it pads the game time with a merciless "grind".  Beating the same monsters over and over and over (and over) will be required to get past the dungeons (though oddly enough, not most of the bosses), but the game is fair.  After I had "grinded" my character to the limit I was rewarded with the ability to put the royal smack down on the baddies at the end.  For a portable game the music is top notch while the art and story are a reminder of a time gone by.  Three sandmiches for being a fun trip, minus two for hand cramps and that stupid wasp boss who was harder than the final boss and had to be fought twice!

Uncharted 3

Nolan North isn't just a Nathan Drake fan, he is Nathan Drake
I got caught up on this review because it's hard to add anything to the discussion of this game.  This was one of the few titles that I paid list for and also one of the few titles that I sucked up all the DLC for.  The single player game astounds with the visuals, but it feels like a set-piece exercise compared to the second title ("I made a level in a shipyard!"; "Good, write that into the story.").  Going in I figured it would be hard for this game to beat it's predecessor in terms of Uncharted 2's great story, amazing art and well done characters and the third game certainly met that low expectation!  If you're looking for a great single player game, I'd still go for the second title obviously, but the main reason I bought this was so that Kid Sandmich and I could play the co-op multiplayer.

The multiplayer in '3' is much improved and includes a variety of upgrades and locals to keep us busy.  We only played competitive multiplayer once, out of fear of the borg gamers out there, but even that was a blast as it was obvious none of the other players (who are paired off) were playing together on the same couch.  Four sandmiches for another outstanding title, minus one for thinking it could be as good as '2'.

SSX

It's difficult to put into words how big of a fan I was of the original SSX (12 years old! A Playstation 2 launch title) and then SSX 3.  The original SSX featured (among other things) an unlockable non-competitive open ended map featuring a great track from Hybrid (That video is worth checking out not only for the great tune, but the visuals from a game that was probably the best looking launch title on the PS2).  SSX 3 had the great outlandish characters cranked up, a great soundtrack and even better visuals; along with an amazing unlockable track down the mountain which combined the best race tracks into a 25 minute jaunt down the mountain (with no load lines!).

Somewhere in the development of the new SSX game, the developers managed to suck the fun out and replace it with an aggravating snowboard based platformer.  Make no mistake, it looks great and it handles great, and while not on a par with SSX 3, the soundtrack is acceptable.  Where it shines though is in the passive multiplayer.  I have several "friends" on my list (these are people I do not know), and some of them are noticeably inferior to my O-K SSX skills; so when I find that they've beaten one of my times, it's "game on".  I will sit for far too much time mastering the line on a course so that I can earn fake SSX bucks and provide the same level of aggregation to a player who had the audacity to beat my score.  As well, although I haven't gotten to that point yet, this the one game that I own where a platinum trophy is in the realm of feasibility.  Three and a half sandmiches, minus one and a half for sucking the life out of the colorful characters and maps, and for designing levels with swiss cheese like meshes in which your racer can become trapped.

Final Fantasy: Crisis Core

Also good enough for cosplay
It's difficult to talk about this game without giving spoilers to the game that it is a prequel to: Final Fantasy 7.  The problem is that it's a bit of a mystery who would play this outside of people who are at least vaguely familiar with 7.  The game is made for the PSP, which has no trouble outshining the crude PS1 visuals of Final Fantasy 7.  HDish locals and characters from the original game make appearances much to the delight of fans.  For those who love eco-pago-Christianity, you're in for another heaping serving of that as well!

That being said, the game is one of the better, if not best, Final Fantasy RPG off-shoots.  The "grind" is contained within missions, so I never felt like I was pointlessly wandering the map in a never ending effort to level up.  The missions might get to be a 'grind' as well, but they feature character appearances, great loot, and fun monsters.

While playing this game on my cheap PSP, a game that featured fully voiced cutscenes, a deep story, and long and engaging gameplay, a guy next to me while I was on a plane was playing this POS on his several hundred dollar iPad (I'd seen the game before because Kid Sandmich talked it up on his iPod).  My game design buddy thinks it's inevitable that the iStuff will reach FF:CC levels of gameplay, but none other than one of the execs at Unreal (who made one of the best iStuff games) thinks that won't happen because games have trouble cracking the dollar, let alone ten dollar price tag on the app store and that at least for the time being there is no market for a $30-$60 iStuff game that can amount to something more.

Anyway, four and half sandmiches for FF:CC, a great portable game that makes those long trips melt away, but losing a half a point for that somewhat grating storyline.