Shapeless Pizza, but a Choc-Full of Taste! January 30, 2010



I know what you’re thinking.  Your reaction to this picture is, "that’s a bizarre shape for a pizza!" 

I admit.  I struggled with the dough.  It behaved atrociously, and no matter what I did, it rebelled.  No amount of coaxing or cajoling could turn it round or rectangular.  It wouldn’t budge.  I think it was a miracle I managed to make it stay open so I could quickly shove in the toppings before it went berserk on me again.  This pizza dough – made from scratch – was wet, sticky and unwieldy.  I was tempted to chuck it.

Then someone whispered in my ear that people were starving elsewhere so decided against it.  With all the patience I could harness, I caressed it with pizza sauce, sprinkled it generously with thinly sliced green peppers, mushrooms, salami/prosciutto, dressed it up with mozzarella and then dribbled a few drops of hot pepper sauce.

What happened after that?  This pizza was a true, certified gourmet delight.  Mouth watering – and I’m not exaggerating!

When it came out of the oven, I set it on the table while I prepared a green salad.  When I sank my teeth into it, my taste buds were suddenly energized.  It was oozing with taste, I forgot that infamous struggle earlier.  Think of a pizza baked in a makeshift brick or stone oven at the back of a country home in an old Italian countryside.  Yes, it tasted that way.  To use an oft-repeated phrase – it was to die for!

Home, home on the range.  What an accidentally delicious pizza that landed on my plate!

I can think of at least three good reasons why this pizza came out a winner:

  • I added some sourdough starter.  They say using a small amount of sourdough starter injects it with extra flavor.  It is certainly much, much better than store-bought pizzas.  You know how some commercial pizzas taste like cardboard?
  • The dough recipe was a combination of semolina, rye and all-purpose flour.
  • The baking stone and the high heat

While this pizza deserved flying colors for taste and flavor, I suspect that the sourdough starter may have contributed to the dough being unmanageable.  Was high hydration the culprit (my starter is 100% hydration)?  Should I reduce the amount of water when using a starter?

Second, I’m not exactly sure that setting the oven temperature at 475 degrees (F) is a good idea.  Some experts say that the baking stone combined with high heat will yield the ideal crust.  I have my doubts.  I’d much rather set the oven at 350 degrees and bake it for an additional 7-10 minutes – for a total baking time of 20 minutes.  Broiling the pizza for two minutes on high is also a good idea.  Most of the recipes I’ve come across recommend 475 degrees for 8-10 minutes, depending on the crust’s thickness.  Next time I’ll pre-heat the oven at that temperature and then reduce the heat to 350 as soon as the pizza goes in.

The first pizza dough had rye, semolina and all-purpose unbleached flours.  The second one had organic bread flour and all-purpose unbleached.  I used my starter in both cases.  The first pizza with the three flours was a lot more flavorful.  The semolina gives the crust a nutty taste with excellent crunchiness.

Now that I’ve learned to make pizza dough from scratch, it’s going to be hard for me to buy commercial pizza again.  As soon as I find the right blend to make the dough more pliable, I’ll make batches and freeze them (they will hold well in the freezer for up to two weeks).

Here’s a tip from the experts:  less is more.  This means don’t smother your pizza with pizza sauce and use more than 3-4 toppings (cheese and sauce excluded).  They say there must be a good balance of the sauce, cheese and toppings.  Let the cheese and toppings come out in their full flavor, without one encroaching on the other.

Other possible combinations:  chopped spinach with goat cheese, basil leaves and spicy sausage, grilled eggplant, asparagus and palm hearts.

How about just cheese?  Whatever your heart desires.  But be a convert to "pizza from scratch."


For my 1st Sourdough, this ain’t bad! January 27, 2010

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to learn how to make sourdough bread, an intimidating experience because you can’t make it until you’ve succeeded in building your starter.  Some make their starters with minimum effort – their starters come alive after just a few days, while others have a hard time getting that wild yeast to “go and multiply”.  You can read my previous post on how I made mine.  The image I posted shows what a healthy starter  looks like, ready for use (usually after 7-10 days):

I didn’t want to use my starter right away even if experts encourage using it as soon as it’s ready.  I put mine in the fridge after it became bubbly and frothy and left it there, feeding it once a week.  I wanted to make sure that the sour taste of sourdough would be there; I had read that initial attempts to make breads with sourdough starters won’t yield that sour taste because it  takes time, practice and skill. 

I waited four weeks before trying my first recipe – Norwich Sourdough – introduced by Susan in her Wild Yeast blog ( She adapted it based on Jeff Hamelman’s Vermont sourdough.  She has other recipes on there and I’ll be trying my luck with them this year.

I don’t know if I mentioned this on my previous post, but some starters have been handed down from one generation to the next.  Don’t be surprised if someone says that her starter is 25 years old!  Starters are like family heirlooms. 

The wait was well worth it.  I didn’t come out with a masterpiece that will give the world’s boulangers a run for their money, but for my very first try, I was delighted at the outcome.

sourdough post

  Over at the Fresh Loaf (, those with considerable sourdough  experience judge their breads in terms of:  (a)  flavor, (b) crust, (c) crumb, and (d) scoring.  Master bakers like Peter Reinhart and Jeff Hamelman also use these criteria when they give instructions on how to come up with a close to perfect sourdough.

I have only admiration for those who churn out perfect and flawless boules, bâtards, miches and baguettes! 

Using these same criteria, how would I rate my Norwich Sourdough?  The report card which I posted on The Fresh Loaf is reproduced here:

score card

Most sourdough enthusiasts agree that the more holes your sourdough bread has, the better.  As you can see from my bread slice, my sourdough doesn’t have many. In time I’ll figure out how to get more holes:  is it (a) higher hydration, (b) more stretch and folds, or (c) both?  Opinions vary.  The only way for me to find out is to stop asking questions on forums (because for every question, I’m likely to get 11 answers) and start experimenting. 

The flavor of this Norwich sourdough was outstanding, and I gave my crust a good score (it could be better).  My crumb – whoa – could use more work.  It had that chewy and dense texture.  I prefer sourdough breads with that  “airhead” quality.

As for scoring, that’s the least of my worries right now, although from discussions I’ve read, good scoring skills would enhance the appearance of your bread.  What happened to my Norwich sourdough bread was I was too ambitious with my lame (blade), and slashed my bread more than was necessary.  As people say, there’s a trick to slashing; I have to get the hang of positioning my blade at the right angle.

Another thing:  when I baked this sourdough bread, I thought I could get by without bannetons.  Big mistake.  Because sourdough bread needs to go through a long proofing process, bannetons are indispensable.

Off to the store…again!


Think "Soft" and "Wheat" are Contradictions? January 23, 2010

Filed under: Breads — sotsil @ 5:32 pm
Tags: , , ,

Not these wheat buns which I made last week. 

wheat buns1

I had close to a bag full of whole wheat flour and thought it was time I used some before it turned stale.  Since I started baking 11 months ago, I’ve been hesitant to make rolls with wheat because I was afraid they wouldn’t have that tender texture that white dough bread recipes are known for.

I took an old recipe which I posted some months back:  This called for white flour.  To vary it, I substituted the white flour with whole wheat flour and combined it with an equal amount of cake and pastry flour.  I also threw in 1/4 cup of potato flakes and 1/4 cup of almond powder.  Some bakers make pastry with mashed potatoes to make them ultra soft and flaky, but I opted for potato flakes so I could skip two steps (boiling and mashing).

These wheat buns did not disappoint.  They stayed soft until the third day without refrigeration.  I put about 6 buns in the freezer.

You can hardly taste the almond powder.  I think I won’t add this ingredient the next time.  I will also take out the bread crumbs as a topping and substitute the matte finish of the egg wash with a more glossy finish.  A wash made of egg yolk and 15% cream would yield that shiny look.

Critics will say I negated the benefits of whole wheat by adding cake and pastry flour.  I’m afraid I can’t resist this flour, even for making breads.  Truth is, I don’t use it to make pastry (since most recipes call for all-purpose anyway); I use it every time a bread recipe contains wheat flour.

You’ll welcome these to your breakfast table.  They go nicely with an egg salad filling mixed in with bacon bits or just your blueberry or strawberry jam.  You may want to try it with goat cheese as well!  For a more attractive appearance, you can also use a bread stamp (the petal bread stamp would make these wheaties a tad sexier) or slash them artistically!

wheat rolls2


Stale Croissants? No Problem! January 18, 2010

What do you do with stale bread?  Make a pudding.  What do you do with stale or leftover croissants?  Again, make a pudding!

cran pudding2

I can’t think of any other way to recycle bread and baked goods.  Of course I can always reduce them to bite sized pieces and throw them into my favorite soup but I like my soups unadulterated!

My brother and I enjoyed this pudding.  One, it did not need any syrup.  Two, the croissants produced a lighter and flakier pudding as opposed to using bread; although this texture is apparent only when the pudding comes out fresh from the oven.  Three, there are only 5-6 ingredients and you most likely have them already.  Four, you can make this pudding with store-bought croissants if you have no leftovers.  The ones I bought were from Mourelatos, a Greek supermarket in my city, and they were huge.  These croissants did not feel greasy or over-buttery and when I sliced them, they had nice little holes in the crumb – a good sign!

When you refrigerate the pudding and eat it again the next morning, it loses a bit of that flaky and light texture but the taste is more enhanced because the cranberry seeps in.  After you take a slice, break it again into thinner slices before  microwaving.  Nuked for 22 seconds, it tastes heavenly.  There’s something about cranberries in baked goods that I can’t put my finger on.  It’s one item that I will always keep in stock; sometimes I think they taste better than raisins.

But don’t let me mislead you.  The recipe calls for cranberry sauce – not fresh cranberries.  You spread it generously over the first layer of broken croissant pieces.  When you put your second layer of croissants, you can top it with a handful of dried cranberries for decoration.

If you want to make this pudding (great for cold winter mornings), you can get it here:  This is my other blog on French to English translation, and this was the first recipe I featured when I translated French recipes into English.  I plucked it out of Coup de Pouce, a French Canadian weekly published by the Transcontinental Group of Companies.  I did not use 6 croissants.  I used only 3 and halved the recipe.  Once they’re sliced, they adequately fill up a 8 x 11 casserole with two layers.

Seeing that this recipe is both in French and English, your daughter who’s studying French and who likes to bake might want to try it; this time, she won’t need her bilingual dictionary.  But she will need the croissants, cranberries and the other ingredients!

Want to see what a slice looked like before I devoured it, along with piping hot French mocha coffee and cold grapefruit juice?

cranb pudding3

Fattening and swimming in calories?  Yes but…who cares?


Big Story Behind These Thin Crisps: Toronto’s ACE Bakery January 14, 2010


Resembling miniature slices of sourdough bread, these crisps are baked by Toronto’s ACE Bakery on Hafis Street.  This bakery prides itself in using only organic and natural ingredients for their breads – all 36 of them.

And here I thought Montreal enjoyed the monopoly of the best breads in all of Canada!  Not that I’m narrow-minded or parochial, but Montreal has always been known for its corner boulangeries and cafés.  So once in awhile I need to remind myself that good Canadian bread can be found in places other than Montreal.

I had never heard of ACE Bakery before and that’s probably because I don’t subscribe to the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star.  I’m sure these dailies have covered them, considering that the owners, Martin Connell and Lynda Haynes, are active in promoting social causes not only in their community but also in underprivileged countries.

How did I get to know about ACE even without a subscription to Toronto’s major newspapers?  Loblaws!

I was going to Loblaws to pick up a bag of organic rye flour by La Milanaise of Quebec.  As I passed the fried chicken and fries section, a fragile-looking metal stand with slim and fat white boxes caught my eye. I looked more closely.  I mulled over the word "Artisan"  printed on the boxes.  The simple and unpretentious packaging of the product finally convinced me that I ought to try their potato chives crisps.  Also on display were their grains which I was also tempted to buy, but I remembered that I still had cereals and grains in my cupboard.  "Another time," I muttered.

I was not only eager to taste the crisps but I was also intrigued by the company and made a note to google them when I got home.


The ACE web site was an eye-opener.  The company has an impressive list of signature breads and the owners have interesting profiles.  Martin Connell and Lynda Haynes have received awards and honours from the Canadian government for their humanitarian work and contributions to Toronto society.  Ms Haynes has written two books.  In 2003, ACE was named Toronto’s best bakery by the Toronto Star’s Eaters’ Choice Awards and the best supplier to hotels and restaurants (Pinnacle Awards).

And get this – Philip Shaw, formerly of LaBrea Bakery of Los Angeles – became ACE’s CEO in 2006 (LaBrea I knew of, having watched some of Nancy Silverton’s videos on sourdough starters).

In many ways, the story of ACE Bakery has inspired me.  I was moved by the owners’ efforts in helping fund food and nutrition programs for low-income earners and how they donate their pre-tax profits to an organization called Calmeadow.  It was founded by Martin Connell to offer credit and financing to micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries.

These days when we think of how entrepreneurial talent is transformed into community service, ACE would probably stand out as a shining example.  I’ve read so many wonderful success stories but the example of Connell and Haynes reminds me that bread possesses a sort of goodness and wholesomeness that transcend taste.

If you could use a bit of inspiration, please read the ACE story.  Go to

No, I don’t know the owners, have never met them and I have not been asked to endorse their bakery in any way.  Why would they need endorsements?  They’re made!  And if you want to tease your palate in addition to the inspiration, head straight for their list of breads.

Just thinking – I’d give anything to get a culinary scholarship and work in their kitchen if the time was right. 

Torontonians, you ought to be proud of your award-winning bakery.  Canada, the US and the Bahamas are enjoying what comes out of its wood ovens already.


Not Another Macaroni Salad, You Say! January 10, 2010

Now that I’ve been blogging about food for nearly seven months, it comes more naturally.  The inspiration hasn’t diminished and I’m an eager beaver when it comes to sharing recipes.  But this is one post where I hesitated because an inner voice kept taunting me, “oh c’mon, you’re not going to blog about macaroni salad – who’s going to spend five minutes reading about macaroni salad, of all things?”

But I like macaroni salad! 

macaroni retouched

Just for fun, I did some research:

On Google, I typed “macaroni salad” and I got 849,000 results.

On Yahoo, I typed the same search words and got 7,070,000; on Live Search, I got 767,000.  Why Yahoo had 7 million is bewildering, but okay, I admit, macaroni salad is as common as a citizen with no blue blood.

Still, let me say this.  There are recipes you try and your reaction can be…

  • it’s good, I’ll probably make it again.
  • it’s very good, I’ll definitely make it again.
  • it’s excellent, wow, I’ll invite friends over and impress them!
  • ah…er… it’s so-so; nothing to write home about.

How does my macaroni salad rate?  I’d give it the second one – “it’s very good, I’ll definitely make it again.”

You have macaroni salads made with chicken, celery, carrots, mayo or sour cream, and we say, alright, that’s a typical recipe.  You have macaroni salad made with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, peas and carrots, and again we say, yes, that’s a typical recipe.

But if you dare leave the beaten path and throw in special ingredients, you come up with an exquisite macaroni salad with:

  • bite size chicken pieces
  • purple onion
  • carrots and celery
  • sour cream
  • mayonnaise
  • parmesan cheese
  • parsley

and this special oil!

oilo al basilicoolio2          

My good friend Margaret and her hubby Al from Toronto dropped by during the holidays and they gave me this delicately delicious oil which I hid at the back of my cupboard – just to keep my brother’s hands away from it.  He likes tinkering about my kitchen and looking for unopened tins and bottles and then persuading me to let him do a taste test.  I’ve decided this oil will be used only for extra-special recipes. 

I’ll accept the fact that macaroni salad is ordinary enough, but when I put a few drops of this Cazzetta oil (it’s been around since 1899 – don’t know if you can read the date on the picture at the right), my macaroni salad gets elevated to a 5-star rating! 

Try to flex your taste buds and imagine the combined flavors of sour cream and mayo, finely chopped purple onions, parmesan cheese and this olio al basilico.

Magnifico, no?  I won’t post the recipe because there are 849,000 recipes on Google – but if you’re convinced that it’s worth a try, e-mail me at and I’ll gladly share the recipe…that is, before Rachel Ray or the White House chef tells me NOT to share it.

Kidding aside, I liked this oil and I believe it’s made with the best basil herbs of Italy.  I have to ask Margaret where she bought it.  I hope that when I run out, I can buy another bottle here in Montreal so I’ll have a steady supply.

macaroni with salad

My brother and I devoured the macaroni salad yesterday, Saturday.  I served it with green salad.  For dessert, we had mouth-watering slices of chocolate cake with extra helpings of leftover Betty Crocker icing.  Tsk…tsk…

A thought just flashed.  You can make this macaroni salad without the sour cream and mayo if you’re more into the Mediterranean type of pasta salads – that is, with generous drizzles of wonderful olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar.


My Sourdough Journey…Just Started! January 7, 2010

Filed under: Tip of the Day — sotsil @ 9:22 pm
Tags: , ,

In the last days of December,  I nervously took the plunge into making a starter for sourdough bread.  My eyes must have gone ballistic because I crawled into many bread blogs and discussion forums looking for information on how to make a healthy starter.  You see, I have never made sourdough bread before.  It’s a different universe to the one I’ve grown accustomed to; that is, baking sweet rolls, loaves and yeast breads. 

Luck was on my side.  I finally got around to making my starter – by the 24th of December it was bubbly, frothy, alive and kicking!

starter ready

As soon as I saw those bubbles and that frothy-smoothie appearance, I was ecstatic.  For my first attempt, it wasn’t bad.  I had read people’s comments about their starter dying.

Just for the record:  I am not a sourdough expert.  I have not made a single sourdough loaf…yet.  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep hammering away at the art and technique of sourdoughs because I know it’s going to be an arduous, steep climb.  And since I’m not an expert with no sourdough “portfolio”, I can’t advice you on how to make a sourdough starter. 

But this much I can do.  I’ll share what I’ve learned so far.  When I started out, I was in the TFL (The Fresh Loaf) sourdough forums like an overstaying visitor.  The problem with forums is that everyone has an opinion, so the more I read the posts, the more I was confused.  Then I hopped from one blog to the next, taking down notes and comparing the techniques.

I came to a saturation point.  I told myself, “if I continue at this pace and search and search, I’ll never start a starter.”  The fear that an important bit of knowledge is missing can hold you back.  If you feel compelled to read more than necessary, you’ll never get started.  Remember that saying about how over-analysis leads to paralysis?

I finally had to apply the brakes on my sourdough research.  “That’s enough”, I said to myself.  “Just do it.  Have a back-up plan, just in case.”

First, I decided that I would follow the tutorial posted by a member – Gaarp – on the Fresh Loaf.  Here is that tutorial:

Second, if Gaarp’s tutorial took me nowhere, my back-up plan was Peter Reinhart’s pineapple juice solution (pages 227-230 of Bread Baker’s Apprentice).

If Reinhart’s method fails, I was going to use the grape method by Nancy Silverton, and then again if that didn’t work, I would introduce a pinch of commercial yeast to help jump start the culture.  Read in between the lines:  there are as many ways to make a starter as there are sourdough loaves in the planet!  There was even one advice that said put the starter on the window sill so it catches the wild yeast.  I think I’ll pass on that one.  I read that the yeast is actually in the flour, not in the air.  But I could be wrong.

Guess what folks?  No back-up plan was needed.  Gaarp’s tutorial was very good.  The only thing he did not mention – and which he should have – is that the starter has to be stirred twice or thrice a day.  This allows the yeast to be aerated and to spread the oxygen around.

Like I said, I’m not an expert on sourdough, but here are a few pointers:

  • use organic rye flour (the experts say there’s more wild yeast in rye flour) and natural spring water.  Lately though I’ve been feeding it with water from the tap and it’s fine and dandy.  Some say that if you can drink your tap water, so can yeast.  I started with 1/4 cup rye flour and 1/4 cup spring water.
  • leave your starter on the counter covered lightly with plastic or with cheese cloth.  Stir it 2-3x a day.
  • feed your starter twice a day up to the point when it begins to double in volume.  You can decrease the number of times you feed it to once daily or every 48 hours.
  • on subsequent feedings, you can use bread flour, wheat flour or unbleached all purpose flour (rye flour is used only when you’re starting a starter).
  • you can’t ever kill a starter, as long as you don’t douse it with kerosene or expose it to high heat.
  • the way to revive a starter is to feed it regularly.  Consider it like a newborn.
  • when your starter has become bubbly and frothy, this means it’s ready.  If you’re not planning on using it, cover it and leave it in the fridge.  Feed it once a week.

There’s so much advice on the Net.  Go with your instincts.  Don’t be afraid if your starter looks dead.  Don’t be afraid if it looks like the moon’s crater – that is, with a brown crust, a “knock-em-dead” smell and some hooch.  Hooch is a liquid that resembles old stale beer.  This was what my starter looked like on day 3 and I almost gave up:

 starting starter

Again, don’t worry.  When feeding time comes, discard half the mixture, and feed it with 1/4 cup bread flour and 1/4 cup water.  I know it seems wasteful, but the reason for throwing half the mixture away is so that the starter does not escape from the container and flood your kitchen.  I read one post saying that if you don’t do that, you’ll have a starter the size of your swimming pool in a few days!

Elements like temperature, container, flour and water will determine how difficult the starter process can be.  The idea is not to despair.  It will take anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks for your starter to look like mine above.  Aim for a bubbly and frothy mixture.  Oh, don’t forget, it should also rise and double, even triple in volume.

Last advice:  instead of taking my word for it, why don’t you drop by this web site Play the video.  He  explains and demonstrates the steps effectively, bearing in mind the KIS principle (keep it simple).

As soon as I get around to making my first sourdough loaf, I’ll post it!