Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pie Date pt. 2 (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the yeast) continued...

Alright, where were we? Oh yes. I was having a small mind melt. But not to worry--I've hung out on a beach with seals and had four glorious days of being no where near a computer. All better now.

So to continue our tragic tale...
I had just begun working for Tom Douglas. Let's be absolutely clear about this: I didn't know what the hell I was doing. One minute, I was working with Kenny, the tiny, odd gay man with piercing blue eyes, a fierce chain smoking habit, and creepy collection of dolls. The next minute, I was being interviewed by Eric Tanaka, James Beard Award winner. When I first worked with Tanaka he had an impressive burn covering his forearm from a duck exploding on him when he pulled it out of the oven. I had never even considered cooking duck, let alone contemplated the consequences of one exploding on me.

Tom never went to culinary school either, so my work ethic and willingness to learn worked in my favor. But I no longer had my buddies, like Colin in his ridiculous baker's hat, pounding his oven-mitted fist onto the bread table, yelling, "you can do it, Zola--just one more time!" as we tried to break (or create?) the record for consecutive times one can listen to "Super Freak" (I only made it to ten without cracking). Now I was working with the serious and seriously talented Johnathon Sundstrom. These were no times for Super Freak shenanigans, people!

The other thing to keep in mind is that, while I say I was working with people like Tanaka and Sundstrom, I was in fact working by myself. Tom had hired me to make the desserts for the newly opened Etta's Seafood but there wasn't enough room in either Dahlia or Etta's kitchens to work in the day. So I found myself working from 11pm to 7am at the Dahlia kitchen. I'd see the chefs as they were cleaning their stations for the night and then I was on my own.

A few weeks into my new job, I felt like things were going pretty well, despite that gross feeling that accompanies you when you work the night shift. If you've never done it, it's a combination of: not enough sleep, too much coffee and cigarettes, and zero human contact. But the baking was going fine. Coconut cream pies? Check. Apple dumplings. Delish. Cinnamon ice cream. Done. And then came the day that Tom announced that Etta's was running smoothly enough to open the place up for brunch. And this brunch menu was to include cinnamon rolls. Sounds nice, right? Except cinnamon rolls, when you stop and think about them, are really more of a bread product. As in, you need yeast to make them. And your faithful protagonist here had never made a single item with yeast in her young life. So I conferred with Swiss. She assured me it was easy stuff, "just make sure your water isn't too hot or too cold". Uh. Okay. Not too hot, not too cold. Easy. Wait. WTF??? Too hot or too cold compared to what?

I walked into that kitchen that night with a bad, bad feeling. I tried to play it off like everything was fine. I started working on pie dough and some ice cream mix while the rest of the staff were still there. As soon as they left I sat in the dining area and drank a shitload of coffee and smoked like a banshee while I mulled over my "too hot, too cold" predicament. Eventually, I got myself to that point--almost like when you convince yourself you just have to jump off the high dive. I started working off the cinnamon roll recipe. I read the recipe a million times, scanning for every nuance or clue that might enlighten me on how to work with yeast. I remember adding that first concoction of water, yeast and sugar and thinking, "Holy Christ. I don't even know what I'm looking for?!"

Oh yeah. Did I mention that I had to make about 200 of these cinnamon rolls?

At some point... maybe around 2am... I realized I just had to go into production with these things. It was coming together like dough but it just didn't feel right. I was using every refrigerated space available. I was rolling and filling and cutting, putting each cinnamon roll in it's bed of caramelized sugar and putting it in the fridge for someone else to pull out later for its final rise and baking right before service. Except that with each batch that I rolled out and filled, I became increasingly aware that something wasn't right. At one point, I just broke down crying. But I kept on making those stupid rolls until I had every roll in the fridge ready to go.

I got home exhausted, but I couldn't sleep. Around 10am I got the call. Brace yourself, friends. This story does not have a happy ending. Not a single cinnamon roll rose. Not. One. Not only was I humiliated but I thought for sure I was fired. Lucky for me, Tom is great guy and he didn't fire me. And I never made that mistake again. The next time I had to make something I was unfamiliar with, I did a ton of research and a few trials.

But I was pretty scarred by my yeast experience. I dreaded making anything with yeast after that. Brioche was a nice entry into that world--there's enough sugar to activate any stubborn yeast package. But I still secretly get nervous any time I need to work with it. So I decided to conquer my fear and enlisted my friends Kathleen (who you were introduced to during my last pie date) and Lisa. We decided to have Pie Date Part Deux, and this one would use yeast--pizza pie.

We used two different types of yeast and two different recipes to see if there were differences in taste and texture. There didn't appear to be much difference between the regular yeast and the organic in terms of taste but we found we liked this semolina based dough best:

1(1/4 ounce) package dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cups warm but not hot water (see! there it is again!!)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup semolina or cornmeal
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

1. Mix 1/2 cup of the warm water with the yeast and sugar. Let the mixture rest until it is foamy, about 5 minutes. At this point, I also like to do lots of hand waving and talking to the bowl. I like to mix it up, too. You can start out stern, "You better rise you little bitch." But then, just to be safe, you should be nice too, "I know you can do it. You're looking good and foamy!"
2. Combine the flour, semolina or cornmeal, and salt in large mixing bowl. Stir in the olive oil. Stir in the yeast mixture and then slowly add remaining water until the dough is stiff and sticky. Turn the dough onto lightly floured board and knead until it is smooth, moist, and elastic, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer to an oil-lined bowl, cover with damp towel, and let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about one hour.
3. Punch down the dough once or twice and turn it out onto a lightly floured board. Cut it into 6 pieces for individual pizzas and top as you like.

Kathleen made a delicious tomato sauce while we waited for our dough to rise. She went for a much more traditional pie with the sauce and the mozzarella. Swiss had just sent me a huge block of prosciutto for my birthday, farm raised in Iowa, so I paired that with some potatoes, sharp Parmesan and baby arugala. Lisa had the winner with a pesto base, roasted tomatoes and feta cheese. I had some dough left over so a couple days later I tried a breakfast pie with egg and potato and cheese. Guy liked it but it was a little too breakfast-y for my taste.

I still prefer to work with yeast in the company of good friends. It makes it so much more fun and I had the added benefit of seeing the how other recipes and styles work. Thanks ladies!

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