Solace and joy. This is what I feel almost every night I prepare our dinner while confined during this pandemic. The relief and comfort that come from making an old family recipe or the joy from discovering a new one, along with a nightly cocktail, keeps us going.
Today, I’m highlighting just two examples of dishes from last week that sustained not only our bodies but our souls.
The first is a frittata made from left-over pasta with red pepper sauce from a recipe that I’ve written about here. Pasta frittatas were a staple of my childhood diet. Since pasta appeared on our table several times a week, we often saw any that was leftover a few days later in a frittata.
Unlike a French omelet, which can be made in a minute or two over high heat, a frittata takes considerably longer as it its cooked over a low flame. The slow cooking and nudging with a spatula allow the eggs to encase the fillings as it puffs up.
I can still remember how my Neapolitan aunt would sauté the leftover pasta in order to develop a crust before she poured the eggs beaten with cheese, parsley, and a little milk into the pan. At that moment, she would turn the heat to low and hover over the pan, gently pushing the eggs toward the center of it and allowing the uncooked eggs to flow down the set sides to the bottom of the pan.
When the eggs stopped to flow and the frittata was set, she placed a dish approximately the same width of the pan on top, flipped the frittata, and slowly cooked the second side. She’d shake the pan, making the frittata spin and puff up a tad. Now and then, she would lift an edge of the frittata to check if it was done.
The whole process took about 20 minutes, during which my aunt would tell stories of how she enjoyed such a dish as a child and, during her narration, she would always manage to sneak in an old Italian proverb. For example, “Se non avendo chi mi vanta, mi vanto io.” (If I don’t have anyone to praise me, I praise my self.)
Hence the solace of fond memories from making a traditional family dish from my past.
Next is an example of the joy that comes from discovering a new approach to an old dish. While sheltering in place, I’ve been spending a lot of time going through cookbooks and surfing food sites on the internet.
Last week, while online, I found a new recipe for pizza dough that calls for a 72-hour cold fermentation, followed by at least another six hours of proofing at room temperature after making individual balls for each pizza from the risen dough.
I had never used cold fermentation, having always relied on room temperature to do the trick in a few hours. However, when I placed my dough into the fridge, I remembered my aunt’s having done the same but slicing a cross into the top of the dough to, as she would say, “ward off any evil spirits” that might prevent the dough from rising. Although I wasn’t concerned about evil spirits, I did have some reservations about the minimal, almost microscopic, amount of yeast that the recipe called for. I had halved the recipe, and for 250 grams of flour was using just ½ gram (0.5g) of yeast. But the gods were on my side, and the dough rose.
The dough recipe is from the Baking Steel website, which is where, years ago, I discovered one of the best tools to achieve a crispy under crust on a pizza. It’s called simply a “baking steel” a 16 x 14 x 1/4″ piece of steel, weighing 15 pounds. It’s a modern alternative to a baking stone and requires a minimum of an hour’s preheating at 500°F.
The recipe for the dough as well as links to videos both for the dough and the dough balls can be found here. Since I didn’t plan on writing this venture up here, I only have a few photos of the two pizzas that I made two nights last week.
Indeed, watching that dough rise ever so slowly over three days until it looked as though the plastic wrap covering the bowl was about to explode provided some much needed diversion from what we’re experiencing these days. And sitting down to two of the best pizzas I’ve ever made provided even more needed joy.
I hope that in these trying times you are getting a similar pleasure from cooking and dining that we are and hope you will stay safe and be well.