Pizza Crust Redux

I posted not one, but TWO different pizza crust recipes on here last year. Since then, I’ve made a lot more pizza than I’d like to admit but didn’t use the same crust recipe each time. While the ones I posted were delicious, I started looking for something else. All of a sudden, I had new criteria for the pizza dough I was looking for. As a New Yorker, I’d like to think I know what good pizza (and crust) should look and taste like. I’m not a professional pizza person but I know what I like.

For me, the key to great pizza crust is to have one that’s sturdy, slightly chewy, super thin, toasty and crunchy. Sounds complicated but is actually somewhat easy.

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First thing’s first, let’s talk ingredients. The main difference between this recipe and the one I posted previously is the flour. What’s the big deal here? Well for one, this recipe uses bread flour! I started using bread flour just recently and have completely blown my own mind, which is ridiculous considering I bake bread weekly and have never used it. It’s crazy but I’m like, bread flour 4 lyfe now. The thing about bread flour, that isn’t the same as all-purpose, is that there is more protein in there. More protein = more gluten. The more gluten in your dough, the chewier it becomes. Magical, right? Obviously we want a chewy crust, so bread flour was a little bit of a no brainer.

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From L to R: Bread flour, instant dry yeast, whole wheat flour (with a measuring cup), salt, phone, and bowl. Phones (or binder clips) aren’t required for this recipe

The second difference between both recipes is the yeast. For this recipe, I used instant yeast. Now, there’s not much of a difference between instant and active dry yeast because they both do the exact same thing. However, one is a lot easier to use than the other. For starters, with instant yeast, there’s no need to proof it in warm water before incorporating into all the other ingredients. The yeast can be combined with the dry ingredients with zero issues. That means I don’t have to worry about killing the yeast before I even start the recipe by using water that’s too hot.

The second best thing about instant yeast? You can skip the first rise! Man, I love this part so much! Instead of having your dough proof for an hour after kneading, cover that bad boy for just 10 whole minutes before moving on to part two. Isn’t that great? This means I can get to bread, or pizza in this case, a lot faster than before. One final note about instant yeast is that if you’re subbing it for active dry, the amounts do not change. An envelope of active dry yeast contains 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, which means that if I were to use instant, I’d use 2 1/4 teaspoons as well.

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Now that we have our ingredients down, let’s talk dough for a second. I make all my doughs by hand. It’s good to get into kneading and making your own dough before letting a machine do it, so you know when your dough is ready. Considering I don’t have a mixer yet (insert tears here), I know my doughs quite well. When kneading, you need to keep on going until it’s no longer sticky, and is smooth and elasticky (is that a word?). It sounds weird but the more you get to know your dough, the easier it is to figure out when you’re done kneading. It’s also helpful to knead as quickly as possible. The faster you move your dough around, the faster it’ll come together and minimize your kneading time. If you’re doing it by hand, this is especially important.

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Since we skipped the first rise, thanks to instant yeast, make sure your oven is hot before you get started. A hot oven is crucial when making the ideal pizza crust. If you have a pizza or baking stone (you lucky duck), this is the best time to use it. It helps get that crispy and toasty thing I mentioned, and it also looks cool in your oven. I don’t have one, so a baking sheet works just fine. Line that sheet with some parchment paper before putting the dough on it. I think you can skip this step for most sheets (maybe a drizzle of olive oil for security) but I like having it on there. Once that’s ready, roll out the dough. There’s two ways to go about this; you can use a rolling pin or stretch it out by hand. I won’t judge you if you use a rolling pin (I’ve done it before) but I prefer stretching it out by hand; makes me feel like a legit pizza maker. You don’t have to do any air tricks or anything, just make sure you’re stretching it out uniformly.

Once it’s stretched and shaped to your liking, sauce and top that beautiful hunk of unbaked crust. Go crazy with your toppings! We kept it pretty clean and simple but use what you like. I’m a fan of throwing greens on my pizza for two reasons: makes me feel like my pizza is ~healthier~ and because I won’t eat them otherwise. I’m terrible like that. When I do add greens, I top my pizza with them during the last five minutes of baking so they won’t burn or dry out too much.

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Does this crust match my criteria? Yes it does! It was definitely sturdy; it held all that cheese and those greens beautifully. It was slightly chewy, thanks to that bread flour. Most parts were thin, crispy and crunchy just like I like, and was ultimately delicious! The crust parts got away from me and got a little too thick but no worries there. It’s subtle in taste as well, which is great if you’re using toppings that should be singing on their own. Since we kept it plain, my pizza tasted like the pizza I was looking for.

Since converting to bread flour and the magical instant yeast, this recipe a keeper!

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Quick and Easy Pizza Crust – adapted from allrecipes

Makes one large pizza (feeds up to four or two very hungry people)

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar
  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110F)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450F. Line or grease a sheet pan and set aside. Alternatively, ready your baking stone if you’ve got it. In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Add the warm water and olive oil, and mix until combined.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, up to 10 minutes. Cover the dough either with a towel or the bowl and rest for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Gently deflate the dough and roll/stretch out into your desired shape. Transfer the dough to your prepped pan and top as desired. Bake pizza for 15-20 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and toppings are cooked. Cool for five minutes before serving.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • If you don’t want to use parchment or oil, lightly dust your pan or stone with cornmeal.
  • Another great thing about this recipe is that it uses less flour. Yay!

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting

Every baker has their own arsenal of classic recipes. They all have their preferred versions of almost anything, but not many discuss how long it took them to get to that choice of a recipe. I’m still very much a beginner baker, and as I try to build my own arsenal, there’s tons of trial and error in choosing recipes, testing, and tasting.

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I’ve been searching for the perfect yellow cake recipe for a couple of years now. It’s complicated because the recipe stratosphere is crowded with hundreds of variations of the same thing. There’s no way to test them all, and there’s no way to tell which one’s the best. As I go through many of these recipes, I ask myself what it is I’m looking for exactly. Criteria is important because how else will you know if a certain recipe is “it?” For me, it has to do with what I grew up with.

As a kid, I grew up with Dominican cakes; which consist of two yellow cake layers, a middle layer of some sort of filling, all covered in meringue frosting (similar to 7 minute frosting). My entire cake life revolved around this style of cake, and still kind of does. There’s only one bakery that does these cakes the “right” way (according to my mom, and everyone else we’ve introduced those cakes to),  but I have yet to find a recipe that resembles their yellow cake.

SO MANY

SO MANY

While that still haunts me from time to time, I set out on looking for a different kind of cake that still reminded me of my childhood. I’ve mentioned here before how my dad was the resident baker in my house way back in the day. I inherited his hand mixer, which we got at a garage sale, and consequently killed it last year (RIP green Presto mixer; you lived a long and productive life). He used it to make boxed cake mix for us every now and then. I watched him in the kitchen (obviously) when he made it because mixing powder with some eggs, oil, and milk into a real cake was mind blowing. It actually still is, more because I know how to make them from scratch now. He used to make them in a 9×13″ pan, which produced a golden brown pillow sized cake. I remember fighting with my sister over the who got the corner pieces, and arguing with my dad that cakes taste best warm so he’d let us eat it straight out of the oven.

Besides the awesome memories, I remember how the cake tasted. It was box mix, so it tasted exactly the same each and every time. It still tastes the same today, but I haven’t had box mix in forever. It tasted like perfection; like how all cakes should taste. There’s no other way to describe it. When I’m not trying to resemble those Dominican cakes, this is my standard. What cake recipe can resemble a box mix, without the box mix, and taste like what I remembered from when I was a kid?

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I had planned on making cupcakes a couple weeks ago for my class. I’m not back in school but am part of a program that requires a month of class. So, me and 11 other awesome grads hang out every night and learn about digital marketing, and other business skills we need to know. Since before classes started, I knew I wanted to use them as my guinea pigs for testing recipes. Sounds bad saying it like that, but I mean no harm! Anyway, I wanted to take some cupcakes in for two reasons; I hadn’t made any cupcakes in forever and because who doesn’t love cupcakes?! I thought about what flavor combinations I could use and came up with the classic yellow cake and chocolate frosting. I know most people grew up with this kind of cake for their birthdays. None of us are those people but the combo is such a classic, I wanted to go for it anyway.

Trust me when I tell you that this cake tastes like my childhood. It was ridiculously amazing. I’m still perplexed as to how I can bake a cake from scratch that tastes so similar to box mix! The cakes came out super soft and fluffy, with a hint of a golden brown hue from the oven. It was like a melt in your mouth kind of experience. Then coupled with chocolate frosting, it was just great. The frosting had a slight tang from the cream cheese and sour cream but still packed a chocolatey punch; thanks to the cocoa powder and semisweet chocolate in there. It also wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, which happens with most frostings. I loved them, my folks loved them, and my class loved them too!

While this isn’t the recipe that resembles the cakes from birthdays past, it does take me back to being in the kitchen with my dad as I watched him transform a cake mix into a real cake. That right there is reason enough to put this one in my arsenal.

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Classic Yellow Cupcakes – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 30 cupcakes

  • 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (sifted before measuring!)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place cupcake liners into your cupcake/muffin tins.
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Incorporate the vanilla, and add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  3. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled and gross; do not be deterred!). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  4. Spoon batter into lined cups, 3/4 of the way up, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 22 to 24 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove cupcakes from the pan to finish cooling on the racks. Cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting – adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes enough to frost those 30 cupcakes (4 cups)

  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6oz softened cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
  • 9oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
  • 3/4 cups sour cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Over a double boiler, carefully melt the chocolate. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. In a medium sized bowl, sift together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter and cream cheese until smooth. Gradually add the sugar/cocoa mix, scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  4. Pour in the melted chocolate until incorporated. Finally, beat in the sour cream and vanilla until combined.
  5. Frost cupcakes!

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Always, always, ALWAYS, sift your cake flour before measuring. Sift, and gently spoon into your measuring cups. Sift once more after measuring for added security. I know, it seems like a ton of work but trust me, it’s worth it!
  • The recipe calls for large eggs (as all recipes do; it’s the standard in baking) but I got away with using three jumbo eggs (my folks don’t believe in eggs that are smaller). Use what you have, just be mindful of the amount of moisture you’re adding vs. what’s needed. 
  • The frosting is pretty good but I feel like the sour cream can almost be optional. 
  • Deb lied to me in telling me this recipe made 22 to 24 cupcakes. I expected that many but ended up with 30. I usually have the opposite of that problem but just a heads up (not that 30 cupcakes is a bad thing; I’m happy I got more it’s just that I wasn’t ready to have my kitchen overtaken by cupcakes!)
  • To ensure the same amount of batter goes into every cupcake, use an ice cream scoop/disher to distribute the batter. 

Kitchen Experiments: Bagels

Bagels have been on my list for the longest; probably since I started baking bread. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to them. I guess it was probably because everything about bagels seemed so daunting. I also thought a stand mixer was required for these kinds of things. While they may make the process easier, they are by no means a requirement. Back when I put these on my list, they stayed there because of how much work goes into them. I am never afraid of more work, especially when it’s in the kitchen because it’s always a labor of love to me. But the fact that these bagels take two whole days to make was the main reason I put them off for so long. I quickly found out that there wasn’t much of a challenge and that maybe two days isn’t necessary. Either way, I finally got to cross them off my list (twice!)

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First things first, you need a sponge. This is the starter for the bagels, which is a combo of 1 teaspoon instant yeast, 4 cups of bread flour, and 2 1/2 cups of room temperature water. Stir the ingredients together until homogenous and kinda looks like pancake batter. Cover and let rise at room temp for two hours. The first time I made these (yes, I made them twice), I started the sponge and went out to see a movie. I am totally serious, too. The movie was fantastic, as was my sponge when I got home. Technically, you’re supposed to let it rise for two hours but mine did fine with more than that. Honestly, I thought I was gonna come home and find my house overtaken by the sponge! It really was fine, and I got to work soon after.

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Now, it’s dough time. Nothing out of the ordinary here; more yeast (1/2 teaspoon), bread flour (3 3/4 cups), salt (2 2/4 teaspoons) and sugar (1 tablespoon). Fairly simple. Heads up though; make sure your flour is bread flour. I think that because mine was some “better for bread” flour, that may have had something to do with the finishing texture. Nothing terrible, just may not have been what I was looking for.

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After forming a somewhat cohesive dough ball, it’s time for the most labor intensive part of the entire recipe: the kneading. This is where a stand mixer would really come in handy because this blob needs to be kneaded for quite some time. 10 whole minutes by hand (if you’re brave). Knead the blob until it’s firm but still smooth, pliable and not sticky. If a tad dry, add small amounts of water to rehydrate the dough. Too sticky? Add a bit more flour and knead until desired texture. Rule of thumb: when making doughs, you know you’re pretty much done kneading when it’s no longer sticky. The trick is to keep kneading it to that point without adding a ton of flour. Challenging, but the more you do it, the more you’ll know by feel when you need more flour versus more kneading.

After kneading, break out your scale and your bench scraper because it’s portioning time! According to Deb and the recipe, standard bagels are 4.5oz., so that’s what I did. I got a dozen but please reference the recipe for different sizes/weights. Cover the dough balls with a damp towel and let them rest for 20 minutes. Take advantage of this break, as kneading that dough was no easy feat! Also, line some baking pans with parchment for later.

To form the dough balls into bagels, I picked up one of the rested dough balls and began making an indent in the middle, and kind of wiggling my thumb into the ball to begin making the hole. After the dough was pierced through the indent, I widened it while turning the dough to make sure it stayed pretty uniform. After forming them all, I placed them on a lined baking sheet, covered them with plastic wrap and let them rest again for another 20 minutes. I cleaned up during the wait; baking’s messy!

This is where things get interesting. After the 20 minutes is up, fill a bowl with some cool/room temp water. Not cold and not hot; cool. Carefully take one of the rested bagels and plop it in the water. It should float within seconds. Got a sinker? Carefully dry off the tester, return it to the pan, cover and let rest an additional 10-20 minutes and re-test until it floats. That’s how you know it’s ready for the next step: an overnight rise in the fridge (aka retarding). The first time I made these, I did the overnight rise and my bagels came out good. The second time, I skipped the overnight rise and let them rise for about four hours. I did not note much of a difference. Is the overnight rest necessary? Probably. Does it mean you won’t have delicious bagels if you shorten the time? No. If you have the time (and fridge space), go for the overnight. If not, four hours works just fine. Carefully dry the tester bagel and return to the pan. Pop them in the fridge to rest overnight (or four hours).

Now that the bagels have spent time in the fridge, it’s time to bake. Turn your oven on up to 11 (ahem, 500F), and prep a large, wide pot with some water. Bring the pot to a boil with a tablespoon of baking soda. Before baking, bagels bathe in this boiling hot solution. Why? To form that signature bagel crust. You know the one; where the bagel is all crisp on the outside but chewy and soft on the inside. I heard this is the reason why bagels only get toasted on one side (the inside part, if you were wondering). Giant pretzels go through the same process, but that’s another post. Once boiling, place as many bagels as will fit in the pot (mine fit 3) and let them sit in there for two minutes before turning them over and letting them sit in a minute longer. Remove those moist pre-bagels and place them back on the lined baking sheet that’s been sprinkled with cornmeal. This helps them not stick to the paper once wet.

Once you’ve bathed all your pre-bagels, pop them in that scorching oven for five minutes. After that, rotate the pans (180 degrees and switch the top and bottom pans) and bake at 450F for five minutes or more. After the five minutes, check them because mine took much longer than that. I think I baked mine for 10-15 more minutes before they got all golden brown; keep an eye on them. After they get all nice and brown, cool them on the sheet on racks until cool enough to handle.

That’s basically it! Not so bad, if I do say so myself. And I’m talking about the process and the bagels! They came out delicious. Although they weren’t what I was used to (AHEM, prepackaged stuff), they were pretty darn good. I’m telling you, I made them twice in two weeks! The crispy crust was definitely there (thanks baking soda bath!) and they were fluffy, and chewy in the middle like they’re supposed to be. Like a typical New Yorker, I had mine with a schmear of good old fashioned cream cheese (no lox though; maybe in the future).  I have to say though, this was quite the challenge. But not challenging enough that I won’t want to tackle them again, perhaps with a different flavor and recipe. Whatever I decide to do, you’ll know.

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Bagels – recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen

(Holy crap, I am NOT typing all that out again. Please visit the lovely Deb at Smitten Kitchen to re-read the recipe in recipe format. Also, check out her tips and variations of these bagels!)

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola

I left you guys with an amazing granola bar recipe a couple weeks ago, and am back with another. This one isn’t for bars, though but is equally as delicious.

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The same week I posted about these bars, Dana from Minimalist Baker, posted this super simple recipe for granola. If you don’t know who Dana (or her husband John) is or what Minimalist Baker is about, check out their blog right here. I love receiving their emails about new recipes because as the blog title says; their recipes are minimalistic and delicious with little to no effort, and there are no laundry list of ingredients. They keep it simple, straightforward and their pictures are mouthwateringly beautiful. I knew that when I saw this recipe in my inbox, despite the fact that I had just posted granola bars, I had to make it. It was like fate or something. Either way, I got it done.

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Dana’s recipe is already as simple as it gets in terms of ingredients and process. The recipe as is happens to be vegan, which is awesome already, and can even be gluten free. I am neither of those things, so the only non-vegan ingredients in mine was dark brown sugar and real chocolate chips. Another thing I love about this recipe is that you aren’t limited to using the mix-ins listed. I don’t know if Dana intended to make this recipe customizable but I can already think up several variations that would be awesome with this same formula. What I’m trying to say is that this won’t be the last time you’ll see granola on this blog!

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I love putting my granola on Greek yogurt but this stuff is good on its own, in a bowl with milk, or maybe even atop a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s crunchy and super peanut buttery. The coconut oil in there adds an extra hint of nuttiness; which was already there from the toasty and golden brown oats. It’s not super sweet, so it doesn’t overwhelm the palate. And the chocolate chips are a nice unexpected explosion of creaminess with each bite.

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I’ve been piling it on my yogurt since I made it, and am secretly hoping the stash is never ending. At least I have an idea of flavor combos to make next!

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Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola – barely adapted from Minimalist Baker

Serves 10 (ahem, if you’re lucky)

  • 3 cups + 2 Tbsp rolled oats
  • 2 Tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup melted coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup creamy natural salted peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup agave nectar
  • Pinch of salt (optional)
  • 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 340F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the oats and the brown sugar together. Set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, combine the melted coconut oil, peanut butter, agave, and the salt (if adding) over low heat. Stir until just melted and combined.
  4. Pour the peanut butter mix over the oats and quickly stir to incorporate. Make sure all the oats are moistened. Spread oat mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Evenly distribute the oats on the pan, and bake for 18-22 minutes or until golden brown. Stir once after the first 15 minutes, and stand by to make sure it doesn’t burn!
  5. Remove from the oven and toss to release the heat. Cool completely on the pan.
  6. Either on the pan, in a large bowl, or directly in your storage container of choice, add the chocolate chips and stir. Enjoy your super easy and delicious granola any way you please! Keeps fresh for up to two weeks. Freeze after that.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Measure the coconut oil in your measuring cup before the peanut butter. That way, your measuring cup is already greased which will make the peanut butter easier to pour out of the cup!
  • I added a pinch of salt into the mix for funsies but feel free to omit it. 
  • Make sure the granola is completely cool before adding the chips!