You know how there used to be this frequently used plot line in '90s sitcoms and dramas—the charity auction where some guy puts himself up as the "prize"? I got myself into something like that in early June, when I volunteered my home-pizza-making services as a "prize" for the Slice Out Hunger raffle bin.
I put "prize" in quotes, because, as I said at the time, "it might be more punishment than prize"—a classic case of no good deed going unpunished. I mean, just look at the flyer (above) that Slice Out Hunger organizer (and Slice contributor) Scott Wiener created. Would you really want THAT dude coming to your house to make pizza for you and seven of your friends? I didn't think so.
In fact, when I didn't hear from the winners after the Slice Out Hunger event, I just assumed they had run away scared. Heck, easiest charity event I ever catered, I thought. But then, sometime in September, Monica and Omer contacted me, and it was game on.
Assessing the Playing Field
In a post earlier this year I talked about my first-ever "Away Game Pizza Night"—what you need to consider when making pizza at someone else's house. So after dispensing with small talk via email, I got down to brass tacks with Monica. What kind of kitchen am I working with? Do you have a full-size oven or a smallManhattanapartment-size oven? Do you even have an oven?!? How 'bout counter space? Am I going to have to bring a TV tray to stretch dough on? I assumed they didn't have a pizza stone, and even if they did, I'd bring my own, just to have two. I gathered my peels, pans, cutter, and pizza-tray stands.
"We have a full-size oven. And we have plenty of counter space."
That was pretty much all I was worried about.
Planning the Menu
I first asked Monica if there were any dietary restrictions I'd be dealing with. This is probably the single most important detail in planning a meal for people. And, yes, no pork, no seafood.
That meant my signature pizza, the Famous Original A (tomato sauce, fresh mozz, Parm, homemade fennel sausage, red onion), was out of play before the game even began! Oh well, comes a time where you've got to expand, to reach outside your comfort zone, all that cliché shit.
And I was actually relieved on the no seafood bit. I'm bad at cooking that stuff, and it's not my favorite topping.
Steve Jobs's Legacy vis-a-vis Pizza Menus—Or, How a Pizza Menu Is Like a Wedding DJ Playlist
So I sent Monica a list of some of my personal favorite pies that I make for my own pizza nights—the Pauile Gee–inspired Anise & Anephew; the Bianco-like Rosa; a potato-and-rosemary pie. Some of these are pretty untraditional in terms of toppings, and it took me quite a while before I embraced some of these outré combos.
After some feedback from Monica, I found out the guests were really into veggie toppings but maybe not some of the combos I offered up.
And that's when I thought of Steve Jobs's legacy at Apple. How he essentially created devices that people didn't know they wanted yet. Should I try to force my will upon this party? Should I become the Steve Jobs of charity pizza parties: "You don't know that you love these fancy-pants pizzas yet, BUT YOU WILL COME TO CRAVE THEM!"
But then I thought of when my wife and I were researching DJs for our wedding. The advice out there was that a wedding is not a time to impose your musical taste on others. Yes, you want music that reflects your taste but also includes familiar ditties that folks can dance to. It's not the time to school your crowd in the finer points of krautrock.
I figured that was the better lesson learned from this mental tangent, so like a good wedding DJ, I talked to the clients again, took their list of favored toppings into account and figured out a way to mix and match them to pleasing effect.
But, like many a wedding playlist, the client requested a couple of MUST-PLAY choices. Among them: A BUFFALO CHICKEN PIZZA!
Ruh roh. I had never made a chicken pizza before, much less any buffalo chicken recipe. Luckily, I remembered a recent post Kenji did about San Marzano Pizzeria's buffalo chicken Neapolitan pizza. That pie used shredded buffalo chicken, which Kenji said gives you "a much better ratio of spicy buffalo sauce to bland chicken, making it something that—*gasp!*—even I had to admit actually worked pretty well on the pie."
So I researched some shredded buffalo chicken recipes and found this one.
In a nutshell, mix two 14-ounce bottles of Frank's Original Red Hot Sauce with a pound of melted butter to get your buffalo sauce. Throw two-thirds of that into a slow-cooker with 8 chicken thighs and a half ounce of dried ranch dressing mix. Cook on low for 6 to 7 hours. The meat will be falling off the bone, at which point you just shred it with the tines of a couple forks. Reserve the remaining buffalo sauce for a post-bake drizzle on the pies. (For the finer points of buffalo sauce, check out this great SE Buffalo Wing Sauce Taste Test.)
How'd that work?
How's that look? I didn't get my own taste of my own creation until the second or third one of these came out of the oven at Monica and Omer's. The guests pretty much devoured the first couple iterations of this pie.
It wasn't until I was on the 8th or 9th pizza that they lost the ability to scarf the pies immediately and I was able to sneak a slice of this pie. I have to say, I never would have made a buffalo chicken pizza on my own, but I'm happy I had to stretch outside my zone. This was a great topping. By the time I made the second and third buffalo chicken pizza, I was throwing on the night's other EXTREMELY POPULAR TOPPING, chopped banana peppers.
Ladies and gents, it is a great pairing.
Proportions That Could Only Be Measured in Buttloads
Did I really say "8th or 9th pie" above? You betcha. I actually prepped 12 doughs for this party (using the Food/Pizza Lab NYC-style pizza dough recipe) I wanted to inundate the clients with pizza. I didn't want them to end the night hungry. I figured eight pizzas would probably fill them up (essentially one 12-inch pizza each), but I figured 12 would be insurance —plus enough dough to work with in case I botched a stretch or two.
I also made FOUR TIMES the portion of the Kenji NYC-style pizza sauce recipe:
It feels good to fill a 6-quart Dutch oven almost to capacity.
I started this batch around 7 a.m. the morning of the party. By the time my wife woke up around 9:30, she was like, "Something smells good in here. I'm hungry!"
Sorry, dear. It's bagels for you.
Some Other Pies
Pork was off limits but not beef. So I whipped up a sort of Tex-Mex-inspired pizza with the beef topping from Brooklyn chef Joaquin Baca's cheffy 7-layer dip.
That pizza featured the Kenji sauce mixed with some Ro-Tel (the Hot variety, thanks to SE'r PhotoKirk, who mailed me a boxload of the stuff); chopped white onions; banana peppers; fresh and regular mozzarella; and a tiny bit of cheddar cheese.
Monica indicated she was really into spinach, so I did some sautéed spinach along with some sauteed portobello mushrooms.
I also tried my hand at a Di Fara-inspired semi-dried cherry tomato pizza.
And the classic roasted red pepper and onion pie. From this, though, I learned not to roll out the staid classics AFTER you've already pulled out the big guns (aka the buffalo chix and Tex-Mex banana-pepper pies). This one did not seem to awe the crowd, and I was able to sneak a slice from this one with plenty to spare.
It wasn't until later in the cycle (around the last four pies) that I started to get some really incredible hole structure. That's because the dough had been sitting in a HOT HOT kitchen and getting crazy airy.
The heat had started to affect my brain:
And I scraped some bench flour into cocaine-like lines. PIZZA IS MY DRUG.
Don't worry, I didn't snort it.
For the last pizza of the night, I asked Monica to call out a request from the topping choices. She was like, "Consensus is a 'suicide pie' or a 'garbage pie.'"
And so, the one above uses almost all the toppings. Tex-Mex beef, buffalo chix, mushrooms, onions, red peppers, banana peppers, you name it.
I had pretty much only done these things at friends' houses. Safe, familiar territory. This was the first time I ever cooked for people I hadn't yet met. The dynamics were interesting. See, my friends have peeped my pizza pictures on Facebook and Flickr and most of them know I'm a decent cook. At Monica and Omer's, I had none of that reputation going in. To them, I imagined, I was just some weirdo pushing a granny cart of pizza crap into their home. I had to earn their trust through their taste buds and stomachs.
And I have to say, based on the crowd reaction, I think they were happy they opened their door to me (even if they did say I "looked pretty intimidating on that flyer").
But I'll let Monica tell you herself. Part of the "prize," if you read that handbill closely, was the chance to write a review of the night on Slice. Once she emails that in, we'll post it. Stay tuned.
Until next time, hasta la pizza.
Special thanks to: Slice Out Hunger organizer Scott Wiener (Scott's Pizza Tours), who showed up about halfway through the party and helped ferry pizzas to the eaters and, more important, HELPED CLEAN UP! Thanks, dude.