Pizza al taglio: Singing the praises of a superior slice

Good Eats, Focacciaria

The ‘I love pizza’ chorus projects their message far, but these singers intone a one-note harmony on their alleged favourite food. Do they crave New York-style slices, Sicilian squares, or Chicago deep dish? Maybe their hearts go a-flutter at floppy Neapolitan pies, Roman ones with cracker-thin crusts or a chewy slice of Domino’s. You profess your devotion to pizza, but what’s the north star of your pizza universe?

I do not harmonize with the choir. I do not love pizza. I do not claim that takeaway pizza and frozen pies are vastly — obviously — inferior to those mythical breads from Di Matteo and Joe’s Pizza. I do not pretend that, when confronted with a New York pie, I would be able to beast the entire eighteen inches. I merely claim that, when it comes to this sacrosanct food, I prefer thick, chewy focaccia-style slices. Called pizza al taglio or pizza al trancio in Italian— both translated roughly as ‘pizza by the cut’ — the best squares combine a few inches of pillow-y dough with an olive oil-crisped bottom and a luxurious mass of stewed, basil-spiked tomato sauce and oven-scorched mozzarella on top. Crisp, chewy, sweet, salty: forget memorable pizza, pizza al taglio presents a striking way to re-experience the lunchtime standby.

In New York’s pizza universe, these stubby square slices lie untouched on their aluminium trays. They’re either unfortunately dubbed grandma slices or compared unfavourably to a gut-busting deep-dish pie. But pizza al trancio bears little resemblance to a soggy slice laden in cheap cheese grease. If Sam Sifton’s pizza cognition theory is correct — and the pizza of our youth becomes the benchmark against which we judge all pizza — then we can say that focaccia-style pizza has yet to become synonymous with so-called regular pizza because it defies the country’s collective childhood memory of the food.

Joe's Pizza of Park Slope

Sure, these thick squares combine contrasting textures, but not how we believe they should. The crust doesn’t shatter with a satisfying chip-like crunch. There’s too much bread with a decidedly assertive flavour. Even the milky mozzarella tastes dreary in comparison to American pizza’s blankets of salt-fortified low-moisture mozz. Whereas pizza al trancio softly balances tastes and textures, American pizza belts out its components, positioning itself as the singular definition of a complex product.

But pizza al taglio argues against balance as blandness. Establishing the good/bad paradigm demands eating the requisite amount of pizza al trancio. Olive oil shouldn’t ooze from the crust and that mozzarella shouldn’t pull off in glue-like strings. In Italy, taste a standard slice at your local panificio and fa la passeggiata eating a softly oily version at the local branch of Mr. Focaccia. Take the train to Milan then west to Pavia, grabbing a gloriously heavy slice from Spadaro just before their 1:30 pm lunch break. Hightail it to Turin’s Tomatika and you’ll understand properly salted sauces. Pizza al trancio is a pizza cosmos onto itself; a topography replete with mountains of geographically distinct attributes.

The pizza al taglio world extends beyond Italy, but the language for the landscape changes upon departing Italy. Eataly’s focaccia squishes gloriously, but you forget about the buffalo milk mozzarella bite. Stop by Sullivan Street Bakery for a satisfyingly sauce-less pizza bianca. Grab a floppy focaccia from Hot Bread Kitchen in the Union Square Greenmarket and bear the stares as you fare all’italiana and walk down Broadway eating it.

It’s easy to declare that pizza is delicious — that you looove it — but describing which version you enjoy, and analyzing why that style sets your mouth a-salivating, requires an examination overlooked in our consumption of this grab-and-go favourite. Tell me you love the all-out indulgence of a butter-crusted deep-dish pie; explain to me your paradoxical passion for a spongy, sweet frozen pizza; don’t just tell me you love pizza. Pizza isn’t a singular entity, it’s a mini-food universe, packed full of diverse meanings. Our opinions should be similarly diverse.

Images from top: Flickr via Andy Ciordia, Flickr via Adam Kuban

Five Friday Reads 24.04.2015

Bergen

  • How NPR Totes Bags Became a Thing‘ from The Atlantic.  Ever wonder why half the people on your subway carry seemingly-free logo tote bags? NPR’s decision to offer them as a pledge drive prize might have driven our mania.
  • Who Is Elena Ferrante?‘ via The New York Times. If you’ve read any of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, you’ll know the temptation to read the mysterious author’s identity onto the protagonist, also named Elena. Here are some thoughts about that.
  • Journey to the Center of the Chemex Factory‘ from Sprudge. The hourglass shaped brewing device might be a third-wave favourite, but the history behind this icon isn’t as exclusive as it may seem.
  • Too Many Books?‘ from New York Review of Books. Between the internet, magazines, books and more books it can be difficult in our modern era of abundance to figure out what to read. Tim Parks argues that this problem defines the modern reader.
  • Avocados Are Toast‘ from New York Magazine. Can the avocado’s popularity withstand price hikes as their supply diminishes due to California’s drought? This is the poster fruit for modern, social media-fuelled, healthy indulgence.

Cardamom: Shifting Cuisines, Shifting Tastes

Spice of the Day (SOTD) - 1/350

Floral or sweet, musty or warm, disgusting or delicious: cardamom demands attention. Some relish the aroma it imparts to a slowly simmered stew. Others claim it douses dishes in grandmotherly perfume. Despite cardamom’s polarising flavour, one’s preference for the spice may have less to do with innate taste and more to do with cultural conditioning. From Indian cuisine to Scandinavian cookery, cardamom occupies a prominent spot on the world’s spice rack. Depending on the cuisine in which it appears, cardamom directs the interpretation of its flavour in both traditional and experimental preparations. Cardamom tastes like the dishes in which it is used.

Ever since cardamom won admirers for its potent aroma and supposed-health benefits, the spice has provoked battles and desires. Forget the mild-mannered powder from plastic McCormick jar: the real stuff is a heady experience. Once removed from their papery pods, slightly sticky cardamom seeds begin to release a menthol-y, floral, musty, sweet aroma that intensifies with a light toasting. Indigenous to Asia, cardamom grows wild in the forests of India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs 65). To extend the profits of one of the world’s most expensive spices — only saffron and vanilla rank higher — cardamom cultivation now extends to Guatemala, Costa Rica and Tanzania. While some argue that Indian-grown cardamom is higher quality, the average cardamom consumer would likely be unable to discern the provenance of various pods.

Average consumers might not be able to differentiate between Indian and Central American cardamom, but they will be able to distinguish between the major varieties of the spice. Cardamom can be found in green, black and white varieties. Green cardamom, with its small papery pod, is the most common variety. Black cardamom — with its large, deeply ridged pod and smoky aroma — is used primarily in Northern-Indian and Sichuan cooking. White cardamom is green pods that bleached for aesthetic purposes. Yet, with all these varieties, the sterile plastic jar of ground cardamom remains how most cooks allude to the potent spice.

Cardamom’s floral flavour most frequently imparts warmth and depth to Indian curries and spice mixes. It amplifies toasty rice in a savoury biryani and heightens the warmth of a sweet masala chai. But its prevalence doesn’t mean its strong, slightly strange bouquet is always welcome. Writing for Saveur, Monica Bhide says she eschewed the spice as a child, despite its permanent residence in her house. Although cardamom might seem to be an age acquired flavour, Bhide suggests the secret ingredient that helped her discover cardamom’s friendlier side wasn’t so age-exclusive. It was fat and sugar.

Just as Starbucks’ luscious sweet chai lattes prime the palate for more exotic flavours, combining cardamom with fat and sugar activates a softer, more appealing side to the luxurious spice. While Americans might rightly reply that their chai’s friendly cinnamon and nutmeg obscure the cardamom, Bhide wouldn’t agree. Neither would legions of Swedes and Finns, who enjoy cardamom forward kardemummabullar and pulla. Cardamom-scented treats avail themselves of the spice’s superpower: it’s fat-soluble. When combined with butter, cardamom’s aroma softens into a halo of warmth. This gentler side of cardamom is cinnamon’s exotic cousin, making for a friendlier taste than the pine-y, floral aroma that repelled a young Bhide and legions of Americans, familiar with the spice’s oft-jarring savoury side.

Whereas Indian cookery takes advantage of the country’s indigenous cardamom, Scandinavia’s taste for the spice evolved over centuries. As Vikings pillaged and plundered Mediterranean waterways, they found cardamom in Constantinople and brought the spice home as a symbol of their successes. Scandinavians embrace cardamom to this day. Although there doesn’t exist a record of how the spice was originally used, its presence in contemporary pastry bears little resemblance to its Indian manifestations.

Bite into a dusty cardamom spritz cookie and it’s evident that the cardamom-fat-sugar reaction doesn’t make for a universally delicious treat. The eater needs to find a bridge between sweet cardamom and savoury cardamom. If each dish eaten exists in relation with the previous dishes one has consumed, the overwhelming prevalence of cardamom in Indian curries and sweets prevents their flavour lexicon from accepting both cardamom-Indian-savoury to cardamom-Scandinavian-sweet or cardamom-sweet.

In The Flavor Thesaurus Niki Segnit offers eighteen pairings for cardamom. Twelve of these cite sweet Indian dishes, all of which Segnit describes using various synonyms for cloying. Segnit implies that Indian-inspired cardamom-laced sweets should be avoided for their brash tastes and excessive sugar content. While Indian desserts remain polarizing for Western palates, cardamom’s evocation of excessive sweetness doesn’t seem sufficient reason to urge eaters away from the floral spice. Indeed, recipe aggregators such as Food 52 and FoodGawker present more recipes for sweet uses of cardamom than savoury. Cardamom snickerdoodles use a childhood treat to safely introduce the spice. Spice-spiked granola subtly alters the taste of a routine breakfast. These desserts provide a bridge between India’s floral cardamom and Scandinavia’s honey-sweet use of the spice. Thus, cardamom can be seen as a more exotic cinnamon: imparting warmth and depth, cardamom allows a familiar dessert to hint at something foreign, and indulgent.

Cardamom; the spice hints at the exotic, the rich and the indulgent while oscillating between nostalgia and novelty, according to the eater’s association with the its flavour. While certain Indian dishes may appeal to Western eaters, the American’s nostalgic relationship with Ikea cinnamon rolls makes it easier for them to enjoy a cardamom-laced bun as an exotic, sophisticated twist on that memory.

 

Image via Dave Sutherland on Flickr

Five Friday Reads 17.04.2015

Vienna

  • What it Really Means to Eat a Big Mac in the Arctic Circle‘ from Eater. When McDonald’s is far away, the food conveys a sense of normalcy that makes any interaction with the product a memorable experience.
  • The Right Wine to Drink with a Sandwich‘ from The New York Times. Fancy wine and low-brow sandwiches sound like an odd combination? Eric Asimov presents myriad inspired, surprising pairings that force you to reconsider what it means to eat a sandwich and drink wine.
  • ‘Turbulent Calm: Dispatches from the front line in the war against distraction’ from Good (33). Living in the present and being mindful are the keys for a happy life, right? This refreshing article argues that focusing on mindfulness can sometimes feel all too mindless.
  • My Saga: Part Two‘ from The New York Times. It may have taken me more than a month to read it, but I loved the second part of Knausgaard’s journey through America.
  • Breaking Tradition‘ from Monocle (82). In a country known for their history and traditions, Milan stands apart for seeking innovation, even in struggling industries such as print and media.

Authenticity Is Trending: What Indikitch’s Salads Reveal about American Taste

Paneer tikka feast, Indikitch

 

If the perfectly engineered food juxtaposes crunchy and chewy, soft and crisp, spicy and cool, this modern meal reaches its acme as a saag paneer salad from Indikitch, a fast casual Indian restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District. At $9.50, tax included, it’s one of the area’s bargain meals and, with salad and spinach and onions, ranks among the neighbourhood’s healthier lunches as well. And, while there’s no doubt that the meal contains a multitude of less-than-virtuous oils and preservatives, these unpleasant ingredients don’t reveal the keys to the dish’s success. For that, it’s the trends that illuminate salient truths on how to transform a routine meal into a memorable dish.

News outlets of every sort routinely announce Indian food’s eminent likeability. Packed full of juxtaposing and complementary spices, Indian-style dishes present an unprecedented range of flavours in each bite. While some argue that Indian food hasn’t saturated the market sufficiently to be labelled a trend, the recent rise in Indian restaurants suggests that Indian food is increasingly accepted as a way to get one’s ethnic food fix. Thus, a budding group of Americans embrace Indian fast-casual restaurants, pre-packaged curry sauces and pillow-y naan as a means for interacting with popular contemporary flavour.

Despite its appealing flavours and growing visibility, Indian food must shake off its reputation as dirty and unhealthy to conquer lunchtime. To battle these notions, Indikitch prepares all hot mains to order in front of the customers and includes a salad on their menu. Combining New York’s chopped salad mania and India’s sauce-y curries, Indikitch’s so-called Live Fire salads seem custom designed to appeal to image conscious New Yorkers. The salad begins with a bed of chopped lettuce —romaine hearts from an off-brand bag — and shredded red cabbage. To this a lemon-y coriander dressing added, giving the salad a much-needed dose of creaminess. On top of this one of the hot, made-to-order, mains adds a chewy textural contrast and the requisite punch of Indian flavour. A dusting of crunchy chickpea chips gets sprinkled on top, completing the crisp-chewy-crunchy trinity. Fully composed, the salad recognizably belongs to New York’s health-conscious mania, but boasts sufficient tweaks to masquerade as an ethnic, desirable fast food dish.

Despite the salad’s cleverly crafted cravability, it’s blatant pandering to New York tastes complicates what it means to eat Indian in the city. Shouldn’t good ethnic eater — those astute culinary colonisers — order an ostensibly authentic meal to honour Indian food tradition? Perhaps a Feast Plate with a side of daal and carrot salad or a dosa filled with Goan fish curry. Yet, proclaiming to adore Indian food is a statement as misguided as swearing to love Italian food; regarding each country’s respective cuisine as a cohesive entity is an unabashedly foreign construction. Just as canederli and sfogliatella remain marked as Northern and Southern respectively, a more accurate picture of Indian cuisine would reflect the different sub-groups present in one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. If so-called Indian food was consumed without engaging in culinary colonialism, menus would list Punjabi tandoori chicken and Tamil uttapam. But this doesn’t happen. Consequently, representations of Indian food in the US suggest that Americans are eager to interact with foreign cuisines only when they possess recognizable elements.

Crunchy, chewy, creamy. Sweet, sour, spicy. These combinations build a magnetic sphere of attraction around a specific dish. They make irresistible crisp potato chips dunked in creamy sour cream and legendary salty-hot French fries plunged into thick-cool milkshakes. If creating a trendy food requires finding the pre-existing market niche into which a new product can fit, Indikitch presents Indian food as cravable as a plate of nachos or pile of General Tso’s chicken. In order for a dish to dominate lunchtime, it must easily integrate into the area’s culinary lexicon; it’s easier to sell a new type of sandwich to a population that already consumes sandwiches than it is to convince the sandwich-eaters to adopt the thali.

Manufacturing the aura of healthiness through salad helps. Although eating at Indikitch allows the diner to indulge their ethnic food curiosity, the salad, as a recognizable token of New York healthy, ensures culturally agreed upon virtuosity balances mouth-watering flavour. Indikitch isn’t limited to an authentic portrayal of Indian cookery because the diner already possesses an inkling that the country’s cuisine is too diverse to be elegantly articulated in through a choice of six dishes. But don’t say Indikitch’s Live Fire Salad isn’t authentic; it is. The salad is an accurate portrayal of what it means to consume a quick-trendy lunch in New York in 2015.

Image credits: Flickr via Garrett Ziegler

Five Friday Reads 10.04.2015

Helsinki

  • Book Review: Christina Tosi Climbs to the Top of Cool Girl Mountain with Milk Bar Life‘ from Eater. Christina Tosi, the genius mastermind behind Momofuku Milk Bar and blueberries and cream cookies, released her second cookbook this week, Milk Bar Life. Whereas her first cookbook focused on the unique techniques and recipes that helped the Milk Bar earn its reputation, this book puts Tosi at the centre, for better or for worse.
  • When It Comes to Reading, Is Pleasure Suspect?‘ from The New York Times. I was thrilled when Bookends featured Anna Holmes and Benjamin Moser discussing the relation of the reader to pleasure. My view? After endless judgement values from teachers on the books I read or didn’t read, I enjoy reading it all: from the relentlessly pleasurable to the intellectually gratifying (which isn’t to say the two are mutually exclusive).
  • A Passage to India‘ from The New York Times. In 2008, The New York Times convinced food studies scholar Krishendu Ray to visit Indian restaurants around the city and analyze what they revealed about eating ethnic.
  • The Rise of the Mile-High Building‘ from New York Magazine. Architects, engineers and dreamers have long fantasized about building cloud-reaching sky scrapers. But this new mile high building wouldn’t look like it’s predecessors.
  • The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. If you, like me, enjoy De Botton’s highly crafted language that attempts to change our perspective on a host of everyday peculiarities, you’ll enjoy his exploration of the working world, from humble fisheries to big city accountancies.

Chokladboll: Sweden’s no-bake favourite

Chokladboll

 

One bite and Sweden prevails. Maybe you taste punschrulle, the marzipan log with a chocolate cap. Or possibly you sample a slice of princesstårta, the ethereal layer cake piled high with whipped cream and topped with a regal rose. Most likely, you eat chokladboll. One bite of this sweet, chewy, chocolate-y oat-based truffle and you realise that Sweden contains more than just Ikea, Larsson and meatballs. It contains everyday life the same as everywhere else.

Chokladbollar are Sweden’s generous coconut-dusted contribution to the no-bake sweets pantheon. Made from oats, butter, sugar, cocoa powder and a splash of coffee or whiskey if you’re preparing them for adults. The recipe resembles a child’s project: pour, stir and shape the resulting mess like you used to make Play-Doh cookies. Although they’re easy to make at home, chokladbollar dot café pastry displays, 7 Eleven sweet cases, and grocery store check out queues. They are the ultimate fika, coffee break, companion; less sticky and more satisfying than a cloying cardamom bun.

While Sweden proudly displays their love for chokladboll, no-bake sweets are an international language for which each country possesses a unique dialect. America talks rice krispie treats; the UK banters rocky road; Italy expounds salame al ciccolato; France discourses roses des sables. While these desserts occasionally appear in bakeries, the home kitchen is their true domain. But not in Sweden, where chokladbollar are as common at the grocery store as in the fridge. This isn’t surprising. After all, chokladbollar pair well with dark winter skies and look meticulous enough to please Queen Sofia. If each country has their own no-bake, super-rich dessert that reflects their nostalgic tastes, Sweden’s chokladboll demonstrates the nation’s paradoxical combination of austerity and opulence.

Fortunately, chokladboll are easy to make in your own kitchen and taste regal alongside your non-Swedish coffee. So let’s go: grab your oats, about a cup or so will do — we only need a small batch. Then get your butter, cocoa powder — the good stuff only, please, no Hershey’s here — and coffee (because we can). You’ll need some sugar, grab it from the out-of-the-way shelf it lives on in your pantry. Now, combine. Rub the butter into the oats and pour in the sugar and the cocoa powder. Toss them with reckless abandon into flaked coconut or pearl sugar if you’re fancy. It’s messy; you might want to grab an apron if you haven’t done so already. But they’re good. They’re oh-so good. Not right now, of course. Like all no-bake treats, chokladbollar need to rest so that the oats become soft and chewable. Slap the formed truffles in the fridge and wait. Listen to Robyn, read about Max Burger, ogle pictures of the royal family. By now a few hours should have passed. Go to your fridge, get your cookies, brew some coffee and eat.

Sweden’s refined treats may woo the palate with delicate textures, interesting flavours and plenty of sweetness, but it’s their no-bake chokladboll that effortlessly negotiates borders, allowing anyone with a mixing bowl to understand better understand this Nordic nation. There’s a reason they dominate pastry cases in the country: they are a simple comfort, small enough to be enjoyed frequently and rich enough to steel you against the dark winter. Their ubiquity only makes them more appealing, a reminder that you’re never too far away from the comforts of home. In Sweden you can rest assured a chokladboll is only a few paces away and, along with it, is the warmth and the reassuring taste of nostalgia.

Note: Looking for a proper recipe? I’ve had good luck with this recipe from Food.com. I also like She Simmers’ idea of using instant oats.