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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: The Ultimate Wood-Fired Oven Book

We've all got our mental lists of things to do. Some are chores: this week I've gotta mow the lawn, go to the dry cleaner, etc. Some are things we want, and actually plan, to do:  going to an upcoming event, perhaps, or trying that new pizza place that just opened up. And of course, there's the bucket list:  "If I live long enough, someday I will ___."
And then there's another list, that I'll call the fantasy list. It's the list of things you'd like to do, but that deep down you know you almost certainly never will.
I, for example, have a fantasy of someday visiting the Faroe Islands. (It would take too long to explain here.) I'm pretty sure I never will, but that doesn't stop me from daydreaming about it.
And that's more or less how I feel about a home wood-fired oven. I'd like to have one. Love one, in fact. But deep down, I know I don't have the combination of the means, desire and know-how to get it done.
But that doesn't mean I don't like thinking about it. That's why it's a fantasy. And who knows? Things could change. Maybe I'll finally get on Jeopardy!, win enough to pay off the mortgage and send our daughter to college, and still have enough left over to pay somebody to build me a state-of-the-art wood-fired oven, while I'm off hiking across the Faroes.
So I was happy to accept a review copy of the second edition of The Ultimate Wood-Fired Oven Book, from Schiffer Publishing. In its 144 pages, author Anna Carpenter addresses what you need to know about designing, building and using an outdoor wood-fired oven. It's got enough practical advice to guide you through the entire process, and enough eye candy to keep you amused, even if all you want to do is fantasize about what your dream oven might look like, someday.
The book is lavishly illustrated, with lots of full-color photographs. But those photos are accompanied by enough text to make this a useful guide to actually constructing a wood-fired oven.
Let's start with the text. The book is logically organized, starting with the anatomy of a wood-fired oven, and progressing through planning, materials, building and using your oven, as well as a chapter on tools and accessories that you'll want to keep handy once you start cooking.
Naturally, I zeroed in on the pizza recipe. Keeping in mind that this is not a cookbook, it's fine, as far as it goes. The dough recipe calls for a short two-hour rise (better to plan ahead and refrigerate the dough overnight) but it's good enough, as a basic quick recipe. And the instructions on baking the pizza are useful, but if you've taken the trouble to build a wood-fired oven, you'll want to learn more about mastering the art of wood-fired pizza.
One thing I found interesting is that the pizza recipe calls for applying fresh mozzarella in cubes, rather than round slices. I guess the idea is that the oven will be so hot that the cubes will quickly liquefy and spread out. I'll try that next time I make pizza.
As useful as the text is, the photos are the best feature of the book. They are varied enough to give the reader good ideas about how to place, design and build a wood-fired oven. Where I live right now, the spot I've picked out for my fantasy oven is right underneath a tree, which concerned me, but the photos in the book indicate that it might be very doable. (So there goes one of my excuses for not having built an oven yet.)
There are also photos and hand-drawn illustrations of the construction process, as well as cross-section diagrams of different types of wood-fired ovens. The latter include detailed specs identifying the particular components and their placement.
Even the photos that don't have any direct relevance to my situation, I found fun to look at. They run the gamut from relatively modest ovens, in a variety of settings, to behemoths worthy of a Roman emperor (speaking of which, there are some photos at the beginning of the book of an excavated oven in Pompeii, Italy, that show how little has changed in the basic design of wood-fired ovens over the past 2000 years).
If you're seriously considering installing a wood-fired oven at home, you'll want this book. I'm sure you'll want to consult some additional resources, too, but for its combination of how-to advice and inspiration, this volume is hard to beat. It might even get you to move "wood-fired oven" from your fantasy list to your bucket list.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Pie Time, Lake Ave.

I stopped recently at Pie Time, just off Lake Avenue in Charlotte. The site has been home to several pizzerias over the years.
I got there around lunchtime, and a pie was just coming out of the oven. It was a half-cheese, half-pepperoni pie, and I opted for a slice of the latter.
First impressions. Pizza tends to be at its most aromatic when it's freshly baked, and with this one I caught a whiff of garlic. Overall, not a bad looking slice, at first glance at least.
A check of the underside revealed a couple of things. It was unevenly browned,with some areas dark brown and some pale.
The crust was also uneven in terms of thickness, as shown in the bottom photo. One side of the slice, paper thin, the other rather thick, probably close to an inch. Even on the thick side, though, it did not seem to have risen much; it wasn't dense, in a heavy, leaden kind of way, but it wasn't bubbly either. The interior was what I would describe as cottony.
The edge was formed into a cornicione of uniform thickness. It was browned on top, pale underneath, with a crunchy exterior. There was a smidgen of oven soot along one part of the underside.
On top, the cheese was a little browned and congealed. It was chewy, but not very smooth or stretchy.
There wasn't much sauce to speak of. What there was had a thick consistency, with a generous amount of dried herbs (although I can't say whether the herbs were in the sauce to begin with or were sprinkled on after the sauce was applied).
The cup and char pepperoni slices were well crisped along the edge, tasty and not overly oily.
Pie Time pizzas come in 10-, 12- and 16-inch sizes, as well as sheets. They offer 16 toppings. A cheese slice will set you back $3, not bad for a slice this big.
They also do wings, calzones, stromboli, subs and wraps, fish fry, "plates," a few dinners (chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs and the like), and the usual sides:  fries, onion rings, etc. Although Pie Time's website still shows them opening at 3 p.m., the menu I picked up has them open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. As I mentioned, I got there around noon and a lunchtime pie was in the oven.
Reading back over what I've written, I get the sense that this review makes this slice sound worse than it was. I started with my first impressions, and I'll close with my overall impression. It wasn't bad, but there were a lot of flaws. No one defect stood out or ruined this slice for me, but put all the little stuff together and you've got a slice that just wasn't too good. I have to give this a D.

Pie Time, 4410 Lake Ave.
434-4766 (phone) 434-5464 (fax)

Open daily 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Arthur Jaxon

I stopped the other day at Arthur Jaxon, a new, family-run place on West Ridge Road. It's in a small stand-alone building in West Ridge Plaza, a little west of Dewey Ave. It's pretty much a takeout place, for now at least.
The establishment's full name is Arthur Jaxon Slice & Scoop, which reflects its two main offerings:  pizza and ice cream. On this occasion, I only sampled the pizza.
They had plain cheese and pepperoni slices available; I opted for the former. For $2.50, it was a pretty hefty slice.
The crust was generally on the thin side, with a lightly browned bottom, crisscrossed by screen marks. The interior had a pleasant, fresh-bread aroma, flavor and texture, which was most noticeable in the thicker area near the outer edge. It wasn't as crisp as I would've liked -- a couple minutes' reheating would likely have helped on that score -- but it tasted good, and it wasn't soggy.
Balance is key with pizza, and the crust, sauce and cheese on this slice complemented each other well. The sauce had a bright, tomatoey flavor, with a salty edge. A moderate layer of processed mozzarella was well melted and creamy. It was good cheese, as the individual bits had melted into each other to form a smooth whole, rather than pulling apart and exuding oil, as the lower-quality stuff tends to do. Pockets of exposed sauce added some interest with each bite.
Arthur Jaxon offers pizza in 14", 18" and sheet sizes, with an impressive variety of options:  white or whole wheat crust; red, pink or white sauce; four cheeses; ten meat toppings; eleven veggie toppings; and eight specialty pizzas. They also do baked chicken fingers and boneless wings (five sauces), calzones, a few other baked sides, and the aforementioned ice cream. The ice cream comes from Perry's, which I love, as I've said before.
This was a good slice of pizza. If I have any issues with it, it would just be that I'd have liked the crust a little crisper. Next time I'd ask for my slice to get rewarmed to medium-well. All in all, though, a very nice slice, and well-made pizza. Arthur Jaxon is off to a good start on what I hope will be a long-running business.

Arthur Jaxon Slice & Scoop, 630 West Ridge Rd. (in West Ridge Plaza)

(585) 581-0222

Open daily 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.