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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Product Review: Schwan's Starter Crust

Even if you're not a customer of theirs, you've probably seen Schwan's trucks at some point. Schwan's is a food service company that not only serves commercial clients, but individuals too. They offer a wide array of frozen foods, from entrees to side dishes to dessert, which you order from their catalog or website, and they'll deliver them to your door. I've had some of their food before, and it's not bad.
As you might expect, frozen pizzas are among Schwan's offerings. And while no frozen pizza will ever compare, for my money, with a freshly baked pie using freshly made dough, I don't categorically hate frozen pizza; some of it's not bad, and it might not be a bad idea to have one or two in your freezer, to use in a pinch.
Well now Schwan's is trying something a little different - a frozen "Starter Crust," which is simply a raw pizza crust that's been "fresh frozen" (which seems like an oxymoron, but I know what they mean, I guess) with the idea that you can add your own toppings and bake it in your home oven. I guess the concept is that this gives you more control over the final product, which, in theory at least, will taste more fresh than frozen.
I recently accepted a sample pack for review. This consisted of two 13" crusts, each of which was shrink-wrapped on an individual disposable tray. I baked them on successive days, with a slightly different approach each time.
With both crusts, I found when I removed them from the box that they were cracked right down the middle. This might've happened when I stuck the box in my freezer, because I have a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, and it was a bit of a tight fit, although I didn't think at the time that I had shoved it in too hard. That wasn't much of an issue with the first pie, though, since the crust nested snugly in the tray, and the whole thing went into the oven.
The crust had a preformed edge that helped hold in the sauce and other toppings, though its machine-stamped appearance detracted a bit from the "homemade" concept. It wasn't so noticeable, though, after I'd spread the sauce around and the pizza came out of the oven.
Following the instructions on the box, I baked the pie at 425 degrees for a little under 20 minutes, going by the appearance of the toppings to decide when to remove it.
What I got was a pizza that was, well, OK. The medium-thick crust was a bit crunchy on the surface, though the crust was not particularly dark. It seemed to be studded with small grain-like particles, which led me to think that it was dusted or made with cornmeal, but cornmeal was not on the list of ingredients. I'm frankly not sure where that crunch came from.
The interior of the crust was a bit dry, and not very bready. It was, well, much like I would expect a frozen crust to be, which is to say, not spectacular. (It's been quite awhile since I had one of the so-called self-rising frozen pizzas, so I'm speaking here of "regular" frozen pizza, which - like this one - doesn't rise in the oven.)
The one area where this pizza was better than a typical frozen pizza was the toppings, which, of course, weren't frozen. One of the problems with frozen pizzas is that the sauce, cheese and other toppings can dry out in the freezer, and baking only dries them out even more. My freshly-added toppings were pretty ordinary -a basic red sauce and shredded mozzarella, plus hand-sliced pepperoni on one side and fresh peppers and onions on the other - but they gave the pie a vibrancy that I wouldn't expect from a typical frozen pizza.
The second time around, I took the crust out of the tray, topped it, and slid it onto preheated oven tiles, with the oven set at 500 degrees.
One problem with this was that because the crust was cracked, I had a little difficulty getting it out of the oven. I ended up taking it out in three pieces and reassembling it outside the oven, with some stray bits of cheese left behind to carbonize on the tiles.
The good news was that the crust was better this time, with a darker bottom that was more crisp, as opposed to simply crunchy, than the tray-baked pie. Otherwise, this pie was very similar to the first one.
So what do I think of the notion of a frozen "starter crust"? Well, these pizzas, overall, tasted like what they were - a compromise between fresh and frozen pizza. Better than the latter, but not as good as the former.
If you ordinarily have the ingredients on hand to top a pizza - sauce, cheese, etc. - it might be worth it to have a couple of these on hand when you want a quick pizza fresh out of the oven. Personally, I'd prefer to make a big batch of pizza dough and freeze some of it, but if you don't feel like going to that trouble, well, this does beat your typical frozen pizza. For what it is, it's not bad, but whether it's worth ordering depends on how much you're willing to sacrifice, pizzawise, for the sake of a little added convenience.
Schwan's Starter Crust, $7.24 for a package of two.

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