too many chefs

 

A few weeks ago, I gathered some friends together at my place.  We had intended to make it a ‘games night’ – a throwback to our youth when we used to get together every week and play ping pong and board games in my parents’ basement  That weekend was a long weekend, so the Sunday evening get-together was a good opportunity to meet on what would ordinarily be a school night.  We often get together at the Bull and Last in Highgate on a Sunday,  a pub which offers delicious food and a quiz every Sunday evening.  I will be there 2 weekends out of every month, (teammates will vary) and although none of us are big drinkers, we eat enough food for the staff to be friendly and welcoming whenever we are there.  I love a pub quiz, but there are certain things I require of them.  Firstly: the questions themselves should be at a level where everyone there has a chance of answering about 50% of them accurately.  The first pub quiz I ever went to was in Highgate again, at the Prince of Wales pub and those questions were so difficult, it was like sitting in an oral exam that you hadn’t been warned was coming, for a course you weren’t aware you were taking.  We sat there with frozen expressions on our faces and cheered if we got 2 out of every 10 questions right.  Needless to say, the people in that particular pub were either exceptionally gifted, or exceptionally gifted.  The same team won every week, a group of 6 gentlemen of a certain age and hygiene level who were responsible for the entire number of anoraks sold in Highgate for the past 30 years.  Personally speaking, I felt truly ignorant in that pub, and so after a while, I took myself out of the equation.  I stopped attending the quiz that made me feel so inadequate, after all, I can feel inadequate at home alone watching Nigella on TV or reading anything by Caitlin Moran, I don’t need to pay to be made to feel uninformed and oblivious.  The highlight of our time at the Prince of Wales was winning the beer round once (ironic since none of us drank).  I don’t remember how we did it, but I think the questions were specifically about Greek sports and we had a few Greek athletes on our team or something.  Either way, we felt like Kings and that carried us for a month or two before we gave up and sought a quiz that was more our level.

The second thing I require of the pub quiz is that it is at a time when you can enjoy it and still be in bed early.  The Bull and Last quiz is perfect because it usually finishes by 10 so even though it’s a Sunday we still don’t feel like naughty kids on a school night. Finally, I think that cheating should be frowned upon for two reasons: 1) I am too chicken to do it and if I even think about it I will get caught, and 2) er- it’s cheating.  If you cheat the victory is hollow, man.

I digress though.  We didn’t actually quiz on Sunday because they were fully booked.  So everyone came here for a get-together.  Being Greek I obviously have to provide food.  The idea of someone coming into the house and not being offered enough food for a small army is anathema to me and many other Greeks I assume.  I already had people coming over for lunch so I had been cooking in the morning for that.  This leads me to another small deviation from the point.  I had my old boss and the boy I had been a nanny to for 11 or so years come over for lunch.  The boy, P, is 14 now, about six foot tall and growing taller by the minute.  His Mum A, and he came over and I cooked a roast.  I have never cooked a roast for 3 people before.  When I saw the meat, I thought it looked about the size of a steak that I would serve to one Greek.  Still I thought, these people are not Greeks, so it should be ok.  I made roasties, Yorkshire puddings, and roasted veggies, and a huge pavlova for dessert.  I figured it would be ok, but part of me really worried.  I have cooked roast beef with all the trimmings several hundred times in my life.  The difference here is that I was cooking 700g of meat, 500g potatoes, 500g veggies and 12 Yorkshire puddings.  I usually cook at least 3 kgs of meat, 3 kgs of potatoes and a tonne of veg not to mention a triple dose of Yorkshire puddings and a vat of gravy.  A roast dinner usually involves me turning the oven on at 11am in order to have lunch ready for 2pm.   I won’t lie, I panicked.  I mean the meat was only in for 45 minutes.  45 minutes!  That’s not even as long as an episode of any show I watch.  Not that I trust myself to watch TV when I am cooking.  I am far too easily dsitracted.  No, I don’t stray too far from the kitchen and the timer is always beeping like a nagging husband reminding me to rotate pans, switch stuff on and off and generally keep my mind on the task at hand.

It was a learning exercise, to be sure.  I couldn’t trust that the meal would be ok because it seemed too quick.  I don’t know if it is a Greek thing or if it is a Maria thing, but foods that cook quickly make me deeply suspicious.  I don’t trust that they will have time to do whatever it is they do that makes them taste delicious.  In Greece, many dishes require at least 24hrs of preparation.  There is no such thing as an impulsive meal.  Especially if you are making pulses, everything needs soaking, boiling draining, more boiling, more soaking, resting and eventually eating. (of course, here with canned pulses readily available, this time is shortened considerably, but any Greek cook will tell you that it doesn’t count or taste as good (to which I say bollocks, it tastes great and I didn’t have to put it in the diary two weeks ago)).  Even cookies take forever, the Christmas cookies or kourabiedes that we make in their hundreds at Christmas time are prepared and baked in a couple of hours, and then sit overnight on a cloud of icing sugar so that the butter drains out of them.  Nothing is instant in Greek cooking and the saying goes: to kalo pragma argei –  good things take time.  Time is one thing but going from zero to Sunday roast in an hour is quite another. Anyway, did I say I was easily distracted?  The previous two paragraphs were proof of that.  Back to the get together.  I thought it might be nice to make pizza.

I have already spoken about the life-changing baking course, and one of the things it has allowed me to do is eat pizza without selling a kidney to Mr [Insert Pizza Delivery Company here].  We now have pizza at least once a week, and it doesn’t cost us £20 per pizza. Because I had the guests earlier on, I hadn’t made the pizza, just the dough and it was ready to be rolled and topped with whatever toppings everyone wanted.  I had also made a large focaccia and had a plate of salamis and hams to keep up going while I got the pizza ready.  The doorbell rang and pretty much everyone arrived simultaneously.  Well – everyone except C, who has made arriving everywhere late into some sort of calling card or art form.  I thought people would sit in the front room and then I would nip in and roll the dough.  My friends were having none of it.

“We’ll stay in here and keep you company” they said.

“OK, I’ll start rolling out the dough, you think about what toppings you want.” I said.

I started rolling.

“Are you going to roll it like that?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, because I usually roll it out like this.”

“You haven’t added any flour.”

“What sort of tomato are you going to use?  Oh, we usually use puree.”

On and on the questions went and the ‘advice’ was coming hard and fast.  The get together/games night was rapidly escalating into a cookery demonstration in which the demonstrator appeared to be presenting a how not to make pizza.  As we loaded toppings onto the third pizza, C rang the bell.

“Hi guys!  What are we doing?”

“Maria’s making pizza.” was the answer.  I snorted.

“Don’t put the toppings onto your pizza if it isn’t already on the baking tray” said C.  I learned that one the hard way the other day with my kids.”

We all jumped down his throat.

“We’ve got it covered!”

“We’ve thought of that!”

“We have one of those paddles to scoop pizza out of the oven with.”

“We’re way ahead of you.”

He raised his hands in surrender.  “Ok, ok, sorry.  I was just telling you what happened to me…”

For the third pizza, we had allowed Y, a very good and very old (length of time, not age) friend of mine to choose the toppings.  He is known in our group for, amongst other things, his unusual food combinations.  To say that the pizza was fully loaded was an understatement.  I think the only thing this pizza didn’t have on it was bicycle parts and that is because I don’t have any in the house.

When the pizza was topped and we sprinkled over the oregano with a flourish, we tried to slide the paddle under the pizza to put it onto my newly acquired pizza stone which had been baking in the oven for about 25 minutes.  (sidebar – we assumed that’s what we were supposed to do with it, the instructions were in German and none of us could really do much apart from read the instructions in some approximation of a German Army officer and then fall about giggling helplessly at the word Achtung. No really, we are all adults.)  The paddle slid about 2mm under the pizza and then stuck.  We moved it this way and that, but as it turns out, C was absolutely right.  This baby was glued to the kitchen counter and the only way it was going into the oven in one piece was if said kitchen counter went in with it.  Time to come up with another plan.  Of course, everyone had a plan.

“Use the dough scraper to slide the silicone sheet underneath.”

“Keep pushing with the paddle.”

“Lift it up and dust with flour”

Finally, Y, who was going to be the main consumer of this particular pizza said:

“Screw it, just roll it up.”

May 2014 027

Swiss Pizza Roll (It’s not how it looks, it’s how it tastes)

 

 

And so we did.  We made a giant swiss roll of a pizza and put it in the oven.  All of the pizzas were tasty, and we finally realised that if you roll the dough out onto baking parchment, the whole thing lifts up onto the tray/stone and everyone’s a winner.  Worth it just for that knowledge really.

The pizza stone was a whole other story.  Once we had figured out that we had to pre-bake it to get it hot, it sat in the oven while the early attempts baked.  For the final pizza we attempted to use the paddle and slide in onto the stone whole it was still in the oven and succeeded in emptying the toppings onto the stone and keeping the base on the paddle.  Several attampts were made using knives, spatulas, oven gloves and sheer will and one of the pizzas was baked on the stone.  It tasted great, but then so did the others, and it all seemed a bit gimmicky.  The pizza stone is now decorated with pizza stains on both sides (don’t know how we managed that) and only comes out on special occasions. By special occasions, I mean when someone new (usually male) comes over and says,

“You have a pizza stone and you haven’t worked out how to use it properly?  I’ll work it out.  It can’t be that hard.”  (We still haven’t figured it out, but thanks for trying guys, I appreciate it and it is vastly entertaining.)

The pizza stone. Not as pretty or presentable as it once was, but now a candidate for display at the Saatchi Gallery.

 

What I realised that evening was that although not a single game was played, the fact that we all stood around in the kitchen eating salami and bread whilst waiting for more salami and bread to bake, and just talking rubbish with each other, was a perfect evening.  We had a laugh, a gossip, success and failure and a valuable catch up.  It is too long between these events, and I, for one promise to try harder.

On the subject of pizza, I should point out that I learned something else a few weeks later too.  Mid-preparation I ran out of baking parchment.  No matter I thought and used greaseproof paper instead.  Note to self:  One is no substitute for the other.  Cue scraping pizza off the paper and much chewing and spitting out of said paper.  Don’t try this at home folks.

But do try making pizza at home.  It’s cheaper, tastier, healthier and more satisfying than delivered pizza even if everyone else does have an opinion on how you should be doing (or not doing) it.

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