Friday, December 23, 2011

On Christmas Eve: A Little of This, A Pinch of That

Growing up in a first generation Italian-American family in Brooklyn, Christmas was a big deal. My father's entire family would gather at my Grandmother's house on Christmas Eve for our yearly party. With my grandparents, parents, my father's five sisters, their husbands and all 17 of us grandkids, you can imagine the chaos, especially when Santa arrived! (It was played by one of my uncles until the older grandkids got wise and pointed out to the younger ones which uncle was missing--then a neighbor was pressed into service.) Somehow it all worked out and we had a grand time every year. 

Of course, being Italian, food played a starring role in the celebration. My grandmother did the whole "Seven Fishes" tradition.....I particularly remember seeing, though not tasting, a cold purplish octopus salad. As the years went on and my Grandmother was no longer up to the task of cooking for everyone, the aunts and my mom would each cook a dish to contribute to the gathering. But they no longer slavishly kept to the traditional seafood feast, deferring instead to Americanized dishes their kids found more appealing--casseroles, baked chicken dishes, roast beef, etc. 

By the time all of us "kids" were married with kids of our own, the communal Christmas Eve tradition had been replaced by smaller, nuclear family gatherings. So now, Christmas Eve has become our family's special celebration, as my husband says, the "real" Christmas for us. Christmas Day is for the extended family but the Eve has become the day when just my husband and I, our three "kids" (including our lovely daughter-in-law) and now our awesome grandson, gather to eat, drink, and of course, open gifts! 

When deciding what to cook for our intimate celebration, we chose to incorporate some of the flavors of my childhood as well as the memories of my husband's Sicilian family Christmas Eve. We tweaked the dishes to suit our family preferences and included foods special to us, ending up with a meal that to outsiders probably seems completely strange and weird, but to us, it's just Christmas Eve! Here goes:

Crab legs, drawn butter, lemon (a wink and a nod to my family's 7 fishes)
A selection of pizzas (one of which was my husband's traditional Christmas Eve dinner)
Green Salad (just because it doesn't seem like dinner without salad)
Sparkling Cider, Beer, Wine
Homemade Christmas Cookies (it only comes once a year!)
Torrone (not the creamy nougat kind, but more of an almond brittle tinged with lemon that my mother's mother taught us how to make)

The pizza that my husband's grandmother used to make has little chunks of Romano cheese pushed into the dough before it cooks, then tomato sauce, grated Romano and oregano are added and the whole thing is baked on a blazing hot pizza stone for a crisp crust and a chewy interior. I also make the standard pizza with mozzarella, thick tomato sauce and Romano cheese. In recent years, I've added a three cheese white pizza to the table, as well as one that takes inspiration from Spanakopitas, the Greek spinach and feta turnovers, but adds delicious Asiago cheese for an amazing and unexpected punch of flavor. But they all start with an incredible (and incredibly easy) pizza dough.

Pizza or Focaccia Dough
Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 450°

Ingredients for dough:
1 pkg. yeast
1 cup warm water (NOT hot!)
1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
3 to 3-1/2 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt

(quantities for each are for one recipe of dough)

For Focaccia (brush with extra virgin olive oil, then add:)
coarse salt & cracked pepper
oregano or rosemary (crumbled)

Spinach Pizza (combine all & spread on dough)
2 cloves garlic, minced & sauteed in oil
1 small onion, diced & sauteed in oil
1 (10 oz.) pkg. chopped spinach, defrosted & squeezed dry
1/2 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 lb. Asiago cheese, grated

Sal’s Special Sicilian Pizza
chunks of Romano cheese (press into dough)
tomato sauce
grated Romano cheese

White Pizza (combine all & spread on dough)
1 lb. ricotta
1/4 lb. Grana Padano or Romano cheese, grated
1/4 lb. Asiago cheese, grated
1 small clove garlic, minced or grated

Traditional Pizza
olive oil
tomato sauce
1 lb. mozzarella, grated
Romano or Parmigiano cheese, grated

To make dough, dissolve yeast in warm water in the mixer bowl. Add oil, 3 cups of the flour and the salt (add last so as not to kill the yeast). Using the dough hook, knead until a soft dough forms that cleans the sides of the bowl. If necessary, add some of the additional flour or a few tablespoons of extra water. Knead the dough for at least 3 to 5 minutes to develop the gluten. (Alternatively, stir the ingredients together with a wooden spoon until mostly combined, then dump out onto a floured cutting board or table. Knead by hand for 5 to 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Return dough to bowl.) Cover the bowl with foil and set in a warm, not hot, place to rise for about an hour, or until dough has doubled in size. (You can either set your oven on very low heat for a minute or two, then turn it off and let dough rise within the closed oven, or just put the bowl on your counter somewhere away from drafts and cover with a couple of thick towels to retain the dough's own heat. Just make sure the dough has approximately doubled before continuing, even if it takes longer than an hour.) Punch dough down and allow it to rise again for about 45 minutes. 

Preheat a pizza stone or unglazed lead-free quarry tiles at 450° for about 15 minutes. Form the pizza or focaccia (about 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick or as thick as you like it) on a pizza peel or wood cutting board, using plenty of flour beneath the dough. Add whatever toppings you like and quickly slide it onto the tiles. Bake about 10 minutes (depending on how thick you made it) until the edges are nicely browned. To BBQ, set the naked dough on the grill; cook covered at lowest heat for 3 to 5 minutes (watch for bottom burning!), turn, add toppings and cook second side until lightly brown.

Notes & Pointers:
When assembling the pizza, don’t use warm toppings…they will soften the dough and make it impossible to slide it off the peel! Or, if you’re not feeling brave, build the pizza on non-stick foil and slide the whole thing into the oven. The pizza will easily release from the foil once it is cooked. 

Don't be intimidated by the prospect of making your own dough--it is really quite forgiving. The only thing you can do really wrong is kill the yeast. Other than that, you can pretty much do anything. Not enough time? Let the dough rise only once. Your guests are late for dinner? Let the dough rise three or even four times, just punch it down every hour or so. Snowstorm cancelled dinner? Pop the well wrapped dough in the freezer and use it within a few months. Unwrap and defrost in the fridge in a covered bowl, then bring it up to room temp and continue where you left off. Even if you do manage to kill the yeast and the dough doesn't rise at all, just dissolve some fresh yeast in a little warm water and knead it into the dough, adding a bit of extra flour to make up for the extra water. It'll still be great--I know, I've done it!

Merry Christmas!

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