Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: In the vast and expansive homemade pizza playpen: What fantastic flavors will paint your pizza?
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 3, Chapter 13, "Flavor Themes"
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 05/03/23: $294.99
“But what do we mean by a flavor theme? It’s a combination of sauce, cheese and toppings that would work on virtually any style of pizza.” Thus begins the discussion of what to put on the top of your pizza.
My wife has been after me to write a book about pizza toppings. She feels like that’s something the marketplace is missing. I’m not sure whether I agree with that.
But the Modernistas could certainly write it. I hope they will. They’ve done the research and have the recipes. And it’s all here in Volume 3, Chapter 13, “Flavor Themes.” I admit, I’m excited by this. (Yes, my life has become very small.)
An example of a flavor theme is the classic tomato sauce and cheese. Other flavor themes come from the restaurant world via pasta sauces. When you order a cacio e pepe pizza, you’re not getting exactly the same thing as a bowl of cacio e pepe pasta. But you are getting a thematic representation thereof.
By this measure, it seems I’ve invented my own flavor themes. I’ve made gumbo pizza and etouffée pizza. They’re not strict representations of those dishes. But they’re pretty close. (They’re also great on a pizza.)
Maybe you’ve been doing something like this yourself. It’s a natural step in one’s pizza journey. But here in the Modernist Pizza chapter about flavor themes, anything I’ve ever done pales by comparison to the epic, pizza-toppings madness that’s going on here.
“The Don’t Hold The Mustard Pizza is a direct translation of a pastrami course that we serve at our dinners in the lab.” And fortunately, Mhyrvold & Migoya say exactly the kind of thing I’d hope to read in such a chapter: “The flavor themes that we developed for this chapter are our own or are inspired by chefs and our travels, but we encourage you to experiment.” (Emphasis added.)
The chapter begins with a discussion of their favorite flavor combinations. They also discuss “pizzaioli around the world” and the influences that got them where they are. We’re talking about some extraordinary pizza celebrities like Laura Meyer, Franco Pepe, Nancy Silverton and Gabrielle Bonce.
From there, we move into “Dressing up a pizza.” We’re talking simple additions like garnishes, drizzles and condiments. I admit, I’m all for chopped herbs, shaved truffles, sauces or powders. But gold leaf on pizza (or any food) has always struck me as a decadence that’s signaling the decline of western civilization. But maybe that’s just me.
Eating gold carries with it a symbolism that I’d rather not discuss when we’re talking about food. (Fortunately, I believe there is exactly one mention of gold in here, and no real discussion of how to use it.) I could say, “Hey, it’s an inorganic compound. Why are we ingesting it?!” The problem is, by that measure, we should also not be eating salt. So, moving on…
The section, “Did anyone order a plain cheese pizza” has half a dozen photos of different cheese pizzas, illustrating just how broad the cheese-pizza spectrum can be. And there’s a chart of more than a dozen different ways to make cheese pizza, from crushed red cherry tomatoes and ricotta on an al taglio pizza, to a thin-crust pizza with cream cheese on a strawberry marinara sauce. Nobody promised this would be boring, friends!
There’s a four-page chart of dough, sauce, cheese and topping recommendations for simple pizzas. It’s simple, thorough and very, very organized. If you’re a pro or a screaming anal-retentive (or both), this is the chart for you.
From there, the fun really begins. In “Simple Pizza Recipes,” we’re talking 18 pages of simple combinations and fantastic photos—some of which will have you thinking about combinations that you never would have considered previously. I admit that the sausage and Swiss chard artisan pizza turned my head. So simple. So unusual.
The chart has some great notes on making these recipes. The four-cheese pizza lists Gorgonzola as a topping added after baking. The accompanying note says, “If you apply Gorgonzola cheese before baking, it can melt out and you won’t see it on the baked pizza.”
My favorite note is the one accompanying their Hawaiian pizza recipe: “While canned pineapple is widely used for this, we recommend (actually, implore) you to use our preparation for it on page 257.” If you’re interested, the “recommended preparation” involves no cans. They provide instructions for grilling fresh pineapple.
There is the briefest nod here to a pizza I’ve wondered about for decades: New England-style Greek pizza. It’s scant information, but by the time you’ve come this far, you should have enough pizza chops to pull it off just from the simplest of details.
There’s a Chef’s Surprise Pizza. What’s the surprise? Ricotta where you least expect it! (Hey now. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
Some themes are as simple as the Williamsburg Pizza Slice: Use any master dough, tomato sauce, grated pecorino Romano and fresh mozzarella, garnished with fresh basil. Notes: none. It’s that simple.
The flavor themes can be as complex as their Pizza Puttanesca: any master dough; their puttanesca sauce from volume 2; grated Parmigiano-Reggiano; pitted, oil-cured black olives; fried capers (yes); and anchovies or boquerones. Notes: “The Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese can go on after baking as well.”
If you want to make that latter recipe, you are one committed pizza geek. Unless, of course, you’re a restaurant pro and you’re looking for unusual menu items to raise your profile in pizza. You’re still committed, of course. But I’m not that committed, and I probably want to come to your joint when you make it because I don’t know that I’ll be making this pie myself.
This section is like a catalog of great ideas for the competent pizza geek. Flipping through it, I keep thinking, “Great idea! I want to make all of these!” That’s especially true when we get to the section where the pizzas are “Inspired by pizzerias/pizzaioli.”
There’s a spicy crab pizza inspired by Nobu Matsuhisa. It’s king crab chunks on a spicy vodka sauce with shredded “pizza cheese.” The Reinaldo Pizza is inspired by Pizzeria Bruno, and has a Brazilian-style thin-crust tomato sauce, shredded pizza cheese, sliced mushrooms, canned tuna, sliced hearts of palm and “golf sauce.” (This is really kind of a mayo and tomato sauce like Russian dressing or fry sauce.)
There’s a barbecue chicken pizza inspired by the late, great Ed LaDou. (Ed created Wolfgang Puck’s pizza program at Spago, and developed the menu for California Pizza Kitchen.)
There’s a Nancy Silverton-inspired sausage and cream pizza. (I bet it’s decadent as all get out. Heavy cream, fresh mozzarella, fennel Italian sausage, red onion and scallions.) And a soppressata pizza inspired by Ken Forkish.
Next come the Modernist originals: Burrata and Prosciutto; chicken curry; Ramp It Up with (naturally) charred ramps, white tomato sauce , shredded pizza cheese and slow-roasted cherry tomatoes. I’m a sucker for a salade Niçoise, and there’s a Niçoise pizza.
The hits just keep coming. It’s a veritable pizza playground. And again, these are not full-on recipes. They are themes. You need to have a handle on what you’re doing by the time you come to this chapter.
But then…then come the full-on pizza recipes. Veggie Pizza. Meat Lover’s Pizza. Buffalo Chicken Pizza made with deep-fried chicken thighs and blue-cheese dressing. Frank’s Redhot New York Square. There’s a Tex-Mex pizza. (I’ve been pondering such a theme, and now I guess I just need to follow their recipe and forget about my own.)
How about a Kabob Pizza with gyro meat? Or the gorgeous Marinara Sbagliata pizza with a marinara tomato sauce and a basil pesto? The photo here is is one of the sexiest pizza images in the entire three volumes. They won me over with this shot back in volume 2 and I’ve made my own modest version of it.
If you’ve seen Franco Pepe’s “Mistaken Margherita” on Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pizza, there’s a version of it here. And a Genovese Pizza with braised short ribs. An Il Porco Pizza with braised trotters. (I’ve been wondering if I could put trotters on a pizza. Now, I guess I know I can.) A Pizza Rossa inspired by the great Chris Bianco. A Cal-Italia pizza inspired by Tony Gemignani. Their Cacio E Pepe pizza has actual spaghetti on it. (I’ve tried making the version that requires baking a pizza dough with nothing on it but ice cubes. This looks far easier. And less likely to make you wonder why you bothered.)
They just keep coming. It’s like this chapter is the payoff for the entire book. It’s fantastic. Anything to follow this chapter is going to seem like an anti-climax.
So get ready for the denouement. Maybe. Next up: Serving And Storage.
If the idea of owning a copy of Modernist Pizza attracts you like a moth to the candle flame, you can find it here. If you want a skinnier, simpler, sillier book that teaches only one kind of pizza, you can find Free The Pizza! here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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