Modernist Pizza pulls back the curtain on the mysteries of cheese and what it means to your flat little world of pizza-making (Part 2)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 9, "Cheese," Part II
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 03/08/23: $294.99
Welcome to “The Importance Of Portioning.” Sounds thrilling, right? Or maybe not. But what is laudable is that Mhyrvold & Migoya seem to always be aware of how their audience is made up of a range of pizzamakers, from pros to hobbyists.
“If you’re making pizza at home, do you need to have precise portions of toppings? Not really, as long as you don’t overdo it. Follow our common sense steps in the chapter starting on page 3:3 and you’ll be fine. If you own a pizzeria, though, it’s a different story.”
Most of us can just skip ahead! But if you’re working in a pizzeria, there are various suggestions on how to avoid cost overruns and customer disappointment—but all methods seem just a bit flawed. The Modernistas make suggestions, while seeming to understand that no one method is ideal. (Portioning by weight and storing portions in plastic containers seems to be the highest friction but most consistent method.)
The “Choosing your own cheese adventure” section opens with one of the truest sentences they’ve written: “We know cheese helps make pizza delicious and provides textual interest that adds to the pleasure.” It is possible to get so deep into talking about pizza that it’s easy to forget that at the end of the day, it’s still about pleasure.
The pizza pleasure dome! And it’s all covered here in the cheese adventure section: cheeses that can be added during or after baking; as the main cheese layer; cheeses that are flavorful but don’t melt well; that can be added before or after baking; that can double as sauce; that perform well in high-temperature ovens; that are used for flavor; and browning cheeses that can be added in any combination. Two pages, a lot of it photography, yet more useful than you might imagine between the succinct text and the high-quality photos as visual aid.
Viscosity, flowability, stretchability? “The Functional Qualities Of Melted Cheese” is, once again, a section that’s insightful and concise. But how much time did they have to spend melting different cheeses to decide what they’d be saying here? These men (and women, presumably) are tireless testers.
“Common Cheese Problems” has photographs that will look very familiar if you’ve spent any time at all around cheese. Got mold? Does that mean you throw it all away? Yes, it does—or no, it doesn’t. It depends. Clumping? Sticky slices? Sweaty cheese? It’s all here.
Aw, man. Vegan cheeses? Yes, another American Food industrial complex oxymoronic product. I will not spout off here about the choice of going vegan, then attempting to replace your food with faint imitations of traditional, unethical food products. But you will be glad to know that the SoyInfo Center (there is such a place and its website looks like 20 years ago) has published a 567-page book on cheese-like products made from fermented tofu—a food which has been around since at least the 16th century.
Here’s a surprising tidbit if only because it shouldn’t be surprising and we never saw it coming. One of the earliest vegan cheese products was created by that famed health-food fanatic, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg’s vegan cheese was made from peanuts. And also unsurprisingly, that ever-vegetarian flock, the Seventh Day Adventists have been responsible for producing various cheese products from tofu.
Plant-based cheese-like substances have improved. But the challenge largely remains their melting behavior. And unsurprisingly—Modernist experiments! They tested 10 brands and 22 cheeses over three basic styles of pizza.
The result? Cheeses behaving badly! There were problems you’d never imagine (grainy and slimy faux fromage with notes of coconut, anyone?). That said, the Modernistas ended up with some faves, and give us a chart of recommended products.
After surviving vegan cheese, we get a taste of catupiry cheese. Right: What? It’s a Brazilian product. Think: “American cheese and Miracle Whip.” It’s a processed cheese, and I’m going to guess Mhyrold & Migoya mention is noy just to be comprehensive, but because they actually liked it. This cheese is big in Brazil, and this is indeed a world-pizza book.
“The Consequences Of Freezing Cheese” is something I so want to give to a roommate I had 40 years ago. We’d split the groceries, but she would put all of the cheese we all shared into the freezer. (Proving again my belief that we do kitchen things our mothers did whether they make sense or not.) Freezing the cheese made me nuts, but nobody was willing to challenge her on it. With several weeks of experimentation, the Modernistas tell us that “freezing cheese is a way of prolonging its shelf life, but it comes at a price.” If only I had a Modernist Cuisine Time Machine.
The section on Modified Atmosphere Packaging For Cheese can be quite useful. That is, if you’re trying to extend the storage life of cheese and you have access to the equipment. If not, we’ll, you can read it and weep or be envious.
Here now, “MOZZARELLA”! That’s the section. And it’s loaded. “The very first mentions of pizza in Naples actually do not talk about cheese at all. Pizza in the late 1700s and early 1800s was more often topped with tomato or small fish; the first reference to cheese pizza dates to 1824. It’s safe to say that since then mozzarella has become the most popular cheese used on pizza.”
And thus begins possibly the most significant part of the cheese conversation within Modernist Pizza. After a concise discussion about the history of mozzarella, we get a look at “Mozzarella Through The Ages,” a pictorial timeline dating from CA. 50 CE, through the 12the century, the 1500s, 1700s and 1800s to the 20the century. We get a street-level peek at the USA’s oldest cheese store, which is in New York’s Little Italy, and finally, there’s a 1996 with a photo of Mozzarella di bufala in a plastic bag, protected by a DOP designation. (The cheese, not the bag. Presumably.)
There’s discussion of using fresh mozzarella on pizza; making mozzarella, baking mozzarella, storing mozzarella, separating whey from fat in fresh mozzarella, ready-to-bake fresh mozzarella, the effects of aging on mozzarella, a look at aged vs. fresh mozzarella, and finally, recipes for your own mozzarella! It’s a mozzarella extravaganza!
Of majorly trivial mozzarella note: “1824, the first description of savory pizza, baked with oil, lard, mozzarella, and cacciocavallo was found in the play Le Ridicole Operazioni, o sia Pulcinella Vendicato. You don’t need to know much Italian to assume that means The Ridiculous Operation, or Pulcinella Avenged. Not sure what the play has to do with cheese, but I bet it’s ridiculous.
Here comes the march of “The Options For Using Fresh Mozzarella On Pizza.” You’ll learn all kinds of things about finessing this most-fabled of fresh cheeses, including some notes I wish I’d had when I made my own foray into making mozz. (Seems it would’ve tasted better had I brined it for a few days.) And there are instructions for mozzarella curd—even though they don’t make the curd sound appealing. (Interesting choice.)
Judging from the Making Mozzarella section, you’re better off stretching curd. Brining is a good idea, but balling it up doesn’t matter. That’s just a traditional method. And if you’re ripping apart a ball of cheese, what did the ball ever bring to the party? (My silly words, not their analysis.) Interestingly, there’s an American pizzeria phenomenon where pizzerias buy the curd and stretch the cheese themselves. It’s simpler than making the cheese from scratch, and curd lasts longer than the cheese.
Either way, there is once again plenty of smart advice here that never appeared in my internet searches for making fresh mozzarella. Once again, a clear demonstration that the web is your frenemy when it comes to cooking, especially regarding highly specialized tasks.
There’s also another “experiment” section about baking fresh mozzarella at low temperatures. Seems there’s a whole lot of misinformation about that. And being the relentless testers they are, the Modernistas set the record straight. You’ll now know how and when you can use that cheese with abandon!
Storing and using fresh mozzarella is always a challenge. Here now, common sense tips on how to do both. What’s great, again, is the “we wonder if” dynamic of the tips in Modernist Pizza. They didn’t just repeat common wisdom. They challenged it and found out for themselves. Granted, saying that you can drain fresh mozzarella with a vacuum sealer and meat pads is “fantastic.” (Their word for the result.) But does it sound out of reach?
Well, go to Amazon. You can get a vacuum sealer for 30 bucks. (It works for sealing other foods, don’t forget. I used to work with somebody whose who often reached into her purse and pulled out joints in Seal-A-Meal packets. I don’t smoke dope, but I did find it amusing.) Then, a box of 60 absorbent meat pads can be had from Amazon for 16 bucks. That’s less than 50 dollars, and you’ve got a “professional” moisture removal system for fresh mozzarella. Modernist thinking!
We get to see “The Effects Of Aging On Mozzarella.” Lots of great photos. Then comes a welcome discourse on aged vs fresh mozzarella.
Insert moment of food geek hilarity here. Ready? “When you sample freshly made cheese at a mozzarella factory in Italy, the fresh mozzarella can have a squeaky feel when you bite into it (the sound when you eat is kind of like sneakers on a basketball court).” OK, this is hilarious only if you’ve eaten fresh cheese curd, because that is EXACTLY what it sounds like.
Otherwise, this section expands our insight into fresh mozzarella di bufala. It offers insights, and closes with a suggestion: “We encourage you to give it a try and decide for yourself.” This is one of the single wisest directions for pizza making. “Experts” can give you “instructions.” But much of this is about what you do and how you like the result.
The balance of the chapter is recipes for mozzarella. There’s even a recipe for charcoal fior di latte mozzarella, which is puzzling. Who wants black cheese? Apparently, someone does. And it’s covered in the next volume in “The Dark Side Of Neapolitan Pizza.”
There’s also a Modernist Goat’s Milk Mozzarella. You can make burrata. And the section of Frankencheeses is uniquely Modernist Pizza. “We wondered if we could manipulate these finishing cheeses, using modern techniques and equipment to come up with a protocol for improving their melting qualities. Could we make certain cheeses melt as well as mozzarella? We hope to gain the flexibility of adding these cheeses at any point during baking.” If you go here, get ready to start playing with emulsifiers. There are higher fat cheeses, infused cheeses, and ricotta recipes.
Get ready for next week, when we begin playing with “Toppings” in Chapter 10.
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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