The Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: From jamming it in a can to saucing it up, hello tomato (and beyond)! Part 3
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 8, "Sauce," Part III
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
Getting beyond the tomato! Yes, I know. It’s hard. For me, a non-red pizza is a challenging thing, with the occasional exception of a white clam pizza.
But there are lots of people out there who like a white pizza or a green pizza. My ever-suffering pizza-widow wife among them. So maybe this part of Modernist Pizza can bring solace and inspiration.
Let the experiments begin! The Modernistas have worked up an alternative way of making béchamel. White sauces for pizza typically use flour as a thickener, “which can dilute the flavor and leave an unpleasant goopy texture in the baked pizza.”
They played with roux-thickened soups and tried alternative thickening agents. Get ready to meet low-acyl gellan gum. (You have no idea how much iOS auto-correct hated that phrase. Windows autocorrect was more tolerant. Modernist Pizza co-author and former Miscrosoft CTO Nathan Mhyrvold might enjoy that.) I think a good question to be asking is, as an amateur, how interested are you in becoming quite so Modernist? I went to Amazon to price low-acyl gellan gum. A two-ounce package for 30 bucks? For that much money, I can make several pizzas and have leftovers. (I know, I know. I’m a geek. Watch me start buying low-acyl gellan gum.)
Mhyrvold & Migoya also adapted their classic Neapolitan pizza sauce for use on New York pizza dough. Since a New York dough is baked at a lower temp than a Neapolitan pizza, the traditional sauce will not work well. But thickening the sauce with xanthan gum made it viable.
(SIDEBAR: Seeing xanthan gum on a list of ingredients can be off putting. What the heck is it? It’s actually just a stabilizer and emulsifier made from simple sugars using a fermentation process. The name is derived from the species of bacteria used in the fermentation: Xanthomonas campestris. Because it’s not found in nature, people find it off-putting. But xanthan gum is made from things found in nature. And when you get right down to it, pizza is not found in nature, either.)
There’s advice on dispersing thickeners. If you’ve ever made a gravy using cornstarch, you know the importance of avoiding lumps. And in another interesting experiment, the Modernistas tried thickening sauces using the secret ingredient in sugar-free pancake syrup: cellulose gums.
If I were going to find fault with Modernist Pizza (which is difficult to do), I would say that it involves introducing ingredients common to commercial food processing. I have no problem with them, but they are alien to the consumer kitchen. And while this book is written for pros as well as amateurs, it seems like a brief discussion of these additives would be smart. Their names are off-putting, they’re not normally found in the local supermarket, and they hint at commercial voodoo for the home baker. I’d like to have seen a half page of discussion related to what they are and how they’re used, similar to the discussion of white powders back in Volume 1 when they were discussing dough. A small criticism for sure. (I don’t want to come off as some kind of acritical Modernist fan boy.)
“Adapting pasta sauces and soups for pizza” covers territory some of us already dabble in. Just by winging it, I’ve certainly adapted gumbo, etouffée, and vodka sauce to pizza with roaring success. (Who doesn’t like cream and vodka together on their pizza?) The included chart of ways to adapt everything from stocks to curries to jams and purées is quick, simple and sensible. It’s nice to not be winging it quite so much and having a reference based on test-kitchen experimentation.
And adapting purchased soups for pizza? It seems so wrong until it doesn’t. Mhyrvold & Migoya give us some simple rationale regarding sauce: “When you think about it, any sauce—any edible liquid, really—can potentially be adapted as a pizza sauce if it satisfies two conditions: the consistency is right for baking and the flavor is strong enough.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into the kitchen and thought, “When you think about it…” It has served me well. And the Modernistas have raised the bar on my pathetic little efforts. Have you ever thought about making a New York style pizza using Campbell’s cream of corn soup as a sauce? Now’s the time!
The dairy-based sauces are coming into their own these days. We’re seeing more white pizzas out there. And Modernist Pizza looks at the science of how they work before giving tips related to a) heavy cream as a sauce, and b) thick store-bought dairy sauces. Following this are recipes for béchamel, Modernist Béchamel (made with low-acyl gellan gum), then sauces made with garlic and chives, cheese, and mascarpone.
And hello, “Outside-Of-The-Box Pizza Sauce.” This is an overview of using all kinds of things as sauce, from heated vinaigrette to clam chowder, and what must be done to adapt them. Then, once again: Hello, photos! There are 28 pizzas, from a New York pizza with chicken jus sauce to a Neapolitan pizza with cream of corn soup, fresh mozzarella and basil, to a Detroit-style pizza with vindaloo and brick cheese.
It’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking about wacky pizza options. I do it. People scoff. I feel vindicated.
Bring on the emulsion-based sauces, please! We get an illuminating explanation of emulsion in everyday life: “Many of the foods you see every day are emulsions: hotdogs and Mountain Dew, chocolate and ice cream, mayonnaise and milk. Each of these foods contains a fat mix with a water-based solution in such a way that the two mingle without separating.” After some of the simple science of emulsion, we get more succinct and simple advice for using them, as well as the possible pitfalls.
Interestingly, the Modernistas use a sabayon sauce to protect seafood on pizza while baking. If you’re unfamiliar, sabayon is traditionally egg yolks, sugar and wine (normally Marsala). Ironically, the Modernistas never mention that sabayon is French, but the sauce is believed to have originated in Italy where it’s known as zabaglione. That arcane detail aside, they do tell us the sabayon acts as a barrier to keep the seafood from overcooking. And in a note that makes me cringe just a little, they note that chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Matt Hyland often use aioli or ranch dressing to top off their finished pizzas.
I live in a place where bottled dressings are a common fixture on the table in pizza joints. I’ve bemoaned the idea that a decent pizza needs to be slathered in salad dressing. Sadly, there is a culinary case for it: “Emulsion-based sauces add richness as well as an acidity that balances the flavors in the pizzas that they make.”
And get ready for the sauces! There are 29 recipes for sauces that are emulsion-based, as well as based in soups, stocks and pizza sauces. Options range from sous-vide hollandaise to ultrastable beurre blanc, from mayonnaise to eggless aioli, from puttanesca to barbecue sauces, from carbonara to cacio e pepe. It makes your head spin--but with possibilities if you’re that kind of person. If you’re still yelling about pineapple on pizza, this may not be the book for you.
Get ready, because Chapter 9 is coming. And it’s about everybody’s favorite, ostensibly addictive substance: Cheese!
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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