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Thursday, December 24


Open House Menu

Chianti, Festive Ales, Ciders Ginger Beer
San Pellegrino’s Aranciata and Limonata 
(Italian orange and lemon soda)

Homemade Pizza
Red Leaf Salad with Pomegranate Dressing
Christmas Crackers and Goody Bags 
(filled with homemade caramel corn)

Meteorologists are saying this is the coldest, wettest winter in decades. Whole generations of Brits have never experienced consecutive weeks of sub-zero temperatures, coupled with brutish wind chills and more snow than our child size island can accommodate.

There must be a good six inches of snow on the ground. Neighbours, thirty years my senior, haul empty shopping baskets up hill to the High Street, in search of provisions. One of our friends whips about in his wheelchair, single-handedly dismantling and stashing it in his car, before hoisting himself into the driver’s seat. He doesn’t let a pair of missing legs prevent him from navigating the world.

I sometimes feel guilty because I do not have to stagger out of our warm den in search of food. In winter, the lion’s share of our culinary pleasures are delivered every week. Ocado, the online grocery service, has proven to be worlds more reliable than the post office. Most of America is light years behind Ocado when it comes to the grocery delivery business. I've been happily using them for years and am rarely disappointed.

Speaking with Alicia, under layers of woolen wraps in Ireland, we agree we are a pair of embarrassing weather wimps. We both lived most of our lives outdoors in the Golden State, feasting al fresco all year long.

In California, snow is something you drive to Lake Tahoe, or Mammoth to experience. It is a novelty, like rain. Sunshine is a given. No Vitamin D deficiency in The Golden State.

If you saw Steve Martin’s early 90’s comedy, L.A. Story, about a bored weather man who gives the same sun shiny weather report day-in, day-out, you know what I mean. Weather is a non-entity in California. There is nothing to talk about. December doesn’t look much different from June. Farmers markets are packed with locally grown vegetables and fruit all year long. Plants and flowers rarely die (as long as they are watered) An open house is quite literally an open house, with guests wandering out to the patio for grilled hor dourves and margaritas.

We have had several open houses in the five years I have lived in England. Never outside. Not even in summer, unless you count running in and out to duck the rain. In winter, our open house corresponds with the solstice. There is something wonderfully primal about huddling around the fire, sharing food and tales.

After the pizza, instead of a typical dessert, pass out pretty Christmas crackers and goody bags, filled with homemade caramel corn. Guests can snack on the caramel corn, straight from the bag, while sipping the warm beverage of their choice. Make sure they have some to take home.

If you're pressed for time, use quality sour dough bread for your pizza base, instead of making dough. Good sour dough pizza is fantastic. Tastes like bruschetta, but better.


What's Your Favourite Pizza?

Thin crust, or thick?

Sauce, or no sauce?

What do you like to drink with your pizza?

It's a thick crust pizza for me with extra sauce, topped with caramelized onion, a smattering of chili flakes; sliced black olives; cheese; fresh tomatoes; toasted pine nuts, finished with a smattering of fresh green leaves (rocket, watercress, basil, baby spinach, any of these will do nicely)

There are times I can appreciate a thin crust pizza with a bit of olive oil, garlic and tomatoes, topped with sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano. Fresh basil, or peppery rocket, is a must in either case. 

I wouldn't say no to thinly-sliced Iberico de Bellota on my pizza. In English that's acorn-fed, free range pig, made into chorizo and salami. 

I like seeing bottles of chianti, wrapped in baskets, on the table, even at home, but that's not what I drink with pizza. I love to have a big, icy Coke with it. There's two times I enjoy a Coke: with pizza, or a burger. San Pellegrino's citrus beverages goes well with pizza. Pompelmo (grapefruit) Aranciata Rossa (blood orange) Limonata (lemon) and Aranciata (orange) That's my runner-up choice, San Pellegrino's Pompelmo. I'm a big fan of Italian sparkling beverages.

Shall we give it a go?

Get the dough right and you can’t go wrong making pizza. Not being a skilled baker, it took a lot of practice to get a great crust.

What You Need to make 3 - 4 large pizzas

Time wise, give yourself at least three hours from start to finish. Make the dough with, or without, a food processor.

2 heavy baking sheets 

Rolling Pin

600 grams/6 cups Organic Malthouse flour* (plus a little extra for flouring work surface)

* Malthouse flour is made from a combination of wheat and rye flours, with flaked malted grains, for crunchiness. 

400ml/2 cups Guinness (Original)

4 tbs active dry yeast (4 sachets)

2 tsp coarse salt

200ml/about a cup Olive Oil (4 tbs for mixing into dough, plus extra for rising and baking)

1. Dust a large, clean, smooth service (like a cutting board) with a bit of flour.

2. In small saucepan, gently heat Guinness until it very warm: 38 – 44c /100 – 110f.

3. Remove from heat. Add yeast to beer. Mix well. Set aside for 15 minutes.

4. In large bowl, combine flour and salt. Set aside.

5. Combine Guinness and yeast with olive oil.

6. Add Guinness mixture to flour and salt, in the large bowl. Blend everything thoroughly.

Food Processor Instructions

If you're using food processor, combine the flour and salt in the processor's bowl, outfitted with pastry blade. Fire up the machine and slowly feed in the warmed and rested Guinness, yeast and olive oil. Process for about a minute, adding a bit more olive oil if the dough is too dry. If too moist, sprinkle in a bit more flour.

8. Knead dough on clean, lightly floured surface. (I like to have a bit of extra flour at the ready for this process, as your hands will be fully occupied for about six minutes) 

The dough is usually tacky and difficult to work with in the beginning, but carry on, it becomes more pliable as you go. After several minutes, you will feel the dough becoming more elastic, as you massage it into submission. When you can easily pull the dough and stretch it like a rubber band, it’s ready for a rest (and so are you)

At this point, you can either bag up the dough to rise in the fridge, or continue on. The more time you give the dough, the better it will be.

To store in fridge, divide dough into three or four portions, form into smooth ball. Place each ball in an extra large freezer bag, big enough to comfortably accommodate the dough doubling in size. Store in fridge until ready to use, up 12 hours.

If you’re using your dough right away, line an extra large bowl with remaining olive oil. Form dough into round, smooth ball. Place in bowl, cover with a light, slightly damp cloth (muslin type tea towel works good) Keep away from drafts.

Allow dough to rise until double in size. This usually takes a couple of hours.

To bake your dough, the oven needs to be very hot. For most ovens this means the hottest possible setting, around 260c/500F. About twenty minutes before you’re ready to bake the crust, fire up your oven.

9. Prepare pans by coating well with olive oil.

10. When dough is twice the size, remove from bowl and form into as many pizzas as you like.

11. On clean, smooth, floured surface, roll out the dough to the size and shape you want.

12. Place dough onto baking sheet, re-shape as needed. Brush on a bit of olive oil and allow dough to rest on counter for half an hour.

13. Bake pizza in center of oven for 6 - 10 minutes, or until slightly golden.

14. Remove dough from oven. Top with your favourite toppings. Return to oven and bake for 6 - 8 more minutes. By this time, the edges of your pizza should be crispy and the toppings bubbly hot.

If you don’t have a pizza cutter, use a large pair of scissors to cut the pizza into slices. I have a pizza cutter but prefer to use scissors. 

The Sauce

Next to the dough, the sauce is the second most important ingredient on a good pizza. While you can use extra virgin olive oil instead of sauce, for me, pizza isn’t pizza without a generous lashing of spicy, garlicky pizza sauce. 

This recipe makes enough for 4 - 6 pizzas. If you can, make it a day or two in advance to allow the flavours to mature.

What You Need

4 – 400g tinned Italian Plum tomatoes
200ml/1 cup olive oil
1 head of garlic*
½ lemon
2 heaping tbs dried oregano
2 heaping tbs dried basil
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs coarse pepper
1 tbs sea salt
*  If you don't love garlic, use half a head.

What You Do 

Make this with or without a food processor. I tend to do it by hand, but feel free to use your processor, if you prefer.

Empty tomatoes into a large stock pan. Mash with potato masher. Add olive oil, blend well.

Peel and chop garlic, add to pot.

Squeeze juice of half a lemon into sauce.

Add oregano, basil, sugar, salt and pepper. Blend well. 

Simmer gently over low heat for half an hour. Taste and season accordingly.

Set aside until ready to use. Can refrigerate, in covered container, for several days.

The Toppings

Toppings are an individual thing. They're also just what you need for making special occasion pizzas. Try your hand at a red pizza, for your Valentine, using super thinly sliced, red onions; oven roasted, red Italian peppers; a wee bit of red roasted chilis (as hot, or mild as you like) Pimentos (mild, heart shaped chili peppers) fresh chopped tomatoes; Pepperoni, or Parma Ham, scattered over a heart-shaped base, with a thick layer of pizza sauce. No need for measurements. This is your pizza. Extravagance encouraged.

Other toppings, you might want to consider include grilled artichoke hearts; chopped garlic; sliced mushrooms; thin asparagus; baby spinach; basil; rocket; parmesan cheese; cheddar cheese; sheep or goat cheese; Parma ham; prosciutto, sausage; prawns; anchovies; baby crayfish tails, or salami. Whatever you choose, make sure everything is bite size.
Fresh basil, or rocket, should be added after cooking the pizza. Baby spinach should be blanched, with all the liquid squeezed out it.

Cheese is best grated, unless you're using wet cheese, like Buffalo mozzarella, in which case, you’ll want to slice it. Small mozzarella balls (the really petite ones) also work well.

Ideas and Suggestions

If you're having a party, think about making individual pizza bases in advance. Having stacks of pre-baked bases, with a large assortment of toppings, ideally, pre-selected by guests in advance, gives you a lot more time to enjoy your company. Space allowing, you might invite guests to apply the toppings of their choice to their own pizza, with the oven fired up as high as it will go. This  is very much my kind of party.

I’m corny enough to enjoy Italian music, especially accordion music, with pizza. You can’t beat Italian lounge music. Italian radio stations are easily available on the internet, along with customizable play list sites, from websites like Spotify, which we often use.

If you’ve got the time, why not do up your dining area like a 1950’s style Italian diner for the night? I loved going to these kind of places when I lived in New Jersey. Think red and white checkered tablecloths and napkins; low lighting with inexpensive, white candles in red glass holders. These candles are usually called “Lowboys" and are easily available online. Pick up a bottle, or two of Chianti enclosed in a straw basket. Fire up iTunes, Spotify, or web radio with the sounds of Italy.

You won't be the least bit surprised to learn I have a collection titled "Italian Dinner Party Music." It's not great. Same goes for "Italian Restaurant Music of Italy." You'd never know I once had an Italian musician for a husband, with embarrassing recordings like these. Well, I was impossibly young and the marriage was brief, over before my 18th birthday.

Here's what I think's fun. Of course, I've just proven you can't trust my judgement when it comes to music, or musicians.

Treat yourself to a couple of fun Italian Ballroom Polkas. Combine these with Dean Martin's That's Amore, one of my favorite songs ever, Mambo Italiano, Arrivederci Roma, Besame Mucho, Volare, In Napoli . . .  Martin recorded a lot of terrific music perfect for your New Jersey Diner Night, or any night. Stick with Martin. Pink Martini's Hang On Little Tomato's well worth your time too.