I’m in Dubai Airport waiting to board a flight for Beijing. As I sit here between two worlds in the surreal environment that is the transit area of a major international airport, the temperature is a sauna-like 30 degrees at 2 in the morning and a half moon is sitting like a smiley in the sky, glowing red from the dessert sands. In this part of the world I can’t be too far from the old silk road along which travellers took many moons to reach their destination in places like Xinjiang province in remote, northwest China where my daughter in law Shan was born.
Here the camels have been replaced by A380 planes. Big, lumbering beasts of burden that become suddenly graceful when they soar into the air.
Would you look at who’s waiting for me when I get to my destination – Dermot, camping in the living room so that his Nai Nai can take over his room.
Over the next two weeks I will get to spend lots of time with him, Shane, Shan and MaMa. I’m travelling to Beijing to speak at the Beijing Forum at Peking University next weekend but, of course, I’m adding on lots of extra days to have time with them.
I also hope to take some more Chinese cooking lessons, including spending whole days with Shan’s MaMa. She and I don’t yet have language in common but we can communicate through a mutual love of food and cooking. I’ve been thinking about how I can return the favour when she and her sisters in law and nieces visit Ireland for Shane and Shan’s wedding in December.
MaMa enjoyed showing me how to make noodles and dumplings the last time I was in Beijing so I thought that it could be fun to spend a day making pizza with her and the other ladies of the family. Although, come to think of it, with nine Chinese girls and women, ranging from age 3 upwards in our little house in Duncannon, none of whom speak English except Shan, it might have to be a demo rather than a hands on lesson!
Right down to the youngest girl, Chinese women are naturals at working with dough – flatbread, noodles and dumplings get whipped up from scratch every day – but they don’t have access to ovens and don’t use yeast. I think they would love the rhythm of working with yeast dough and stretching it to make a perfect thin, pizza round.
So cue experiment time. What happens if you take a very Italian pizza base, a topping with the flavours of Xinjiang province loved by Shan’s family and a Big Green Egg and put them together? Magic is the answer. Even if cooked outside in the dark in Duncannon, during a lightning storm, on a wild Autumn evening.
I’d better confess that I had never made a pizza base before last weekend so I’m only a learner pizziola (have I even spelt that right??) but the learning is great fun, and by the fourth pizza, I had almost got the base into a perfect round and I had learned that the best temperature to cook a pizza on the Big Green Egg is somewhere between 220 and 240 degrees C – any hotter and the base is inclined to burn. But, despite my amateurish efforts, the crispiness of the base cooked on the pizza stone in the Egg was just fantastic and I have a bit of time between now and Christmas to improve my technique and experiment with other toppings.
First the pizza base. I did lots of Twitter research and came upon the recipe below which uses an Italian beer, Birra Moretti to moisten the dough. I love working with yeast dough and find it very therapeutic. The use of beer stiffens the dough and makes it more elastic. As a result I was able to make a very thin base. I found the recipe here on the Caldesi.com website. The beer goes well served with the pizza too 🙂
Birra Moretti Pizza Base
(Makes 4 pizzas.)
- 5g dried yeast (or 10g fresh yeast if you can get it)
- 500g strong white flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Semolina for sliding the pizza
- 220ml Birra Moretti at room temperature
- 125ml tepid water
- Whisk together the dry ingredients in a bowl. If using fresh yeast, dissolve in water first. Add in the liquids to the dry ingredients and bring together with your hands.
- Turn the dough on to a lightly floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes. Use additional flour sparingly. The dough should be as wet as possible without being impossible to handle. To knead push the dough out into a long oval with the base of your hand, then fold it back towards you to trap the air in. Next give it a quarter turn and push it out again. As Giancarlo of Caldesi.com says: “keep thinking: stretch it, fold it, turn it; stretch it, fold it, turn it.” The dough is ready when it is soft, feels elastic and stops sticking to the board.
- Shape the dough into a ball and leave in an oiled bowl, covered with cling film or a damp tea towel in a warm draught-free place to rise until doubled in size. If you have time, leave the dough to rise very slowly in the fridge. (I used half of it the next day without problems).
- When the dough has risen, divide it in four, shape each in a ball, place on a floured board in a warm, draft free place covered with a damp cloth and leave until doubled in size again. Meanwhile prepare your topping.
- Take a dough ball, flatten and stretch it out in with your hands into a large round. I find the best way to do this is as demonstrated in this video on BigGreenEgg.com, lifting it with my hands and turning to stretch the edges.
Special Tomato Sauce
I found this recipe in an old cookbook of mine Ultimate Recipes: Italian. It can be used as a base for lots of different toppings and will keep well in a screw top jar in the fridge for up to a week.
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 red pepper, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 2 tbs light olive oil
- 3 large tomatoes
- 1 tbs tomato puree
- 1 tsp soft brown sugar
- 2 tsp chopped fresh basil
- ½ dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and pepper
- Fry the onion, chopped pepper and garlic in oil for 5 minutes until softened but not browned.
- Cut a cross in the base of each tomato. Place in a bowl covered with boiling water for about a minute, then drain and plunge into cold water. The skins should remove easily.
- Remove any hard core from the tomatoes, then dice the tomatoes and add to the simmering onions.
- Add the tomato puree, sugar, herbs and seasoning to taste. Stir well, bring to the boil and simmer for gently for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the bay leaf , adjust seasoning to taste and leave to cool completely before using on the pizza base.
Xinjiang Lamb and Aubergine Topping
I love this topping which is a meal in itself and brings back memories of the flavours of Xinjinag. Substitute naan bread for the pizza base and goats cheese or a thick yoghurt for the mozzarella and I could be transported back to Turpan on a hot sunny day watching the Muslim Uighur women seasoning their lamb with cumin and coriander. I based it on a pizza topping in my Ultimate Italian Recipes book.
- 1 small aubergine, diced
- ½ a large onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large garlic clove finely diced
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 175 g minced lamb
- 1 roasted red pepper (from a jar or the deli counter) thinly sliced
- salt and pepper
- 1 portion of special tomato sauce (above)
- ¼ portion of pizza dough (above)
- 100 g mozzarella
- Semolina for dusting your pizza peel.
- Place the diced aubergine in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let the bitter juices drain for about 20 minutes. (Note: this step is unnecessary with Chinese aubergines.)
- Fry the onion, garlic and cumin seeds for about 3 minutes over medium heat. Increase the heat slightly and add the lamb, aubergine and roasted red pepper. Stir-fry for 5 minutes, add the coriander and season to taste. Leave to one side while you prepare the pizza base.
- Dust your pizza peel well with semolina. Place your rolled out pizza base on the peel making sure it can move freely.
- Spread the special tomato sauce on the dough base, almost to the edge. Top with the lamb mixture.
- Arrange the mozzarella slices over the top. Drizzle over a little olive oil and season with black pepper.
Cooking your pizza
- Prepare the Big Green Egg for indirect heat with the plate setter, legs up, the stainless steel grid resting on the plate setter and the pizza stone on the grid. Heat to between 220 and 250 degrees C. (Note: if using a conventional oven, heat to between 200 and 220 degrees C.)
- When the Egg has reached temperature, carefully slide the pizza onto the baking stone. (If you watch the guys at work in your nearest pizzeria with a wood-fired oven you will get the wrist movement right!)
- Bake the pizza, covered, for about 10- 12 minutes or until the edges are crisp and golden – check after 10 minutes and give it a few more minutes if necessary but don’t let the edges go black.
- Slide the pizza peel under the baked pizza to remove it from the Egg and serve on a wooden board.
- You can also bake the pizza in a conventional oven, at 200 degrees C for about 18 to 20 minutes.
I think my Chinese friends will love this topping but they might also enjoy three others I tried last weekend: butternut squash, goats cheese and pumpkin; potato and pancetta; roasted peppers and mozzarella – topping recipes to follow.
If you have a favourite topping that you think I should try out with them please share it with me. Now my flight has been just called so I have to run. And it’s an A380. Byeee….