Further Lessons in Wood-Fired Pizza

Earlier this month, I made my first attempt at cooking pizza in an outdoor wood-fired oven. I’ve been making pizza for years: how hard can it be?

Charred non-stick coating on a tray.
Do you know what temperature Teflon (PTFE) burns at? I do. Now. (About 470ºC.)

It turned out: pretty hard. The oven was way hotter than I’d appreciated and I burned a few crusts. My dough was too wet to slide nicely off my metal peel (my wooden peel disappeared, possibly during my house move last year), and my efforts to work-around this by transplanting cookware in and out of the oven quickly lead to flaming Teflon and a shattered pizza stone. I set up the oven outside the front door and spent all my time running between the kitchen (at the back of the house) and the front door, carrying hot tools, while hungry children snapped at my ankles. In short: mistakes were made.

Pizza dough balls under cling film on a black marble surface.
I roped in Robin to help make dough, because he’s damn good at it. And because I had a mountain of work to do today.

I suspect that cooking pizza in a wood-fired oven is challenging in the same way that driving a steam locomotive is. I’ve not driven one, except in simulators, but it seems like you’ve got a lot of things to monitor at the same time. How fast am I going? How hot is the fire? How much fuel is in it? How much fuel is left? How fast is it burning through it? How far to the next station? How’s the water pressure? Oh fuck I forget to check on the fire while I was checking the speed…

Digital infared thermometer display reading 246ºC.
“How hot is it?” is a question I’m now much better at answering. Thanks, technology! This oven’s still warming up. (!)

So it is with a wood-fired pizza oven. If you spend too long preparing a pizza, you’re not tending the fire. If you put more fuel on the fire, the temperature drops before it climbs again. If you run several pizzas through the oven back-to-back, you leech heat out of the stone (my oven’s not super-thick, so it only retains heat for about four consecutive pizzas then it needs a few minutes break to get back to an even temperature). If you put a pizza in and then go and prepare another, you’ve got to remember to come back 40 seconds later to turn the first pizza. Some day I’ll be able to manage all of those jobs alone, but for now I was glad to have a sous-chef to hand.

Pizza in an oven, fire raging behind and jumping onto the floor of the oven.
Also, if too much of the flour you use to keep your peel moves slick falls into the oven, it catches fire. Now you have two fires to attend to.

Today I was cooking out amongst the snow, in a gusty crosswind, and I learned something else new. Something that perhaps I should have thought of already: the angle of the pizza oven relative to the wind matters! As the cold wind picked up speed, its angle meant that it was blowing right across the air intake for my fire, and it was sucking all of the heat out of the back of the oven rather than feeding the flame and allowing the plasma and smoke to pass through the top of the oven. I rotated the pizza oven so that the air blew into rather than across the oven, but this fanned the flames and increased fuel consumption, so I needed to increase my refuelling rate… there are just so many variables!

A salami and basil pizza with olives on half.
You know what, though? Everything turned out pretty-much okay.

The worst moment of the evening was probably when I took a bite out of a pizza that, it turned out, I’d shunted too-deep into the oven and it had collided with the fire. How do I know? Because I bit into a large chunk of partially-burned wood. Not the kind of smoky flavour I was looking for.

But apart from that, tonight’s pizza-making was a success. Cooking in a sub-zero wind was hard, but with the help of my excellent sous-chef we churned out half a dozen good pizzas (and a handful of just-okay pizzas), and more importantly: I learned a lot about the art of cooking pizza in a box of full of burning wood. Nice.

How Not to use A Pizza Oven

Clearly those closest to me know me well, because for my birthday today I received a beautiful (portable: it packs into a bag!) wood-fired pizza oven, which I immediately assembled, test-fired, cleaned, and prepped with the intention of feeding everybody some homemade pizza using some of Robin‘s fabulous bread dough, this evening.

Ooni Fyra portable wood-fired pizza oven.

Fuelled up with wood pellets the oven was a doddle to light and bring up to temperature. It’s got a solid stone slab in the base which looked like it’d quickly become ideal for some fast-cooked, thin-based pizzas. I was feeling good about the whole thing.

But then it all began to go wrong.

Animated GIF showing the fire blazing as seen through the viewing window on the front of the oven.
The confined space quickly heats up to a massive 400-500ºC.

If you’re going to slip pizzas onto hot stone – especially using a light, rich dough like this one – you really need a wooden peel. I own a wooden peel… somewhere: I haven’t seen it since I moved house last summer. I tried my aluminium peel, but it was too sticky, even with a dusting of semolina or a light layer of oil. This wasn’t going to work.

I’ve got some stone slabs I use for cooking fresh pizza in a conventional oven, so I figured I’d just preheat them, assemble pizzas directly on them, and shunt the slabs in. Easy as (pizza) pie, right?

Pizza on fire in oven.
Within 60 seconds the pizza was cooked and, in its elevated position atop a second layer of stone, the crust began to burn. The only-mildy-charred bits were delicious, though.

This oven is hot. Seriously hot. Hot enough to cook the pizza while I turned my back to assemble the next one, sure. But also hot enough to crack apart my old pizza stone. Right down the middle. It normally never goes hotter than the 240ºC of my regular kitchen oven, but I figured that it’d cope with a hotter oven. Apparently not.

So I changed plan. I pulled out some old round metal trays and assembled the next pizza on one of those. I slid it into the oven and it began to cook: brilliant! But no sooner had I turned my back than… the non-stick coating on the tray caught fire! I didn’t even know that was a thing that could happen.

Flames flickering at the back of a pizza oven.
Hello fire. I failed to respect you sufficiently when I started cooking. I’ve learned my lesson now.

Those first two pizzas may have each cost me a piece of cookware, but they tasted absolutely brilliant. Slightly coarse, thick, yeasty dough, crisped up nicely and with a hint of woodsmoke.

But I’m not sure that the experience was worth destroying a stone slab and the coating of a metal tray, so I’ll be waiting until I’ve found (or replaced) my wooden peel before I tangle with this wonderful beast again. Lesson learned.

Lucky Devil Eats

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Lucky Devil Eats

The lockdown’s having an obvious huge impact on strippers, whose work is typically in-person, up close, and classed as non-essential. And their work isn’t eligible for US programmes to support furloughed workers. So Lucky Devil Lounge in Portland decided to adapt their services into one that is classed as essential by providing a drive-through food service. With strippers.

This is Erika Moen’s comic about the experience of visiting the drive-through. Her comics are awesome and I’ve shared them with you a few times before (I even paid for the product she recommended in the last of those), of course.

£20 for a boiled egg, one piece of toast and a mug of tea?

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Egg and toast

£20 for a boiled egg, one piece of toast and a mug of tea?

The story of a modern London cafe…

(Read to end of thread before commenting!)

An amazing thread well-worth reading to the end. Went in expecting a joke about hipsters, millennials, and avocado-on-toast… finished with something much more.

Review of The Rusty Bicycle

This review of The Rusty Bicycle originally appeared on Google Maps. See more reviews by Dan.

Visited today for the first time. Discovered when I came to order that special offers (e.g. £5 lunchtime pizzas) on the menu aren’t actually honoured when you come to order unless you agree to install their “app”. Their app is appalling: currently averaging 1.7/5 on the app store, and I can see why!

By the time I’d looked at the app’s privacy policy, I decided it was better to pay full price rather than use it: the app requests permissions to access virtually all of your phone’s data and the privacy policy states that your use of it grants them the right to track your GPS location from then on (seriously!). No thank you!

Cocktails were okay. Food was pretty good, but not quite good enough to take away the sour taste left by the “app” experience. I’d visit again… but only if they moved towards honouring the special offers they advertise… WITHOUT the precondition that you agree to give all of your personal data to them first.

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What Kind of Person Steals Their Co-workers’ Lunch?

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For the past month or two, my place of work (this very website) has been plagued by a relatively harmless but deeply mystifying figure: the phantom lunch thief. What’s happened since has followed a trajectory sure to be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in an office with more than, say, 30 employees: a menacing, all-caps Post-It note was posted, instructing the thief: “PLEASE DO NOT TAKE FOOD THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU.” The appropriate authorities were alerted. The authorities sent out slightly mean emails about how we’re all adults here, and even those of us who didn’t do anything wrong were embarrassed. For a few days, no lunches were stolen. But then, just when you thought it was safe to leave an Amy’s frozen burrito in the shared fridge for 12 days, the lunch thief struck again. Collectively, and publicly — all wanting to make very clear that we were innocent — my colleagues and I wondered: who does this? What kind of person steals lunch from people they work with, and why?

To find out, I had to identify one such person. First, I offered my own office lunch thief immunity (or, well, anonymity) if they came forward to tell me their life story, but nobody took me up on it. I asked Twitter, where many people expressed outrage over the very idea of lunch theft, but again, no actual thieves surfaced. I even made a Google Form about it, and nobody filled out my Google Form. I was very nearly too dejected to continue my search when I remembered: Reddit. If not there, where?

On Reddit, I found a few lunch theft discussion threads, and messaged about 15 or 20 users who indicated that they had stolen, or would steal, lunch from a co-worker, several of whom sounded very pleased with themselves. I told them I was a reporter, and asked if they’d be willing to elaborate on their experiences in lunch theft. Unfortunately, most relevant postings I found were from, like, four years ago, and again it seemed no one would come forward. But then someone wrote me back. Eventually he agreed to speak with me, and we arranged a phone call. His name is Rob, and he’s a programmer in his early 40s. Together we decided there are probably enough programmers in their 40s named Rob that divulging this amount of personal information was okay.

As a non-lunch-stealer, I’ve never understood the mentality either (I’ve been the victim once or twice at work, at more-often way back when I lived in student accommodation), and this interview really helped to humanise a perpetrator. I still can’t condone it, but at least now I’ve got a greater understanding. Yay, empathy!

On This Day In 2005

I normally reserve my “on this day” posts to look back at my own archived content, but once in a while I get a moment of nostalgia for something of somebody else’s that “fell off the web”. And so I bring you something you probably haven’t seen in over a decade: Paul and Jon‘s Birmingham Egg.

Paul's lunch on this day 13 years ago: Birmingham Egg with Naan Bread
Is this honestly so different from the kind of crap that most of our circle of friends ate in 2005?

It was a simpler time: a time when YouTube was a new “fringe” site (which is probably why I don’t have a surviving copy of the original video) and not yet owned by Google, before Facebook was universally-available, and when original Web content remained decentralised (maybe we’re moving back in that direction, but I wouldn’t count on it…). And only a few days after issue 175 of the b3ta newsletter wrote:

* BIRMINGHAM EGG - Take 5 scotch eggs, cut in
  half and cover in masala sauce. Place in
  Balti dish and serve with naan and/or chips. 
  We'll send a b3ta t-shirt to anyone who cooks
  this up, eats it and makes a lovely little
  photo log / write up of their adventure.
Birmingham Egg preparation
Sure, this looks like the kind of thing that seems like a good idea when you’re a student.

Clearly-inspired, Paul said “Guess what we’re doing on Sunday?” and sure enough, he delivered. On this day 13 years ago and with the help of Jon, Liz, Siân, and Andy R, Paul whipped up the dish and presented his findings to the Internet: the original page is long-gone, but I’ve resurrected it for posterity. I don’t know if he ever got his promised free t-shirt, but he earned it: the page went briefly viral and brought joy to the world before being forgotten the following week when we all started arguing about whether 9 Songs was a good film or not.

It was a simpler time, when, having fewer responsibilities, we were able to do things like this “for the lulz”. But more than that, it was still at the tail-end of the era in which individuals putting absurd shit online was still a legitimate art form on the Web. Somewhere along the way, the Web got serious and siloed. It’s not all a bad thing, but it does mean that we’re publishing less weirdness than we were back then.

I Made My Shed the Top Rated Restaurant On TripAdvisor

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Once upon a time, long before I began selling my face by the acre for features on VICE dot com, I worked other jobs. There was one in particular that really had an impact on me: writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor. Restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I’d write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, I became obsessed with monitoring the ratings of these businesses. Their fortunes would genuinely turn, and I was the catalyst.

This convinced me that TripAdvisor was a false reality – that the meals never took place; that the reviews were all written by other people like me. However, they’re not, of course – they’re almost all completely genuine. And there was one other factor that seemed impossible to fake: the restaurants themselves. So I moved on.

And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society’s willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it’s exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?

In that moment, it became my mission. With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.

Review of Gloucester Green Market

This review of Gloucester Green Market originally appeared on Google Maps. See more reviews by Dan.

The weekday market offers the best multi-cuisine street food experience you’ll get almost anywhere: stalls as far as the eye can see serving Italian, Japanese, Indian, Goan, Ethiopian, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese… the list goes on. Take an explore and try something new on a Wednesday or Thursday soon.

The non-food stalls are a mixed-bag. If you know what you’re looking for, you might find it. If you don’t, you might find something anyway, but don’t hold your breath.

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