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.

Man makes money buying his own pizza on DoorDash app

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

The owner of a pizza restaurant in the US has discovered the DoorDash delivery app has been selling his food cheaper than he does – while still paying him full price for orders.

A pizza for which he charged $24 (£20) was being advertised for $16 on DoorDash – and when he secretly ordered it himself, the app paid his restaurant the full $24 while charging him $16.

He had not asked to be put on the app.

This entire news story is comedy gold.

So it looks like food delivery network DoorDash try to demonstrate demand for their services by providing them even if you didn’t ask, then show you how popular they were. So if you run a pizza restaurant, they might start selling your pizzas as “deliveries” to customers, then come and pick them up as “collections” and deliver them. Because they’re trying to drum up support and show how invaluable they would be to you, they might even resell your product at a loss in order to get customers on-board early. It’s all pretty slimy, but I’m sure that wherever they’re operating (New York, in this case) they’ve had the common sense to make all the legal language line up.

(If you can’t see the problem with this model, remember that the customers will be reasonably assuming that the restaurant is involved, so when their pizza turns up cold they’ll phone the restaurant and complain and ask for their money back [or slate them in reviews online]. Plus, let’s not forget that this is a strongarm tactic: once a restaurant has been seen to be offering delivery, customers will be upset if you take the option away… even if you never actually offered it in the first place.)

Anyway: this guy noticed that his restaurant was on DoorDash without his consent, and that they were selling his pizzas for less than he did. So he ordered them from himself: he paid DoorDash $160 for the pizzas, DoorDash paid him $240 for the pizzas, DoorDash sent somebody around to pick them up from him and deliver them to his neighbour. Free money.

Pizza made of money

Next time he did it, the restaurateur didn’t even bother to put toppings on the pizzas. After all, he didn’t need to be eating them anyway! He was just paying DoorDash to pay him (more) to move them from place to place. The restaurateur and his friend pulled off several off these trades and DoorDash never seemed to catch on. With some investigation, they discovered that it was probably an imperfect scraper that had resulted in the price DoorDash advertised being lower than the price they would pay the pizzeria, which immediately makes me wonder whether you could honeypot it with deliberate scraper-traps… (Owing to various bits of work I’ve done in the past, I’m pretty well-versed in offensive and defensive screen scraper techniques.)

And to finish the news article off, we’re reminded about the attitude of Mosayoshi Son, the CEO of DoorDash’s parent company (which incidentally also tried to buy, and then got sued by, WeWork, demonstrating his financially-savvy). Recently, defending his company’s general trend to attract venture capital and then lose it very quickly, he compared himself first to Jesus, who was also a “high-profile visionary who was initially misunderstood”, and then to the Beatles, who “did not become a success overnight”.

Comedy gold I tell you. And now I want pizza. (Especially if I can persuade a stupid startup to pay me to make and then eat it myself.)

I Staked Out My Local Dominos to See Just How Accurate Its Pizza Tracker Is

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

It wasn’t that long ago that I stumbled across a piece in The Atlantic about how TurboTax uses bogus progress bars when completing a tax return. Since reading this, I got to thinking about the most important progress bar in my life — the Domino’s Pizza Tracker. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Domino’s Pizza Tracker is the colorful, light-up progress bar in the Domino’s app that tracks each step of your pizza’s progress, from when it’s first being prepared until it arrives at your home.

Curious about its accuracy, I decided to stake out my local Domino’s. The plan is as follows: I’m going to place an order for delivery while hanging out in the restaurant, then compare each progress mark on the tracker with what’s actually happening with my pizza. Then I’m going to follow the delivery guy in my car until he arrives at my house, where my wife will be ready to receive him. For the record, I’m going into this hoping that the pizza tracker is not in fact a lie, but I’ll be honest, I do have my suspicions, so I plan to get to the bottom of this hunch.

Me, steely-eyed and ready to determine just how accurate the Domino’s Pizza Tracker really is.

I knew it! I totally knew it! I’ve long been highly-sceptical of Dominos’ Pizza Tracker ever since – long ago – Paul got me thinking about how much easier it’d be for them to have it just “tick along” than to actually, you know, track pizza. Still, I’m pleased to see some serious (?) investigative journalism into the matter!

Pizza Cake

I’m a big fan of pizza. I use it to celebrate people moving house back to Aber; I use it to bribe people to help me move house; I’ve been known to travel into the next country over in search of the “right” one; over the course of the 300 or so Troma Nights I hosted between 2004 and 2010, it got to the point that our local pizza place would bring our food in through the front door and directly to each consumer; and once we got as far south as Naples, finding the world’s best pizza was among the first things on Claire and I’s minds. I like pizza: you get the picture.

More-lately, I’m also a big fan of making pizza. I’ve always enjoyed making bread, but over the last five years or so I’ve become particularly fascinated with making pizzas. I make a pretty good one now, I think, although I’m still learning and periodically experimenting with different flour blends, cooking surfaces, kneading techniques and so on. Those of you who know how capable I am of being a giant nerd about things should understand what I mean when I say that I’ve gotten to be a pizza nerd.

Rolled dough being cut into a circle.
Normally, dough should be stretched into a circular shape: but today, I needed a perfect circle of an exact size, so I cut it instead.

In pizza-related circles of the Internet (yes, these exist), there’s recently been some talk about pizza cake: a dish made by assembling several pizzas, stacked on top of one another in a cake tin – ideally one with a removable base – and then baking them together as a unit. Personally, I think that the name “pizza cake” isn’t as accurate nor descriptive as alternative names “pizza pie” (which unfortunately doesn’t translate so well over the Atlantic) or “pizza lasagne” (which is pretty universal). In any case, you can by now imagine what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is an artery-destroying monster.

The first layer of pizza cake begins to be assembled in the tin.
Spreading sauce onto the bottom layer of the pizza cake.

Not wanting to squander my dough-making skills on something that must be cut to size (proper pizza dough should always be stretched, or in the worst case rolled, to size – did I mention that I’d been getting picky about this kind of stuff?), I opted to go for the lazy approach and use some pre-made dough, from a chilled can. That was probably my first and largest mistake, but a close second was that I followed through with this crazy idea at all.

Pizza cake ready to go into the oven.
This pizza cake is one-third meaty, two-thirds veggie: the fillings go all the way down across four layers of pizzas.

I didn’t have as deep a cake tin as I’d have liked, either, so my resulting pizza cake was shorter and squatter than I might have liked. Nonetheless, it came together reasonably well, albeit with some careful repositioning of the ingredients in order to provide the necessary structural support for each layer as it was added. I eventually built four layers: that is, from bottom to top – dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms. As I went along I found myself thinking about calzone.

Pizza cake freshly removed from the oven.
Regardless of anything else, though, it smelled amazing as it came out of the oven.

Using a cake tin with a removable base turned out to be an incredibly wise move, as it proved possible to separate the food from its container by simply running around the outside and then tapping the tin from underneath. It had the weight and consistency of a cake of similar size, and smelled richly like freshly-based bread and cheese: exactly what you’d expect, really. I sliced it into six wedges, “cake-style”, and served it with a side salad to my courageous test pilots.

The completed pizza cake, ready to be sliced.
At a glance, it looked like the thickest imaginable pizza. Sadly, this was the most-awesome part of the experience.

Ultimately, though, the experience wasn’t one we’re likely to repeat: the resulting dish was less-satisfying than if I’d just gone to the effort of making four regular pizzas in the first place. It was impossible to get an adequately crispy crust over the expanded surface area without risking burning the cheese, and as a result the central bread was unsatisfyingly stodgy, regardless of how thin I’d rolled it in anticipation of this risk. Having toppings spread through the dish was interesting, but didn’t add anything in particular that’s worthy of note. And while we ate it all up, we wouldn’t have chosen it instad of an actual pizza unless we’d never tried it before – once was enough.

But that’s just our experience: if you give pizza cake/pie/lasagne a go, let me know how you get on. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to making my own dough and using it to make my own regular, flat pizzas. The way that the pizza gods intended!

Earth Sunset

As regular readers will no-doubt know, the other Earthlings and I are currently in the process of moving house. Last weekend, as well as watching the Eurovision Song Contest, of course, we packed a lot of boxes (mostly stuffed with board games) and moved a handful of them over to New Earth, our new home, by car (this weekend, we’re using a van, which – in accordance with our BSG theming – is dubbed the “Raptor”).

Isis, Ruth and JTA's car, laden with boxes.
Isis, Ruth and JTA’s car, laden with boxes.

Part of this pack-and-move process has been to cut down on all of the things that we no longer want or need. Of particular concern was all of the booze we’ve collected. I’m not just talking about the jam-jar of moonshine that Matt R left here after our last Murder Mystery, although it is one of the more-terrifying examples. No; I’m talking about things like the Tesco Value Vodka, the blackcurrant schnapps, and the heaps of absinthe we’ve got littering the place up.

Paul outside New Earth.
Paul outside New Earth.

The more we drink, the less we have to box up and move, you see! So we’ve spent a lot of the last fortnight inventing new (sometimes quite-experimental) cocktails that make use of the ingredients that we’d rather not have to take with us to the new place. We’ve refrained from buying alcohol, promising ourselves that we won’t buy any more until we’ve gotten rid of the stuff we’ve got and don’t want by one means or another. And it’s just about working.

JTA, Paul and Ruth eat pizza and drink Earth Sunset.
JTA, Paul and Ruth eat pizza and drink Earth Sunset.

Earth Sunset – a mixture of cheap vodka, grenadine, and lemonade, with stacks of ice – caused some debate when Paul compared the drink to a Tequila Sunrise, claiming that “it isn’t a sunrise without orange juice”. He’s certainly right that you don’t get that cool “gradient” effect without something lighter (both in colour and specific density) to float on top of the grenadine. But on the other hand – as JTA pointed out – this is an Earth Sunset: it’s name has little to do with what it looks like and a lot to do with what it represents – the end of our life on (what we’re now calling) Old Earth.

Earth's "Battlestar Galactica" poster, hanging in New Earth. JTA, under Ruth's direction, adjusts Earth's "Red Kite" photo (which we eventually decided to move elsewhere).
Earth’s “Battlestar Galactica” poster, hanging in New Earth. JTA, under Ruth’s direction, adjusts Earth’s “Red Kite” photo (which we eventually decided to move elsewhere).

For those who are following our progression and comparing it to Battlestar Galactica canon, you’ll be glad to see that this works. We arrived on Earth, but now we’re leaving because it was irradiated and inhospitable (okay, perhaps it’s a slight exaggeration, but the house was a little run-down and under-maintained). And so we find ourselves making our home on New Earth.

There’ll be a housewarming thingy for local people (and distant people who are that-way inclined, but we’re likely to have something later on for you guys) sometime soon: watch this space.

Offshore Oil Strike

The Metro have a fabulous article about this board game:

Yes, it’s a game about drilling for oil using offshore digs. With a remarkable picture on the front of a rig in distinctly stormy seas. And look – there’s BP‘s logo on it: yes, Offshore Oil Strike got their official endorsement when it was released in the 1970s, but it’s coming back to haunt them now as board game collectors dig out their old copies and give it one last go (apparently it never sold very well, not least because it’s a dull and uninspiring game).

I was particularly amused by the card which reads “Blow-out! Rig damaged. Oil slick clean-up costs. Pay $1 million.” – one of the worst cards to draw as a player. A whole million dollars?

That diversion aside, there’s more fun and games here on Earth:

  • The other night, we got the chance to try Fat Boyz Pizza, our second-nearest local pizza place (after the Pizza Hut Express just around the corner). I was reasonably impressed: good-sized pizza at a reasonable price, very tasty, and only slightly too greasy (we’re talking a little bit too much grease, not Hollywood Pizza – from whom whose menu we ordered for many, many years back in Aberystwyth – here).
  • We have a green woodpecker who visits our garden. I’ve never seen a woodpecker in an urban environment before, but this one certainly seems keen. We speculate that his appearance right after we overturned a couple of ants’ nests while digging the garden is not a coincidence, though, but rather a tasty treat.
  • We’ve started planting! Only herbs and flowers, so far – and we’re probably too late in the year to kick off many vegetables – but it’s a start. Our garden still has a long way to go.

Paul In Aber

Paul made it to Aber. Woo and indeed hoo. He, Bryn, Kit, Claire, and I went to the beach and drank beer and ate pizza to celebrate. Then Claire and I took turns in an inflatable dingy and I got soaked as a wave leapt over the side. You’ll probably see their reports of this on their journals, soon, too.

The wiki I was coding got finished. Sadly, only a few of you who read this will ever be allowed to see it, but it’s pretty sweet.

Plothole appeared in the story on Andy’s LiveJournal – he has me drinking tea, which, as everybody knows, isn’t going to happen on account of (a) caffiene being a really, really bad thing for me and (b) I don’t particularly like tea. Have reported this to him and await feedback.

This made me laugh: type Weapons of Mass Destruction into Google and you’ll get this page. I laughed lots.