Note from Peter: This is the final installment of Bob's series, which has been a huge inspiration for many of us. Bob has shown that where there's a will (and serious fire) there's a way. Please note in the narrative below the link to Bob's video, which was professionally filmed by a local crew for television -- really terrific! And feel free to subscribe to his newsletter and stay connected with The Ben Franklin Society and The BreadWorks events. Here's a link, also, to a recent news story about Bob and his work:
Remember, you read about him here first!! Thank you Bob for a great series. When you come up for air we'd love to hear more from you.
And now, the final chapter, full of useful tips for any of you with that same passion and fire within to pursue your own quest or, simply, make your own delicious tomato pies!
PART SEVEN – PHILADELPHIA STYLE, CAROLINA CHARACTER
When I left Philadelphia 15 years ago to begin anew in Carolina, I created a “Philly-in-the-Woods” in my adopted home. It has a log cabin, and overall I’ve tried to combine the genius of Ben Franklin with the practicality of a small farm. This Little Philly on my Lynch Creek Farm now serves as a get-away in the middle of Franklin County, a special gathering place to dine and entertain with your friends. Who’d of thought an idea like that would work? Me. I just believe you can sometimes will things to happen - with enough hard work and determination.
As part of creating my Little Philly, I wanted to develop a signature pizza reminiscent of Delorenzo’s Tomato Pie. A recent BreadWorks event at my farm attracted 65 folks and confirmed for me that each attendee, in their own way, experienced “Philly-in-the-Woods” – tasty food, coupled with live music and great friends – in a most unlikely Carolina venue. We’re not Asheville, nor the Outer Banks, but just as special and exhilarating for those who came. Watch my video called BreadWorks Tomato Pies with Bob Radcliffe on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjLTiSLj02A.
It’s no coincidence this installment shares the same title as my monthly BreadWorks newsletter, and similarly conveys the notion that for every ending, there is a new beginning.
My starting point was understanding that to make a great Tomato Pie, I first had to master open-fire cooking. There is no modern digital or even mechanical control over the temperature – just primal fire, heat and smoke – a near religious experience. Grilling comes to mind, but we’re talking about wood-fired, oven baking here! Have you surmised the fate of my sacrificial pie? My first test dough is usually destined for ruin in an oven too hot, but serves as a necessary quality check before I begin food service. Another essential first step is to clean the oven floor of all debris first, initially from wood embers, and later from burned semolina flour. Always use a natural bristle brush, never a brass, metallic or plastic brush. That avoids introducing metal or plastic fragments into your Pie. Natural bristle brushes burn up over time and I discard them. Wrap the brush with a wet cloth and wipe the oven floor to remove any remaining grit.
Next, insert the Tomato Pie in the oven with a short-handled wooden peel. Once in the oven, I manage the pies with a long-handled metal peel, the flat-ended kind you may have seen in pizza restaurants. This approach works best for me. Also, clean the oven floor every four to six pies. You want to capture the smoky oven flavor, not the burned residue on the oven floor.
Clearly outside ovens are disadvantaged in cold and wet weather. My shed roof provides working cover for me in the rain, and I prepare pies inside my warm cabin when it is cold, then walk them outside to cook; otherwise the dough is unworkable. Even in the dead of winter, my oven still registers over 200 degrees F after cooling down overnight (a great time to roast or braise a sizeable cut of meat).
When I am cooking a large number of pies (40+ for a BreadWorks event), I partially cook the pies ahead of time, cover them with foil, and store them on metal serving trays in a rolling baking rack. When patrons begin to arrive and food service begins, I reheat the pies quickly, add the toppings, cut and serve continuously without undue delay - with the help of my aiuto pizzaiola or assistant pizza maker - April Hitchcock.
I prefer classic-style aluminum trays to serve my Tomato Pie - preferably ones generously decorated with cut marks – like those I remember from Delorenzo’s. Although I recall a short-bladed knife was used to cut the pies into irregular shapes, I prefer a rolling cutter. To each his own. There was nothing better than sopping-up the last drips of olive oil and bits of tomato from those metal trays with a piece of crust. The cardboard forms and boxes used today ruin this experience altogether. And yes, I always serve retro glass-bottled soda - never cans, plastic foam cups, paper plates or plastic cutlery – Philly style demands the real thing.
If you ever have leftovers, wrap the slices in foil and refrigerate. For the best taste, reheat in a hot cast-iron pan without oil. Just drop the slices onto the pan and heat until they gently bubble. The slices will taste like they just came out of the oven. I’ve heard it put this way: “It’s the iron pan – stupid!” By all means never use a microwave.
By the way, in May, my favorite TV show, “The Mind of a Chef,” received the James Beard Foundation’s Broadcast Award for Television on Location (www.jamesbeard.org/#home-awards ). I must sadly note, it beat out “A Chef’s Life” featuring Vivian Howard of the “Chef & the Farmer” (www.chefandthefarmer.com ) in Kinston, NC – my home-state TV food telecast.
Gosh, (drawing my Pizza Pie story to a close), it has certainly has been an incredible journey, as Peter envisioned when the Pizza Quest website was launched. I believe my story is one of many testaments to the “amazing things” revealed when artisanship flourishes. Thank you, Peter, for the opportunity to tell my story, and for understanding that “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” Above all, it’s been fun!
Thanks to each of you for reading along and providing comments and suggestions. My odyssey continues - there’s the looming Potato Pie story, flavored cheeses, other toppings, seasoning-wood alternatives, and who knows what the mind of a chef will conjure-up – roasts, casseroles and even desserts.
I hope to have honored my promise not to bore you with my story. I have shared a lot of my techniques in the belief I could encourage you to make your first Tomato Pie. You will hear from me again, but until then, by all means cook with the mind of a chef - YOU CAN DO IT! If you ever need help, know you can always contact me by email.
In the meantime, keep up with my latest adventures by subscribing to my monthly BreadWorks newsletter (www.benfranklinsocietync.org). Better yet, attend one of my upcoming BreadWorks events, or stop by to see Molly and me, and of course take a tour of downtown Rocky Ford.
Call ahead though, so I can remember to leave the light on. Happy trails!
P.S. A note of special thanks for the backstage help I have received during the publication of this series of articles and my BreadWorks events from: Marion Blackburn, Dennis and Jane Radcliffe, Brad English, Pat Washburn, Dave Debonzo and Gloria Urbano.