What Did the Connollys Have for Dinner Last Night? Calzones!

Because "What's for dinner?" is the most important question most of us answer every day.

Last Night: Calzones!

A craving is a very wonderful thing. It's like having a calling. Some are called to the priesthood, others to make music or paint; some people, I suppose, are summoned by dentistry and tollbooth collecting. I've always thought it's a very lucky thing to know exactly what you want to do in life, because it removes a lot of doubt and clutter from the goal setting process.

On a small, everyday scale, a food craving is beneficial in much the same way. Suddenly, and without devoting any resources to it, you know you want fish. You know fish will make you happy, and a small amount of cognitive fuel is conserved. Your body will often tell you what it needs. I've heard tales of pregnant women eating soil or brick dust without quite knowing why because their bodies were low on a certain mineral. This raises the interesting question, "What nutrient am I deficient in that is contained so richly by Gray's Papaya hot dogs?" because I crave those a lot.

It's often hard to determine what sparks a craving. Sometimes it's a thought; sometimes it's a television commercial, and sometimes, you're just out there shoveling snow, as you do, when suddenly you're hammered by a fierce desire for a calzone. And not just any calzone, but the enormous, family-size calzones from Arturo's, the pizza restaurant across the street from the house in which I grew up.

The Arturo's calzone is what I like to think of as a classic calzone. I know there are a lot of pocket pizza-type deals floating around out there--things with all kinds of sauce and veggies and pepperoni in them--but to me, those are "inside out pizzas," not calzones. In my world, a true calzone can only be filled with riccota, mozzarella and Parmesean cheeses and perhaps sausage or ham. There might sometimes possibly be spinach, but that's pushing it, and there is definitely no sauce.

Arturo's calzones were created by rolling out a full-size pizza crust, piling the cheeses on one side, then folding that sucker over and brick ovening it to golden crustyliciousness. You'd slice them into hunks and all the cheese would flow out and you'd use the chewy, crusty bread to scoop it up. It was like a self-contained cheese fondue/pizza party and was, quite simply, awesome.

Unfortunately, my occupational and culinary callings were thrown into direct conflict by the calzone craving. As a full-time, professional snow management technician, I have to live here in Wisconsin where the shoveling's plentiful and good, and this means I have no access to Arturo's calzones or, for that matter, "real" calzones at all. These Midwestern savages eat deep dish pizza for mercy's sake! You can't expect them to exhibit the restraint and dignity a pure, four-ingredient calzone requires. (Actually, I like deep dish pizza. It's not real pizza, of course, and it's not as good as a thin New York slice, but it's still a fine foodstuff when the mood is right. I also used to prefer New England to Manhattan style clam chowder, but in my current loathing for the Boston Red Sox, I refuse to eat it.)

So, the calzone craving wasn't one I’d be able to buy my way out of. And, since my body was sending clear signals that scurvy or something similar was looming on my nutritional horizon if I didn’t get immediate calzone therapy, I would have to make calzones from scratch. I first turned, as I always do when faced with these situations, to my Complete Collection of Every Issue of Cook's Illustrated Ever. I thumbed through the handy index and found that the CI staff had tackled calzones back in September of 2003. The recipe was called Foolproof Calzones, and, as I am undeniably a fool when it comes to baking, it seemed like a good fit for me.

I love Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I recommend it to everyone and I think it’s a really valuable resource. But there are a few problems with it. The first snag, and this is not the only time I’ve wrestled with it, is that the Cook’s Illustrated gang thinks everyone owns one of those giant, expensive mixers for making doughs. As I do not own one of those mixers, I attempted to perform the 10 minute knead by hand. I went at the sticky, thick dough hammer and tongs and was in a full-body sweat after three minutes. After five minutes I was holding the bowl between my legs and kneading it while crouched over in pain. I now believe kneading a calzone dough for 10 minutes by hand might be the final thing you have to do to qualify for the Navy Seals.

Another problem I consistently encounter with Cook’s Illustrated is that they like to infuse every recipe with a “hook”—an Ah ha! type-tip that you’d never think of yourself, but which appears to pull the whole dish together. (“When we added pineapple juice to the marinade we found the bromoline caused the collagen to start breaking down and blah, blah, blah…”) Sometimes these tips actually work, but a lot of the time I think they’re jammed into the recipes to satisfy some editorial mandate.

Often, when I’m waging my initial assault on a CI recipe, I’m able to identify and dismiss the unnecessary extras. But as I’m an intimidated baker at best, I resolved to follow the calzone recipe to the letter. Unfortunately, the letter, in the case of Foolproof Calzones, suggested the use of many, many sheets of parchments paper that had been treated with cooking spray. I was to roll out doughs into nine-inch rounds, rest them between sheets of parchment while the main hunk of dough was rolled in more parchment. (Actually, it might have been cling wrap. I don’t know. It was kind of a whirlwind in there.) I was then to backtrack, filling calzones in reverse rolling order and placing them on more parchment on the back of a baking sheet. The parchment was then to be trimmed around the ‘zones with surgical precision while my oven was pre-heated to 500 degrees and left for 30 minutes. Unhappily, this preheating made my kitchen get much hotter than the one in the expansive, top-secret Cook’s Illustrated facility must have, and soon I was mummified in a gummy paste of parchment, flour, cheese and cooking spray. Everything was stuck to everything else to the extent that the second I’d wrestled the last calzone and its parchment doily onto the baking sheet to rest, I jumped directly into the shower for a refresh.

Flour free and dry I returned to the kitchen to begin baking and slid the calzones onto my pizza stone. (Actually, it’s just a big paving stone I bought at Home Depot.) Almost as soon as I shut the oven door I became aware that the paper under the calzones was burning and filling the house with smoke. Stupid goddamn parchment paper bane of my existence! I ran around opening doors and turning on fans—it was, after all, 4 degrees, and we Wisconsonites don’t even take down the screens in that sort of weather—and then I rounded up all the blaring smoke detectors and cast them out into the yard. After 12 long minutes playing fireman, I took the calzones out of the oven and discovered that they were perfect!

Crusty and golden, yet chewy and filled with oozing cheese and lurking sausage hunks these were exactly the calzones my body had requested. The bottom was singed by contact with the baking stone and broke with cracker-like crispness against the teeth, and the top, moistened and yielding from the rising steam provided a chewy contrast. We sat down to eat and there was little conversation for several minutes. This was partially because we were busy chewing and savoring and partially because we couldn’t see one another through the smoke.

In the end, the calzones were a semi-success. They were delicious, better than I’d dared hope they might be, but they took a great physical toll on me, required almost an entire day to make, and left the house smoky and cold for many hours. I might try them again without the parchment paper to see if it’s a lot easier, but if it isn’t, I think I’ll need another dose of divine inspiration before baking them again.


Anonymous said...

I routinely use parchment paper and my pizza stone in combination at 500 degrees F and haven't had the smoking problem that you describe. Perhaps the issue is that you used a paving stone instead of a bonafide pizza stone? Perhaps you had an excess of parchment paper than hung off over the edge of the stone and brushed the heat element inside the stove?

Anonymous said...

You may not remember me but I remember you!!!!! I am Deirdre's sister. She sends some of your writings to me. So nice to see what a creative soul you have become. Your writing is amazing. As for this one, having grown up in NY, I understand the calzone thing. Having spent years in Michigan, I really understand the calzone thing. Now I am in Florida, on the southwest coast, and may have to try making my own!

Anonymous said...

Let me know next time you get the craving. I'll go to Arturos, have them bake a few, wrap them up along with some of those hand warming things you have in Wisconsin, and send them by FedEx.