Getting Punchy with pizza

Many pizza places I’ve tried end up being somewhat uninspiring, but a good shop can be a gem. Because of the extremely high heat a commercial pizza oven can generate, there is the potential  to have a meal that’s impossible to perfectly replicate at home.

Most of the high quality places I’ve been to recently have been away from home, perhaps because Boston is not known for its pizza or perhaps because I just tend to eat out more when the home kitchen isn’t in reach. I have particularly liked  Pepe’s (coming to Boston in the future) and Modern  in New Haven, which serve up a distinctive local variety. Traveling in Minneapolis. however, there’s a few good Neapolitan spots. Neapolitan pizza, unlike the New York or even New Haven varieties, has a simple dough of flour, water, salt, and yeast (no sugar or oil) and is best eaten fresh with simple toppings. The best I’ve found around here is Punch, with several locations. In addition to a well made dough with just the right chewiness, the toppings are extremely high quality. Spend the extra to get the buffalo mozzarella and Mt. Vesuvio tomatoes.

Milk Buns

Breakfast sandwiches are a regular feature of our morning meal, usually made with our homemade focaccia style buns. While the basic recipe is great, I like to mix things up to keep it interesting. The standard buns I make these days are a mix of four ingredients:

  • 250 g 00 flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 180 mL water

The ingredients are mixed, the dough rises overnight at room temperature, then gets shaped into buns, rests again for an hour or two. I’ll usually give the buns a  brushing of olive oil and bake for 15 minutes at 375 F for 15 minutes (with convection on) on my Baking Steel.

Sometimes I’ll omit the olive oil on the surface and dust with flour instead, or add teaspoon or two of olive oil and/or sugar into the dough itself.

For my latest adventure, I decided to replace the water with the 2% milk we use. I increased the amount of liquid from 180 to 190 grams (since milk is only partly water), but I probably didn’t compensate enough. The dough ended up easy to work with, but a bit denser and not as wet as I’m used to. I had scalded the milk to 190 F and let it cool before using, as this is supposed to omit the troublesome glutathine that can interfere with gluten formation. I let it rise overnight, the stored it in the fridge for a few days.


The cold dough was even denser but quite easy to work with. I shaped it into buns (divide dough into quarters, then fold four corners into a ball, place seam side down, and cup your hand over the surface while rolling the ball in a circle for about 30 seconds) and then compressed the rounds so they weren’t too tall and narrow.

Before baking I brushed the surface with what I call my omelette glaze: one egg beaten with a tablespoon of milk (you can use the leftover mix to make an omelette). Given the sugar content of the milk and the egg glaze, I figured it might be ready a bit sooner than the water-based dough, and I was right. After 12 minutes, the buns and reached over 200 F and had a dark brown crust.


The buns worked out well – they were smoother in taste and had a nice creamy texture. They were chewier and denser, almost bagel like, likely because I had less liquid than I might otherwise have wanted. There was a bit of an off-taste though and, given it’s cheese-like character, I wonder if milk dough’s are really suited to long rests.   A higher yeast dough with a shorter rest period may be better for milk doughs.


Banh Bao

A recent weekend ritual our family picked up was traveling to a regional Vietnamese bakery for a variety of goods. One of our favorites has been the banh bao. This slightly sweet steamed bun is packed with pork sausage, ground pork, quail eggs, and the odd vegetable. They have become a tasty and satisfying breakfast treat or snack. Of course, I immediately wondered if I could replicate this creation at home. Not being a huge fan of the pork overdose of these buns, one advantage was the fine tuning of the fillings.

After some online searches as well as trial and error, this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Banh Bao

makes 6 small buns


  • 140 g AP flour
  • 1.5 teaspoon baking powder
  • 0.25 teaspoon salt
  • 40 g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 70 g milk
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar


  • Mix all ingredients together until all flour is absorbed into dough.
  • Kneed for about 10 minutes. Dough will start to develop a smooth surface though may not be perfectly smooth. If the dough is dry, add kneed in some water. The dough will be tacky, but if it sticks excessively to your hand, dust with some flour and kneed it in to incorporate.
  • Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.


  • Rest for 30 minutes
  • Divide into 6 balls and flatten each into a disk with the palm of your hand
  • Using a rolling pin, roll each disk into a 4 inch circle


  • Place a small amount of filling (I used pork sausage, water chestnut, egg, and shiitake mushroom, all cut into small pieces) in the center of each disk


  • Fold up the edges from four sides and pinch together. It may help to moisten the outer rim of the dough circle with water using your finger to help it to stick.
  • Place each bun on a small piece of parchment paper, then prepare a steamer (e.g. a steamer insert in a pot with a small amount of boiling water).


  • Steam the buns for about 15 minutes.

Lye vs. Baking Soda Bagels

Many home bagel recipes rely on a boiling baking soda bath prior to baking, but some argue that “authentic” bagels must instead take a dip in a much stronger alkali, lye.

I tried the lye and baking soda versions using the same dough, and while I initially noticed a clear difference in flavor and texture with lye, I wasn’t sure it was actually better. The bagels were considerably darker, but seemed too chewy and the crust was a bit difficult to bite through.

With some tweaks, I have become a lye convert. The key is to not overboil the bagels. One minute in the lye (with a flip halfway through) is plenty. The flavor with lye has a bit more depth, toppings stick better, and there seems to be a better contrast between crispy crust and soft, chewy interior.

Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup (Canh Chua)

Ask most American’s to name a Vietnamese soup, and most will gravitate immediately to pho. Pho is great and certainly popular for a reason, but there are other options to consider. One of my recent favorites is a sweet and sour fish soup that’s great this time of year.

Some of the ingredients are a bit hard to find, at least in typical American supermarkets. You may have to venture out into an Asian (ideally Vietnamese) grocery, or find some substitutions. My recipe is derived from one published at The Seasoned Wok, though I have added a few modifications to match my tastes.

By hand, remove seeds from 2 tablespoons of tamarind paste and set aside.

Prepare the vegetables (feel free to modify the list to match your tastes and availability):

  • 200 grams of okra, cut to 1/2 inch length
  • 2 tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each
  • 1-2 cups of pineapple chunks
  • 2 taro stems (bac ha), peeled and sliced into 1 inch pieces on the diagonal
  • 1 cup bean sprouts, washed
  • 1/2 cup of rice haddy herb (ngo om), roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, presseed or minced
  • 1/2 onion, minced

In a large pot, heat up 1 tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until translucent (about 3-5 minutes), then add tamarind paste and garlic, stirring and cooking for another minute. Add 1 pound of a resilient fish cut into filets, steaks, or large chunks and brown slightly. Catfish is traditional, but I’ve used salmon and flounder as well.

Remove the fish and add 2 liters of water, tomatoes, and pineapple. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add in okra. After about 3 minutes add in fish. The cooking time for the fish will depend on the type and size, but you should aim to get the internal temperature above 130. Season with sugar and fish sauce to taste (I start with two tablespoons sugar and 1/4 cup fish sauce). Skim off foam if it develops.

Once the fish is cooked, add in taro stem, bean sprouts, and rice paddy herb. If the fish is in large steaks or filets, you’ll want to break or cut it into bite size chunks prior to serving.

Add some rice to each bowl and pour the soup on top. If you like things spicy, add a bit of thai chili (I had this to individual bowls so as not to torture the rest of the family with my fondness for heat).



To think I used to buy popcorn. It is fantastically simple to make, and tastes far better than the store bought stuff.

Here’s the basic approach. Add a few tablespoons of oil to a pot with a few kernels of corn. Set the heat on medium-high and cover. When you hear the first kernel pop, dump in a half cup of kernels and a teaspoon of salt. Shake the pot vigorously until the popping slows in a couple minutes. Quickly dump the corn on to a baking sheet to cool. To make kettle corn, just add a third of a cup of sugar when you add the kernels and salt.

I have found that coconut oil works particularly well, but any neutral oil should be fine. I picked up a Whirly Pop, which reduces the number of burned or unpopped kernels.


Chocolate almond oatmeal

The combination of chocolate and oatmeal seemed like it should be slam dunk, but my initial attempts were somewhat less inspired than the combination of two great ingredients would suggest. After some exploration, I tweaked some recipes to come up with this variant.

In a small saucepan, toast about two tablespoons of slivered almonds until they begin to brown, then set aside.

  • Add to now empty saucepan:
  • 1 cup milk
  • 40 g (½ cup) old fashioned oats
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa

Bring to boil and simmer for about 5-7 minutes until the mixture thickens somewhat. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla and transfer to bowl, topping with toasted almonds.

The result was delicious and fudgy. Maybe a bit too indulgent for breakfast, but definitely a satisfying starting point.

No kneed bagels

I’ve become a big fan of no kneed dough, not because I have anything against needing, but because of the practicality of the approach for casual bread making. The emphasis on lack of kneeding is a bit misguided. The basic idea is that you prepare a relatively high hydration (ratio of water to flour) dough, use a small amount of yeast, and let the dough rest for an extended period of time to autolyse and let gluten develop.

My approach is to prep the dough the night before I need it and let it sit overnight at room temperature. My basic dough is:

250 g flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
175 mL water

The next day I shape the dough (I make 4 servings from this amount), let it rise 30-60 minutes, then bake.

I have used this approach for baguettes, pizza, and breakfast buns, but I wondered if the same approach would work for bagels. The answer is: sort of. I shaped the dough as best I could into a bagel shape (rolling it into a snake shape, then joining the ends), let it rest for 30 minutes, boiled for 1 minute per side, then baked at 500 degrees for 5 minutes and 450 for 6 minutes. The result was an ugly but passable bagel.

It lacked the chew and density of a regular bagel, likely because of the lower gluten content and higher hydration. However, it was certainly fresher and tastier than most bagel chains. I plan to stick with my conventional approach most of the time; but it is good to have this as a backup option.

Toasted almond oatmeal

You can’t say I don’t like my oatmeal.

Today’s variant is perfect for a cold day. It’s not, here (60 degrees for some reason), but what the heck.

In a small saucepan, toast 2 tablespoons slivered almonds over medium heat until starting to turn spotty brown. Remove to a plate or small bowl.

Add 1 cup of water to the pot and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. When water is boiling, add 1/2 cup old fashioned oats. Cook about 5 minutes until desired thickness. Add 1 tablespoon brown sugar and a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Transfer to bowl, stir in almonds and enjoy.

Homemade bagels

For years, I assumed it would be next to impossible to make bagels at home. They seem like a specialized bread, and surely require some unusual equipment or extraordinary effort. It’s not like bagels are particularly expensive or hard to find. Why not just head over to the local shop and be done with it?

The problem is that bagel quality is variable. I don’t mind the local Bruegger’s when their bagels are really fresh, but it’s easy to end up with baker’s dozen that tastes like they were made the previous day. If, like me, you buy a dozen and freeze what you don’t eat, you’ll be stuck with mediocre bagels for a while.

It turns out making great bagels at home is not difficult, and a bit of effort guarantees high quality, fresh bagels. I adapted my current recipe from Peter Reinhart, who I have found fairly reliable for bread making.

This recipe makes 14 bagels.

Start by making a sponge. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix:
500 g bread flour
12 g vital wheat gluten
1 teaspoon instant yeast

Add to this 560 g of lukewarm water and stir until all the flour is absorbed. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for about 2 hours. The mixture should appear to slowly bubble.

Mix about a tablespoon of non-diastatic malt powder in a tablespoon or two of boiling water to make a syrup and add this to the mixer bowl (if your powder hasn’t clumped, you can add this to the dry ingredients below, but I find this technique is easier).

In another large bowl mix:
1/2 teaspoon yeast
470 g bread flour
12 g vital wheat gluten
1 tablespoon salt

With the mixer running at the lowest speed using the dough hook attachment, slowly add in the flour mixture. Continue to mix until all the flour is absorbed then crank it up to kneeling speed (2 on my Kitchen Aid) and let it work for about 6 minutes. The dough will be a bit tough and smooth, and a bit tacky but not sticky or wet.

Take out the dough mass and form 14 balls of about 112g each. I like to stretch the outer surface to the bottom and roll the ball a bit on the counter so it’s smooth. Cover with a damp towel for 20 minutes or so.

To form the bagel shape, roll the ball into a snake shape about 8 inches long, trying to keep the thickness even throughout. Take the ends and loop the dough into a circle, overlapping the ends by about 2 inches. Pinch the ends together so the seams are closed, then stick 2-3 fingers in the middle of the bagel and roll the outer edge of the bagel against the counter to smoothen the exterior. Rotate the bagel as you go so the thickness is as even as possible.

Transfer the bagels to two baking sheets lined with parchment. I usually spray my parchment with cooking spray so the bagels don’t stick. Cover the bagels with plastic wrap. Let the bagels rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes then stick them in your refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, preheat the oven to 500° F and boil 3 L of water in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon of baking soda to the pot.

Add the bagels to the pot for about two minutes each, flipping then halfway through. Don’t crowd them too much: in my large Dutch oven, I can fit four at a time. While the bagels are boiling, scatter some cornmeal on their spot on the parchment so they don’t stick when you put them back. I find a skimmer a useful tool to transfer the bagels from the water back to the parchment without traumatizing them too much.

If you want to top the bagels with, say, sesame seeds, the best time is soon after they have come out of the water. Scatter some seeds on a plate and put the bagel upside down onto the plate to pick up the seeds (just scattering these on top tends to make them not stick very well).

Bake the bagels for 5 minutes. Rotate and swap the trays then turn down the heat to 450° F and cook at least 5 minutes more until the bagels are as dark as you like. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 10 minutes.