Not every cheese matches with every sauce
The art of owning an independent restaurant in today’s world of high food costs and corporate saturation is a tough balancing act. For some of us, researching, sourcing, producing and marketing a new product is a costly affair that leads some of us to say: “I’ve got my one crust style, my red sauce, two cheeses and 12 toppings –– that’s all my customers look for.” The problem with this menu “inertia” is that customers today have become savvier about food and the large chains are accommodating them with specialty sauces, cheeses and toppings. I’ve realized that to stay competitive in my small town, I must have the knowledge of different food combinations to elevate my game. To do this, I started with questioning the basic anatomy of my pizza.
- Sauce. Is the sauce sweet or bitter, acidy or savory, spicy or even pungently bitter, fluid or chunky? Does the quantity complement the pizza or overwhelm, soak or even make the cheese slide off?
- Crust. Is this a pre-fermented dough that has a back-of-the-throat tang of a naturally yeasted aged sourdough, or is this a sponge and char profile of a true Neapolitan crust? Does it have the heavy, molasses overtones of an ancient grain taste that emmer or spelt exhibit or a less-hydrated, crispy thin crust either on the grill or not. Could it be the crisp and cheesy razor-like crust guarding the spongy center of a par-cooked Detroit or just a dough made directly from frozen?
- Cheese. Does it even have cheese? If so, how much? Is the cheese stringy for the benefit of a nice chew or are its attributes more geared toward flavor like a melting lake of Gorgonzola or Stilton. Can the cheese withstand the high heat? Or will it have to be added in the middle of the bake or even after the oven?
This has much more to do about quality than anything else. Tomato sauces can come in chunky style, filet, whole peeled pear and whole peeled plum tomatoes. In my opinion, there are sauce companies that use tomatoes too old for quality sauce by adding copious amounts of sugar, paste and even water. I think the best tomatoes are from family-run companies that pack the tomatoes just hours after picking. Too much heat may ruin a good tomato sauce whereas caramelizing fresh cherry tomatoes in a hot oven adds a depth of flavor to the sauce. Fresh tomatoes during the summer season are not to be missed and farmers practically give them away during the tomato “glut.”
You can modify your tomato sauces with spices like: cumin; coriander; fennel (roasted seed and pollen); paprika; Za’atar; chilies; bay leaf; dill; Allspice; celery salt; curry; coconut milk; chervil; oregano; thyme; honey; hot sauce; wasabi; cream; ground anchovy paste; caper; bell pepper puree; cilantro; lime; lemon; horseradish; ginger; garlic; onion powder; fish sauce; caramelized onion; basil pesto; Gochujang; chipotle in Adobo; mint; parsley; sugar and, of course, basil.
Cheeses that accompany tomato sauces run a wide gambit because of the sweetness and acidity in the tomato. I’ve found that strong goat and sheep’s milk cheeses grated after the oven can transform a tomato pie into something special, but the combination of sweet tomato and a creamy mozzarella “stretch” is the all-time fave. Other cheeses include: Pecorino Romano; Fior di Latte mozzarella; Bufala mozzarella; provolone; ricotta; ricotta salata; feta; chevre; Grana Padano; burrata; Fiore Sardo; Roncal (Spanish sheeps milk); pepper jack; Bel Paese; Shanklish; Asiago; Brick cheese; Neufchatel; fontina; Robiola, Caciocavallo and mozzaralla curd.
Here are some examples of methods to transform a tomato sauce into something new:
- Onions. Roasting onions with a dry powder, oil or water, then grinding them up and incorporating into a tomato sauce is a fast and easy transformational method. Onions roasted in your pizza oven with Adobo and chipotle peppers with cumin and garlic powder turn a chunky tomato sauce into a spicy Mexican sauce for chicken, beef or sausage served with tortilla chips, lettuce and tomato.
- Vegetable combinations. The great Puerto Rican dish of “Soffrito” can easily be achieved by roasting onions, green peppers, garlic cloves, jalapeños and chunky tomatoes in your pizza oven. This is perfect finished with lots of cilantro on a chicken, shrimp or pork pizza with cheddar, mozzarella or even Asiago cheese.
- Asian flavors. An easy Thai flavor profile can be cooked into a tomato sauce using coconut milk, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, red curry paste and a little peanut butter. You can cook this sauce with shrimp or simmer with ground pork for a flavorful, thick Thai sauce served with cilantro, scallion and peanuts.
I once knew a chef that said the only way to get to heaven was to make a Sauce Mornay as well as he did. He did have a point. His sauce rocked every night. The variety of cream sauces are as wide as the use you can get from the final product. Most pizzerias without oven ranges are bound by circumstances to buy either canned or sealed, bagged and frozen Alfredo-type products, which start as flour warmed and bound by butter and cream into a sauce. In my pizzeria, we’ve learned to modify numerous sauces for presentation before and after the oven.
Here are some ingredients to modify your existing cream sauces: Parmigiano; Romano; feta; Gorgonzola; tomato sauce (kind of like Sauce Aurore); basil pesto; hot sauce; lemon zest and juice; orange marmalade; onion puree (Sauce Soubise); curry; tarragon; basil; cream fraiche; ricotta; mushroom stock or base; paprika; nutmeg; cayenne; clams and juice; parlsey; fennel seed; cumin; chipotle; mascarpone; sautéed leek, porcini powder and olives.
Try these cheeses to enhance cream sauces: mozzarella; Taleggio; Brie (after oven); provolone; Grana Padano; Parmigiano; burrata; colby; Munster; Tomme; Caciocavallo; Camembert (after oven); Comte; Fontina d’Aosta; Maytag Blue; Stilton; Gorgonzola; havarti; Jarlsberg; Finlandia; Gruyere; Emmental; aged Gouda; Limburger; manchego; Idiazabal; Pepato; jack; cheddar; Stracchino or Robiola.
Cream sauces are a perfect base for a transformational pizza sauce. Feta, Gorgonzola, pesto, roasted garlic, mushrooms, ricotta and even fruit can elevate a cream sauce into a heavenly treat.
You can add roasted vegetables, too. Roasting butternut, delicata or acorn squash and grinding them with cream and ricotta is a very good sauce paired with sage, red pepper dice, Parmigiano or pecans. Cinnamon, vanilla, maple syrup, nutmeg and sugar will make the cream sauce perfect for a dessert pie. Sweet potatoes are also very good with this method.
Heirloom Tomato Pizza with Chorizo, Avocado Salsa and Cilantro
Here is a great summer pizza which is so simple but has it all. The sweet heirlooms bake into the manchego, ricotta and mozzarella. After the oven, the small cured chorizo slices melt their salty-spice on the pie with the avocado and cilantro for a nice finish.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.