Of Fake Lakes and Friday Night Pizza

This morning was my first hike of the season in one of my favorite parts of the valley. There’s a circle turnout off the street at the base of it, and the way up is very rocky, very steep, where once I encountered a jackrabbit in the sagebrush I was about five feet away from and we gave each other heart attacks as I blundered up the hill and he blasted out of the brush. From the top of the hill there’s an amazing view of the valley – and the fake lake.

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Right now the lake is full. This winter, the one finally, finally dragging to an end, we got most of our year’s worth of water in the first two months or some statistic like that I don’t remember exactly. It was wet out, that’s not an understatement.

The lake here is a dry lake. All summer it’s full of white hardpan and lots and lots of white dust that stirs into dust devils and coats everything in the house after dust storms roll through. But come spring runoff or a good winter of rains and snows (because runoff hasn’t really gotten going yet) it fills up. Across the lake from us is the Nevada/California border, with Bordertown on the other side, reflecting red neon in the water.

I love having a lake that comes and goes. I love how ephemeral the lake is, and how the desert changes from one hike to the next. I haven’t been up this foothill since October when it got too cold. But these weren’t here when last I was.

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Impatience sent me up half an hour before sunrise this morning, because it’s still cold in the morning. Monday I hiked at a little after sunrise and it was in the 40s. This morning I hiked at half an hour before sunrise when it’s first light and when I got back down the foothill 40 minutes later the temperature was 28.

Not much company this morning. Two crows displeased with my appearance. They nest in the rocks and two summers ago actively threatened me, flying lower and lower. Which just delighted me, to see their feet so clearly, so close. Crows apparently have communal nests, because there were three of them harassing me and more in the nest making sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. Today they just soared overhead as I clamored up the hillside.

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My favorite things in life, outside people and cats that I love, include hiking in the foothills, writing speculative fiction, baking.

And pizza.

Putting together the writing, the baking and the pizza, and my friend Robert once said I had invented a whole new fiction genre – pizza writing. It’s true – my characters, unless they have to go somewhere fancy for reasons of plot (and then they complain) head for their favorite pizza place. Not much I can say – so many TV shows, movies and books show characters ordering Chinese food.

I don’t like Chinese food. But I do like pizza. So my characters eat pizza.

And so do I, and so does my husband. My very favorite, despite having worked there in college (usually the kiss of death for a place) is Round Table. Pepperoni, the Maui Wowie thing with bacon and pineapple, a pepperoni and pineapple my friend Samantha once ordered by mistake (she meant ham)…. Our other favorite is Grimaldi’s Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria, located handily near our favorite movie theater in Sparks.

Then there’s mine. Refined over many years of practice, I’ve gone through different sauces, tried making my own (never quite got there), oregano’d the sauce for a long time, stopped doing that. Usually the pizza is split in half – half pepperoni and sometimes mushrooms for Rick, half pepperoni and pineapple or green olives or black olives or tomato on my side.

The recipe I developed started on the back of a package of either flour or yeast. It’s long since vanished, but what remains is the fact that it originally called for amounts that wound up with me having two pizza skins. We didn’t need two. So I turn the other half into breadsticks. Too many breadsticks, so we have a few before the itself goes in the oven, accompanying them with the grated mozzarella and sharp cheddar, the chopped up pepperoni and sometimes the sauce. One or two breadsticks stuffed with leftover sauce, cheese or meat make a nice lunch the next day.

Pizza may not be the healthiest dinner ever, but if the rest of the week is homemade chicken noodle soup and soy sauced pork chops with a side of green beans or a baked apple, it’s probably all right in the scheme of things.

After all, there’s a whole sub-genre of stories with pizza at its core.

The Dough

¼ cup hot water and 1 ¼ cups hot water

1 tablespoon active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

¼ cup olive or canola oil (I do not like olive oil in this, but it’s an option)

2 teaspoons sea salt

4 to 5 cups all purpose flour

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the ¼ cup hot water. Allow to sit for 2 minutes to dissolve, then mix in the salt, stirring to dissolve, and the oil. Add the remaining 1 ¼ cups hot water and stir.

 

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The yeast and water with salt and oil, looking like a crescent moon and a universe.

 

I generally add the first 3 cups of flour all a once and stir, then turn out the sticky mass onto the lightly floured marble cutting board. I might only knead in another half a cup, or might go has high as 4 ½ cups total, though that’s rare. I try to knead until the dough has just the slightest stickiness or dampness on my hands, but isn’t covering me with dough as I knead. Too much flour will make for hard, dry dough, so I pay attention not only to how it feels under my hands but also to how much flour it’s picking off the board. It the dough isn’t drawing any more into itself, it’s probably just about there. If there seems to be a little too much flour in the dough at that moment, keep kneading – it will probably soften and dampen again.

Scrape the bowl fairly clean of clinging batter and return the dough to it. A clean bowl’s nice for the rise but not a necessity. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Allow to rise until doubled, usually 45 minutes to an hour.

 

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On to the first rise.

 

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place racks in upper third of oven.

Turn dough out on a cleaned, lightly floured board and punch down. Separate into two uneven sections, maybe 2/3 together and 1/3 by itself. Set aside the larger portion and divide the smaller portion into approximately 6 breadsticks. I don’t measure. I just break off pieces and roll them between my palms like Play-Doh. Place on a foil lined cookie sheet. Melt about half a tablespoon of butter and brush the breadsticks with it. Sprinkle the breadsticks with garlic salt. Bake in preheated oven anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for a deep golden crust to the tops (time is depending on how stubborn they are at browning this time).

 

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The ineffable pleasure of nicely risen dough.

 

When we first made the switch from margarine to anything else about 10 years ago, I experimented with other things to brush onto the breadsticks. I tried olive oil and didn’t like it on the dough anymore than I do in it. Tried various butters and finally hit on the salted butter, melted, and garlic salt lightly on top.

For the pizza, roll out the dough to pan size. A heavy dark pizza pan is a great investment – mine is flat, black and heavy, and has lasted a nice long time and the shiny, ridged, aluminum secondary pan I had was disposed of years ago. Top with sauce of choice (my favorite is Contadina Pizza Squeeze), cheeses of choice (mozzarella and sharp cheddar), and toppings of choice.

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Bake for approximately 13 minutes in the 500 degree oven. Transfer carefully to a cutting board. Promise yourself tomorrow’s dinner is a salad or a pork chop, and dig in.

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