The Last Cold Box: The Pizza Project 2.5

16 05 2012

I think I mentioned that I was fast approaching the end of my frozen pizza explorations.  Well, it’s finally over. You can consider this the after action review.  I should be moving onto the fresh take & bake portion of this project category now, but I think I need a break from pizza.  Really.  Just for now.  So let’s get on with it, shall we?

My last frozen pizza in the freezer was from Kashi.  I have tried Tony’s, Totino’s, California Pizza Kitchen, DiGiorno, Gino’s East, and now the offering from the company that claims to embody the motto, “Seven whole grains on a mission.”  I know there are many more frozen pizza offerings out there on the market, but I just can’t go there.  I’m done.  Like burnt toast.  I’ve done my best to be objective; I’ve taken the monetary and nutritional aspects into consideration; and I’ve explored a representative sampling of all price ranges.  After this, you are on your own picking frozen pizza.  I can hear the collective sigh of relief from here.  You are welcome.  But I digress.

Kashi.  Yes.  Well, I think my overall opinion of this offering is the same opinion I have of a lot of health foods that try to imitate their tasty, not-so-healthy muse:  No.  Like California Pizza Kitchen’s frozen offerings, the toppings were somewhat tasty, but the crust is just not good.  Low calorie?  Yes.  Low fat?  Yes.  Healthy?  Maybe, in a better-for-you-than-the-alternative way.  But if I am opting for a pizza for my meal, am I really all that concerned about healthy eating in that moment?  I mean, I don’t want to clog my arteries and induce a heart attack with one repast, but I’m pretty sure that my overall health isn’t dependent upon the quality of one meal.  So why would I torture myself with food I don’t like in the name of health?  People, the Kashi pizza is edible if you must eat it.  But you can do much better.  What mission are those seven whole grains on anyhow?  Perhaps it’s a mission to see if they can sell their products on the basis of them being “good for you” alone?

While the gloves are off, let’s just go for it, shall we?  If you are going to opt for the convenience of a frozen pizza, why not go for the best?  If you want the best in frozen pizzas from those that I sampled, grab the DiGiorno and you won’t be disappointed.  If you like deep dish and can’t get to Chicago for the real deal, then the Gino’s East frozen offering will hit the spot.  The rest of them?  Don’t bother.

As for the whole “healthy” thing where pizza is concerned, I submit my likely unwelcome commentary:  If you are on a diet, don’t buy frozen pizza, or just have a portion instead of eating the whole thing.  Lean Cuisine is in the same aisle.  I’m just sayin’.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to shower, dress, put my kid gloves back on, and go out into the world and try to be nice.  This has been very therapeutic.  Thanks for listening.

Until the next time we meet on The Pizza Project road, piece people.

Wrap it up, Dammit! (aka The Pizza Project 1.3)

12 05 2012

If you’ve been following my blog, you have probably wondered if I’m not just ever so slightly crazy. To spare you waiting to the end of this post for the answer, I’ll just say right now that yes, I am a bit cracked. I’m not certifiable yet – no one is chasing me down to drag me to the padded room. If I don’t make some changes, and soon, that could happen though. I take comfort in knowing that some of the smartest, most inventive people in history were viewed as eccentric and a bit weird. Some comfort, not a lot.

As you may know, I have been trying to find my next avocation after a year of semi-retirement. It has been a wild ride this last year, with lots of peaks and valleys. The road seems to be smoothing out a bit, but one never knows what is around the next bend. Last night, in a bit of a funk, I very sloppily threw together some pizza dough – always an easy go-to meal requiring little work and leaving few dishes to wash. It occurred to me after the fact that my pantry is getting a bit slim on supplies and I didn’t have any canned tomato products from which to make a quick sauce. Sure, there are a ton of other things you can put atop a pizza, but I wanted classic pepperoni pizza and didn’t want to work that hard. I was trying to wallow in my depression and too much work would spoil it with endorphins. Waa.

So I did what any self-pitying cook would do and used what I had that did not require any more work. I had pepperoni, shredded cheeses, and grape tomatoes. Good enough. You can consult my basic pizza dough recipe here, and follow the pictures below to make a Calzone or Stromboli. If I wasn’t having a pity party, I would have shaped them more carefully, crimped or fluted the edges of the calzone, and given them an egg wash for a beautiful, deep golden crust. But to hell with that – pinching did the trick. Who cares? It’s just me and the dog – and we all know he would have eaten the raw dough if I threw it on the floor for him. You’ll do a better job when you make them. Back to the pity party.

So I watched three movies in a row on ABC Family. Movies about moms, tear jerkers. The last one was a bit too funny – it was spoiling my dark mood. But I watched it all the way through and felt a little better. Dammit. So I read myself to sleep with Chef John Malik’s book Doughnuts for Amy on my Kindle.

I woke up this morning, took a little time to meditate and contemplate, and it occurred to me that the answer to my vocational problem may already be at hand. I am blessed to have the means (via my previous work in service to our country, certainly not because of the small business that I owned) to live a very small life without being further subjected to the drudgery of a daily job. Now by small, I am talking about perhaps 500 square feet with the potential for noisy neighbors on the other side of the wall. I am talking about selling my house (done), selling off most of my furniture, carefully monitoring the thermostat, and not driving more than one gallon of gas per day most days. That kind of small. But if I do that for now, I can write and read and cook and maybe even do lunch out now and then. Huh.

It doesn’t solve my loneliness problem, but perhaps there are ways to address that without spending money. Volunteer work was a bummer the first time around, but maybe I should try again someplace else. Whatever I decide to do, I need to get on with it. I can hardly stand myself anymore. I need to wrap this up. Really. If I keep reading John’s book, I’m going to be compelled to go rush into a bad relationship to solve another problem. Hot-steamy, Chef – knock that off! It’s not safe for a single gal to read that kind of thing. It should come with a warning label, something like, “Don’t read this if you are a 40-something single woman not presently in a relationship.” I’m just sayin’.

You know, I had a zucchini in the fridge. I could have sliced that up and put it into the calzones. Nah, too much work. Besides, I can’t think about zucchini right now. Brings up all sorts of dangerous thoughts thanks to Chef John. I might never look at a zucchini the same again. Yow!

Yeah, yeah. I’m going. Give me a break. I have to ease into happy or I might be labeled bi-polar instead of just garden-variety crazy.

Carpe Diem, people!

The Pizza Project 2.4: Old Lady Leary and Gino’s East

27 04 2012

If you are new to The Pizza Project, you can read my intro here.  Or not.  I’m not in charge here – do as you will.  Ain’t bloggin’ great?

I had the distinct pleasure of living on the North Shore of Chicago (or north of the north shore, if you will) during my military service.  I was stationed at Fort Sheridan (once a trading post along the way to the wild west, then a military installation instrumental in putting out the great Chicago fire, now its own town), a quick drive or train ride from the heart of Chicago, and a lovely place right on the shores of Lake Michigan.  It sports gorgeous old brick and stone buildings and homes (one of which I lived in), and is so very picturesque.  The house I lived in had the original wood floors and the bricked-over coal shoot from the old furnace – it was special to live in a piece of our National history.  It was hard not to love living there, even when the lake-effect snow literally buried us every winter.  I could walk out my back door, cross the street, and arrive at work.  It was pretty awesome.  It also gave me easy access to Chicago and Milwaukee, Wisconsin for all manner of cultural experiences.  Gino’s East was one of those.  It really is an experience.

House I lived in at Fort Sheridan, left

If you have not had the double pleasure of visiting Chicago and eating at Gino’s East, I recommend them both for your bucket list.  Gino’s happens to be walking distance from the shy-town landmark hotel The Drake, though the latter may not appreciate being mentioned in the same breath with the former.  This hotel has feather beds so big you have to make an appointment to meet your beloved in the middle, loads of carefully polished antiques, and elevator attendants just like they’ve had for a century or more.  The former is a t-shirt and jeans kinda place, although you will find plenty of suits there despite its humble façade.  Everyone appreciates good food, right?

I am totally a deep dish pizza girl – bring on the knife and fork, if need be, to shovel it in.  I love me some Gino’s.  But I’ve never dared to try the frozen version before.  I’ve had the real thing – how could something from the freezer possibly compare?  It seems so wrong somehow.  But if the good folks at Gino’s East deemed it good enough to put their name on it, then I will take the plunge and eat it.

Texas has nothin’ on Gino’s.  This pizza weighs in at two pounds.  That is correct – TWO POUNDS!  They didn’t have a smaller one, though I think this is a small if you go to Gino’s and order it there.  It’s a big one for just me.  It is only about 8” in diameter, but it is almost 2” deep and packed with sauce and cheese.  I predict pizza for breakfast tomorrow, and maybe lunch too.

If you aren’t familiar with the whole Chicago Deep Dish thing, they put the cheese and other toppings down into the crust and top it with the sauce.  Personally, I love it this way.  When the sauce is good I like lots of it, rather than the barely-there schmear of sauce on most New York style thin pizzas. I like my spaghetti that way too – swimming in marinara.  Maybe those three years in Chicago had a bigger impact than I realized.  I can smell it.  I think it’s done.  I’ll be right back.

Heed the box and let it rest a few minutes.  There is molten cheese in there.  Oh. Man.  This is good.  I think the crust might be a little bit crunchier than the real deal, but it’s not bad.  The crust is a cross between chewy pizza dough and pie crust – it has to be sturdy to hold in all that cheese and sauce.  It puts the other pizza guys to shame in the cheese-per-square-inch category – there’s nearly an inch of cheese inside.  Just like I remember.

Each slice is about 225 calories and there are 8 slices per pizza if you cut it as implied by the nutritional label.  But this is so much more satisfying than those thin little things I have been sampling up until now.  Two slices has filled me up, so that’s on par with the calories in the individual-size pizzas from the other guys (less than some of them).  The sodium per slice is about the same as the calories, so that’s less than most of the other pizzas (per serving) as well.  The only possible draw back?  It cost $9.99.  You do get 2 whole pounds, though.  I guess it’s pretty obvious that I recommend this pizza, eh?  Nostalgia notwithstanding, it is pretty darned good for frozen.

Maybe I should have saved the Gino’s East for the last of the frozen pizza exploration – I may have just lost my objectivity.  This does not bode well for that poor Kashi pizza in the freezer.

Let me sing you out of this one with a historically relevant tune that I recall from girl scout camp (what is it with me and uniforms?).  Ahem.  “One dark night when we were all in bed, Old Lady Leary lit a lantern in the shed.  And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said, “It’s gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight.”  Fire Fire Fire! (repeat)

Until next time, piece my friends.

The Pizza Project 2.3: CPK and the Greeks

26 04 2012

Here we are, back on The Pizza Project road after a stop along Mustard Lane.  Today’s frozen pizza pick is the California Pizza Kitchen.  Specifically, the individual size “Margherita” pizza.  But first, let’s take a little detour, shall we?

Pizza (Italian pronunciation: [pittsa], from the Latin verb pìnsereto press) is Greek in origin. Yes, that is correct, Pizza is GREEK.  The Ancient Greeks covered their bread with oils, herbs and cheese.  In Byzantine Greek, the word was spelled πίτα or pita, meaning pie. The word has now spread to Turkish as pide, and Bulgarian, Croatian, and Serbian as pita, Albanian as pite and Modern Hebrew pittāh.  The Romans developed placenta, a sheet of dough topped with cheese and honey and flavored with bay leaves. Modern pizza originated in Italy as the Neapolitan pie with tomato. In 1889, cheese was added.

Allegedly first served to and thus named after Queen Margherita of Italy in Naples in 1889, this style of pizza sports the colors of the Italian flag in the form of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil.  I think it is safe to assume that today’s specimen from CPK doesn’t look anything like the original.  I saw some specks of green and assumed it was basil.  There were also these little mini-marshmallow-like pieces of mozzarella on top of the pizza, and some diced tomato that I could identify on sight.  It was encouraging.

You have probably seen the bright yellow boxes that CPK uses in your grocery – they have the only frozen pizza box I’ve seen that isn’t heavy on red ink.  Depending on where you live, you may recognize the design from the signs adorning their restaurants.  To further differentiate themselves from the competition, the CPK people opted for a square pie instead of round.  Isn’t that special?

I have had other frozen “crispy crust” pizzas during this project, but this is my least favorite crust to date.  It reminded me of heavy duty crackers, the kind no one eats from those generic party cracker assortments.  That’s really too bad, because the toppings were flavorful, identifiable, and lower in sodium than some of the competitors thus far (660mg for the whole pizza).  Also, the whole pizza was only 430 calories – a very reasonable number that allows you to add a salad without busting your per-meal calorie budget.

I’m serious about the crust which I prefer thick and chewy, so I won’t be revisiting the frozen CPK pizza.  If you don’t mind a crunchy cracker-like crust, this lower calorie, flavorful pizza is a good fast-food option that I can recommend to you.

Until next time, happy eating!

The Pizza Project 2.2: Read & Feed

21 04 2012

Frozen pizza was the perfect solution to my aching head situation last night – I didn’t have to do much and could retreat to the land of soft pillows and darkness after scarfing down some not-too-shabby frozen pizza.  Now that I have peeled myself off the ceiling following this week’s drama with the bank,  I found some more interesting pizza facts at Food Product Design – a pretty cool food industry website with which I was heretofore unacquainted.  This is why I love Twitter – I follow people who turn me onto new stuff that interests me.  In this case it was Alton Brown who enlightened me.

The first article relates to a survey indicating that 41% of Americans eat pizza once per week.  See?  I told you it was a cultural icon.  There are more juicy pizza tidbits in that article, with links to even more facts if you really want to go crazy.

Then there’s this very serious document entitled Ubiquitous Pizza.  This, too, is geared toward the food industry, but if you are seriously into your pizza, it’s worth a quick read to better understand what the people who are making your restaurant pizzas are thinking.  They are, after all, responsible for most of the pizza that lands on your plate.

Or, you can just go pick up one of these DiGiorno Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizzas and chow down.  I have to say, it was pretty decent.  The crust was pleasant, the sauce was flavorful without being overly salty like the Tony’s and Totino’s of TPP 2.1, and it was quite satisfying.  It was very small in diameter, as you can see, but it was thick and it had all that extra cheese, so it was fine for one portion.  The box informed me that it was really 2 portions, but at under 800 calories total I ate the whole thing.  Not too bad for prepared food that actually tastes decent.

The cooking directions were accurate.  Once again, I opted for the pizza stone pre-heated with the oven rather than the microwave – need I say why?  They did have a handy little tray if you must use the electric dehydrator.  The box said 18-20 minutes at 400F; 18 minutes was perfect in my oven.

I hate to say it, but I don’t have anything bad to say about this one.  I even like it better than the last take-out pizza shop pizza I had.  I paid about $3.50 for it today, though I have seen them priced closer to $5 in some stores.  All in all, I deem it a pretty good deal.

For the uninitiated, I explain this whole pizza project thing here.

I have stocked the freezer with a few more frozen options, after which I think I’m done with frozen pizza in so far as The Pizza Project is concerned.  Those reviews should be forthcoming soon.  I’m anxious to get out and taste more of the local restaurant offerings.

So I’ll see you soon along The Pizza Project road.  Piece.

The Cold Bottom Rung: The Pizza Project 2.1

11 04 2012

I apologize for the delay along The Pizza Project road.  I was off daydreaming about having my own little bakery – again – and was busy prying off my rose colored glasses and running numbers.  I am still contemplating the venture, but it is scary stuff.  The failure rate is very high for food businesses, especially at this time and in this town.   But I digress.  Hop in and take a ride to the freezer section with me.

For my first foray into the “take & bake” category of The Pizza Project, I decided to start on the bottom rung.  Cheap and frozen.  So I ate Tony’s Monday night and Totino’s Tuesday night.  Oh, the sacrifices I make for you dear readers, that you may avoid the pizza potholes of the universe.

The Tony’s pizza was the individual size.  Surprisingly, the nutrition label assumed one would indeed consume the entire pizza.  The entire pizza was only 490 calories, which I happen to think is pretty OK for a decent portion of packaged food.  The sodium (860mg) was a bit high, but I assume high sodium with canned and frozen foods; so it was not too high considering it was preserved AND had ‘pepperoni.’  About that pepperoni – I don’t know where they get their pepperoni, but mine never looks like that.  I’m just sayin’.

The package informed me that I could microwave the contents.  The box contained one of those funny little filmy things that is supposed to aid in crisping the crust in the electric dehydrator that is the microwave.  I just couldn’t do it.  I had very low expectations of this pizza, and I was not going to make it worse.  So I baked it.  The box said to put the pizza right on the rack in the oven.  No way was I going to scrape pseudo-cheese off my oven grate later.  So I preheated my pizza stone along with the oven and popped it on the stone.

Again consulting the box, 14-16 minutes was the recommended bake time.  It also said the pizza was done when the cheese was melted and the edges were browned.  The latter occurred in 13 minutes so I yanked it out of the oven.  After cutting it into four pieces and plating, I proceeded to burn the roof of my mouth by being in a big hurry.  Let me recommend that you rest your molten lava pseudo-pizza a few minutes before digging in.


Yes, well, so when my stunned palate recovered from the scorching enough to taste again, I was surprised that I was not repulsed.  It was a bit salty, as expected.  Toward the end of my consumption, I started to detect some other flavors (or maybe the cumulative salt intake started to register).  I looked at the ingredient label and found tomatoes and flour to be the top two ingredients.  All I could think was that they found the most tasteless tomatoes available and went with those, then added salt.  The crust was crispy as promised on the box, but not overly so.

You can press your “replay” button for the Totino’s, save for it being slightly larger and higher in calories and everything else that the Tony’s.  With regard to flavor and appearance they were virtually indistinguishable.  The Totino’s people decided to add about an inch to the size of the pizza and play the label trick with you wherein they list the single serving nutritional values and, in fine print, tell you there are two servings in the box.  The crust, however, was marginally better than the competitor.  With more calories, an extra inch, but the same price as its lighter, lower calorie cousin on this day at my grocery store, it’s a virtual draw.



At a mere $1.50 each, these pizzas were not horrible.  They were OK for the price.  You do indeed get what you pay for in this life.  I can see them coming in handy for feeding a crowd of growing teenagers on the cheap – something they can eat lots of that won’t break the budget – and they can make it themselves.  They are young, have unrefined palates, and the odds of the high sodium giving them a heart attack are low.  I will keep these on my list of edible cheap frozen food options for lazy days.  Really lazy days, when I can’t manage to leave the house to shop or dial the phone for delivery.

Don’t tell my friends about this.  They have put me firmly in their “gourmet food snob” box.  You would shatter their image of me.

If you don’t know what this project is all about, you can read my intro here.  Or not.  Ain’t blogging great?

Show Me To Your Kitchen: The Pizza Project 1.2

6 04 2012

There may not be pizza today folks.  I must consume some fresh veggies and a little lean protein.  I’m just sayin’.  So this seems like a good time to trot out a little true-life pizza story from my past.  When I originally wrote this story about two years ago, it was one of a four-part series called “Musings of a Crazed Cook” which absolutely no one has read (well, maybe my daughter).  Since it is indeed pizza related, I decided to subject you to it now.  Isn’t blogging great?  You can’t stop me from posting this, and I can’t stop you from passing it right on by.  So do what you must.

If anyone is still with me, it went something like this:

I have a dear friend who lives a three hour drive away from me.  We were trying to find a weekend to get together, consulting our respective calendars (this was back when weekends mattered because we were both gainfully employed).  We found a weekend that could work, save for her having a party to attend to celebrate another friend’s promotion.  So she invited me to meet her at the home of this man I barely knew, dismissing my objections saying that the host wouldn’t mind.

While packing my overnight bag, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with being a party crasher.  But I wanted to see my friend.  So I did what any crazed cook would do when headed to a party – I whipped up a big batch of pizza dough.  Stopping off at the grocery store for toppings on the way, I embarked on an hour and a half journey to meet my friend in the middle.

Arriving ahead of my friend (which, if you know her, is de rigueur), I nervously knocked on the door, hoping the host would somehow remember me by sight from our previous brief interactions.  Not so much.  After a re-introduction during which I also met his wife, I returned to my car to fetch my offering which had risen to pizza perfection in the warm, sun-soaked back seat in a giant, oiled Rubbermaid bowl.  Returning to the house with my groceries in tow, I was met by my host sporting a bewildered look.  I broke the silence by asking for directions to the kitchen.  I set about my preparations, quickly locating what I needed in the cupboards amid a few raised eyebrows and murmurs regarding my identity from other guests.

My friend arrived, we had cocktails, and with the band in full swing – a very large speaker two inches from my ear – I put my pizzas on the grill.  I remember the host asking me, “Why did you do this?” to which I responded, “It’s what I do.  I feed people.”

A while later, when the grilling was done and the eating was in progress, I fielded a dozen questions about grilling pizza, who I was, and how I knew the host.  I received at least as many compliments on the pizza.  Seems I had a dozen or more new friends, and the fact that I was a party crasher was long forgotten.  That, my dear host, is why I did this.

The crazed cook and her dear friend – not surprised in the least by the cook’s actions – retired to the fire pit, cocktails in hand, and had a great laugh.

The moral of the story is:  Pizza solves a myriad of life’s problems.  Or maybe:  Beware women bearing pizza dough.  You decide.


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