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Chili Relleno Pizza: A Two-Part Series (Part I: The Story; Part II: The Recipe)

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Awake at the Whisk: Chili Relleno Pizza: A Two-Part Series (Part I: The Story; Part II: The Recipe)

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Chili Relleno Pizza: A Two-Part Series (Part I: The Story; Part II: The Recipe)

My chili relleno pizza just pulled from the wood oven.

Here’s a great party idea: Prepare lots of individual pizza dough in advance. Invite your friends, and tell them to bring their own pizza toppings. Fire up a wood burning oven, and watch the fun that ensues! For added enjoyment, hold a pizza contest and dole out fabulous prizes to the winners.

A few weekends ago, I attended such a party. It was the highlight of my fall fun! The invitation came to my email with colorful Day of the Dead images. “Mexican pizza contest!” it read. “We’ll provide the dough and the wood burning oven.”

My pulse quickened as I read. I am a self-declared pizza snob. Growing up in Illinois, I know good pizza when I taste it. Deep dish, stuffed, crispy thin crust, or even calzone, I have eaten my share of incredible pies. This promised to be my kind of party!

The element of competition made my pulse race a little faster. I love a good contest! Just so happened that this game would be played on turf where I feel confident: pizza.

When I moved to Sacramento from Illinois 10 years ago, I longed for good pizza. Back then, Sacramento’s pizza scene left something to be desired. Crusts were like cardboard, cheeses like rubber, and sauces underwhelming (at least at the places I could afford). I was shocked. I didn’t know it was possible to make such bad pizza. Even the cheapest places back home made a palatable pie. But time and again, my California pizza experienced failed to meet even the lowest standards of mediocre pizza back home.

So, ten years ago, depressed by the pizza options before me, I did what any god-fearing pizza hound would do: I started making it from scratch. I’ve experimented with many dough recipes over the years, used a zillion different cheese combinations, and made so many different sauces I’ve lost count. I’ve read oodles of books and articles on pizza, adjusting my recipes as I learn more. For the first time, about a year ago, I hit my stride—right in sync with the Sacramento restaurant scene that is now churning out quality pies at places like Hot Italian and Chicago Fire. And with all my years of practice, despite Sacramento’s pizza improvements, my husband now prefers to eat mine.

At last month’s Day of the Dead Mexican pizza contest, I decided to bring out my newest pizza creation: Chili Relleno pizza. I invented it last year when the pablano peppers were ripe in the farmers’ markets and I had a hankering for one of my favorite Mexican dishes—obviously the pizza’s namesake, chili rellenos. I made a few batches of chili rellenos, but I always felt guilty dropping them into oil to fry. I also knew that the massive amount of cheese stuffing was a clogged artery waiting to happen.

I decided to meld two of my favorite foods: pizza with chili rellenos. With this recipe, you get to keep the great taste of the roasted pablano pepper. But you eliminate the deep frying and replace it with a crispy pizza crust (in my case, whole wheat). You can adjust the amount of cheese to a thin layer as opposed to a gooey glob. A healthier chili relleno with all the great flavors wrapped in the perfect pizza package!

In preparation for this pizza party contest, I made a spice-bursting sauce using heirloom tomatoes from my garden, (which could also be made from canned tomato sauce for those without fresh tomatoes this time of year). I bought ripe pablanos at the farmers’ market, roasted, and peeled them. I bought fresh jack cheese (also from the market) and grated it. Everything I needed was local.

I arrived at the party to glorious waves of colorful paper flags in intricate cutouts. The hostess, Cynthia, had clearly labored over the spread of authentic Mexican salsas, fresh juices, homemade tortilla chips, and pumpkin seeds scattered over a salad of green beans and brussel sprouts. And of course, her fresh pizza dough.

The first pizza up to bat was made by Jay, the previous owner of Sacramento’s delicious, but long-gone, Black Cat Café (RIP). He pulled out a creamy, pale, homemade cilantro pesto, cooked squash, and bags of fresh pork and cheese purchased at a Latin deli. The finished pizza evoked all the colors of fall. The soft squash and chewy crust melted away with a clean cilantro finish.

I had to follow that?! Gulp. Perhaps I don’t know pizza as well as I thought.

I turned to check on the next pizza in the line-up. The dough was covered with a sticky cream sauce that oozed over the edges of the crust. Experienced wood-fire bakers immediately sprung into action, attempting to rescue the gluey mess, rapidly scooping sauce away before it soaked the crust and caused irreparable damage. A pizza that enters one of these ovens must not be moist, because it has to slide on and off a pizza peel, and once inside the oven, inch across the surface as it’s maneuvered closer to or farther from hot flames.

Perhaps I was still in this competition after all.

Pizza after pizza went into the hot oven and emerged bubbling lusciously. One had smoked, line-caught trout, another had a beef chili sauce. Every idea was original.

Presenting my chili relleno pizza to the judges.
As my own chili relleno pizza emerged from the glowing oven, I heard “oohs” and “ahs” whispered on the lips of party guests. I felt eyes following as I edged narrowly between guests, holding my precious pie firmly on the end of the pizza peel and turning precariously to present it to the judges.

“Don’t drop it! Don’t drop it!” I whispered to myself. If any one of the guests whirled around unexpectedly, they might send my pretty pizza flying.

I made it safely to the judging table. I proudly presented my creation and gave a pitch about all its local glories, the origin of the idea, and the health benefits. Then I stepped back. I watched as they sliced my baby into tiny pieces. Eager hands reached in. In the blink of an eye, the pie reduced to mere crumbs.

I looked around the room. A friend and woman I look up to for her culinary dynamism, Peg, took a bite. I saw her eyes close. She “mmm’d”! Another of my favorite food friends, Elise, repeated Peg’s utterance three times in a row: “Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmm!”

“This is good!” they both told me. I did a happy jump. I no longer cared if I won the contest. Two of the best cooks in the room liked my pizza! They asked if I was going to post the recipe. They made me feel like a pizza queen!

At the end of the night, I took home a tie for third with the line-caught trout pizza maker. Black Cat Café guy came in first with his cilantro pesto creativeness. 

My prize: two rich, dense, luscious, smoothly spiced panforte homemade by our hostess, who I am told, makes the best panforte around. I’d trade pizza for that panforte any day. Ah, sweet victory!

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That was such a fun pizza party, though I think you got robbed! All due respects to Black Cat Jay, whose pizza was outstanding, yours in my not-so-humble opinion was better. Loved the originality, loved the flavors, everything. Most true to the Mexican theme of the night. We'll have to repeat in the summer when my barbecue is back in business and do a grilled pizza competition, what do you think?
Elise--A grilled pizza contest sounds grand! Count me in! :) And thanks for your super-duper compliment on my pizza. I'm still riding high. That means the world!
I love the idea of a grilled pizza party--what fun!
Ooh--I want in! I make pizza all the time and once worked a very busy wood-burning pizza oven. Please invite me next time!
Ann, now I want to try one of YOUR pies!!

Rowdy Chowgirl--Long time! I hope you are transitioning from Hawaii.

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