Introducing the edible portrait

“After a while I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will, he said.”  ― Gertrude SteinThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Picasso’s paintings strike with an unforgiving savageness. He paints raw truth in sharp relief. And sometimes his words carry that same poison tip. The quote about Ms. Stein opens the door for artists to decouple from what is expected: a photo-realistic recording of skin draped over cartilage and bone.

Instead, Picasso explores character. He invites inspection about resolve. About vision, intellect and that which put Gertrude at the epicenter of a tornado.  A storm of genius writers, poets and artists.  Picasso did this all in the language of swirled paint on stretched cotton.

Today we blow up the convention about artistic materials.  We take challenge to the sanctity of pastels, paints and plascticine. Why cannot the bounty of the market be our pigment. Why cannot we forge a portrait from a kitchen oven?

That is this blog’s intent. An invitation to express complex ideas through food. To tell stories through the language of meal shared.

And so we humbly submit for your consideration, a portrait of an artist, a vice-chancellor, a dad, and whiskey aficionado in culinary form.  We introduce you to “The Whittington.”

The Whittingon, a portrait of a man in the form of pizza

The Whittingon, a portrait of a man in the form of pizza

A pizza inspired by the grit and the grin of Sir Daniel Whittington.

Okay. We made up the “sir” part. Still he’s an honorable chap and a fun subject for this experimentation.

Twas the night before a seminar at the Wizard Academy. Fourteen of us, mostly strangers gathered on the eve to share dinner.

The first pizza out was The Whittington. It featured duck bacon, bourbon gruel, smoked cheese, spiced peaches, sliced jalepeno and toasted walnuts.

This invention made it’s debut that night. No preliminary trial. No backroom experimentation. No consultation with culinary scientists or professional chefs.

No. This academy is dedicated to the imaginative, the courageous, the ambitious.  We do NOT play it safe here. We just play.

The recipe matured in my head for head for two weeks.  I tasted each ingredient in my conscious mind and played the combinations until I found the right design. The right balance which would express Daniel’s character as I saw it.

Duck bacon is a relatively new product. It is found it at Central Market thanks to Paul at the butchers counter.  It’s essentially nickel sliced duck breast that has been cold smoked. It seemed reasonable that for a man who enjoys his cigar, we would need to amp up the smokey flavors.

Smoke also suggests camping. Outdoors. A man under moonlight alone with his thoughts as the fire burns in service of his warmth.

The gaminess of duck nods to a hunter-gather expression. Smoked chicken might have added the right smokiness, but chicken is about playing it safe.  It’s about farms and domestication.  18 years of playing music is not playing safe. Selling insurance to little old ladies for their grandkids is playing it safe.

Bourbon gruel is a new thing.  Just plum made it up. Traditionally gruel exists as soupy serving of cooked grains.  Meal which has been sufficiently cooked that it looses it’s personality. Think oatmeal or cream of wheat. Bourbon gruel stands in defiance.

Instead of grain, we used onions that were tortured in a saute pan until even the devil could not recognize it. Onions caramelize when heated, releasing beautiful sweet flavors.  We wanted to take it many steps passed that. To the point where the pan looked like it belonged in the kitchen of Tom Waits.  Overcaked with char from failed dishes as the result of negligence. Negligence born from a man more interested in raking his voice over intense lyrics while the piano tiptoes past.

Bourbon was used to deglaze the pan. Stock was evaporated until only the essence remained.  In it’s pure form, this gruel was hot and woodsy from the whisky, slightly bitter from the deep cooking, oversalted because of the concentration of stock. And black as hell.

Yes, this is what gruel should look like. Black tar. The kind which forms the criss-cross of Texas highways.

Spiced peaches from the Texas Hill Country were another must. Most people are complex characters with built in conflicts. Doubt this fact?  Pick up any decent fiction. So the cinnamon sweet peaches seems to fit Daniel’s narrative.  We could have grabbed pears, but that would have been disingenuous.  Peaches are the fruit of central Texas. And we are talking about a long, tall Texan.

Toasted walnuts provided two important features.  First is bitterness.  Pecans would have been nice but not right. It is true that so many pecan trees find their home in Texas. However, they are too luxurious.  The fat content is a bit higher and they are more a white glove affair.  We needed grit with slight bitterness.

Smoke caciocavallo comes from Italy. Okay. I admit, that’s my bias. The hand of the artist. Yet, caciocavallo is a sheeps milk cheese. Which means that it’s both creamy and nutty at the same time. The smoked part, of course intends to get into the chorus of all things smokey for this dish.

Fresh mozzarella joined. Now it’s not important to discuss every ingredient. However, note that mozzarella plays two roles on pizza.  It has a calming effect for spicy components and can be the figurative and literal glue. Kind of like the fact that white is a color that matches every other color. So the smoked caciocavallo adds a bit more drama to the cheese part of the symphony while mozzarella carries the baseline.

Texans eat jalapenos buy the bushels. Served fresh, their crispy heat pops in the mouth. The pickled variety carry the heat but are weighted down by sour brine.  For this dish, we wanted green disks to sparkle like the eyes of the Cheshire in the night. Visually, sliced jalapenos lift off the murkier colors.  They prove depth and intensity and purpose. A single voice of hilarity in a sea of moans.

Daniel Whittington and Anthony Dina with The Whittington

Daniel Whittington and Anthony Dina with The Whittington

That’s the The Whittington.  And that’s Daniel.

And if that is not true, well then it will be.

And now for a bonus…

The recipe

1. Make your dough

Pizza dough

Pizza dough

Or unfreeze it.  Better to use raw dough than any pre-cooked variety. I’ve tried many versions, but always come back to what James McNair put together in his book.  If you don’t have it, buy it. Anyway it’s this:

3-1/4 c flour (all-purpose, bread, or our favorite Antimo Caputo from Naples)
1/4 c. olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 c. water
2-1/4 tsp or 1 package yeast
1 tsp sugar

Warm water to 110 degrees. Should feel a little like bath water. Stir in sugar then yeast. Let sit until it foams.

Flour, salt, oil go into a bowl. Then the foamy yeast water. Mix. Then kneed by hand or mix with a dough hook in a proper mixer.

Let it rest under plastic wrap in a warm place until it doubles in size. Should be 90 minutes for regular yeast and 45 for Rapid Rise.

Punch it down.  Then split into thirds. Halves, if you like a thicker dough or are really going to stretch to the outer perimeter of the pizza paddle.

2. Make the Bourbon Gruel

Boubon-spiked onion gruel

Boubon-spiked onion gruel


1 medium sized white onion
1 c. Bourbon plus more for thinning
1-1/2 c. chicken stock
olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

This requires careful attention and adjustments as you go. Feel free to experiment or moderate. You are looking for a slushy consistency in the end. Adding more onion or whisky will either thicken or thin the mixture.

Slice onions into wedges. Plop into a dry, pre-heated, wide pan. Let them blister on medium high. Then add a touch of oil and reduce heat to medium or medium low. Then them breakdown and mark the pan with caramelized bits. The more the better

Blister those onions

Blister those onions (click for a larger image)

When it’s coated and the onions are a dark brown with black, remove from pan. Turn the heat up to medium high. Deglaze pan with the bourbon. I like to keep a lid near by. It’s possible for the alcohol to catch fire.

Don’t want any surprises.  Everyone deserves to keep their eyebrows. Reduce to it’s nearly gone (about 1 tablespoon), then add the chicken stock.

Deglaze the dark bits with bourbon

Deglaze the dark bits with bourbon (click for a larger image)

Let this go until nearly all of the liquid is gone (about couple of tablespoons worth). It won’t look like syrup. That’s ok. Remove from heat.

Puree half of the onion in a food processor. We have a mini Cuisine Art for this purpose. Otherwise get busy rocking with that chef’s knife. You are looking for a paste-like consistency. Return to pan to incorporate what’s left there.  Add a splash of bourbon more to loosen things up. Cook it down if it’s still too liquidy.

Don’t worry about the alcohol content.  That will evaporate in the oven.  Taste this product. You should have a very salty, whisky-driven response on your tongue.  Expect sharp bitterness and a halo of sweet.

3. Pre-cook the duck bacon

Duck bacon on a sheet pan

Duck bacon on a sheet pan

Ingredients: 1 8oz package of duck bacon (can be found at Central Market or look for the brand Dartagnan online.)

Let’s be honest.  Not everyone has access to duck bacon. Or at least when the hunger strikes you for The Whittington. More important that you stick to the smokiness side of rich meat. So use your favorite bacon rather than plain duck. Bonus points to anyone who smokes their own duck.

Duck bacon by Dartangion

Duck bacon by Dartagnan (click for a larger image)

Lay out bacon on a sheet pan. Roast in a 425 degree oven for 10 minutes or until leathery. Be careful not to overcook.  The meat will be heated again. Pat dry with a paper towel. Then chop into big bits.

Your choice on whether you keep the rendered duck fat. I would. Every vegetable will taste better sauteed in this natural fat.

Duck bacon from the oven

Duck bacon from the oven (click for a larger image)

4. Toast the walnuts

Toasted walnuts

Toasted walnuts

This one is easy. About 1-1/2 c. of walnuts on a sheet pan.  Pop into that pre-heated oven for about 5 minutes or until fragrant. Pull them out, give a shake and toast some more. A couple of minutes.

Take care not to burn them.  In variably, I do, so I buy twice as much as any recipe calls for.  There’s a reason why we give tennis players two chances to make it in the box for every serve.  Even the pros can fault.

5. Prepare the cheeses

Sliced, fresh mozzarella

Sliced, fresh mozzarella

Finely grated smoked caciacavallo

Finely grated smoked caciocavallo

A single 6-8 oz ball of mozzarella or a 10 oz log of pre-sliced mozzarella from Costco. Either will work. You will be adding the amount according to taste.

Finely grate 6 oz of smoked caciocavollo. This is important. Smoked cheeses do not melt well, so small is better.  Also, feel free to substitute other smoked cheeses. Not everyone has to be a pretty-boy cook like yours truly.

6. Slice the peaches

Pitted peaches sliced into quarters

Pitted peaches sliced into quarters

Ingredients:one jar of killer, spiced peaches; will use about 3-4 peaches for one pizza

The ones we used came from the Gold Orchard. If you do not have the opportunity to drive by a farmstand, you are left with a couple options.

Spiced peaches from Texas Hill Country (click for larger image)

Spiced peaches from Texas Hill Country (click for larger image)

Make them yourself when they are in season. Or go online. Gold Orchard ships to your home. Costs about $12 per jar plus shipping.

Don’t be a baby. These are jarred by the same hands as they ones that picked them.

If you are tempted to use Del Monte, then don’t even make the pizza. Go to McDonalds to satisfy your hunger.

Sorry did that offend you? I meant it in a spirit of love.

Slice the peaches into quarters.  Gold Orchards jars their fruit with the pit still inside. They lovingly made a single cut with which two thumb can pull the fruit into two sections. You are half way there.

7. Slice the jalapeno

Ingredients: 1-2 sliced jalapeno

This dish begs for the disc cut, not julienne.  Take out the seeds to temper the heat

8. Bake the pizza

The Whittington just before the oven

The Whittington just before the oven

Additional ingredients:

More flour for dusting
1/4 c. cornmeal
1 tblsp chopped cilantro

Pre-heat to 500 degrees a pizza stone inside of oven.  Better to let the stone heat up 15 minutes after the oven beeps at you.

Roll out the dough using fingers, fist, or rolling pin. Whatever technique works. Personally, I pat the dough into a 6 inch disc then use a rolling pin to stretch the shape. Always start from the center of the dough and move to the outer edges. This might require dusting with more flour and flipping a couple of times as the dough gets bigger. Search on YouTube for stretching dough if you need the help.

Sprinkle a little cornmeal on the pizza peal. (Example of what a peal looks like). Lay the dough then place on the ingredients. Since the bacon is pretty much cooked, I like to put this on the bottom.

Next spread out those peach quarters

Then layer the mozzarella around the dough.  Rather than use the discs as is, I like to pull them apart into smaller globules, dotting the pizza canvas in an even fashion. The cheese will melt quickly and fill in any gaps.

Take note not to get it too close to the edge of the dough. That usually results spillage onto the stone or bottom of the oven. That requires someone to fan the smoke away from the ceiling detector. That just proves that cooking can be a team sport.

Next blanket the top with an even layer of smoked cheese.

Take a handful of walnuts.  Using both hands crush the nuts over the pizza. Some will fall into their rightful place. Once you get an uneven collection of bits in your cupped hands, cast them onto the surface like Johnny Appleseed.

With a spoon, blop small bits of Bourbon Gruel around the pizza.  Again, your eye will tell you how much and where to put it.

Last up are the sliced jalapeno.  Put them where they may.

Slide the pie onto the stone and wait. Time to inhale and take a sip or two of wine. Or inhale wine if you have been working really hard.

Cook until you get a decent crust and all the cheese has melted.  You can peek under the crust with your paddle. You are looking for dark tan or brown bits and a bit of stiffness.

Keep you eye on the outer crusts as well.  They need to have bits of dark on them. If it looks raw, keep going. Drink more wine and talk with your friends.

You may turn your back to the oven, but don’t leave the area. A fireman stays close to his pole. You must be within reach of the pizza paddle. Sometimes quick, decisive action is required.

Stab the paddle underneath the cooked pizza to remove from the oven. Land on a cutting board. Then wait a few minutes more. Your glass is probably empty. So fill it.  Let the cheese cool so it doesn’t run onto the cutting board when you slice the pizza.

The Whittington out of the oven

The Whittington out of the oven

Lately, we’ve been cutting a grid pattern on pizza even if it’s round. Smaller shapes seem to be easier when the crust is thin or a cornucopia of ingredients sit on top.

Two slices of the Whittington (click for a larger image)

Two slices of the Whittington (click for a larger image)

There you have it.  The Whittinton. Enjoy.


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