Yotam Ottolenghi: it shouldn’t take a pandemic to make us realise that it’s the simple things in life that matter

Think of these cheesy bread balls in tomato sauce, a kind of deconstructed pizza, as a tribute to the little things

 

Delicious Thanksgiving dinners planned all around, I trust? However relatively small the gathering, the fact that this year has been so unexpected makes sitting down for a familiar meal all the more important. One tradition I particularly love is everyone going around the table and saying what they are thankful for. I wonder how much of what people gave thanks for this year differs from other, more “normal” years.

It reminds me of a Thanksgiving tale a good friend shared with me a couple of years ago.

At her holiday meal, the kids were asked to kick things off. The first few offerings were what might have been expected (or what might, quietly, have been suggested to them by a parent): Thanks was given for a much-loved grandparent, perhaps, or favourite teacher. A new friend made or a long-trusted teddy bear.

A few parents gave thanks for health, happiness, partners sticking by them, love and all good things. Next was a boy who stood up, pushed his chair back and, tickled by his own wise words, boldly said: “I give thanks for Netflix because I love Netflix.”

A small pause, as everyone gauged the room – this could be the ultimate parental “busted” moment – before whoops of approval. Heck, yes! Let’s give thanks for television! To all the streaming services we collapse in front of every evening and the series we are entertained by. Bar duly lowered, the kids then proceeded to run with it.

“I give thanks for pizza,” one cheered.

“I give thanks for pasta-pesto,” another chimed in.

“Grilled cheese sandwiches,” a little one squeaked.

“Dough balls,” said another.

“Chocolaaaaate,” declared the smallest at the table before all were lost to the giggles.

Bread dough is wrapped around a chunk of mozzarella. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times
Bread dough is wrapped around a chunk of mozzarella. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

I remembered that story recently, and thought those kids were on to something. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make us realise that it’s the simple things in life that matter.

For many, though, 2020 will be the year that many a day was saved by the making of dough balls, the sharing of pizza, the comfort of pasta-pesto or grilled cheese (as well as Netflix).

This is my tribute – my giving thanks – to that feeling: to the making of something simple and communal, comforting and basic, with, hopefully, ingredients in your kitchen and maybe the little people in your house. In fact, making dough balls is a sort of child’s play and certainly one step up from Play-Doh. It’s just as therapeutic and fun, but rather more delicious to eat.

Here is to giving thanks for all the big stuff – to health and happiness and love – but, also, to tomato sauce and basil leaves and melted cheese. And, of course, to dough balls: to the pure, unadulterated joy of making, baking, eat-with-your-fingers-all-in-one-mouthful dough balls.

Cheesy bread balls in tomato sauce. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times
Cheesy bread balls in tomato sauce. Photograph: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

Cheesy bread balls in tomato sauce

Serves 4. Total time: 1 hour, plus rising

For the bread balls:
100g white bread flour
60ml lukewarm water
1½ tsp olive oil, plus more for brushing
½ tsp active (fast-action) dry yeast
¼ tsp salt

For the sauce:
80ml olive oil
7 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
400g can plum tomatoes, well crushed by hand
3 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, plus 1 tbsp for garnish
2 tbsp roughly chopped fresh basil leaves, plus 2 tbsp for garnish
1 tsp sugar
Salt and black pepper
100g low-moisture mozzarella

Method

1. Prepare the bread balls: Add the flour, lukewarm water, 1½ tsp oil, the yeast and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the dough hook, knead on medium-high speed for 7 minutes, scraping the bottom of the bowl to distribute the ingredients as needed, until soft and elastic. Transfer to a medium, lightly oiled bowl, and brush the top of the dough with a little oil. Cover with a damp tea towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until soft and pillowy.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: Add the 80ml oil and garlic to a medium ovenproof pan and heat over medium-low, gently frying for 4 to 5 minutes, until soft and fragrant. (You don’t want the garlic to brown, so turn the heat down if necessary.) Transfer 3 tbsp of the garlic-oil mixture to a small bowl and set aside.

3. Add the tomatoes with their juices, oregano, basil, sugar and ¼ tsp salt to the pan and simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes. Add 160ml of water, turn the heat to medium-low and continue to simmer for 15 minutes, stirring every now and then, until thickened slightly. Set aside.

4. Meanwhile, cut the mozzarella into 20 cubes.

5. Transfer the dough to a clean work surface and use a pastry cutter or sharp knife to cut it into 8 equal pieces.

6. Use your hands to flatten each piece into a 6cm-wide round, then place a piece of mozzarella into the centre. Fold the dough up and around, pinching the dough tightly to enclose the cheese. Turn the dough ball over, pinched side down, and use the palm of your hand to roll the dough against your work surface to make a smooth, neat ball.

7. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet (baking tray), and form the remaining dough balls, spacing them evenly apart as you place them on the baking sheet. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to proof in a warm place for another 30 minutes.

8. Heat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius, or equivalent. Brush the top of the dough balls with a little olive oil to coat, then bake for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside and heat the broiler (turn the oven grill setting to medium-high).

9. Return the sauce to medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, add the baked bread balls to the sauce, and arrange the remaining cheese cubes around them. Transfer to the middle rack of the oven and grill for 2 to 4 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbling and the bread balls are nicely browned.

10. Spoon the reserved garlic oil over the bread balls and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with the extra oregano and basil, and serve right away. – New York Times

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