Well, it’s been a quiet week here in Johan-land. First and foremost, I’ve been taken my first time off in 2014 and secondly I’ve been spending a few packed days in the comforting company of friends and family.
Aside from being an important religious holiday, to most Danes Easter means exactly two things: an extended weekend usually spent in the company of friends and family and a lot of good food and drink, also usually consumed in the company of good friends and family. Wait, that may have been three things, actually, but really, who’s counting?
Anyway, Easter is probably the one time of year aside from Christmas where the average Dane spend the most time with friends and family (this not-so-average Dane included), usually at elaborate feasts where a little too much great food and entirely too much alcohol is consumed. Oh, you’ve just gotta love our way of tackling the few religious holidays that we have held on to over the years. The traditional food of choice for most of these mighty feasts is, by and large, the same thing that most other people around the world eat at Easter: Lamb! A type of meat that many people love, and quite a few people love to hate.
Why hate on lamb? A lot of people hate on lamb and accuse the meat of having a strong, wild, unpleasant, “wool”-like taste to it. As is the case with many things in life, this aversion is usually based on one or few bad experiences and have nothing to do with lamb meat itself but can largely be blamed on the supplier or the quality of meat used in cooking. Young lamb has a nice, delicate, slightly gamy flavor that with age will turn increasingly pungent, strong and overpowering.
As with other sorts of meat, much of the flavor is concentrated within the fat. The observant reader will already have figured out that the key to great lamb is to get cuts from a young beast sourced from a reliable supplier for a milder, pleasant flavor and to maybe trim cuts of excess fat prior to cooking if you’re really not into the lamb flavor. Think lamb tastes overly funky and nasty? Chances are you need to blame your supermarket or butcher, not the lamb!
Love it or hate it, lamb is the traditional food for easter celebrations around the world, partly for religious reasons and partly for traditional reasons. Maybe even partly because it just plain tastes good and because little Easter lambs, in their own way, signal the end of winter and the coming of spring. So what better way to celebrate these messengers of spring than by chopping them down and eating them to the tune of much rejoicing? I mean, while we’re busy getting sloshed in celebration of Jesus Christ paying the ultimate sacrifice for atonement for our sins? I mean, really?
Uh, anyway, Easter lamb, in Denmark, as in many other places, is often served as the main centerpiece of a large family dinner. The cut of choice is usually a whole, roasted leg of lamb, often stuffed with large amounts of garlic and rosemary, sliced to order and maybe with a bit of mint jelly, root vegetables and a sauce built from the drippings. This is, indeed, a fine way to serve lamb, but it’s also a rather predictable way to say the least, and, quite honestly, not a favorite way of mine. As a result, I’ve gone on a rogue mission to reinvent Easter lamb, and memorable occurrences have happened in the process.
Over the last couple of years, as my love for cooking and culinary challenges has grown, I have actually taken it upon me to cook Easter lamb at least once every year, but in the same breath, I’ve also taken it upon me to do it in a new, exciting and decidedly different way every year. I’ve done this partially to establish a new Easter tradition of my own (and possibly please some friends while I’m at it), but also to find new and inspiring ways of cooking a till now not so favorite critter of mine and hopefully even come up with a couple of keeper recipes in the process.
I quite proudly call this a tradition, but if I’m honest, it’s a pretty new one at that. As a matter of fact it’s a tradition that started two years ago with a curiously hot lamb korma of… questionable potential, continued on last year with a Moroccan-inspired lamb stew with apricots and almonds so tasty that it sent one of my diners into labor (true story!) and it is now going strong on it’s third year.
… Into labor? Say again? Well, okay, so maybe my dish wasn’t exactly so good that it induced labor. But the fact remains that the reason I remember this dish so much more than many other dishes I’ve cooked over the years is that it’s the dish I served my then pregnant friend Tina on the night that she went into labor with her baby boy Lukas. Well, served may be the wrong word.It’s the dish I tried to tell her to stop fussing and calm the f… down and eat…
All while she insisted that her water had just broken. I thought she was just overreacting and tried to explain to her how hard I’d worked on this meal and that she should just sit down and eat, then go home and rest. It all worked out really well until my living room floor started getting wet and I had to give her that she was probably right… Boy, was that a meal to remember if ever I had one!
This year, having only myself to cater to and a little less time on my hands than usually at this time of year, I decided to make things a little lighter and more simplified than an elaborate stew. Well, as far as anything from the hands of yours truly can be simplified anyway. This year, for reasons that are entirely my own and that I can’t even begin to explain, I got the strange but wonderful idea to create a spicy lamb pizza for my Easter dinner.
“Wait? Pizza? For Easter? With lamb? Johan, that’s a little crazy, even for you,” the average pizza eater may now be shaking his head, muttering to himself (or herself). But stick with me, there’s method to my madness…
Why lamb pizza for Easter makes perfect sense
First and foremost, I’ve been looking for an excuse to play with my original and surprisingly popular pizza recipe. A few people have reported some difficulties in working with the dough it produced, mainly when it came to elasticity and springiness, and I’ve been thinking about a way to address this. I wanted to try a new procedure and I wanted an excuse to whip up pizza. Through a little creative reasoning, Easter lamb became my perfect excuse.
A well-made pizza crust, I reasoned, after all is not too far of a stretch from the pitas or Arabian flat breads that have historically been used for centuries as an edible delivery vessel for spicy lamb in many countries in the Mediterranean region. What if, I thought to myself, I put the lamb on top of the bread rather than inside the bread, then topped it with a Mediterranean cheese and some traditional herbs and spices? Then I’d have myself a simple yet extravagant and perfectly passable Easter lamb meal, as well as a chance to test some pizza-making theories. Johan, you’re a genius, I eventually concluded!
But how then, does one actually go about building a perfect lamb pizza? Well, as all my pizzas these days are based on my slow-risen pizza dough recipe, they require a bit of time to rise – well, let’s just be honest here, a lot of time, 24 hours to be exact – and luckily this gave me just the right amount of time to contemplate the perfect toppings for an Easter pizza while my dough did its thing and rose slowly in the fridge.
Building a perfect lamb pizza
Obviously, with lamb being the main ingredient of my Easter pizza, I first had to decide on and acquire a hunk of lamb. Because I was doing this as a solo project and didn’t really feel like spending forever on the project, I decided to get hold of some nice, ground lamb from New Zealand. I furthermore decided on a free-range, organic mix which contained about 10% fat, the main reasoning here being that fat is a great carrier of flavor (and juiciness) and I wanted some of the lamb character, which is mainly contained in the fat, to shine through. I go organic and free range on lamb whenever I can simply because the poor little critters are bred for eating and generally cut down really early. If I get some good organic, free-range stuff from a reputable producer, at least I’m relatively sure they had a good, albeit short, life.
Before making it on to my pizza, I decided that my newly acquired lamb was first to be seared and simmered along with shallots and various spices, then mixed with a few other wonderful ingredients and flavors to create my perfect Easter lamb pizza.
Speaking of flavors, because my experiment was largely inspired by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, I decided to go with flavor compounds popular within the region: plenty of cumin and coriander in ground form for a Middle Eastern touch, a bit of smoked paprika for depth and kick as well as fresh, traditional herby flavors in the form of plenty of fresh oregano and mint, both of which are very popular with lamb. As I’m a particularly big fan of mint, I went with a particularly perfumed and flavorful variety known as Moroccan mint for my minty fix. For real mint lovers (and Mojito connoisseurs for that matter), I suggest trying to get hold of Moroccan mint for your dishes, Mojitos, mint teas, or whatever you’re cooking or drinking that involves mint. It really makes a wold of difference in the flavor department!
Actually, better yet, get hold of a Moroccan mint plant or sapling and grow your own mint in the comfort of your own garden or windows ill! I acquired one particularly sturdy Moroccan Mint plant from Growing Home a few weeks ago and it’s been growing like wildfire across my windows ill ever since, filling the kitchen with a nice, minty smell and my dishes with fresh, spicy, minty flavors!
But I digress, let’s talk tomatoes and cheese! Of course, no traditional pizza is complete without tomato sauce or cheese, but since I was already busy changing up the game, I decided to change things up a bit here as well. In keeping with the somewhat Middle Eastern tradition of my newly invented classic (there’s an oxymoron for you, free of charge!) I didn’t want my Easter lamb pizza to be overly tomato-y. So for the tomato touch, I decided to stick with a few tablespoons of flavorful, organic, concentrated tomato paste that I simmered along with the lamb to infuse a mild, sweet tomato note into the lamb topping, rather than adding tomato as a prominent flavor layer of its own.
As far as cheese was concerned, popular pizza topping choices such as mozzarella or Parmesan simply did not seem very much in line with the whole growing Mediterranean feel of the dish. One cheese that did, though, was Feta! The creamy yet crumbly extremely tangy and flavorful Greek cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk is not only incredibly traditional and popular within the Mediterranean region, it’s also a perfect match for spicy lamb with it’s creamy, soft mouthfeel, yet pungent and tangy taste. As such, it seemed a much more obvious choice than mozzarella or other cheeses for a Mediterranean style lamb pizza, so out I went to procure a few hundred grams of authentic, high quality Feta for my Easter experiment.
Not like other cheeses: If cooking with feta, be advised that it does not melt in quite the same way as other cheeses do. That is, if you subject it to quick bursts of high, direct heat chances are it will quickly brown and eventually burn rather than simply melt. For pizza application, this means that the cheese is best added at the very end of cooking, or when the pizza has been removed from the oven. This will ensure a warm, cheese topping without dark spots or burn marks. Naturally, this also means that the texture of the cheese layer of a feta pizza is different than that of a regular pizza because the cheese will be chewy and slightly crumbly rather than soft and gooey. It’s a rather interesting break from the norm, though, if you ask me.
With every major ingredient in place, construction could commence on my Easter lamb experiment. The dough was rolled up and punched down, topping ingredients were prepared, a thin, circular disk of doing was formed, toppings applied, baking process started, results admired through the oven window. And then, just as the near finished pizza was being pulled from the hot box, a sudden, familiar urge to suddenly throw things a bit off track and, once again, shake them up really good took over.
“The Johan Touch”
Now, with a flat bread bottom, a spicy lamb topping, Mediterranean spices, fresh herb flavors, a tomato component as well as an experimental cheese choice in place, you’d think I’d have everything pretty much lined up for an Easter lamb experiment. I thought so, too, but still as things were coming together, I ended up adding a few extra ingredients on a whim. This is something that just happens whenever I cook something up. I try to stick to a somewhat defined framework, and suddenly, through involuntary reactions, outside ingredients somehow make it into the finished dish. I’ve come to refer to these involuntary reactions collectively as “The Johan Touch” and they happen with damn well nearly every dish I try to cook. Sometimes they’re for the worse, most times, though, they’re for the better. This time, both of my last minute additions were thankfully for the better.
One addition was a finishing shot of my home-made ghost chili hot sauce for an extra bit of kick to the finished pizza, the other a generous spooning of my equally home-made wild garlic pesto. Lamb and garlic, after all, go pretty much hand in hand and while I didn’t want the garlic to completely overpower the finished dish, I do like the subtle bite that a well-dosed shot of garlic provides. Raw garlic seemed a little too pungent for the project at hand, as did cooked garlic for that matter, but the herbal, up-front but not throat-hurtingly pungent smack of wild garlic seemed perfect. Luckily, I’d been busying myself on an earlier day off making an urban foraged wild garlic pesto that had just the character I was looking for for my pizza experiment. These two little ingredients in unison created just the little extra flavor explosions I was looking for, but if you can’t find them, fear not, you can easily omit them or substitute with regular hot sauce and pesto for an equally delicious extra kick.
Can’t find wild garlic? A generous spoonful of regular basil pesto will do as well, or maybe some roasted garlic. Whatever you do, go easy on the garlic flavor, you want it to be there, but you don’t want it to completely overpower the lamb or the subtle flavor components of the fresh herbs. If in doubt, add a little. You can always add more, but as is the case with chili and salt, it’s not easy to remove excess garlic.
And there it was, right before me, spicy lamb pizza with crumbly feta cheese, oregano, Moroccan mint, ghost chili hot sauce and wild garlic pesto. A fragrant and exciting new piece, just begging me to dig in. Also, it was probably the prettiest pizza crust I’ve ever created thanks to some minor adjustments to my pizza dough recipe that I got to try out. The only problem with pizza such as this, really, is that they come out so piping hot that a five minute rest period really is mandatory. If you don’t observe this waiting period, you’ll be chowing down on some seriously hot food with the risk of serious burns to your mouth, tongue and throat. You can believe me on this one, I’ve done the experiments so you don’t have to, and results were not interesting!
But hey, five minute should be just enough time to write down the recipe for this new Easter classic, so I put the longest five minutes of my life to good use and penned down the recipe for your convenience. Ready? Here we go!
Spicy Lamb Pizza
- One batch of slow-risen pizza dough
- 400 grams of quality ground lamb preferably New Zealand free range, 10 % fat or so
- One large shallot finely minced
- One tablespoon of ground cumin
- One teaspoon of ground coriander
- One tablespoon of smoked paprika
- Two tablespoons of tomato paste
- A few dashes of hot sauce I used my home-made Ghost chili sauce
- A splash of chicken stock
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- About 200 grams of Greek goat's milk feta cheese
- A large handful of fresh mint leaves preferably Moroccan mint
- A small handful of fresh oregano leaves
- A couple of tablespoons of wild garlic pesto can substitute regular pesto
Prepare pizza dough as you normally would (see my pizza dough technique) and divide into 3-4 roughly equal portions. Leave to rise on a counter for about 30-45 minutes as you make the lamb topping.
Prepare spicy lamb topping:
Set your oven for 275C or as high as it will go.
Put your favorite cast iron skillet over medium heat, add in a tablespoon of oil and the finely diced shallot.
Fry shallot for a few minutes until soft and slightly golden.
Raise heat to medium high and dump in the ground lamb along with a generous sprinkle of salt.
Fry lamb for at least 5 minutes until thoroughly and evenly browned.
Throw in black pepper, cumin, coriander and paprika, stir to combine well and fry for another minute.
Mix in tomato paste, stir again to even distribute and fry again for another minute.
Dump in chicken stock and stir well once again. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan with your spoon or spatula to release any stuck bits of flavory goodness.
Lower heat and simmer lamb mixture till almost all liquid has evaporated and you're left with a thick meat sauce.
Add in hot sauce, stir and taste for seasoning.
When you're happy with the result, kill the heat and set aside.
Note: For ease of handling, build your pizza on a well-floured work surface or a pizza peel, so you can easily move it to the oven.
Grab one portion of pizza dough, flatten it using the palm of your hand, then stretch or roll into a thin circular pizza crust.
Sprinkle a thin, even layer of lamb on the pizza base, then slide onto a pizza stone at the base of a well pre-heated oven.
If pizza stone is not available, slide it onto a rack set at the middle of the oven.
Bake for about ten minutes until brown, crusty and well-risen along the edges. Keep an eye on things and rotate the pizza during cooking if one side starts browning much faster than the other.
When pizza looks almost perfectly done, add an even, thin layer of crumbled feta cheese evenly on top, continue to bake for another minute or so.
Evacuate pizza from the oven and immediately drizzle with wild garlic pesto, fresh mint and fresh oregano. Allow pizza to rest at least a few minutes before cutting into it.
Serve pizza with a side salad and feel free to drizzle with more hot sauce, pesto or herbs as you see fit. You are the boss of your own pizza!
A new classic?
So, honestly, is this really that great of an idea? Well, I’m inclined to argue that it is!
Granted, lamb pizza may sound like a weird idea, but for some reason this just works. With the succulent, slightly game-like meatiness of the lamb, the earthiness of the spices, the bite of the chili and wild garlic plus the fresh herbal onslaught of mint and oregano, it has all the familiar and treasured flavor components of a good lamb pita and then some. But, at the same time, it’s something entirely new and different. The unique flavor of feta cheese adds an extra level of tanginess and flavor while the cheesy texture along with a hint of tomato in the sauce does add the desired pizza-like feel to the end result. The crispiness of the pizza crust along with a chewy center and the unique flavors brought on by the slow rise are two more qualities that make this so much more than just a fancy lamb pita.
It’s an entirely new creation, but a successful one at that. And one I’ll be happy to make again and add to my slowly growing pizza card, possibly with a few minor modifications as I grow more accustomed to the thought of lamb on a pizza.
An alternative take: While coming up with my own new take on lamb, I found out that I was not the only Danish food blogger working on a lamb pizza. Via Intasgram, I fell into conversation with Martin of rigeligtsmor.dk who at the very time of my experiments had come up with his own version using, in his own words: a traditional tomato sauce, left-over roast leg of lamb, sun-dried tomatoes and red onion. His take sounds equally delicious and I’d love to try it out some day!
Huh, Easter lamb pizza, who’d have thunk?