How I Invented Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza, Like a Total Idiot

Last week I made a very large quantity of meatballs of the type you’d serve with spaghetti. Some of them were earmarked to go to a friend, some of them earmarked for domestic consumption here. They were an experiment in gluten-free cookery, by the friend’s request. Now I am someone who mocks gluten-free labeling but on the other hand, if someone really needs gluten-free food I will totally try to be helpful. My instinct, which was confirmed by cursory internet research, was that I could reasonably substitute dried potato flakes for bread crumbs and things would turn out okay. This turned out to be not exactly the case — the meatballs were edible, sure, and we’ve all eaten worse things, but they utterly lacked the fluffiness that my gluten-loving family has come to expect in a meatball.

The meatballs I normally make are beloved by my husband and child. My husband has been shown more than once how I make meatballs and yet somehow whenever he tries to make them, they don’t come out the way he thinks they should; they are not like mine. I have no idea what causes this difference, but it is absolutely true: his meatballs are not as good as mine.

Still, these gluten-free meatballs were a challenge; they were simply not as satisfying as my regular meatballs, and so they didn’t get snarfed down with the speed they usually do. The result is that I’ve had leftover meatballs around the house longer than usual, and it’s fallen to me to think of nice ways to put them into other things, to use them up and not see them go to waste.

It was on a frantically busy day midweek, a day when I wasn’t going to be at home at dinnertime, when I realized that one thing I could do with the meatballs was chop them up and mix them with a lot of shredded mozzarella and some tomato sauce, and put that on Italian bread. I spread the sliced loaf with pimiento cheese, to give a base layer of something extra-savory, and then I spread the meatball/cheese mixture on top of that. I left this on a tray in the oven, left the house, and my husband baked the stuff when he came home from work. This was an excellent plan, I said to myself in congratulations: I could attend my PTA meeting, which started at 6 p.m., and get home at 8.30, and everything would be fine. No one would go hungry.

So: this is what happened. My daughter and I went to the PTA meeting — where she was fed pizza while I slogged through the meeting — and when we got home at 8.30, my husband was sitting on the couch looking pretty darn happy. “That was great, the meatballs and cheese on the bread,” he said. I thought, “huh, interesting.” This was the kind of dead simple easy dinner trick people had been performing for decades, I was sure, but it was only occurring to me now and I felt stupid. What had taken me so long to realize that I could do this, and go to my evening meetings and still feel I’d fed everyone properly? Normally I make pizzas with dough I’ve made myself, and they’re really good, but they really require that I am in the kitchen to assemble and bake. This was a pizza that I could fake ahead of time. Fucking genius, right?

Two nights later I made a “nice” dinner for my family and they were politely underwhelmed. I’d made a fluffy cheese-dosed polenta and ratatouille, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly thrilling, either. Halfway through the meal I was already thinking, “what am I going to do to use up this ratatouille?” And it wasn’t even that much I’d made — just one eggplant, one yellow squash…. somehow, though, it didn’t speak to anyone.

Saturday was busy, and all of us were kind of sick of each other, it seemed to me, by four in the afternoon — I was exhausted, my daughter antsy, my husband preoccupied with work matters: it was decided we would go to the video store, rent some movies (yes, we do this, it’s so retro, isn’t it?), and have a calm evening at home. “I need to pick up a loaf of Italian bread,” I said to my husband, “and some mozzarella.” “Okay,” he said, “you going to make another one of those Stouffer’s French Bread Pizzas?”

I laughed. “Yeah, but with Italian bread,” I admitted. “You said you liked it, the other night?”

“It was great,” he said.

So I went and bought a big loaf of bread — actually, they didn’t have a loaf of the stuff I’d originally had in mind so I bought something classier, a ciabatta loaf from an artisinal bakery, but from the day-old bin — and I got the mozz and once home I assembled dinner.

This was so easy, let me tell you, it’s basically an embarrassment; I can’t call this cooking. But I will tell you what I did, so it should inspire you in the future when you’re staring into the fridge going “shit shit shit what can I make? I have meatballs but if I serve spaghetti again someone’s gonna throw spaghetti against the wall.”

I took the loaf of bread, split it lengthwise, and, again, spread a fairly thick layer of pimiento cheese on it. This was pimiento cheese I’d made with Monterey Jack, Cheddar, and a hefty dose of horseradish in addition to the peppers and mayo, so it had a good solid kick to it. This step, you could skip, or adapt to work with whatever stuff you have around your house. Maybe even just spreading some mayo on the bread would be a  good idea. This is obviously a super-flexible process.
Then I grated about 4 ounces of cheap mozzarella and again mixed it with some chopped up meatballs and tomato sauce. And — this was the masterstroke, for me, Saturday night — I took the ratatouille and spread a few tablespoons of it across one of the half-loaves. (I knew my daughter wouldn’t want any, and assumed my husband wouldn’t want it either, so I limited myself to the section I would be eating.) Then I layered on the meatball/sauce/cheese mess. This went into a 350° oven for about 15 minutes? and when it was nice and bubbly looking I took it out and sliced it up. We put on an appallingly stupid movie our daughter had selected (Bill Murray and Janeane Garofalo’s Larger Than Life) and sat down to eat.

“This is good,” my daughter admitted.

“It’s really good,” my husband said.

I said, totally truthfully, “Mine with the ratatouille is totally awesome.”

At this, my husband looked miffed. “Only yours has ratatouille?”

“I thought no one else would want it,” I said in surprise, “so I only put it on the chunk I was gonna eat.”

“Oh,” my husband said sadly.

But I made a mental note. It is clear clear clear that if I’m willing to spend, you know, two bucks on a loaf of Italian bread, and maybe a few dollars more on some mozzarella (assuming I don’t have any on hand, which I normally do, to be honest), I can take my leftovers out of the fridge and turn them into what’s really just a homemade Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza. Sure, it’s not elegant, but also, it takes no skill whatsoever, very little time is involved in terms of prep work, and it’s something we’ll all eat happily. That, my friends, is something I think all of us — here at home, and over there at your home — can agree is a good thing. (Insert winky emoticon thingy here.)

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Rolling the Leftovers Over, Again: Alfredo Sauce, Peanut Butter Sauce, but Don’t Worry, Not on the Same Plate

The Birthday Party of 2016 left me with some fairly high-quality leftovers to wrangle, most notably whipped cream and sugared strawberries. These were easily converted into strawberry shortcake. Strawberry ShortcakeSince I also had un-whipped heavy cream to use up, I figured the smart thing to do would be to use it to make the biscuits. To this end, I turned to Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for cream biscuits, which I’d never used before. It read as something of a gamble: this is a biscuit that has no butter or shortening of any kind in the dough. It’s just flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and heavy cream. You do brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter before baking, but — that’s it. It’s the kind of recipe I read with nervousness and think, “It could be great, or it could be a disaster.” I was not encouraged, as I set it up, by the fact that the amount of heavy cream required in the recipe did not produce a dough I could work with. I wound up adding water as I went along in order to create the soft, delicate dough. But these things baked beautifully, I have to admit. They were wide and puffy — maybe not as tall as one might like, but very tender and great with the berries and cream. My daughter couldn’t finish her serving, and ate the leftovers for breakfast the next morning before going to school.

There were other leftovers to deal with. The birthday dinner was — as requested — “pizza with beautiful ricotta and a Caesar salad.” My daughter’s words. (She is our child; this is really how she talks.)  Which meant that I had leftover beautiful ricotta to use up (which is no joke: anyone can tell you that a package of ricotta doesn’t last long once opened, and with beautiful ricotta, the life span is really, really short). I’d made a basic tomato sauce to put on the pizza, which meant I also had a tub of leftover tomato sauce. The salad greens got eaten up, thankfully, but still: the refrigerator became a strategic challenge. Elements leftover from Saturday’s birthday party, which were to become part of Monday night’s celebratory dinner, had to become something decent for Tuesday night. I rose to the challenge by taking from the freezer two slices of duck bacon, which I fried in a pan and then used as the base of a fake Alfredo sauce. (This is, by the way, pretty easy. You fry up the bacon, take the bacon out of the pan and set it aside, and then fry a minced onion in the bacon fat. Then you let it sit, and ignore it, while you boil your pasta water. While the pasta itself cooks, you whisk in the ricotta you’re using in with the onions and bacon fat, adding an egg if you have one sitting around, and some grated Parmesan. Cook the pasta and reserve more water than you’d guess to use to thin the Alfredo sauce — as much as a cup of water. Drain the pasta, combine with the sauce. Mince up the cooked bacon to sprinkle on top of the plates once you get around to serving, and serve with more Parmesan sprinkled on top.)

Tuesday night’s Pasta Alfredo was served with the last of the greens alongside it — a very plain salad, just lettuce and some cucumber sliced in with some dressing that I think was a mustard vinaigrette I made about a month ago. Who knows. It tasted fine.

Today it’s Wednesday, and I still have to make dinner. At nine o’clock this morning I found myself standing in the kitchen eating a leftover biscuit for breakfast (I warmed it up first so that it could be chewed — leftover biscuits are sad things) and looking into the fridge thoughtfully. “I’ve got about a cup and a half of leftover Alfredo sauce, and four cups of tomato sauce,” I said to myself. No one wants to have either thing on its own tonight, but: there’s no reason why I can’t combine them to make a new pasta sauce to serve on top of a different pasta shape! I can combine them and put it on some rotini, and with a green vegetable on the side (some broccoli rabe would be perfect), this will be a fine meal. If I am really clever about it, I will not only achieve clearing the fridge of several plastic tubs, but I will have made a sauce that is so good my family will demand to know why I don’t make this more often.

One problem remains, which is, We need to come up with a plan for using up the leftover marshmallow, peanut butter, and hot fudge sauces. I realize that the solution to this is obviously to buy ice cream and serve it with sauces, but what if I don’t want to buy ice cream? What else can I do with them? I have a feeling I could whip the peanut butter sauce into a cake frosting, or maybe a filling to use on sandwich cookies, if I baked a million little sandwich cookies. And I could do that. I’m capable of that. But basically I am soliciting ideas, now, so if you’ve got any, please comment below. (One idea pops up immediately: combine the marshmallow and peanut butter sauces to make a fluffernutter cooky filling! Mmmmmmmm.)

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