Monday, December 07, 2009

Culinary Jihad

LabRat (of the Atomic Nerds), has kicked over a nice fiery red anthill, talking about the various religious food sects out there across our fine nation.

Now I can't exactly miss this one, especially since I have had so many of these dishes in my recipes, and had several of these food feuds hosted here (or in other blogs comments) over the past few years. I started off making a comment on the original post, but it got so long I decided to post the whole thing here and just link back to it.

So, specifically, they chose to address chili, hot dogs, corn bread, biscuits, barbecue, and burgers.

A fair list indeed. It hits most of the high points, and leaves out the limited regionalisms (like steak and cheese/cheesesteak - two VERY different things - lobster rolls, crab cakes, shrimp/crab/crawfish boils, hams, chowder, grits etc...).

Significantly, they mentioned pizza in passing but did not dedicate a section to it; something we will need to rectify here.

It's important to note, this is coming from a New Englander transplanted into Arizona, who has lived and traveled a lot in all the major religious regions we're discussing. So I've at least got a fair bit of food experience in each of them as a frame of reference.

1. Chili:
If it's got beans in it, it isn't chili, it's chili bean stew. Chili has meat, chilis, flavorful liquid, and seasonings in it. Anything else is not chili.

Chili bean stew is as good as chili (or rather it CAN be, unless beans are being used in the stew as a cheap way to replace meat, rather than an addition of starch and texture), it's just different. Sometimes you want beans, sometimes you don't. Also sometimes it's better as a topping or side dish with beans, and sometimes without.

Tomatoes (or tomato paste or puree) are acceptable to add flavor to the liquid, so long as they are not a primary flavoring. They can only be a seasoning or an accent. You are making chili, not tomato sauce. If you want a sweeter, more vegetal chili, add sweet red pepper chili puree, not tomato puree.

The same goes for other non chili peppers; but only if you are making chili for low spice tolerant people. Otherwise use mild sweet chilis.

Garlic is essential in chili, but it should be finely crushed and minced, and then sauteed in the fat before the liquid is added, so as to disappear into the chili.

Onions should not be used as a primary ingredient in chili. Onions MAY be added, but only if they are treated the same way as the garlic; used as a seasoning. There should not be chunks of onion in the chili itself.

If you want onions in your chili, they should be chopped raw, served on the top of the bowl, with the cheese.

Real chili has no vegetables in it other than the chili peppers (tomatoes are a fruit).

"Skyline chili"/"Cincinnati chili" isn't chili. If it doesn't have chili peppers and meat as its primary flavor components, it isn't chili. "Cincinati chili" is more of a goulash than it is a chili.

That means "meatless chili" also, is not chili. It's spicy vegetable stew.

There are two primary acceptable variants of chili: Red (rojo or colorado) and green (verde).

Acceptable primary meats include beef, pork, buffalo, elk, and venison. Secondary meats include variants of the primaries, like sausages, beef jerky (yes, beef jerky chili is quite good if you use good jerky), salt pork (great for flavoring a chili verde sauce).

It is also acceptable to make a non-meat chili sauce using red or green chilis, and call it "chili rojo" or "chili verde" and serve it OVER meat; however in general the fat in such a sauce should be meat fat, like rendered salt pork or bacon etc...

Chicken, turkey, or other poultry are not acceptable primary meats in chili. A "turkey chili" isn't; it's a turkey chili verde stew, or "turkey with chili verde" etc...

If you make chili with a fish as the primary ingredient, that's not chili, it's spicy fish stew (which can be VERY good, especially Portuguese style).

Chili should be served either in a bowl with optional cheese, onions, and a crunchy accent (tortilla strips or chips, corn chips, saltines, or oyster crackers are all acceptable); or optionally, as a topping on... anything really. I've had spicy habanero pork chili on top of vanila ice cream and it was delicious.

2. Hot Dogs: Hot dogs are BEST, when all beef with a natural casing. Kayem, Pearl Kountry Klub, the large deli type hebrew national (not the crappy supermarket ones), vienna beef (again, the large deli style not the crappy supermarket ones), or your local polish deli all produce acceptable examples.

Other types of hot dogs are acceptable, but generally not as good. Polish sausages, red hots, and white hots are also good, and are prepared and served similarly.

Turkey, chicken, or other poultry are not to be included in hot dogs. If a hot dog is made of pork, it's a pork sausage.

Veggie dogs, are NOT hot dogs. Neither are "Salmon dogs" for you Seattleites, or "fish dogs" (usually grouper I think) for you Floridians. Let's not even get into the "SPAM dog", you Hawaiians seem to love.

If it's fish in a hotdog bun, it's a fish roll. If it's lobster in a hot dog bun, it's a lobster roll. Lobster rolls are AWESOME (if done right anyway), but they are not hot dogs. Same thing for shrimp, and crab.

As far as I'm concerned, if you call it a hot dog, an observant Jew should be able to eat it (presuming acceptable topping selection).

Hot dogs are best served with mustard, preferably on a doublecut bun (crust on the top and bottom, fresh white bread on the sides, slit down the middle of the top), that has been grilled on both sides with a little butter (much like a grilled cheese sandwich).

If you can't find doublecut buns, I'm so sorry for you, because that butter grilled crunch on the sides is SO GODDAMNED GOOD. However they are uncommon outside of the northeast, so a conventional "hot dog bun" is acceptable; and can be lightly steamed, grilled, or toasted.

You can go without heating the bun at all, but 'dogs are so much better with a heated bun, why would you not?

An acceptable substitute for doublecut buns if you want to get that butter grilled flavor, and distinctive light crunch; is to buy either unsliced, or very thickly sliced white bread (as in over an inch thick), spread a pat of softened butter on both sides, then grill it to golden brown deliciousness on both sides. Slice it down the middle of the edge crust, about 2/3 of the way down, squirt a little mustard in the bottom, then insert and top your dog as normal.

Acceptable cooking methods for hot dogs are pan/flattop grilling (preferably with a little butter), deep frying, fire grilling (or grilling under a very hot broiler, if you are VERY CAREFUL), and steaming.

Boiling and microwaving are for kids, college students, the desperate, and ballpark vendors. If you can't take the extra 90 seconds to get a pan out and heat it up on a burner; or are too lazy to take the 3 minutes standing over the stove to pan grill, you don't deserve to eat.

Yes, I know, for a Massachusetts native this is heresy, because the most popular way for hot dog vendors in the state to make their dogs is boiling. Those vendors are wrong. Boiling ruins hot dogs. If you're going to cook them wet, they should be steamed, not boiled (steamed dogs are just fine. For some dog types, it's the best way to cook them since it softens the natural casing without killing that distinctive snap).

Most New Yorkers THINK they are eating boiled dogs with their "dirty water dogs" but technically, NYC dirty water dogs are steamed, then sit in hot water for hot storage during the day.

Optional toppings include cheese, chili (no beans), bacon (best when wrapped around the dog during cooking), onions (raw or grilled), chopped tomatos, pickle relish, hot or sweet peppers (or both), a crunchy pickle, and a dryish slaw.

Note, ketchup is NOT on that list. Ketchup ruins hot dogs. Mayonaise or sour cream are also not on that list; unless you are in the southwest, and get a Sonora dog.

Some pacific northwesters like cream cheese on their hot dogs... and I admit, a hot dog with cream cheese and bacon is a fattily delicious treat... but you cant taste the hot dog at all. It's overwhelmed by the cream cheese (at least if the cream cheese is any good, and why would you ruin the thing by using bad cream cheese?).

If a side is desired, hot dogs should be served with fries, chips, slaw, mac'n'cheese, or baked/cowboy beans.

3. Corn Bread: Honestly, I'm of two minds on this one.

On the one side, I agree that proper corn bread should not be sweet; excepting the very slight natural sweetness of cornmeal, and the small amount of sugar, molasses, honey, or sorghum, that are often added to recipes to give their crust extra crunchiness, and to feed the yeast in a yeast leavened recipe.

Also, proper cornbread should be made with either bacon, or pork sausage drippings as its fat component; with lard or salted butter as possible substitutes or fat extenders if you don't have enough drippings. Oh and it should be very slightly salty.

However, I absolutely LOVE corn cake, and corn muffins, which ARE sweetened (again, with sugar, molasses, honey, or sorghum), are a little bit softer in texture; and should use butter as their primary fat. Oh and it should still be slightly salty, in addition to being sweet.

Either should still have a discernible cornmeal crunch to them, from slightly coarser cornmeal. If there isn't any grit to it at all, you've used too much flour and not enough meal; or too much liquid cooked for too long.

Remember, you're making cornbread, not polenta.

Sometimes I want corn bread, sometimes I want corn cake or muffins. It depends on what I'm eating it with, and what my mood is.

If you want sweet cornbread, sweeten it afterward with honey or molasses, or apple butter; or just make corn cake or corn muffins to begin with.

Oh and if you tell someone that you are serving them cornbread, don't serve them corncake. That's just wrong.

4. Biscuits: Biscuits are NOT sweet; again, excepting the very slight natural sweetness that comes with a yeast or sourdough leavened recipe.

If you're making biscuits sweet, you're making shortcake, or a cobbler crust. Shortcake is lovely, and delicious, but it aint biscuits.

As with corn bread, biscuits should be made with bacon or sausage drippings, butter, or lard; and should be rich, tender, flaky, creamy from fat but not greasy, and slightly salty.

Like cornbread, biscuits can be either chemically leavened (baking soda/powder), or naturally leavened (yeast, or sourdough). The three styles of biscuit are very distinct from each other, but all are biscuits, and all are very good.

Soda leavened biscuits are generally lighter, with a finer texture, and flakier (and they take a LOT less time then the other methods). Sourdough biscuits are a little heavier, with a more coarse texture, and are chewier. Yeast leavened biscuits fall somewhere in the middle.

All should be very tender, which you achieve by balancing your fat and gluten content; and by not overworking the dough.

Biscuits can be cut, thrown, pulled, or dropped; though to my mind only sourdough biscuits should be pulled.

5. Barbecue: Barbecue... so much has been written about this subject... the holy wars between the regions alone can (and have) filled books.

I'm going to quote what I've written on the topic before in "Barbecue Bellwhethers" (another post inspired by the Atomic Nerds in fact):

First things first, what exactly is barbecue?

Technically, barbecue is any meat roasted over a fire using either direct or indirect heat and smoke, usually outdoors.

There are any number of styles of barbecue, including Caribbean, Argentine, Peruvian, Korean, Mongolian, Japanese; and in America alone, Santa Maria, Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago, and Texas style, as well as plain old American style charcoal grilling (which yes, can technically barbecue by the strict definition).

Each style has its own traditional meats, seasonings, sauces (or lack thereof) and exact details of cooking methods; and each is good in its own way.

In America, "real barbecue" , as opposed to grilling, means meat roasted with indirect heat and smoke. The differences then are primarily regional, and involve sauces, seasonings, and choices of meat.

In most of the southeast, BBQ is primarily pulled pork, in vinegar based sauces, often flavored with mustard.

In Memphis, pork ribs are king, with a dry rub. They may or may not be wet mopped with a tomato and vinegar based sauce (which may or may not contain mustard) while they are being smoked. They may, or may not be served with two sauces, one a very sweet molasses or brown sugar and tomato based sauce, the other a thing vinegar, tomato, and mustard sauce.

In the midwest and southwest, BBQ can include pulled pork and pork ribs; but is primarily cuts of beef, including beef brisket, tri tip, rump roast, flank steak, beef ribs, and both beef and pork sausages.

In Chicago, its all ribs, all the time, in a sweet slightly spicy, tomato based sauce with lots of brown sugar; and there may or may not be a rub involved.

In Kansas city it's ribs, tri tip, and brisket, with a similar but even sweeter sauce; and a sweet and only slightly spicy rub.

In Texas, and the southwest, there may or may not be vinegar, tomato, or molasses based sauces involved; but you'll always have at least brisket and sausage.

In California, they have their own native Santa Maria style, which involves smoking above a hot fire, essentially smoking and grilling simultaneously. They use more tender cuts of beef than slow smoking styles, favoring steaks, and tri tip; and the sauce is based on beef stock, and herbs.

If you go to an all round barbecue joint outside of any of the major BBQ regions, you're likely to get some mix of all of the above; though it's rare for any particular place to do both beef and pork ribs, unless they are specifically a rib joint.

If we accept the proposition that proper barbecue involves hot smoked meat; and is not limited to pork (and I do), then we have a first principal to work from, and therefore can answer the question usefully.

The common barbecue dishes out there, that most places outside of an area that specializes in a particular style (i.e. Chicago specializes in ribs, South Carolina in pulled pork) are likely to have, are probably (in order of commonality):

1. Pork ribs
2. Sliced Brisket
3. Pulled pork
4. Sausage
5. Chicken (whole or parts)
6. Chicken (pulled)
7. Chopped or pulled beef (usually brisket or tri-tip)
8. Chopped or sliced pork
9. Beef ribs
10. Sliced tri-tip

Ok, so, as far as I'm concerned, if it's smoked and roasted, to render out fat and allow smoke flavor to penetrate, it's barbecue; even if it's finished with high direct heat on a grill.

If it's cooked in a sauce that may be used for barbecue, that isn't barbecue; unless the meat is smoked first.

If it's braised in flavorful liquids, or grilled, then sauced with barbecue type sauce; that isn't barbecue.

The meat MUST be smoked, the fat and connective tissue must be rendered. You can smoke it AND cook it in some other way in combination; but without actual smoking, and that wood smoke flavor added naturally thereby, it is NOT BARBECUE.

My personal preferences?

I like a dry rub, not too sweet or too spicy, with a long low and slow smoke; and if necessary finished in an oven, in foil, or on a grill, to avoid oversmoking or getting dry.

I like my pork dry rubbed, and wither dry smoked or vinegar wet mopped. It should be served in natural juices only, or at most a very amount of sauce, so I can add as much sauce as I want later. I like both sweet tomato/molasses/brown sugar sauces, and vinegar pepper or vinegar mustard sauces. I like pulled, sliced, or chopped, but prefer pulled.

I like both pork and beef ribs, but prefer pork. I like my ribs dry rubbed, and either vinegar wetmopped, or cooked dry until the end; then glazed with sauce a few minutes before finishing, just to get it hot and maybe add a little caramelization and smoke. I like a sweet and hot sauce, not a vinegar sauce (unless the vinegar sauce is being used as a wetmop during smoking).

I like my brisket and tri-tip dry rubbed and unsauced during cooking, again unless it's a vinegar based wetmop; and then sauced by me on my plate (if at all). Pulled, sliced, or chopped I love all three; but I like sliced the best.

I love sausage and chicken, but I prefer them cry grilled, not smoked; and I like to sauce them myself.

6. Burgers: Burgers SHOULD be a simpler subject than the others, but for some reason is not.

Burgers consist of ground beef, buffalo, bison, yak or venison (including elk, deer, antelope etc...).

That's it.

Some purists insist that a burger can only be beef, but that's kind of short sighted, since it excludes so many other beef-like meats that should be included.

The meat must be red, and come from a four hoofed, even toed, ungulate (bovidae, cervidae, and some caprae like antelope which have red meat).

No other meat is acceptable as a burger. I love seasoned ground pork sandwiches, but they aren't burgers, they're ground pork sandwiches. Same with seasoned ground lamb (hmmmmm... gyros

Mixed meats, or meats mixed with binders such as eggs, breadcrumbs etc... have a name, and it's not burger, it's meat loaf.

Meat loaf is also delicious, but it's not a burger.

There is one notable exception to that rule: mixing in fatty beef or cured pork (in the form of bacon, fatty ham, or salt pork), to add fat into venison, buffalo, bison, or ultra lean beef like tenderloin; so that it will hold together as a burger (they can be so lean that they otherwise fall apart when cooked).

Similarly, chopping up vegetables, onions, peppers, or anything else (again with one exception) and mixing it into a burger makes it a loose beef sausage, or a meatloaf; not a burger.

That one exception, is hot chili peppers. They are allowed, because they are MANLY, and befitting the true spirit of the burger.

As with hot dogs, "veggieburgers", are NOT burgers; nor are turkeyburgers, chickenburgers, or anyother kind of burger. They are simply sandwiches, without the hallowed appellation of burger.

Similarly, even if it's on a "burger bun", anything chopped and mixed with a dressing or sauce, or cut into the shape of a burger; is still NOT a burger. No salmon burger, crab burger, tuna burger etc...

Burgers may ONLY be fried (pan, deep, shallow, or flat top are all acceptable), fire grilled or broiled. There is no other acceptable cooking method... Though if one makes a burger several inches thick, it is acceptable to partially cook it using one of the methods above, then finish it in the oven.

The meat should be a mixture of both lean and fatty bits; neither too tough, nor too tender, but always flavorful. If beef, in general, the best choice of cut is a mixture of chuck and sirloin, in an 80% lean to 20% fat ratio; and chopped just on the fine side of coarse.

Most commercial "hamburger" meat is too finely chopped, to disguise the fact that it is mixed trimmings from many cuts. This makes for a burger with poor texture, that is too dense and heavy; with poor mouthfeel. It can also make for a burger that is tough even when properly cooked, greasy, and even "slimy".

Most frozen patties are even worse. Please, don't use them (unless you have access to the best quality commercial frozen patties, rather than supermarket frozen patties).

Patties may be formed thick or thin, depending on ones preferences. I personally like mine a bit thinner; as while I prefer my stakes medium rare, I prefer my burgers medium or medium well.

For me, it's a texture issue. Rare and medium rare burgers, unless VERY high quality, very lean beef is used; end up having a slightly slimy, raw mouthfeel that I intensely dislike.

To avoid "baseball burgers" or worse "briquette burgers", make your patties like a plastic wheel: A thick outer rim, and a thinner inner hub.

That why as you sear, instead of shrinking away on the outside, and puffing up into a baseball shape in the middle; the middle puffs about as much as the outside shrinks (presuming you use 80/20 anyway) and the patty ends up mostly even.

During cooking, or while being formed, burgers should be seasoned with at least salt and pepper.

The addition of garlic and onion (salt or powder), chili powder, cumin, paprika, hot mustard powder, small amounts of oregano, and a splash of soy or Worcestershire sauce are also acceptable; however at no time should the natural meat flavor be overpowered. These seasoning should only accent and ENHANCE, the natural meat flavor.

It is also acceptable to squirt and/or brush a burger with mustard, hot sauce, steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauuce, or barbecue sauce while cooking; to sear the flavor into it (double double, mustard fried... hmmmm); but again, it is critical that such sauces accent and enhance the natural beef flavor, not mask it.

Burgers should be served on a lightly toasted or grilled bun only. If served on any other kind of bread or bread substitute, it is not a burger.

Patty melts, and cheeseburger subs are great, but they aren't burgers. "Lettuce wrap burgers" are most definitely NOT burgers, nor are pitaburgers, or tortilla burgers etc...

I should note, my favorite grilled meat patty sandwich; is a patty melt, on grilled sourdough with bacon, cheese, ketchup, and mustard... but it's a patty melt, not a burger.

Cheese is encouraged, as a great enhancement to natural meat flavor; but not required. Bacon, and crispy sour or garlic pickles are also similarly flavor enhancing, and add an element of contrast in both flavor and texture.

Although I personally think onions, lettuce, and tomatoes on burgers are unnecessary, and detract from the essential meat experience (that's not food, it's what food eats); I can at least tolerate providing them for others.

Acceptable condiments include ketchup (used sparingly please), mustard, steak sauce, hot sauce barbecue sauce, horseradish (again for all of the above, not too much. Don't hide the beef flavor), and pickle or pepper relish.

I have a reservation about ketchup, barbecue sauce etc... Unless a meat is very strongly flavored naturally (like when smoked for example); ketchup, and other tomato based sauces tend to obscure or overwhelm other flavors. Conversely, unless used in excessive amounts, mustard, chili, and vinegar based sauces generally enhance them (unless they are so hot or pungent as to overwhelm other tastes or deaden the taste buds).

Also, never put mayonnaise on a burger (or any other red meat). If you don't want to taste the meat, eat turkey or something; don't waste perfectly good beef by putting mayonnaise on it.

Burgers should be served with chips or french fries, and pickles or slaw (so you have a crunchy starchy bit, and a crunchy sour fresh cold bit).

Bonus Round: Pizza

As with barbecue, I've written extensively on the subject of Pizza, and will quote one of my earlier pieces here:

There are a few different common styles of pizza, including Sicilian, Neapolitan, Greek, pan, and deep dish. There are also some pizza LIKE dishes such as stromboli, and calzone.

Unfortunately, what people from one area of the country call one thing, means something entirely different to people from another area of the country, and another entirely different thing to people from Italy.

For example, in New York city (and places that have accepted New York pizza, or chains that have adopted NY terminology), a sicilian pizza is a square pan style pizza (not a deep dish) with a relatively thick crust, the cheese and toppings laid directly on the crust, and a thin layer of sauce spread over the top; which is served by cutting it into rectangular slices.

That is basically an NYC invention however. In Sicily, pizza is much like traditional Neapolitan style pizza (what Americans generally think of as New York style, with a thin and flexible crust and slightly crispy bottom) only even thinner, and slightly crispier, while still being flexible (it's not Italian style if you can't fold it).

Similarly, what most Americans call calzone, or stromboli, have nothing to do with the traditional dishes they derive their name from.

Calzone is NOT folded pizza, or a pizza sandwich, as is sometimes sold as calzone around america. Calzone is a rolled and baked pastry dish, using a pizza like dough, and meat, cheese, and vegetable fillings without sauce.

To make a calzone, you lay the fillings, along with a dry ricotta cheese, out along the length of the dough, taking up 1/3 the width, then fold the sides over, pinching them together to make a tight seal. Pinch the ends together tightly, and fold over, flattening them against the top of the roll. Finally roll the entire assemblage over so that the smooth side will be baked on top, make some small slits, or punctures in it to let some of the steam out, and brush it with an egg and butter wash.

Stromboli is CLOSE to the folded pizza that some sell under that name, but like calzone, it too is a pastry dish using a pizza like dough. Stromboli however includes sauce inside it. Basically to make a stromboli you sauce the whole crust, then put toppings on one half, and fold over; pinching and rolling the edge tightly to seal. Egg and butter wash as with calzone, but brush both sides, and do not puncture it. A stromboli should inflate as it is cooking, and presuming you made your dough properly, the steam won't explode it.

Importantly, stromboli and calzone dough should contain eggs, and should be brushed with an egg and butter wash to produce a hard, crusty and shiny shell.

I personally like two styles of pizza, pan (not deep dish), and traditional Neapolitan/Sicilian style (NOT what they CALL Sicilan in NYC).

Pan pizza is probably most familiar to you as the STYLE of pizza that Pizza hut is famous for (only when I make it it doesnt suck); however real pan pizza only resembles pizza hut, in the same way that a Lamborghini Gallardo resembles a Hyundai Accent.

Pan pizza is NOT Chicago style deep dish, which isn't actually a pizza at all, but more of a tomato, cheese, and meat pie (not that that's a bad thing).

Let me repeat that. "Chicago deep dish pizza" is not pizza. It is a meat and cheese pie.

Yes, it is a delicious meat and cheese pie, but it aint pizza.

Also, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Papa Johns, and Little Ceasars do not make pizza. They make mediocre bread topped with processed cheeze food and tomato flavored corn syrup.

Pizza has to have a chewy, slightly crispy crust; a sauce with no added sugar or sweeteners in it, and actual garlic, olive oil, and herbs; and cheese that NATURALLY stretches at least 12" while being rich, fatty, and still sharp and flavorful at the same time.

Real pizza does not need marketing.

Pan pizza crust should be a little bit thick, a little bit doughy, and very slightly oily; as the small amount of oil in the crust and the lightly oiled hot pan almost fry the dough of the crust to crispness on the bottom and sides.

In a pan pizza the dough is spread out, and up the sides of a 3/4" or so thick pan. The toppings are spread out bmost of the way to the edge, and it's baked until the edges are brown and crispy. In general, the sauce is slightly sweeter than in authentic Italian style pizzas; though I personally prefer it to be a bit more savory.

Almost always, the cheese is thicker, and usually entirely mozarella, except in the midwest, where they tend to mix it with cheddar.

Neapolitan pizza is VERY thin, with a decent sized crust edge to hold on to; and it should be flexible enough to fold, but lightly crispy with a bit of crunch in the teeth. It should have a savory sauce, tasting of olive oil, oregano, basil, and black pepper.

A proper Neapolitan should be topped with a low moisture whole milk mozzarella cheese (preferably a buffalo mozzarella, but that's very expensive), and something a bit sharper to accent it. I personally like a mix of Mozzarella, parmagianno regiano, peccorino romano, and asiago.

Any thin crust pizza should be cooked either on a pizza stone/brick surface, or a very evenly heated and very thick metal surface with a pizza grate under the crust; so that it heats evenly and consistently without too much temperature drop, while allowing moisture to escape.

Laying a thin crust on a bare metal surface will cause that surface to drop a lot of heat very quickly. It may scorch the crust, and without a doubt crust will express oil and steam. It will cook through, but it will be bready, and not crispy on the bottom (like a typical midwestern chain pizza place).

To avoid sticking and tearing the very thin dough, dust your prep surface, and your pizza peel (or just prepare on the peel) with cornmeal. The cornmeal will scorch slightly in the oven, but it will keep it from sticking, and allow more airspace under the crust to make it crispier, and give the crust more character and better mouth feel.

In an ideal brick oven, the pizza should cook for about 4 minutes, at somewhere north of 600 degrees, or even 2 minutes or less at around 800 degrees (coal fired pizza ovens can get that hot).

In either case, the cheese should be jsut starting to get brown and crispy on its peaks, and the thin bubbles in the edge of the crust should just barely start to almost burn.

It is very hard to get a good thin crust pizza out of an oven at less than 600 degrees; but if you use a slightly oilier crust, a rimless pan can produce the desired results, so long as you cornmeal it. You should cook the pizza a little longer, at a lower temperature, and hopefully the oil will crisp up on the hot metal, while the cornmeal gives it enough airspace to let steam out.

That, in fact, is how pan pizza came into being; theoretically in St. Louis in the 1950s (lots of different places claim to have invented it). They didn't have coal fired brick ovens that got over 600 degrees. They had the big Blodgett type commercial bakers ovens with gas burners under relatively thin metal oven floors; and the only way they could get the crusts to cook properly without burning was to make them a little oilier and put them in pans.

As for other toppings, I'm something of a tradionalist. Sure, I love the occaisonal barbecue chicken pizza, or chicken and bacon... but I really prefer the classics. Make it a plain cheese, or margherita (cheese, basil, and olive oil); or give me pepperoni, or sausage (Italian pork and fennel sausage please), or both.