letters from nairobi


The Nairobi Calzone
March 8, 2012, 12:02
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One of my fondest memories of my time living in Nicaragua as a Corps Volunteer for La Familia Padre Fabretto is being gathered around a rickety wooden table with a group of friends, up to my elbows in flour, laughing, learning how to make calzones from scratch.

The Cusmapa Calzones (named after the mountain village where we created the meal) were an extravagant treat, a welcome escape from the daily offerings of beans, rice, tortillas, and the occasional avocado. One of my fellow volunteers knew the tricky practice of baking bread, and this, combined with the sought-after indulgences of a variety of vegetables and cheeses, allowed us to deviate from the monotony of gallo pinto and maduros for one glorious dinner.

(Okay, so we had to make a few substitutions. The cliffs of Cusmapa are quite far from the rolling hills of Tuscany, both literally and figuratively, so we used cuajada instead of mozzarella. Potato pohtato. Potato patata.)

I was thinking about how much I enjoyed the Cusmapa Calzone evenings and decided to try and recreate the dish. Living in Nairobi, I have much greater access to a variety of goods, both local and imported, so it was less of a matter of tracking down the right ingredients than attempting to make dough without any guidance. I invited my friend Jenny over to act as a guinea pig in this endeavor, giving her the caveat that I would be more than happy to order pizza, should this experiment fail miserably. She naively agreed.

I took a taxi to the nearby supermarket and bought all the required ingredients to make the dough and the filling. Check. The first obstacle arose when I realized I had neglected to buy measuring spoons – I never use them when cooking, and forgot that they are seemingly crucial when baking. Despite the collective outcry of the Internet to my Google searches of “bake without measuring spoons” and “estimate teaspoon” (sample response: “You need to buy measuring spoons!”), I forged ahead and eyeballed the ingredients.

I made the dough, let it rise, and divided it into four pieces. Then I made the cheese filling – substituting cottage cheese for ricotta, because I think the consistency is better – and veggies (garlic, onion, red and green pepper, mushrooms, marinara, and herbs) while Jenny worked on her laptop in the living room. It was all very “Leave It to Beaver” with me in my frilly apron, listening to Joni Mitchell.

Everything looked good until I attempted to roll out the dough into circular pieces. I don’t know what the trick is, but these lumpy, torn pieces were a far cry from the beautiful, round Cusmapa creations. There’s no way around it: these crusts were ugly.

I filled the misshapen dough with the filling, topped it with grated mozzarella cheese, brushed the top with egg, and baked it. In the high altitude of Nairobi, everything takes longer to cook than the recipe indicates, so it took closer to 45 minutes – as opposed to 20 – for the calzones to bake.

But then – voila! Dinner was ready.

The final product was tasty, if a little misshapen. I thought I prepared too much filling, but as it turned out, I think the ratio of dough to filling was a little heavy on the dough-side.

All in all, I would count the experiment as an 85% success. If I attempt to make calzones again, I would probably invest in some measuring spoons, just to be on the safe side, make more filling (or less dough), and work on the fugly factor of the crust.

But for a first solo attempt, far from the mountains of Nicaragua, I’d say the result wasn’t too shabby.

Behold, the Nairobi Calzone:

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