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Column - Old dogs can learn new tricks

Good news, folks! There's hope for old dogs.

Through the many decades of my life, not once did I ever make a decent pizza, as many times as I tried. It was an ongoing disappointment, mainly because pizza - really good pizza - is by far my favorite food, ever since I first tasted it when my oldest brother brought a St. Cloud "Sammy's" pizza home when I was about 10 years old. At first I was afraid of it. It looked like a squashed animal on cardboard. Sure smelled good, though.

"Come on, try it," said brother Jimmy, stuffing his chubby face.

Squirming, I gingerly grabbed a piece. Love at first bite.

I've eaten pizzas - too many for my health - at least once a month during my long life. I cannot believe - knock on wood - my veins are not mozzarella-white instead of blood-red.

My all-time favorite pizza I ate several times a week at a pizzeria on 6th Avenue East in Alexandria in the 1980s (can't remember the name; it's long defunct, sadly). Pizzas just as good as those of the Alexandria joint are baked at Twin Pines Restaurant, south of Rice, just a block from where I live.

In my post-middle-age diet days, I figured by learning to make my own, I could create small personal-sized pizzas, easier on my health and on my pocketbook. So I looked up a pizza-dough recipe online and made the dough.

After two ridiculous attempts, the third try - a pepperoni-cheese pizza - exceeded my expectations. As good as Twin Pines!

"Who says old dogs can't learn new tricks?" I thought to myself, triumphantly.

There are, however, certain tricks old dogs can't learn and shouldn't try to learn. Here are just two of them:

Pizza experts (snobs, I should say) advise you to throw the crust in the air and zip it around with your upraised hand as if you're a circus juggler. Feeling confident, I tried that. It flew across the kitchen and landed (splat!) against the refrigerator and stayed there awhile, like a sagging fridge magnet. Never again.

Another "expert" tip is to put the oven-ready pizza on a wooden "peel" or big piece of cardboard (dusted with corn meal) and then quickly jerk the peel so the pizza slides off nicely and onto a pre-heated baking stone. I don't have a wooden peel, though I do have a stone tile I use for bread-baking. Looks easy on TV. Foolishly, I decided to try the cardboard-peel method. I jerked. The pizza sailed off the cardboard, missed the stone tile and landed (splat!) on the back and bottom of the oven. What a mess.

That was two weeks ago. Since those two clownish mistakes, I've made four small pizzas, each one better than the last. The trick, I've learned, is to remember your kitchen is not a circus. Another tip is don't put on too many toppings. Also, use paper towels to blot off ingredients like tomatoes, ripe olives and canned mushrooms so they're fairly dry before you put them on.

Here's my oven method: I use an old cookie sheet, lined with foil. Then, with a wooden rolling pin, I roll out the dough on a lightly floured kitchen counter. With the help of a large spatula I quickly transfer the "pie" onto the cookie sheet. I crimp up the dough-pie border. Then I put on the toppings and pop it into a pre-heated 500-degree oven. As soon as it's in the oven, I turn the heat down to 425 degrees and bake it for about 20 minutes, watching its progress carefully.

If any readers want the pizza-dough recipe and other tips, just e-mail me: