The Easiest, Fastest Homemade Pizza Dough Recipe Yet

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I’m still trying my best to cook at home at least 5 times a week, mostly avoiding the pitfalls in my cooking at home flowchart. We make pizza at least once every other week, as it tastes better than anything from the frozen aisle and is very flexible. We’ve recently topped one with leftover corned beef from St. Patrick’s Day.

Suzanne Lenzer of the New York Times recently shared her own pizza dough recipe in Homemade Pizza, Easier and Faster.

So let’s assume you already know that homemade pizza is better and quicker and cheaper than what you can buy at the neighborhood pizza place. You know the reasons to make your own, which are as obvious as they are appealing: You can top a pizza with virtually anything (from special ingredients to leftovers) or almost nothing (one of my favorites is little more than a smear of caramelized leeks dotted with taleggio). You can bake it in minutes — it takes longer to heat up the oven than to bake a pie.

The recipe is from her new book, and it differs from the 5,000 other recipes out there in these important ways:

  1. No kneading! Use a food processor instead. Pizza dough by hand isn’t hard, but this makes it stupid easy. Dump stuff in food processor and turn on for 2 minutes. Done.
  2. Takes 30 minutes all-in on the weekend. Yes, you’ll want to make it ahead for busy weeknights. 20 minutes includes the minimal prep, using the food processor, the rise, and cleaning everything up during the 20-minute rise. Clean counter to clean counter, 30 minutes.
  3. Make ahead, store in freezer. You keep it in the freezer until you need it. Throw it in the fridge to thaw in the morning. Take dough out and preheat oven when you get home. In under 20 minutes, food can be on the table!

Here’s a direct link to the dough recipe, and another NYT article with easy pizza topping ideas. I made the NYT dough last weekend, froze them, and ate them later in the week. We liked it! Here are our comments, which I actually think make it even easier:

  • We used all-purpose flour. The recipe says bread flour and we’ve used it in the past, but AP flour worked just fine and it’s less hassle.
  • We used a rolling pin to roll out the dough. The recipe says to stretch the dough by hand and specifically says “not flat on a work surface”, but we use a floured, flat surface and a rolling pin. It still works and takes nearly zero skill! Here’s a good, simple YouTube video that describes the stupid-proof method. I like stupid-proof.
  • Parchment paper for the win. We bought a baking stone. It got all nasty after a few months. Now we just use a half baking sheet that can preheat in the oven and parchment paper. Also stupid-proof, as it always results in no sticking! Although if you bake 550 degrees, the paper may turn black. We bake at slightly lower temps.
  • Double the recipe. Assuming your food processor isn’t one of those tiny ones, I like the article’s tip to double the dough recipe. Now you’ll get four balls of dough in 30 minutes.

Side tip: Don’t got half an hour on Sunday? You can also freeze pizza dough from the supermarket. You can buy a ball of pizza dough for $1 to $2 at places like Safeway or Trader Joe’s. If you look at the ingredients, many of them are quite simple with minimal questionable additives. Freeze it ’til you need it.

Best Cast Iron Skillet Pan – America’s Test Kitchen

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Back in 2007, I wrote about cast iron skillets as the ultimate frugal cookware? To this day, I still think they can play a regular role in the home kitchen. America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) has recently released to free e-mail newsletter subscribers the results from their extensive test of various cast-iron skillets. They made everything from scrambled eggs to steaks to cornbread. (Must sign-up and log-in to view. Did I mention it’s informational and free?)

Over the past 30 years, nonstick skillets have taken the place of cast iron in most homes. But with disturbing reports about the effects of nonstick coatings on the environment and our health, we decided to take another look at cast iron to see if it’s worth bringing back into the kitchen.

Cast iron has always been known to have a few advantages over other types of cookware. Its material and weight give it excellent heat retention for high-heat cooking techniques such as frying and searing. You can use it on the stovetop or bake with it in the oven. Its durability is legendary—many people are still cooking with cast-iron pans handed down for generations. Unlike most consumer products, cast-iron pans actually improve with time and heavy use.

Cast iron also has disadvantages. It’s heavy and needs special care. [...]

As to the special care, I suggest reading this link about the many myths about cast iron pans. A bit of soap is fine. You do want to keep them dry when not in use to avoid rust spots, though.

The winner? Why, the same model and size I bought myself back in 2007, the $34 Lodge L10SK3 Pre-Seasoned Skillet, 12-Inch with a 4.6/5 rating and over 5,000 reviews. (This 10-inch version is only $15.) Read the full article for the details and rankings of other brands. Here’s a screenshot of my Amazon page when logged-in as proof:

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These days, my workhorse cookware is my enameled cast iron dutch oven. Soups, stews, chilis, short ribs, pork shoulder, and so on. Eggs, searing, and cornbread can be done as well. Less maintenance but a little costlier. Well, Le Creuset and Staub are high quality and high price (we got one as a gift and love it), but this $70 Lodge dutch oven also gets good reviews. Tramontina dutch ovens are another well-reviewed and cost-conscious choice; you can find them sometimes at Wal-Mart and Costco physical stores.

Sling TV Quick Review and Promo: Prepay 3 Months, Get Free Fire TV Stick, Free Roku Stick, or $50 off Amazon Fire TV

slingfireSling TV is now live and indeed allows you to stream a package of major cable networks live over the internet. I previously wrote about Sling TV from Dish Network when it was announced in January at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. Here is the base package that runs $20 a month:

  • ESPN (live sports!)
  • ESPN2
  • CNN
  • Food Network
  • Travel Channel
  • HGTV
  • Cartoon Network
  • TNT
  • TBS
  • Cartoon Network
  • Disney Channel
  • ABC Family

Sling TV and Amazon are running a limited-time promotion where if you commit to 3 month of Sling TV ($60 total), you can get either a Free Fire TV Stick (reg. $39) or $50 off a Amazon Fire TV ($99 regularly but $85 currently). You must redeem the promotional code June 5, 2015.

Alternatively, you can get a free Roku streaming stick (reg $49.99) or 50% off a Roku 3 box (reg $99.99) via this offer page.

If you sign up at Sling TV directly first, you can get a free 7-day trial to see how it works for you. If are then ready to commit, then I would sign up for this Amazon promo using a different e-mail address as it says “new customers only”.

First-take review on Sling.

  • Quality isn’t bad; my internet is only 15 Mbps on a good day but we usually don’t have more than one thing streaming at any given time.
  • I’ve had a couple of crashes while channel surfing. This is on the Mac OS X desktop app.
  • You can’t choose to record every show for later viewing. It doesn’t work like a DVR. However, on select channels you can get limited replay of past episodes. From their site:

    Sling TV includes a 3-day replay feature that allows you to watch shows that have aired in the past three days on the following channels: HGTV, DIY, Travel Channel, Cooking Channel, Food Network, Galavision, El Rey, Univision Deportes, Universal Sports, and beIN Sports and we expect this list to grow. Sling International customers can enjoy exclusive 8-day replay on all international channels.

  • On the non-replay channels (including ESPN, ESPN2, ABC Family, TNT, TBS, Disney Channel), you can’t even pause a show for a few minutes and pass the commercials later, or have it blip back 10 seconds if you missed something. On the other channels listed above (Food Network, Travel Channel, etc), you can. I’ve had this feature for 10 years now since TiVo came out, which means I really haven’t really watched any commercials for a decade. Oh, the humanity!
  • There are no contracts and you can cancel Sling TV online under your account details. It looks pretty easy to do, which means no Comcast cancellation nightmares, yay! Note there are no refunds on the Amazon offer above.

Verizon Wireless Drops Most Data Plan Prices by $10, But Existing Customers Must Opt-In

vzwnewprice2Verizon Wireless positions itself as a premium service. They have the biggest 4G LTE footprint, but they also seem to cost more across the board. For people that depend on reliable phone and data service for their work, the extra price is often worth it. However, Verizon just announced a price drop for many of their data plans.

From their press release, Verizon puts it this way:

Beginning Thursday [2/5/15], Verizon’s MORE Everything plans with data allowances of 1GB to 3GB (or from $40 to $60 per month) will include 1GB of additional data for the same price. A new $70 plan with 6GB will be available. [...] Verizon is also adding new 12GB, 14GB, and 16GB options to its MORE Everything plans for customers with greater appetites for data and all that it enables, like streaming video or sharing large files.

But really, this is a $10 price drop if you are happy with your current data limits. This graphic from Recode summarizes it best:

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However, the real reason I am mentioning all this is that existing Verizon customers must opt in to this “new” plan to get the savings. This a potential $120 a year savings without changing your behavior, but you won’t get it automatically!

To save $10 every month (or get an increased data allowance at your current price), either call customer service or log into your Verizon Wireless account online and pick the option to change your plan. You will be told that your existing plan is “no longer available” and that you must choose a new plan. Verify that your new monthly bill is $10 less than before (excluding taxes and fees).

Side note: If you just want to take advantage of Verizon’s good voice coverage, you can use the Page Plus Prepaid MVNO which uses Verizon towers but may not have the same roaming agreements in certain areas. You can get a Pay-as-you-go plan for as little as $10 every 120 days. They offer 4G LTE now as well, it ends up being big savings for single plans but less so for family plans with multiple lines. If you’re ending a Verizon contract and are still happy with your “old” phone, this may be something worth considering.

Side note 2: Oh, and don’t forget to check if you can get an employee or student discount with just your e-mail address.

Time Again to Reconsider Refinancing Your Mortgage?

If you have a mortgage with an interest rate over 5% or even 4%, hopefully you have explored refinancing it to a lower interest rate. Yes, it can be a bit of a pain, and that is why many people leave tens of thousands of dollars, if not over a hundred thousand dollars, on the table. A one-time hurdle now is better than worrying about skipping lattes forever! Here are some useful nuggets of information that will hopefully motivate you to pursue it further.

Mortgage rates are back near record lows and refinance applications are spiking. From the NY Times on 1/20/15:

The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.8 percent at the end of last week. That is down from 4.5 percent as recently as last spring, the lowest since May 2013 and far below the 5 percent-plus rates that prevailed as recently as early 2011. [...] Homeowners who secured their current mortgage in late 2013 or early 2014, or anytime before mid-2011, may want to at least plug their numbers into an online calculator to see if the potential savings are worthwhile.

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Home price appreciation may mean you can refi and get rid of private mortgage insurance. Home values have been rising, so you may now be eligible to refinance when you weren’t in past years, which could reduce your interest rate and/or enable to you stop paying for mortgage insurance.

20% of people who could benefit from a refinance didn’t… From a NBER paper and this CBS Marketwatch article

For example, in the period they study, December 2010, 20 percent of households that would have benefited from refinancing and had the ability to refinance did not do so. The median amount of unrealized savings was approximately $160 per month, or $11,500 per household over the remaining life of the loan.

… and they could have saved big bucks.

… a household with a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage of $200,000 at an interest rate of 6.5 percent that refinances when rates fall to 4.5 percent will save over $80,000 in interest payments over the life of the loan, even after accounting for typical refinancing costs. With long-term mortgage rates at roughly 3.35 percent, this same household would save roughly $130,000 over the life of the loan by refinancing.

Shop around! People spend more time comparison shopping for a $500 computer than a mortgage that could save you $10,000. From Bloomberg:

Mortgage interest compounds the cost, and over the life of a loan, small differences in an interest rate really add up. The best way to save, then, is to shop around for the best rate possible, but a new survey by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finds that half of homebuyers consider only one lender or mortgage broker. That’s particularly unimpressive considering that typical shoppers will spend at least four hours choosing a new computer.

There are new tools to help you comparison shop. Forget average interest rates. You want the interest rate for your situation. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a new rate checker tool that takes into account your credit score, state of residence, house price, and down payment size to see what other interest rates people are getting. I like they show an actual distribution of rates and the number of lenders offering that rate:

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In the end, you will have to gather lots of paperwork and probably deal with a couple hiccups to get your refinance done. I never said it would be fun, but it is profitable. You can try the big networks like and Quicken Loans, or you can ask around for a referral to a reputable mortgage broker. The CFPB recommends that you get quotes from three or more lenders. That way you can compare and even negotiate one off the other. “Rates often change from when you first talk to a lender and when you submit your mortgage application, so don’t make a final decision before comparing official Good Faith Estimates.”

Consumer Reports Product Testing Details

crmagVox has an in-depth look at Consumer Reports, including their continued efforts at staying unbiased, rigorous testing methods, and their future financial outlook.

To ensure they’re getting the same thing you’d buy at a store, they buy all of these products anonymously, at full retail price. To maintain independence, they don’t run any ads in their print magazine or on their website and don’t even allow manufacturers to trumpet positive test results in their own ads elsewhere. For many of these products, Consumer Reports is literally the only group testing this thoroughly — and in some cases, they’ve noticed potentially dangerous defects and alerted manufacturers or regulators to issue recalls.

I have been a Consumer Reports subscriber on and off for years, and my parents also subscribed to it when I was a kid. I love their info when buying appliances, but when I’m not making any major purchases the unread issues tend to stack up in a big pile that whispers “I’m wasted money!”. Their constant reminders to renew just serve as reminders that I am not using what I’m paying for. So I cancel. Consumer Reports must have a very frugal client base, so I bet I’m not the only one that thinks like this.

Then I read stuff like this and I want to subscribe again. That’s my cycle. The print subscription is $29 a year. Adding an online access costs $20 a year, making it $49 a year. This is handy when I need car seat reviews or something specific. Getting the online access alone is $30 a year or $6.95 a month. A la carte is probably the best option for me, but as an American I love everything to be “unlimited”. :)

Simple Living and Minimalist Parenting Quotes

I was catching up on some long reads and finished the article When Mommy and Daddy Took the Toys Away which explored parents who are simplifying by keeping their kid’s toys and other material goods to a minimum.

Only having a few toys? Not expecting more toys when shopping? Huh, kind of sounds like my childhood. The snarky side of me just thinks that “minimalist parenting” sounds a whole lot like “parenting without gobs of disposable income”. In retrospect, it was so much easier for my parents. They had so much less money to spend! ;)

All kidding aside, I highlighted a couple of quotes in the article, as I think they apply to everyone. We all know that adults have their own toys and desires for more toys.

On dealing with envy:

“We don’t overcome envy in our lives by getting what another person has,” Becker says. “We overcome envy by being content with what we have and being grateful for what we have.”

On balancing simplicity and priorities (Salem is a kid):

“You don’t really need to have a whole lot of toys to be happy,” Salem says. “Just the ones that you really want.”

Save Money: Bring Your Own Cable Modem & Stop Paying Crazy Rental Fees

Updated. According to this CNN Money article, both Comcast and Time Warner are jacking up their modem rental fees again for 2015. Time Warner will now charge $8 a month, up 33% from $5.99. Comcast will now charge $10 month, up 25% from $8.

These fees are now so high that it is a “no-brainer” decision to buy your own modem. Unfortunately, many people either won’t notice the fee or don’t even know that bringing your own equipment is an option.

Being charged $8 a month is $96 a year. A quick look on the Time Warner Cable compatible modem list showed several models that can be found online at retailers like Amazon.com for under $50. (Here is the Comcast Xfinity compatible modem list.) And that’s just for the basic model rental – the model with a built-in WiFi router costs another $4.95 a month – nearly $60 a year – while you can just buy a router for 20 bucks! Crazy.

For my family member paying for Time Warner, I stuck with a familiar name brand and picked the Motorola Surfboard SB6121 for $64.99 and free shipping. (The SB6141 at $80 is the next model up and compatible with the fastest speeds available, though you’ll have to subscribe to one of the most expensive monthly plans.) Both are DOCSIS 3.0 which ensures future compatibility.

The installation process was quite simple:

  1. Buy the modem. Wait for it to arrive. Remove old modem (unscrew cable cord and unplug power). Install new modem (screw in cable line and plug it power).
  2. Call your provider or start a Live Chat session online. Time Warner is 1-800-TWC-HELP (1-800-892-4357), or pick the “Buy or Lease your Modem” option when chatting.
  3. Provide them with the Cable Modem ID (MAC address) found on the back or bottom of your new modem. Wait 30 minutes or less and your high speed internet should be working again.
  4. Remember to return old modem (this is really the hardest part).

Unless you plan on moving really soon, at $65 for the modem with free shipping you’d break even in less than 9 months. Even better, consider it a $65 investment that distributes $8 of tax-free income every month. That’s like earning 147% APY at a bank with a 0% tax bracket. You’d need $9,600 at 1% interest to earn $8 a month in taxable income.

Some people have accused Time Warner of making their cable internet speeds slower and/or experiencing service interruptions along customer service responses of “We can’t help you, it’s not our modem” after switching to their own modems. Share your experiences in the comments below.

Sling by Dish: Live Internet TV with ESPN for $20 a Month

One of the notable announcements from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show that Dish Network will stream a package of major cable networks live over the internet. Getting channels like ESPN, Food Network, and CNN without a traditional cable subscription is a big shift in the industry and a sign of things to come. Official press release, NYT.

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The specific product is called Sling TV and Dish promises to offer the following 12 channels as part of their “The Best of Live TV” core package for just $20 a month:

  • ESPN (live sports!)
  • ESPN2
  • CNN
  • Food Network
  • Travel Channel
  • HGTV
  • Cartoon Network
  • TNT
  • TBS
  • Cartoon Network
  • Disney Channel
  • ABC Family

Here is a list of devices that it will work on:

  • iOS and Android devices
  • Mac / OS X
  • Windows PC
  • Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
  • Google Nexus Player
  • Select LG and Samsung Smart TVs
  • Roku TVs, boxes, and Streaming Stick
  • Xbox One

No contracts, no hardware installation, no credit check. More channels will be available in themed packages at an extra cost. The service is designed for individuals – You can only stream one show at once. (You can’t watch CNN on your TV and then ESPN on your tablet. Or it seems CNN on your TV and CNN on your tablet.) Even though I watch less TV than ever, I still pay for traditional cable for the ability to watch ESPN or Travel Channel when I do happen to catch some free time. This type of package could save me some bucks.

Related: Haggle to lower your cable and satellite TV bills.

Flexible Spending Account Reminder: Use It Or Lose It!

rxbottleHere’s the annual reminder to use up your Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts! I still dislike these things, but it is what it is. Note:

  • Some plans allow a grace period until March 15th of the following year as opposed to a December 31st deadline to use your 2014 funds, but it may only apply to claims and not late purchases. Check with your employer.
  • Alternatively, employers can allow participants to carry over up to $500 in unused FSA funds into next year. Check with your employer.

If you didn’t exhaust your funds with insurance copays or deductibles, check out these well-organized lists:

Effective January 1, 2011 items such as cough medicines, pain relievers, acid controllers, and diaper rash ointment now require a prescription and a manually-submitted claim for reimbursement. These FSA items are still available over-the-counter without a prescription:

  • Eye care (contact lenses, solution, drops)
  • First aid supplies (bandages, gauze, tape) for emergency kits
  • Wheelchairs, walkers, & canes
  • Family planning products (birth control, pregnancy tests)
  • Home testing aids (blood pressure, diabetes, thermometers)

Cook It Yourself: Learn a Skill, Save Money, Improve Your Health

I’m still into the “Cook It Yourself” movement/meme/trend/whatever. If you’re looking for a new year’s resolution and consider yourself a DIY person, why not CIY in 2015? Knowing how to cook simple, delicious food is a great skill to have and it can’t be bought with money. Here is a collection of articles and quotes related to this idea.

Corporations cook differently than humans. The New York Times has a neat article called What 2,000 Calories Looks Like. Basically, industrial food is made to be cheap but tasty. That usually involves adding a bunch of salt, fat, and sugar. So, you could have a single peanut-butter milkshake (2,090 calories):

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Or you could cook yourself a feast including pasta, potatoes, eggs, chicken wings, turkey chili, coffee, and even beer and stay within 2,000 calories:

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Writers, nutritionists, doctors, chefs and Michelle Obama have all been promoting a hot new diet: home-cooked food. “People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought,” Michael Pollan recently told Mark Bittman, both authors and advocates of the cook-it-yourself diet. “It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” The magic of the diet, its advocates say, is that it doesn’t mean skimping on portions or going without meat, eggs, cheese, alcohol or dessert.

This is Michael Pollan’s position of Eat Anything You Want, Just Cook It Yourself, as put into a short 2-minute video:

Well-known food writer Mark Bittman has a new book called How to Cook Everything Fast which mixes the right recipes with time-management tips to bring homemade food to tired weekday cooks. You can find a long list of reviews for it here. I enjoyed his quote that “the most radical thing that you can do for your health, if not the world at large, is cook.”

Here’s another good 2-minute video with Mark Bittman taken from the Time article The Truth about Home Cooking that explains some of his philosophy.

When I talk about cooking, something I’ve been doing for the better part of five decades, I’m not talking about creating elaborate dinner parties or three-day science projects. I’m taking about simple, easy, everyday meals. My mission is to encourage novices and the time- and cash-strapped to feed themselves. Which means we need modest, realistic expectations, and we need to teach people to cook food that’s good enough to share with family, friends and, if you must, your Instagram account.

Because not cooking is a big mistake—and it’s one that’s costing us money, good times, control, serenity and, yes, vastly better health.

Don’t let the corporations convince you that cooking is too hard; it really is doable if you avoid the common pitfalls and plan ahead. I agree with Bittman in that you should learn to make food you really want to eat, first and foremost. See if these Bittman recipes excite you: quick spaghetti squash or quick chicken parmesan.

Want more recipe ideas? Skip the poorly-chosen recipe from Sam Sifton’s Home Cooking Manifesto and try these 10 realistic recipes from Megan McArdle instead. Also see the links inside my Dinner A Love Story book review.

Feel free to share your own links and thoughts in the comments.

Saving Money on Cold & Flu Medicines

It’s flu and cold season, and I’m just recovering from being sick myself. Who knew there was even something called Tylenol Cold Multisymptom Liquid Severe or Mucinex Fast-Max Severe Congestion and Cough? That is, if you can find it while wading through an ocean of this:

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Plus it costs nearly 10 bucks? This Atlantic article reminds us that all of these over-the-counter drugs are just combinations of the same old drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Even better, you can buy the generic versions for a fraction of the price, either individually or in their common combos.

The most important part is convincing yourself that generic versions of medicine have exactly the same effectiveness that the name-brand versions. Per the article, in order to be allowed on a pharmacy shelf, the generic version of a drug must deliver the same amount of active ingredients into your bloodstream in the same amount of time as the brand-name drug. You know which group of people buys the most generics? Pharmacists, because they see past all the marketing gibberish.

A new site called Iodine has a Cold & Flu Helper Tool that will help you determine what you need based on your symptoms, and help you find the generic version from places like Costco Kirkland, CVS, Walgreens, or Safeway. Or you can do what the author (an MD) does and keep generic versions of each individual drug, and make your own combo as needed.

Learn something, save money, and avoid taking unnecessary drugs with their potential side effects. Win-win-win!