How to feed your family during a global pandemic while renovating your house and working full time from home. Pizza edition.

While everyone has been learning how to bake sourdough, I have been making pizza. In late March, I was struggling to determine which staples to keep in the house that a) would last between grocery runs, and b) all members of my family would reliably eat. If you have ever lived with a two-year-old, you know that what they voraciously devour this week, they will altogether refuse the next.

With the exception of pizza. Pizza is ALWAYS a ‘yes’.

Frozen pizza is never quite as satisfying as I’d hope and, takeout pizza isn’t something I can feel good about eating on a regular basis. I have discovered that it takes very few ingredients to make delicious pizza dough from scratch and have now made pizza Friday a weekly tradition.

I use the NY Times Cooking Recipe for Roberta’s Pizza Dough . [If you just want a no-nonsense recipe for dough without any snarky commentary, just click that link. No hard feelings, we’ve all been there… “Just show me the recipe already, lady!” But If you’re here for the commentary, keep reading.] About 4-5 hours before you want to cook your pizza, you’ll need to start the dough.

Here’s where the working from home bit kicks in: if I was going in to the office on a regular basis, I wouldn’t have time at lunch to make dough. If you’re extra lucky, you will have just put that two-year-old down for a nap. I usually start around 12:30. Here’s what you’ll need:

2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
(Note: the original recipe calls for about half bread flour and half all purpose. I have recently acquired bread flour and it does make the crust a bit more crunchy on the outside but chewy on the inside, however, no one else in my family can tell that I switched from using all all-purpose flour.)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon olive oil
slightly less than 1 cup of lukewarm water

Step 1: Combine the yeast, olive oil and lukewarm water. I do this right in my liquid measuring cup. Set aside for the yeast to do its thing.
Step 2: Mix the flour(s) and salt together. I don’t bother to sift it, just whisk everything together in a big bowl.
Step 3: Pour the yeast/water/oil mixture over your flour and mix with a wooden spoon or spatula until its mixed enough to start using your hands without it being too messy (you’ll know.)
Step 4: Knead the dough right in the bowl for about 3 minutes. Sometimes I need to add a sprinkle of flour to keep it from sticking, sometimes not. I think it depends on humidity or whether or not the kitchen fairies are happy that day. Not sure – when in doubt, just add a little flour!
Step 5: Let your dough rest for 15 minutes. Clean up the mess you made in the kitchen or start some laundry or check your emails. (Or, let’s be real, scroll on Instagram and watch how-to videos on YouTube about drywall mudding)
Step 6: Knead that dough for another 3 minutes. I don’t know if there is a particular way you are supposed to do this. Go with your gut. Push the dough, fold it, pick it up and drop it, repeat… I just go for whatever it looks like they’re doing on the Great British Baking Show. I’m sure Paul Hollywood would be appalled at my technique though.
Step 7: Separate the dough into two even pieces and form into balls. Don’t stress, it doesn’t really matter if they are perfectly even, I’m sure you could weigh them if you wanted – but who has time for that! Put those balls on a floured cookie sheet and cover them with a damp cloth. Wait 3-4 hours. This is the perfect time to go do some drywall mudding, or prime the walls, or whatever the project of the week is.

Step 8: About an hour before you want pizza, you’ll need to put the pizza stone in the oven and pre-heat to 450o. [If you have my oven, you’ll pre-heat to 350o, then, when it beeps, you’ll know it’s lying and the temperature in the oven is only 225o and you’ll turn it off and back on again and pre-heat to the actual temperature that you want which is 450o and then probably also have to add 25 – 50o to get the actual temperature in the oven to 450o… Kitchen renovation coming-soon]

Step 9: We’re ready to start assembling the pizza. Here’s what you’ll need:

parchment paper
pizza sauce

(You could get fancy and make your own sauce like Deb at Smitten Kitchen which I’m sure is delicious like everything she does, but I just use Publix Pizza Sauce from a jar – remember, we’re in a pandemic – I’m looking for shelf stable staples!)
shredded mozzarella
marinated artichokes
sea salt

Put a piece of parchment paper about the same size as your pizza stone down on the counter and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Pick up one of your glorious balls of dough. Pat the air out of it a bit. I stretch it some in the air before putting it down on the parchment. Now just kind of press and stretch the dough out until its the size and shape that you want. If it sticks, add more cornmeal underneath.

You can go wild here with whatever ingredients you want but I usually make one plain cheese pizza (hi, I have a toddler) and one artichoke and ricotta pizza. This is important: Make the plain pizza first. Trust me, you’ll thank me later when your child isn’t throwing a fit because his pizza is too hot to eat or it’s not quite ready yet but he can smell it because you made the other pizza first. Ask me how I know… Also, pour yourself a glass of rose while you do this step – it’s Friday!

Step 10: Once you have your pizza assembled on the parchment. Open the oven, pull out the rack a bit, pick up the parchment and lay it down on the stone. Sometimes you have to play around with where to hold on the parchment so the pizza doesn’t fold in half. I don’t know what the secret is, just pray to the pizza gods.

Step 11: After 4-5 minutes, try to pull the parchment paper out from under the pizza. I push the pizza with a wooden spoon while pulling the parchment out. If it doesn’t slide out easily, it’s too early, wait another minute or so.

Step 12: When the pizza is done, take it out! I think this takes about 12-15 minutes total from when it went in but I actually never use the clock, I just kind of check and guess. I’m in the kitchen anyway making my second pizza or sitting on a stool and drinking my wine waiting for the pizza to be cool enough to announce it’s arrival to the toddler.

Step 13: Repeat for the “adult” pizza. I make this exactly the same except I add some chopped marinated artichokes, a few dollops of ricotta and some sea salt and pepper to the top. Still don’t know how long it takes in the oven, sorry. You’ll smell it when it’s done but before it burns, I promise.

Step 14: Eat your pizza. Drink your wine. Revel in the fact that everyone, including the two-year-old, has eaten all of their dinner, asked for seconds and complimented the chef.

Note: I have read that you can make this recipe and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight. I haven’t tried it. I’ve also read that you can make a double batch and then freeze half for later. Also haven’t tried it. If we ever go back to the 40 hour in-person work week, I’ll have to try these methods, but for now, in quarantine, lunch time pizza dough on Fridays will continue!

Let’s talk about shower plumbing

We’re finally putting up cement board in the shower and the plumbing for the water lines will finally no longer be visible, so I thought it would be a good time to take one last look at it.

What we did

The existing water lines in the house were CPVC and were not in good shape. Originally, my dad wanted to run new copper water lines. He ran out of time when he came for his visit to help us and, since we had no experience with copper, we decided to go with pex. A little research led me to find the Viega Manabloc system.

Our Viega Manabloc Pex Manifold System

What we like about this system:

It was easy to install. We made a frame out of 2x4s and hung it from the ceiling joist. There was a template to drill holes in the sides of the frame to support the pex exiting the manifold.

It has room to grow. We could run new water lines to our master bathroom while keeping the old water lines to the rest of the house. As we gradually renovate the whole house, we will be able to run new lines from this manifold and eventually have replaced all of them.

I like that the lines can be run in red or blue to indicate hot or cold. The system also came with labels to keep the manifold organized.

Another benefit of pex is that there are fewer connections and joints. Less connections mean less places for leaks. Because the lines are flexible, you can run them as “home runs” which means that there is one continuous line from the manifold to, for example, the toilet. This also means that we can control the flow of water to one fixture at a time. If, for example, we wanted to do some work on the shower, we can turn of the water to just the shower and not have to also turn off the water to the rest of the house.

After installing the manifold, we ran one hot and one cold line from the manifold to the master bathroom shower. The lines are secured to the joists in the crawlspace with hanging supports.

Once we had the water lines in, we could plumb the shower.

My first attempt resulted in being unable to tighten the cold water connection to the shower diverter enough to prevent leaks.

I was able to re-work it to improve the connection to the diverter, but I did end up having to add another connector than if I had known what I was doing from the start.

I also should have used a bend support for the hot water connection instead of the 90 degree connection, but I didn’t have enough length to do that. Overall, I don’t think two extra connections are the end of the world, but next time I’ll know better.

It was more difficult than I had thought to get the connection between the main diverter and the diverter for our future hand shower just right.

The shower plumbing looked like that for quite a while. I needed to wait until I had the actual fixtures purchased to make sure I was making the correct stub-outs. A few days ago, I finally finished plumbing all of the connections. And now she looks like this:

Current state of shower plumbing.

I added a threaded connection at two locations: 1. for the main shower head and another for the hand shower. The main shower head needed a female connection, but the hand shower required a male thread. We filled in with rock-wool insulation which will help dampen the sound of the shower through the shared wall with the living room. We are ready to add cement board and get ready to tile in here now! It feels strange that after looking at this exposed plumbing for almost a year, I will never see it again (fingers crossed).

What I would do differently

I’ve touched on a little of this already, but there are a few things I would be sure to do differently the next time we run water lines and plumb a shower (coming soon, hopefully this fall).

  1. I would make sure to have enough length on my pex to have as few connections as possible.
  2. It has been pointed out to me by some friends that the SharkBite connectors I used are expensive, and I would have saved money using press or clamp fittings. I have RA and my hands just are not strong enough to use the pex press tool that we have, which is why I used the SharkBite here. I might attempt to plan out my connections and have Connor use the press tool for me for our next shower, but I might not. Jury is still out on that one. I am often willing to pay a little extra in order to be fully independent on a project.

What’s next

  1. Cement board on the walls
  2. Tile
    • We have picked out a white penny tile and haven’t decided on grout color yet.
  3. Installing the fixtures
    • We’re using the Delta Vero rain shower system in champagne bronze. And no, I did not pay full price. eBay for the win! Getting this system at the price I did is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.
Delta Vero Shower in Champagne Bronze. I cannot WAIT to see this installed!

This is the story of life in a fixer upper.

Hi, I’m Annie.

I live in a 1920s craftsman in Nashville with my husband, our son, two dogs and two cats.

I have always lived in a fixer upper, really. One of my favorite pictures from my childhood is me in overalls carrying my toy tools while wearing my dad’s safety goggles standing in the construction area of the renovation they were doing at the time.

When I was in 6th grade, we moved across the street to fulfil my dad’s dream of living on waterfront property. We left a house that my parents had lovingly renovated over the course of a decade, to a house that needed just as much, if not more work. I will never forget that November when, right after the contractors had taken the roof off to start on the second floor addition, we got an early snow and had to catch melting snow/ice in black contractor bags from the sagging ceiling tiles. Or a few months later that spring when I was home alone from school, a man fell through the ceiling before the stairs were built.

I also remember saying to my mother:

“I am NEVER going to live in a house that needs a renovation.”

Famous. Last. Words.

For a while, that was true. I lived in dorms and on and off campus apartments through college and graduate school and my first few years as a professional. But when we moved to Nashville, I knew I wanted an older home. We couldn’t afford one that had been already updated and, often, I didn’t like how they had done it anyway. So we found our current home. Initially we thought we could get by with some cosmetic changes until we were ready to hire contractors to do a bigger renovation. Turns out, that’s really expensive too – especially in Nashville. So we put it off, and put it off, and put it off. Until, when our son was a year old and we still didn’t have a working bathtub, my dad suggested we consider just doing the bathroom renovation ourselves. He would come help with the demolition and get the plumbing and electrical roughed in and we could handle the finishes. We could be done in a matter of months. That sounded like a reasonable plan. As most renovations go, we found more work than we bargained for and renovating mostly on weekends with a toddler is slow going. So, here we are, more than a year later, still trying to finish that first bathroom. And, here I am, living in a state of perpetual renovation. If only my 15 year old self could see me now!

We have learned so much over the last year and become much more confident that there isn’t much we can’t handle with a little hard work. We have learned how to run water and drain lines, level subfloors and ceilings, run electrical, build walls, frame doorways and windows, put up drywall… We’ve gotten side tracked by a leak in the laundry room which resulted in a renovation there too which spilled out into the kitchen with a new coat of paint. And we will never forget that weekend we found out that a river of water was flowing through the crawlspace when it rained washing up a dead possum. If you had told us 2 years ago that would happen and we would fix the possum problem and the water issue without professional help, we wouldn’t have believed you. There is something deeply empowering about embarking on an extensive DIY journey – I’m not sure we will ever stop!

I started out just documenting our progress on Instagram @lifeinafixer but I realized I often had a lot more to say than fits in those tiny squares. So here is where the nitty gritty details about our life and renovations will be!

The fixer herself. One of the first pictures we took of her in 2015.
With love, Connor, Hugo, and Me (Annie)