A few nights ago, I was making acorn squash and mini pizzas, not an odd combination if you know that the pizza toppings included grilled yellow summer squash slices, caramelized onions, and feta; sliced plum tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, soft white mozzarella, and chives; skillet-cooked red and green peppers, parmesan cheese, and chorizo.
Acorn squash can be baked at around 325 or 350 degrees, but it needs to cook for at least a half hour, more if it’s quite large. I usually split one in half, prick the skin a few times, and then set it in a baking dish with about a half inch of water, letting it steam and bake simultaneously. It can tolerate higher heats, and it doesn’t easily burn or overcook, so it’s no big deal to leave it in the oven a little too long or at too high a temperature. After it is thoroughly cooked, I like to drain the water, flip the squash cut-side up, and dot it with butter and brown sugar, then stick it back in the oven for a few minutes, until the sugar crusts over. That’s the way my mother always made it, and I love the stuff.
Pizza on the other hand needs to go into a very hot oven. In my current apartment, I have a small but very powerful gas oven. The gas flames blast in that tiny chamber and can quickly reach temperatures above 450 degrees. Not all large ovens can do that, especially electric ones.
Timing the cooking of the acorn squash and the pizzas seemed fairly simple: leave the squash in the oven at 350 for about 25 minutes, then crank the heat right before the dough is ready to go into the oven. If the squash looks done, pull it out. If it’s not quite cooked through, leave it in a bit longer while the pizzas cook. (I also had a few beets wrapped in foil tucked into the back of the oven. My philosophy on saving energy in the kitchen is to save tasks like roasting beets and baking off the last batch of cookie dough from the freezer for a time when I’m going to have the oven on anyway.)
I poked my heat in the oven a few times to make sure the water had not evaporated from the baking dish. All was well.
When it was time to put the pizzas in, I pulled the squash only the see that baking dish had not been perfectly level, and so all the water had tipped to the front of the Pyrex, leaving the back end dried out. A bit of sweet smelling acorn squash juice had burned and bubbled onto the pan. Holding the pan with a dishtowel, still half in the oven, I tilted it so the water ran to the back of the pan.
Then there was an enormous sizzle. Then there was a little blast.
The whole back end of the dish exploded into the oven, onto the floor, down through the cracks into the broiler chamber. The front half the Pyrex cracked and crumbled in my very hands. I didn’t get hurt, but I froze for a moment, until Boyfriend came in, took one look at me and said, “Oh my god. You’re barefoot.”
I’ve heard stories of exploding Pyrex before. It happened to my mom and it happened to my oldest sister, too. In all instances, the glassware went from one extreme temperature to another. My sister said she took a dish out of the oven one time, but even with potholders it was too hot to handle, so she dropped it in the sink, which had a little water in it, and the whole thing just blew up.
In my case, the baking dish must have heated up to the same, or nearly the same, temperature as the oven, while the water was no hotter than 212 degrees, a 200-degree difference.
When it happened to my mom, I was there to witness it. I was probably 11 or 12 years old and we were at her in-laws’ house. She was making gravy. A 9 by 11 Pyrex pan was sitting directly over a low flame. She whisked away at the gravy, and I think when the explosion occurred, she had just added more liquid, presumably liquid that had not been warmed. A film of stinking turkey oil covered the oven, the floors, and my mother for days.