Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Pizza Anyone?

My family loves pizza. Did you get that, I said my family loves pizza. I had to emphasize that, because it is one of the staples of our weekly meal plan. For years I have tried different recipes for crusts, sauce, cheese, etc., but I never could get the exact flavor and texture that I wanted. Pizza stone or no pizza stone, pan or no pan, broil at the end or not, baking powder or yeast, etc. etc. etc. I sometimes think that I made this perfect pizza thing up in my head. There's no perfect pizza...it's just a dirty rumor, an urban myth...there is no such thing as good pizza!

I grew up in rural Appalachia and we didn't exactly have an Italian family pizzeria down the street. We did have the Pizza Palace, and I might add, I did enjoy their pizza bread and Mario Brothers. Sometimes we would travel a short distance to a town that had a Pizza Hut, and I enjoyed that, but is the crust supposed to be so greasy? My mom made pizza out of a box with the smoky sauce and baking powder crust...not bad...she always doctored it up a bit. My grandmother always bought Tony's pizza from the frozen section with the little tiny pepperoni. We would bake them late at night for a snack (BTW, they have changed the pizzas, now with regular size pepperoni, not the same). Please don't even think about one of those pizzas from the meat section with the big thick dough, red and green peppers and nasty sauce...I hated those. What about school pizza? Little frozen rectangles...they were pretty good. I remember talking my buddies into trading me their pizza for whatever...usually money. Finally, when I went to college, they had a Dominos...yes!! I ate Dominos pepperoni pizza until I couldn't eat another. Still, I always wondered if there wasn't something more out there...this couldn't be it...frozen pizza and a delivery guy wearing a blue suit and arguing that he was there in 30 minutes so he didn't have to give me a free pizza.

Then it happened. A few years ago there was a new pizza place that discretely opened in a shopping center on the edge of town (BTW, I live in a larger town now). It had an interesting name, Brooklyn Pizza. Everybody knows that people from Brooklyn know good pizza, foggettaboutit! But this could've been just another imposter, you know the guy up the street that knows nothing about good pizza decides he's going to open a pizza joint. But, that wasn't it, rumor had it that the guy had actually trained in Brooklyn with his buddy who owns one there. I thought, wow, this could be for real. The biggest thing that led me to believe that this was the real deal was...no delivery. Is it possible, in this lazy town, where people don't even want to get up and call in the pizza let alone go get it, that this place could actually make it without delivery? I had to try it.

It was everything that I thought it would be. The crust was perfect...crisp on the outside...tender on the inside and thin in the middle, and it had flavor! The sauce was delicious, not out of a can. The cheese was obviously whole milk mozzarella, creamy and tender and perfectly brown on top. For a couple of years we ate there on a regular basis, but that gets expensive...especially if you have four kids. So, I decided that I could do this. I could make my own pizza...couldn't I? Well, I was going to try.

First I tried some recipes out of regular cookbooks, but the crusts were always to puffy, and no flavor. What made the crust taste so good at Brooklyn Pizza? It took me a long time (and a lot of mediocre pizzas) to figure it out, but I finally did...it's time. That's right, time. The dough needs to ferment for a long time in order to have that interestingly sweet taste, that you find in your favorite pizzeria. The pizzerias save dough from the previous batch to give it this flavor (pate fermentee), but most of us don't bake pizza everyday. There are numerous baking books and websites that explain this, so I am not going to go into it now, but that is the answer to the big crust secret. If the recipe says you can be eating pizza a couple of hours after you mix the dough...it will not be a flavorful crust (if anyone knows another way to do it, let me know).

Now, the texture of the crust is almost impossible to match at home unless your oven goes up to 700 or 800F, because that is the temp that the good pizzerias use. This allows them to cook the pizza for just a few minutes as opposed to several minutes in a home oven. What difference does this make? Well, a big difference, because if you can brown the crust and cheese in say three minutes at 800F, then the crust will still be soft in the middle and tender on the outside. When you cook a pizza at 500F for say ten minutes, then the crust will be harder on the outside and most likely dry on the inside, but there is not much we can do about that. The best advice I have is, don't use too many toppings. I love toppings like the next guy, but it will cause your pizza to take too long to cook and you will end up with a soggy top and hard burnt bottom (the pizza that is). The toppings will give up water and seep down into the crust.

Here is the general recipe that I use:

My crust that I have chosen is Peter Reinhart's Pain a l'Ancienne dough from Bread Baker's Apprentice. Note: I do make the dough a little drier for the pizzas, because it is easier to handle. I also substitute 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup corn meal for 1 cup of the flour, because I like the texture and flavor of the whole grains. This recipe makes six crusts, so you can freeze some in portions for later. This crust is the most flavorful one that I have tried, and the kids even eat the brown parts.

After a lot of research, I came up with a simple and tasty sauce. Take a 15 oz. can of Red Gold tomatoes (and yes it does matter, so use Red Gold or Red Pack brand), and drain it. Blend it with a clove or two of garlic and a pinch of salt to taste. Leave it chunky if you like or blend it forever, whatever flips your switch.

This is important...whole milk mozzarella. You don't have to buy the ten dollar buffalo mozzarella floating in water at the deli. Just dry whole milk mozzarella from the big chain stores left unmentioned. You can slice it or shred it, it's up to you.

You choose. Just remember, if you put big gobs of watery toppings on, you will never get the cheese brown and you will have a mess...although and edible one.

Other Advice:

  • Use a pizza stone and no pan (unless you make pan pizza)
  • Use cornmeal or semolina flour to keep the dough from sticking to the peel
  • Preheat your oven an hour ahead
  • Heat the oven as high as it will go (mine is 525F)
  • Clean your pizza stone before you use it (burnt cornmeal and/or cheese)
  • Put the sauce and toppings on at the last minute
  • Have everything ready to assemble (Mis en place)
  • Set a timer, so you won't burn the pizza
  • If your pizza sticks to the peel, don't panic, just gently lift the side that is sticking and add some cornmeal. Try again. (BTW, I am the world's worst for losing my cool when things don't go as planned, so this is a hard one for me)
  • Just remember, Most of the time even when you think the pizza is ruined, it is still edible and usually very good.
  • You are not a professional (yet), don't worry if it doesn't look like a pizza from an Italian wood oven...you'll get there.
  • Write down what happens so you can have a record of your experience (I hate writing stuff while I'm cooking, but you have to).

As far as a specific recipe, you don't really need one. I follow Peter's recipe in BBA as a guide, but all you need to do is:

  • Make the dough (remember you need to plan a day ahead)
  • Preheat the oven
  • Make the sauce
  • Gather toppings
  • Shred or slice cheese
  • Form one crust (takes practice and some patching)
  • Put the first crust on the cornmeal dusted peel
  • If the oven is hot, add sauce, toppings and cheese (remember be conservative on all)
  • With quick sliding motions make sure the pizza is free from the peel (you will be able to tell, because part of the pizza will not be moving like the rest)
  • Quickly open the door and slide the pizza on the stone
  • Set a timer for 7 or 8 minutes and stay close
  • Don't start the next pizza until the other is almost done
  • I use a cookie sheet to remove the pizza, so I can have my peel free to use for the next pizza
  • When the pizza is done, remove it and slide it onto a rack to cool a little and let the cheese set before cutting
  • Enjoy!

I hope this has been a help to some of you who are looking for a better pizza at home. We have saved bundles of money over going out to eat, and I hope you can too. Someday I hope to achieve the high temps that the professionals use by building my own wood fired oven in the backyard. Until then, I will just have to keep experimenting and enjoying the best pizzas I can make with what I have. Just remember you can always change and tweak your recipes in the future...cooking is an ever changing process. I think that is why I love it so much.

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