Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pizza, The Broke-Not-Poor Staple

It's inevitable: if you're raised within a certain radius of Manhattan, you're going to eat great pizza at a very young age. And if you're someone who likes to cook, you're going to spend countless hours trying to recreate that experience at home.

And you'll fail. You'll fail for a bunch of different reasons: unless you're Francis Ford Coppola, you're not going to have a professional pizza oven in your home kitchen, and temperatures upwards of 700º F, which are necessary to get the dough to rise and the toppings to cook in the amount of time that locks in that flavor, are not going to be possible. You'll fail because you won't be able to get the right kind of char on your crust. You'll fail because some ingredients only come in huge cans available to pizza-shop operators.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Because you can come close, and you can make a very satisfying simulacrum. And the more you do it, the closer you'll get. And yes, you'll get back to New York and have some pizza and get little insights that will improve your next pizza. And yes, I'm going to tell you how I do it.

I didn't get enough pizza when I was in New York in March, mostly, I suspect, because the really good pizza places, like all the other really good ethnic restaurants, have fled Manhattan and gone to places where the rents are kinder to the bottom line. There's a reason that the only good bagels I found were in Brooklyn, after all. But I picked up a good insight one cold, rainy night on 9th Avenue in the 30s somewhere. The pizza itself wasn't very good (note: this isn't the place behind Port Authority Bus Terminal, which was the only other pizza I had in New York, and which was considerably better), but the guy there was kneading the dough in a metal bowl. I tried that last night, and it worked amazingly. Another little trick in the repertoire!

There are also a couple of specialized pieces of equipment you'll need here, but nothing that'll break the bank. First, you need a pizza stone. These are easily found in the U.S. and cheap, but really all you need is unglazed terra-cotta tiles, which are available everywhere. Some "gourmet" company was selling a glazed pizza stone for something like €30 around here last year, which amazed me. I can't imagine it worked. The other thing you need is a peel. This is a device on which you build and top the pizza, then use it to shove it into the oven. Restaurant-supply stores have them, they're not expensive, and they last forever.

Okay, on to the recipe. I apologize in advance for the photos. Not that they're so awful, but because there are some crucial steps here which take both hands, and which I couldn't photograph.

My dough recipe is based on one from the woman who literally wrote the book on pizza, Evelyne Sloman, who also operates a restaurant in Albany, California, called Nizza la Bella, where I've never eaten, but which features her pizzas and an 800-degree oven. You take three cups of flour and a teaspoon of salt and mix them together in a metal bowl. All-purpose flour works, but if you can get what's known as 00 flour, which some Italian groceries have, you'll get a much better crust. You also take a teaspoon of granulated yeast and put it in one cup of hot (but not too hot) water, and wait for it to fizz. Then you mix them together. Start mixing with a wooden spoon, and keep some extra flour and water handy. Depending on the weather, you may find that you need to add more water before all the flour is scooped up. Then, you start with your hands, accumulating it into a single mass. Then you knead, pushing the dough into the bottom of the bowl. You can also, of course, knead on a countertop, or, if you have such a thing, in a food processor with a dough hook. Eventually, the dough will smooth out. It may stick, in which case add some flour. It definitely shouldn't feel dry, and you can wet your hands to add just a touch of water while you're kneading. But eventually, you'll get this:

This isn't quite there yet. When it is, it'll be a bit smoother on the surface, and when you hit it with your open hand, as Evelyne says, "it'll be like smacking a baby's bottom."

And when you've got it right, put it on the counter, wash out the bowl and dry it well, and put some vegetable oil in there, then return the dough and roll it around to cover it in oil thoroughly, cover it with a plastic bag (or plastic wrap, I guess) and let it sit for an hour in a warm place.

Meanwhile, put your stone in the oven and heat it at maximum heat, which for me is around 500º.

(If you look closely, you'll see that my stone broke some time ago and is now in three pieces. Fortunately, they fit together perfectly).

Now it's time to get your sauce going. Last night, I had some leftover pizzaiola sauce, my basic red sauce I've made for 40 years, which I'll demonstrate here some day. It's not as liquid as an ideal pizza sauce would be, so what I usually do is sautee some garlic in olive oil, then add a cup of tomato puree out of a box, some salt, and generous amounts of dried basil and dried oregano, in about a 1-to-2 ratio, more oregano than basil. Cook this carefully over low heat for around 45 minutes, stirring it frequently and making sure it doesn't scorch. It should be about the same consistency as ketchup. If you can do this earlier and let it sit some, it just gets better. Just make sure it's ready by the time you have to assemble the pizza.

And, while I was waiting, I prepared my other topping, slicing some mushrooms

and then sauteeing them in some olive oil, and a little salt to make the juices come out. Nice and brown!

Set these aside. After an hour, check your dough. It's risen. Probably not a great deal, but there's more there than there was. Okay, now, as gently as you can, make two balls out of it, pat one into a disc, and put it in a zip-loc bag and into the freezer: this recipe makes two pizzas, but since each one takes 20 minutes to cook, it doesn't exactly make dinner for two unless you can make the logistics work, which I can't. Anyway, the next step is to take the dough you will be using and cover it with the plastic and put it into the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes. Get out your peel

and sprinkle it with cornmeal. If you live somewhere where good old American cornmeal is like gold, you can, as I do, use semolina, which is cheap and used in Arab recipes.

Now the part I wish I could have photographed. After the dough is cold, take it from the fridge, flatten it into a disc, and shape your pizza shell. There are a bunch of different ways to do this, but this is a little 12" (approximately) shell, so I've found this to be the easiest way:

Grab the disc by the edge and turn it quickly with your hands. Gravity will start stretching it, and you want to keep the center from breaking, but you'll notice that you're getting a ridge around the outside of your disc, which you should squeeze to send more dough into the center. It's probably still pretty small, so at this point, drape it over your two hands and open them slowly, or push them apart. This will stretch the dough, but maintain the ridge. Try like hell not to tear the inside bit: keep it just thick enough that this doesn't happen. Yeah, it takes practice. Yeah, you can repair holes, but they usually leak. With luck, you'll lay down, precisely over the area with the cornmeal or polenta on it, your shell:

Pretty good! Now, lay anything that could burn (in this case, the mushrooms, but also anchovies -- which I meant to add here, but forgot -- or thin slices of salame or cooked Italian sausage) as your first layer.

Next add your sauce, spooning it into the center and spreading it with the bottom of your spoon (you've seen guys in pizza joints do this hundreds of times, it should be easy).

And finally, your cheese (Italian mozzarella here, of course)

and then, open the oven, slide the peel on top of the stone, and with a quick jerk, snap the pizza off of the peel and onto the stone. Not overloading the pizza is a real skill, and it's important to learn it: too much stuff and it can make the bottom soggy, or at least make the stuff fall in your lap as you're trying to eat it!

Much depends on your oven, but please, don't take this out too soon. Uncooked pizza dough can cause nasty reactions a couple of hours after you eat it as the still-living yeast hit your digestive juices. This one maybe got just a tad too brown

but not too badly. It maybe was in there two minutes too long.

You're not through yet. There are two more steps. First, I always put the pizza on the plate, then transfer it to a wooden board, and sweep the cornmeal/semolina off the plate. It's like sand, and you want to get rid of it. Then there's the post-oven dressing. At this point, you'd add fresh basil leaves if you had them (too early here), parmesan cheese (don't cook with parmesan: it'll burn), and a drizzle of fruity olive oil (a must).

And that's it.

One more specialized piece of equipment you'll need at this point: a pizza wheel to cut it into wedges. It's worth investing in a good one: I've had them come off their axles and fly across the room when confronted with a hard crust, and the crust you get with this recipe is usually too hard to cut with a steak knife.

There are a lot of variations you can ring on this, especially when fresh tomato season comes in, which it will in a couple of months, bringing with it eggplants, which also work well on a pizza. But the surprise comes when you figure out how much this costs you. A basic pizza like this costs under €2, and all it takes to make it is time: it's about 2 1/2 hours end to end. And that's €2 in retail cost of the ingredients. Now do you see why there are so many pizza places? At a decent local pizzeria, this'd cost me over ten euros, at least. It's true, it takes a while to learn how to make something as well as I made this (and don't let its ugliness put you off: it tasted just great), but when you can feed yourself a satisfying meal like this for so little (there was also a salad), it makes being broke just a bit easier.


  1. ' sounds great. One of the best homemade pizzas we had was from a friend in Normandy. He had a real wood fired oven at his house and made 'em all the time, so he could knock 'em out of the park every time. Here, in Manchaca, we like pizzas cooked on our gas grill. Any way you make pizza is great. enjoy.

  2. I'm saving that dough recipe, thanks for linking it :)


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