Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pizza Pizza

Who doesn't like pizza? I've met a few people who don't, but they're the vast minority and they can be isolated and shunned. For the rest of us, the vast majority end up paying some dork in a Honda Civic to deliver some oversized, overgreased, underflavored garbage that is usually regretted after all is said and done.

Well, hopefully I can liberate some of you from this hollow existence. Today, I made a pair of pies for me & my wife, and whoever we can give the leftovers to.

This pizza had kalamatas olives, artichoke hearts, crushed & minced garlic, sun-dried tomato, feta cheese crumbles, and buffalo mozzarella. I also used a pesto made of basil and oregano for the sauce, because I don't really care for red sauce on pizza. Sometimes it comes out right, but sometimes it can really steal the show from the other ingredients. That, and having tomato topping AND tomato sauce is kind of gauche in my book. One or the other please.

This pizza used an olive tapenade for the "sauce". With that were portabella mushrooms, red onions, minced garlic, roma tomato slices, and some fresh parmesan cheese to go with the buffalo mozzarella. Same principle, basically. Again, we're using tomato as a topping, so hold the red sauce.

Now, for what these have in common, and the key to make your own pizza easy: the crust.

Basically, combine a packet of active yeast with 1.5 cups of warm to lukewarm water, a teaspoon of sugar, and let it sit for about 5 to 10 minutes. You'll see it begin to bloom and fizz up, which means the yeast is alive and happy. From there, add your flour. For this, combine all purpose white flour with whole wheat flour in a 2:1 ratio. Initially, start with about two cups, and briskly stir that in a bowl. If you have a mixer, this will make the job easier. Keep adding another 1.5 to 2 cups of that flour mix in gradual amounts, stirring until the mix gets sticky and starts to form a body. Once it stiffens up enough, pull it out of the bowl and onto a floured kneading surface. Knead it up a bit until the dough isn't sticking to your fingers. Be sure to sprinkle more flour on your kneading surface if it starts getting tacky.

Now, what I like to do here is to add two teaspoons of salt to the dough ball as well as as much rosemary as I can manage. I've already said that I fiend on rosemary when it comes to starches, and the pizza crust is no exception at all. There are lots of other things you can do here, or even leave it alone. Whatever you choose, go ahead and split the dough ball into two equal sizes, and let them sit in lightly greased bowls with some plastic wrap over the top, preferably in a warm place, for about an hour. Now's a good time to wash dishes and get your mise en place on, since you'll want to give your oven a bit to pre-heat (500 degrees or so for 30 minutes) for using a stone.

What, you don't have a stone? No worry. You don't even have to pay premium for an actual kitchen-grade pizza stone either. Go to your local hardware store, and you can find those little stone walkway bricks like people use in their yards. Common sizes include fairly large circular ones, which are incidentally quite good at cooking pizza on, and save a bucketload of money! Seriously, do it this way. You can make pizza on a cookie sheet and it will probably taste good, but I've never gotten a crust I'm happy with by using them. Cooking with a stone will give you that sought-after crunch at the base of the crust, without turning the entire thing into a crouton. Your cheese and toppings will cook up quickly under that blazing heat, and the crust will get just the right firmness to keep you from having sloppy floppy slices.

You'll probably also want a pizza peel for loading your stone. Fortunately these are cheap, but if you're a total DIY hound like my wife, you can probably buy some wood and cut one yourself. It's just a large flat panel of wood, a generic handle, and a tapered blade to allow for sliding. Now, what makes this thing work is to have either corn meal or semolina flour, or some grain about equally gritty. What you want to do is to load your peel by sprinkling a pinch or two of your rough grain onto the peel surface, spreading it out so that it covers the surface. These grains will keep the semi-moist dough from clinging to the peel too much. You may need to poke underneath with a spatula to get momentum going, but the rough grains will make your job SO much easier.

With your peel loaded, go ahead and uncover a dough ball, punch it down, and apply it to your floured kneading surface. Run that over with a rolling pin good and plenty, until you get a good round shape. I usually go for around 14 inches in diameter, but nobody is keeping score here. Look at your peel, look at your stone. Whatever you can put on there, go for it. Just make sure you keep your crust thin. Now, transfer the dough to the peel, and start rolling up the edges a little, pinching as you go. This will form a little crust at the rim of the pizza. Likewise if you hate crust, nix that notion. I always like to have a little something to keep toppings off my hands.

Once that's set, spread your sauce & toppings, with an eye for even distribution. Now, if you buy mozzarella in whole balls suspended in whey (which you should if its available, its amazing), treat these like any other toppings and arrange them on the sauce. What is going to happen when the pizza gets on that stone is that the cheese is going to melt and spread out in ways you had no idea it would. Don't fret trying to overcheese your pizza. One fist-sized mozz ball is plenty enough.

I'll sort of segue here into toppings, but I don't want to dwell here. Seriously, make your own damn pizza. Make it with whatever you enjoy the most. If you don't please yourself, anybody else you please doesn't amount to much. That being said, try and not go ridiculous with the amount of toppings. I say this only because of the logistics of all of that crap actually hanging onto a pizza slice gets to be a little hairy when you're starting to add five, six, ++ kinds of things onto a pizza that should hold three, maybe four at most. Yes, each of the pizzas I made above has four toppings, so this is one of those things where I should take some of my own advice as well. Just something to think about.

Anyways, once you figure out exactly what the hell is going on this thing, it's time to shovel the peel in and have fun. Open the oven, pull the rack out to get the stone in a position where it's easy to work. Then, you want to sort of place the tapered blade end of the peel just shy of the outer edge of the stone, and gently jerk back on the peel a little to let the pizza slide. If it's not sliding, take a spatula and gently lift up parts of the pizza dough from the peel, until you get a slip. This isn't as high stress as it might sound, and you'll get the hang of it very fast, even being able to adjust a little as you go. Once the pizza is on the stone, push the rack in and close her up. Give it anywhere between 7 and 12 minutes. It doesn't take much time at all, because you're cooking at 500 damn degrees.

Once that's done, sort of reverse the process, and get the oven opened and ready your peel. Now from here, you kind of want to hold the back end of the pizza with a spatula while you shove the blade end of the peel underneath. Pull that bad boy out and slide it on a dish or a cutting board or in a box, however you do it.

Remember that other dough ball? Go ahead and make another. If you have company over, I guarantee they'll eat the first one faster than you can bake the second one.

1 comment:

Cathie said...

Charley, Just checked out your blog and everything thing looks delicious. I found a site that you might like to see -
Hope Laurie and Chris are having a great time in Mexico. Tell Christine hello for me - Cathie