Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Finer Points of Pizza

I had some questions about my homemade pizza, so here's an outline on it that will probably end up being rather lengthy. I do tend to go on and on about food, as anyone who knows me will attest. I'm not going to lay claim to any kind of expertise on making pizza, and I won't touch the word "authentic" with a ten-foot pole in this post. But I do make pizza quite often and we know what we like. We think it turns out pretty well this way.

Thin crust, light toppings, high heat. These three principles pretty much sum up the way we cook our pizza. Let's start with the crust.

I make my own dough at home, using a recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart, though I used to buy it pre-made (not pre-baked). I tried the doughs of several grocery store chains, but I thought that Trader Joe's had the best pizza dough. At the time it was a buck a bag, and I could get four single-serving, thin crust pizzas out of that, which meant a pretty sweet 25 cent per serving cost. Just about any pizza dough will freeze beautifully. Google for a basic recipe, or turn to the library for recipes that might come from "an expert." You should plan ahead so that frozen dough thaws gently and has time to come up to room temperature before you begin to work it. In a pinch, you can speed up thawing in cool to tepid water. Don't use warm or hot water as this will mess with the yeast in the dough. Letting it thaw in the fridge is far preferable though. If you buy or make your own dough, consider portioning it into 4-6 ounce pieces (about the size of a small orange) so that you can thaw it quickly and use just as much as you want at any given time. Premade dough will keep in the fridge for three days or the freezer for three months. Anytime you make your own pizza dough at home, I recommend you double or triple the recipe and freeze the extra, provided you've got enough freezer space.

For thin crust pizza, I use a rolling pin, though the experts would recoil in horror at this idea. I don't care. It works for me. If I'm baking on a baking stone (recommended), I roll the dough out in a circle. If I'm cooking on a baking sheet (decent), I roll out two pieces of dough into long rectangles so that two pizzas fit on the sheet side by side. In each case, it works best to give the dough a basic shaping with my fingers. Don't knead the dough at all just before you shape it. Just hold it in your fingers and gently work it and squeeze it into a roughly round or rectangular shape. From there, use the rolling pin to thin the crust.

Once the crust is shaped, you need to put it on either the baking sheet or a pizza paddle (peel) that will let you slide it onto your baking stone. In both cases, you want cornmeal underneath it. The cornmeal will keep the crust just off the baking sheet so that it doesn't burn. And it will act like little ball bearings on the peel so that it can slide easily onto the stone. So scatter some cornmeal over whatever surface is appropriate. If your crust is a rectangle, it should be pretty easy to pick it up with both hands and arrange it on the sheet. If it's round, fold it in half and then in quarters. Pick it up gently, lay it on your cornmeal dusted peel, and unfold it so that it lays flat. By the way, my frugal solution to the need for a pizza peel is simply to cut a large piece of corrugated cardboard so that one edge is rounded, roughly matching the curve of the baking stone. It works fine and stores with my large baking sheets.

Toppings. I like to give my pizza a good foundation by brushing a layer of seasoned olive oil over the crust before anything else goes on. I coarsely chop garlic and heat it gently in about 1/3 cup of olive oil along with a pinch of chili pepper flakes. It only takes a couple of minutes, and then the garlic chunks become toppings in their own right. Brush the olive oil over the crust, moving the brush from the center of your crust outward towards the edges. If you brush the other way, the brush will tend to pull the springy dough inward so that it contracts and gets smaller. The oil gives flavor and forms a partial moisture barrier between the dough and the wet toppings.

Top your pizza with whatever you like, but use a light hand. Thin crust pizzas simply cannot stand up to a lot of wet sauce or cheese. Less is more. Let that be your mantra, within reason. Because I bake in a very hot oven, I try to make sure my toppings reach the very edge of the crust. This helps keep the outer edge from burning before the cheese gets bubbly and browned.

We've tried lots of wacky stuff and it's all good. Thinly shaved potato or zucchini rounds, blanched bacon cut into lardons, pesto, fresh herbs, blanched cooking greens or cabbage, cherry tomatoes, squash flowers - you name it. I particularly like arugula thrown on the hot pizza just as it comes out of the oven. The greens wilt slightly without shriveling too much. I'm also very fond of sage on a pizza. A very wide variety of cheeses will work too. We're partial to mixing cheeses and like to include a smoked cheddar or smoked mozzarella in the lineup. Trader Joe's has a quatro formaggio mix that works very well indeed. Experiment to see what you like. For best frugal practices, buy your cheese in bulk and shred it. You can freeze shredded cheese and it will be perfectly fine in any preparation where it will be melted before being served.

High heat. I bake my pizza at about 510-525F. This seems very high to a lot of people. The ovens in professional pizzerias in Italy are frequently fired up to 650 degrees or higher. A lightly topped thin crust pizza will cook in 10 minutes or less at such temperatures, producing a wonderfully crisp crust. Besides, who wants to wait any longer than necessary for great pizza? Cooking directly on a pre-heated baking stone will mean a cooking time of about 5-7 minutes depending on how thin the crust is and how heavy the toppings. Cooking on a large baking sheet will take a few minutes longer, all other things being equal.

In any case, you'll want to keep a close eye on your pizza, which is easier to do if your oven has a window in the door and an oven light. If you're uncertain, check the pizza after five minutes using the professional quick peek method: open the door for only a second and close it immediately. Get a good look during that moment when the door is open, but think about what you saw after you close the door. That way you don't let all the heat escape from the oven while you mull your decision. You can get into the habit of this pretty easily if you practice. After pulling out your first pizza, let the oven and the baking stone come back up to temperature before putting in another pizza. I recommend you cook a few extra pizzas while you've got the oven heated up. When they cool, put them in the fridge either whole or in slices. They make great leftovers. Most of the time I'll happily eat it cold the next day. But if you want it hot, slices will heat up nicely on the stove top in a preheated cast iron skillet. If you've left the pizza whole, you may want to put the hot skillet into a hot oven after placing the pizza in the skillet and sprinkling it with a little water.

All things considered, homemade pizza is tastier and cheaper than anything I can get my hands on from a restaurant in my area. It's a frugal meal, and one that works well when trying to serve a meatless meal to carnivores.

So, what are your favorite pizza toppings? Do you favor thin or thick crust pizza? Do tell!


Anonymous said...

Thin crust- I use the dough recipe from Joy of Cooking. Garlic/ olive oil coating. Ricotta, basil and tomato slices. This year I had a stellar crop of Green Zebra tomatoes so most of my pizzas ended up 'green themed" depending, like you, on what came out of my garden.

Anonymous said...

We do a thick crust and more "traditional" toppings - olives, mushrooms, green peppers, broccoli, onions, etc. I love a hefty piece of pizza! I love deep dish from a restaurant, so this is about as close as I can get at home.

It's me said...

As I said earlier, the caramelized onions, walnuts and arugula. We sometimes have a "thai" pizza with peanut sauce, garbanzo beans, sometihng green (peppers maybe?) and a touch of smoked cheddar.

Our pizzas really tend to be more like "flatbread with toppings". Fairly thin crust. And I've recently been experimenting with grilled pizza, which is going fairly well. (pictures here... http://justwanderingthrough.blogspot.com/2008/08/pizza-on-grill.html

I've really been nervous about the freezing dough thing. I'll have to work up my courage and give it another shot. Thanks for the encouragement.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I use an adaptation of Peter's recipe, it is great, and cook on clay tiles. My favorite toppings are pesto & potato with garlic and parmesan cheese, or a white pizza with spicy garlic chile oil,swiss chard or spinach and riccotta and a little mozzarella. My homemade roasted tomato sauce with fresh mozz is pretty darn good, too.

Liz J said...

I have been trying to perfect home made pizza for years....I have everything down pat but a crispy crust. I understand the higher temp, and picture pizza parlors and their ovens....I have a large pizza pan I have had for several years with holes in it....aluminum maybe, and also a baking stone, but old....so am afraid of 500 or over temp. Can you plesae tell me what you use to bake pizza? Just found your blog so maybe I missed it somewhere...thanks!

Kate said...

Liz, if your fear of high temperature is going to prevent you from trying it, I don't have many suggestions. If you can master your fear, I suggest putting your baking stone in the oven as it warms up to at least 500, and give it at least 15 minutes at full temp before baking. If your stone is very thick, give it 30 minutes. Let the stone come back up to full temp in the oven between bakings if you're making more than one pizza at a time. That will prevent the stone from cracking. Cornmeal on the peel, baking paddle, or piece of corrugated cardboard will allow the pizza to slip onto the stone easily.

Don't be afraid! So long as your oven is relatively clean, nothing bad will happen. Just watch your pizza. The thinner the crust and lighter the toppings, the faster it's going to cook. Good luck!