Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Daily Bread - PIZZA!

Sourdough is f'ing hard to work with. I had two cultures going and they both died. I tried to follow the instructions laid out at Jeff Varasano's website but I ended up killing them both. I got one batch of pizza out of it and it was horrible. The only thing that was right was the texture. But fear not! I have found my own pizza dough recipe and it is the easiest bread dough ever. I did get some valuable information from Verasano's, mainly about the moisture content. I had to up the water content in my dough, but that's it. Otherwise I went straight back to basics. Let's go through it my way, shall we? Sorry, I ain't got no pictures but I will do this (make pizza, that is) again and probably add some.

MATERIALS (baking stone, sheet pan, skillet, mixing bowl, measuring cups)
It is absolutely necessary to use a baking stone to get a good crust on a New York style pizza. I am not a scientician, so I can't actually explain anything about thermodynamics other than "heat rises", but there is something paradigm shifting about going from using aluminum pans to using a stone. I don't get as excited about the changes in regular bread loafs because it isn't as dramatic as all that. My white bread/french bread/whatever/experiments come out similar to what they did before. I got my stone at a big box store (not Wal-Mart but I'm not advertising for the other guys, either) for $10. You might find a better one somewhere else or a cheaper one or whatever. I'm not a connoisseur of baking stones and I went out on a limb that $10 would be worth it to me. So far, so good.

Besides the baking stone it is also necessary to put some type of reflector over the pizza. I just mean that you need to put some type of pan on the rack above where you are cooking the pizza - I use my 15" Lodge cast iron skillet. The downside is that you can only bake one pie at a time. The upshot is that the one pie you bake is unbelievable. I do all this in my standard-issue, gas-leaking, crummy/came-with-the-apartment gas oven. I bet it would be better on a wood fire but I might never find out because I expect to be completely broke my whole life. It would probably help to have a peel but I've never used one. I also don't care too much if I burn my fingers, though, so take that for what it's worth.

For mixing the dough you NEED a mixing bowl. You can do this by hand (I do) so you don't need anything else. If you have a bread mixer, that's great, but it isn't absolutely necessary. To follow my steps you need four Glad or Tupperware containers with lids. Before you make the dough, you should very lightly oil the insides of the containers.

THE DOUGH (flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil)
Now, here's what Jeff Verasano has exactly right in a way that is scalable to any kitchen anywhere in the world. The water content of your first rise needs to be 2 parts water to three parts flour. The salt? The yeast? Honestly, I never measure either one of them. I can eyeball it and get them right for the most part. Do whatever you're comfortable with here. My trick with the yeast is to put the water in a big mixing bowl (the bigger the better - mine's a 6 litre plastic thing that I got from god knows where many moons ago) and then sprinkle the yeast until there is a thin layer covering the surface of the water. This is about the same amount that there is in a packet of yeast from Fleischmann's or Star. I use Bob's Red Mill. The bag seems expensive but it works out about the same as the others.

So for the sake of this recipe, and to make the math easier, say you've got two cups of really warm/hot water in your bowl. You're better off using filtered water but you can use tap and you'll be fine for your home. Trust me, your palate isn't anywhere near as refined as the palates of the people that wrote your cookbooks. Once you put the yeast in the water, mix it in until it seems dissolved. You should have two cups of brackish looking water that smells like yeast. Then slowly mix in your three cups of yeast. I say slowly because it's easier to mix. I do everything by hand, though, so this might not be a big deal in your bread mixer. Always keep your flower nearby! Throw some salt into the mix. I use Redmond Real Salt with iodine. Like I said, I eyeball the salt. It might be a teaspoon or so. I knead the dough by hand until it is just a little bit sticky to the touch. I don't want it too dry for pizza dough because I want it to bubble a little bit. I don't want it too wet to pick up, though, either. I do all of this by feel so I can't give much of a measurement. I try to make sure there isn't any flour left stuck to the bowl and then I cover the bowl with a thin dish towel and let it rise for about 1.5 - 2 hours. Yeah, that's all. Flour, water, yeast, salt - rise for maybe two hours.

Another thing I got from Verasano - I divide the dough while it is rising. I let it go for a while first, though. I don't do this right when it's needed. It's basically giving the dough a third rise. Three cups of flour should be enough for 3-4 pizzas. The first time or two you do this I would suggest you make the dough balls err on the bigger side. You might get a thicker crust than you want but you won't scar yourself. You'll see. So you divide the dough into thirds or fourths or whatever scale you are working on and then you make each division into it's own little ball. Put each ball in one of your Tupperware containers, set it aside and let it rise again.

At this point you need your oven to start heating up. I am not one to go through the potential pain of breaking a self-cleaning oven. I simply put one rack in the top position with my skillet facing down. I put my stone on a rack in the second position (out of four, if you were wondering) and I turn the oven up to broil. Just close the door and do whatever you have to do to keep the fire alarm from ringing.

SAUCE (tomato sauce, whole peeled tomatoes, fresh oregano)
Yes, my sauce is from a can. If I'm in a store that has the jarred one that I like, I'll buy that instead of the canned tomato sauce, but that's as far as I'm stepping out. I have been advised that unless you grow your own tomatoes you are throwing good food and good money after bad to make your own sauce from fresh tomatoes. The economics don't work and the effort does not match the results. You disagree? Good for you. I'm really only trying to explain my easy way of making dough. If I had my druthers I'd be using wheat that I milled myself, but I ain't got it like that so this is how I handle things. Basically, just mix the tomato sauce with the peeled tomatoes, one can to one can. Cut the stems off the whole tomatoes and dice them to your satisfaction. Tear up enough oregano to make yourself happy and stir it all together. Simple enough, no? No heating! It'll cook plenty in the oven. If I have a bottle of wine that I'm planning to drink with dinner, I'll toss in a dash of it.

CHEESE & TOPPINGS (fresh cow mozzarella, bufala mozzarella, part-skim mozzarella, provolone, goat's chevre, , raw sharp cheddar, pecorino, prosciutto, pancetta, pepperoni, fresh basil)
You can really do whatever you want here. I listed the ingredients I use most often. I will offer that if you are using part-skim mozzarella you should blend it with provolone to get it to taste like a memory. If you are using buffalo mozzarella I would use goat cheese to add some sharpness to it, as well. I do not grate mozzarella. The only cheeses I grate for pizza are the hard cheeses. Slice the mozzarella or buy bocconcini.

When the dough balls have risen to about 1.5-1.75 times there original size, you're ready to go. You need a heavily floured service to stretch them out. I use a round sheet pan (a.k.a. pizza pan) but you can use a cutting board or whatever, as long as it has more area than your stretched out dough is going to take up. As mentioned before, I don't have a peel, so here's how I get around it. Make sure your toppings and sauce are close at hand and ready to toss on there because you have a small window. Once the dough is stretched, open your oven, pull out the rack with your stone just far enough to not burn yourself. Be CAREFUL! My method is dumb and unsafe! Flour the stone where you are going to put the pizza. So, pretty much the whole surface, right? Put the dough on the stone, untopped, throw your provolone down on the crust first, then your sauce and basil, then your mozzarella, then your meat if you're using it. Save the hard cheeses for when it is done. The first one will cook in about 4 minutes, each subsequent pie will take slightly longer, depending on how much you leave the door to the oven open. You can use a spatula to pull the pie off the stone, it will be hot as hell though, so I just slide it off onto a wooden cutting board and let it cool. I grate a little cheddar or pecorino over the top while it cools. I give it about 5-10 minutes before I slice it but I'll leave that judgment up to your discretion. I hope I've explained this well enough that nobody reads it and ends up in the hospital. Sue me all you want, I haven't got any money. I'll have pictures on this post eventually.