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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, April 11, 2014

So You Want Great Pizza at Home? DIY! It's Easy

I've written a lot about pizza over the years. I've reviewed Italian restaurants and pizzerias and I've commented on chain pizza places. But I don't think I've ever discussed my favorite pizza – the one I make at home.

Pizza is one of America's most popular foods. According to sources who know such things, pizza is a $30 to $40 billion business. Statisticbrain.com says there are 70,000 pizzerias in the United States and that the average American eats 46 slices a year. They estimate that 93% of Americans eat at least one slice of pizza a month.

Most of that consumption goes on in the aforementioned chain restaurants; Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Domino's, Little Caesar's, etc. Places I generally avoid like the plague. Comparing the product that comes out of these places to real pizza is like comparing my riding lawn mower to a Ferrari; some of the components are the same, but that's where the resemblance ends.

There are also a gazillion little “mom & pop” pizzerias dotting the American foodscape; roughly 65% of that 70,000 figure I quoted. Such places account for the next biggest slice of the overall pie. They can be a real crap shoot, though, ranging in quality from an ecstatic “Oh My God!” to a horrified “Oh My God!” (You supply the appropriate inflection.)

Most of the rest of the pizza eaten by Americans comes courtesy of the grocer's freezer. I don't care what the ad people say, anybody with two working taste buds can tell the difference between delivery and DiGiorno. Not that DiGiorno is entirely bad. It's actually pretty good for something made with ingredients like sodium stearoyl lactylate, sodium aluminum phosphate and datem, which is short for diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides. Personally, I don't use those things in my pizza, but to each his own. You know, I once forgot to take a frozen pizza off the cardboard before I put in the oven; the difference after it was cooked was not immediately apparent.

Then there's a teeny, tiny contingent of “homemade” pizzas that come in a box with Chef Boyardee's picture on it. I had one such “homemade” pizza, prepared by a well-meaning girlfriend about forty years ago. We broke up soon after.

All these things represent the prevailing form of worship in the American Cult of Culinary Convenience. Anything you can pick up on the way home and throw in the microwave is a gift from the gods. But making delicious pizza at home from scratch...is.....just.....not.....that.....difficult. And it is infinitely better than anything you'll bring home from anywhere but the finest authentic pizzeria.

Let's talk equipment. If you really want the best homemade pizza ever, go out and drop a few thousand on a brick oven for your backyard. If you don't have a few thousand (or a backyard), spend thirty or forty bucks on a good pizza stone. If you're really cheap.....er......thrifty, you can go down to the home improvement place and pick up a few unglazed tiles for about two bucks each. But really, just spring for the stone, okay?

Now you want something with which you can transport the pizza into and out of the oven. Those long paddle things are called “peels,” and you can find them just about anywhere that sells kitchen stuff. Some people like a traditional wooden peel and some prefer metal. I'm easy; I have both. They cost me about $15 each. If you don't want to spend that kind of money, just use a rimless cookie sheet.

My pizza recipe calls for the crust to be docked before baking. Docking is procedure commonly done with pie crusts to keep steam pockets from forming and puffing up the crust. You do it by poking little holes randomly over the surface. They sell a docker made just for this purpose, but I have something equally good and much less expensive; I call it a fork.

I suppose a pizza cutting device of some sort would also be handy. You can use a rotary type or a mezzaluna. I think you know what a rotary pizza cutter looks like. A mezzaluna is a long, curved blade with a wooden handle that runs along the top. You see them in pizza places all the time. I have both at home, but once, when stranded in the wilds of a friend's ill-equipped kitchen, I managed to tame the beast with a sharp knife.

A pizza is ridiculously simple to assemble. It's a three-part process; crust, sauce, and toppings. We'll start with the crust. You can buy pre-made, prepackaged crusts in the grocery store. Don't. You can buy pizza dough all neatly rolled up in a cardboard tube in your grocer's dairy case. Please don't. You can also by a ball of fresh pizza dough, usually in the bakery or deli area. Wimp. Buy this if you must, but it's just not that hard to make fresh dough at home. Hold that thought; I'll come back to it.

I'm going to tell you that fresh-made pizza sauce is your best option and that it's really simple to make. Then I'm going to tell you that store-bought sauce is okay. I use both, depending on what I have on hand.

Finally, toppings. Real, authentic pizza is not a dumping ground for anything that happens to be in the refrigerator. If you want to turn out a great pizza at home, keep it simple. One or two toppings. Maybe three. But putting four kinds of meat and six kinds of cheese and eight kinds of vegetables on a homemade pizza is a recipe for a soggy disaster.

A quick word about cheese. Some people like to blend different cheeses, and that's great. I do it all the time. Parmesan, Romano, Asiago.....your choice, as long as you don't overdo it. But Pizza 101 begins with mozzarella, and for making pizza, the pre-shredded stuff is actually pretty good. Only for pizza. I use fresh mozzarella for everything else, but mozzarella fresca can be a little watery and that can really mess up your pizza. If you want the best flavor, use the best cheese – the fresh stuff – but make sure it's really dry before you top your pie with it. Otherwise, the shredded stuff is acceptable. My Italian friends in the pizza business buy mozzarella in five-pound blocks and shred it in house. I buy mine pre-shredded in five pound bags at my restaurant supply store or at Sam's Club. Divide it into one-pound packages, throw it in the freezer, and use as needed.

One thing that ties all of the above together is quality. You're not going to get a top quality pizza with bottom shelf grocery store ingredients. Spend a little extra on the good stuff. It will pay off when you pull it out of the oven.

Okay, nitty-gritty time. Here's how to make all the above into a fantastic homemade pizza. I've tried a dozen different pizza dough recipes. I've used all kinds of flour, including the prized Italian “00” and I've tried many permutations of added ingredients, but this one has been my “go to” recipe for years. It's fast, simple, and the ingredients are easy to find. Here's what you'll need:

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup bread flour
2 tsp yeast
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup warm water (110° to 115°)
drizzle of olive oil

I use King Arthur flour for everything. It's a little more expensive, but you get what you pay for. And my yeast of choice is Fleischmann's Instant Dry. If you plan on making pizza as a regular thing, don't waste your money on the little packets. Restaurant supply stores and places like Sam's sell one-pound packages of yeast for about the same as you'd pay for a couple of strips of the packets. Refrigerated in an air-tight container, it'll keep for about a year.

Now, here's what you do. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, the yeast, and the salt. Stir in the water and drizzle in the olive oil until it's all blended evenly and the dough comes away from the side of the bowl. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until it becomes smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly greased bowl (I use olive oil) and turn it so all sides get a little coating of oil. Then cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel or with greased plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

You can also do this in a stand mixer or a food processor. If I'm only making a couple of pizzas, I do it by hand. If I'm making a bunch of pizzas, I use the food processor. Same procedure; mix all the ingredients as before, dry ingredients in first, then start the machine and add the wet. Use the dough blade and the dough cycle on your machine. When the dough starts to ball up around the blade shaft, it's ready. Take it out and proceed as directed.

If you're going to make your pizza right away, you should put the stone on the bottom rack of your oven and start the oven preheating to 500° while you assemble the pizza. That stone needs to heat for at least 30 minutes in order for it to do any good.

Now you figure out how many pizzas you're going to make and divide the dough accordingly. This recipe yields enough dough for 1 large (16-inch), 2 medium (10-inch), or 4 small (6-inch) pizzas. And these will be thin crust pizzas, by the way. If you want a thicker crust, adjust the way you divide the dough.

I use the traditional press method for shaping my pizzas. Working on a lightly floured surface, press down on the dough ball with your fingertips and shape it into a small, flat disk. Working outward from the center, push the dough while spreading it with your fingers to make the disk larger. Turn the disk by quarter turns as you spread it until a circle starts to form. Pick up the circle of dough and rotate it by the edges, allowing gravity to pull it into the desired size. Don't worry if it's not a perfect circle. And if it tears a little, just patch it up. It'll be fine. You want it to be about the same thickness from the center out to the edges, where you'll build your cornicione. That's the Italian term for the thick outer rim of crust. Impress your friends with that one. You don't have to have a defined edge, but it's prettier and easier to eat that way. Just pinch the dough around the edges into a slightly raised ridge.

Don't worry about looking like a pizzaiolo. All that tossing and throwing the crust in the air is great for show, but my method is the one used by most real pizza makers. And don't you get anywhere near this dough with a rolling pin. You'll turn it into a dense, chewy cracker.

Here's my cheat: I have about a dozen inexpensive pizza pans in my kitchen. Got 'em for a buck apiece at Walmart. I lay down a light coating of olive oil on the surface of a pan and put my prepared dough ball in the center. Then I press it out, using the pan to help develop the shape and thickness. I press and rotate the dough the same way, I just do it right in the pan. Then I crimp up the edges and I have a nice looking crust that's ready for the next step.

Now you have some choices to make: to par-bake or not, to dock or not, to flavor the crust or not. Par-baking a crust means to put it in the oven for just a few minutes to give the crust a little form and structure. I do it this way because I'm usually making more than one pizza at a time and it just makes the process go smoother. If you par-bake, you should probably dock. Unless you want big air bubbles in your crust. Some people do. Otherwise, just take a fork and poke holes in the crust. I do mine in nice straight lines so it looks like I used a fancy docker. Now you're ready for the oven. If you use my pizza pan trick, you're good to go. Just toss the pan with the prepared crust in the oven for a few minutes, 3 or 4 at the most, pull it out, let it cool for a minute, then flip the pan over and the formed crust should fall right out. If you're not par-baking and are building your pizza right on the peel, you should lightly dust the peel with some corn meal and work the dough around a little bit to make sure it will slide easily off the peel and into the oven.

Here's where you can add a little flavor to your crust if you want to. I sometimes rub mine with garlic. Not always, because not everybody likes a garlic crust. But if you do, just cut the end off a clove of garlic and rub it lightly over the surface of the crust. You can also add a light coating of olive oil. Totally optional. I do it, but you don't have to. If you're not par-baking, you can just sprinkle a little minced garlic or some granulated garlic over the dough, or you can make a garlic-infused olive oil. That's another reason I par-bake; easier to flavor the crust.

On to the sauce! I'm going to give you a super simple fresh pizza sauce recipe. It's really good and it's really easy, but, as I said, you can also use prepared pizza sauce. You won't hurt my feelings. Here's the recipe:

1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
4 or 5 fresh basil leaves, torn or a pinch of dried basil
Salt

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the onions. Sautè for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the garlic. Cook for another minute. Add the pureed tomatoes and simmer over low to medium heat for 10 minutes. Salt to season. If you use dried basil, add it when you add the tomatoes. If you use fresh basil, add it in the last minute or two of cooking.

I don't use anything but San Marzano tomatoes for my sauces. That's just me.......and about a million other Italian cooks. You can use any good quality canned tomato for this recipe, but try to find San Marzanos if you can.

Okay, time to sauce the pizza. Don't go crazy with the sauce. A good pizza is all about balance. A thin crust that's crisp on the outside and a little chewy inside combined with a light dressing of sauce and a moderate topping of cheese is pizza perfection. You can taste each individual component of the pizza. That's the way it should be. When you ladle sauce and shovel toppings onto a half-soggy crust......you get chain store pizza! Sorry. I got carried away. Just spoon a couple of tablespoons of your sauce into the center of the prepared crust and, using the bowl of the spoon, spread it out in circles until it reaches the edge. Add more if you think you need it. If you can't see the crust anymore, you've overdone it. You can add a little more flavor at this point. Sprinkle in a pinch of dried oregano as you work the sauce.

Finally, it's time to top. Again, less is more. You may think a pound of cheese and a pound of pepperoni is going to be great, but it's really not. Start out slow. As you get more practiced, you'll figure out ratios and balances a little better, but if you ruin your first attempt, you probably won't make another one. And that would mean I wrote all this for nothing. If you're using fresh mozzarella that you've thinly sliced from a ball, bravo! Just make sure it's good and dry before you layer it on. If you're using shredded mozzarella from a bag, start by putting a light layer over the entire surface, then go back and fill in the holes as needed. Here's where you might add in Parmesan or Asiago or something. Moderately. A little extra cheese is good; a lot of extra cheese can be soggy and greasy.

Now we hit the oven. If you've built your pizza on a peel and remembered to use some corn meal under the crust, it should slide off the peel without a lot of fuss. If you've par-baked your crust, there's no sweat. It'll slide. Use your wrist to shake the peel until the pizza slides off onto the VERY HOT surface of the pizza stone. If you're used to heating up frozen pizza, you're in for a surprise. Don't walk off and go watch something on TV for fifteen or twenty minutes. You'll come back to charcoal. With the oven cranked up to 500°, the combination of radiant heat emanating from the stone and the conduction or convection circulating within the enclosed space will cook your fresh pizza in just a few minutes. You should probably start checking it after five minutes. It likely won't take more than eight, depending on the efficiency of your oven. Slide the peel back under it, pull it out, all bubbly golden brown and delicious, let it cool for a minute, then employ your cutting device and cominciare a mangiare.

Here's another quick trick: make up a big batch of dough and prep a bunch of par-baked crusts. Separate them with wax paper and wrap them in plastic. Stick the stack of separated and wrapped crusts in a large freezer bag and toss them in the freezer. You want pizza on the fly? Grab a crust out of the freezer, open a jar or packet of sauce, throw some cheese and whatever else at it and stick it in the oven. In less time than it would take for carryout or delivery.....or even to unwrap and heat a frozen pizza......you can have it fresh, delicious, and homemade right from your oven. It really is that easy.

Better ingredients, better pizza? Forget Papa John! Delivery or DiGiorno? How about neither? Do it yourself. You will never go back to somebody else's mediocre pizza again.

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