The Art of Pizza

My very first blog post was about my love affair with bread. The combination of four simple ingredients to make a myriad of flavors and textures. It’s a pretty incredible process and one that I’ve continued to master over the years. I love bread, carbs, and gluten. And I don’t feel one bit of shame saying it.

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And then there’s pizza. Same ingredients, but a whole different ballgame. I enjoy pizza for what it is – a vessel for creativity in the kitchen. Now I’ve never been an artsy person and my parents probably swallowed a lot of pride putting my elementary school drawings on the fridge (“Well, at least she’s good at math?”). But what limited artist-like traits I possess come out when making pizza.

Pizza dough is a blank canvas. It’s an opportunity to build flavors, textures, and combinations to send your tastebuds on a journey. Personally, I appreciate when a slice has been gently kissed by wood oven flames, has a balanced ratio of crust:sauce:toppings, and provides a gentle crunch-n-chew in the crust. I prefer toppings that aren’t “fussy” and bring their own party to the pizza…like local New Mexico green chiles, fire-roasted, and diced to perfection. Or in the case of this pizza – salumi, locally-grown tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and kalamata olives.

Recently one of Dan’s colleagues, a true Italian who was born and raised in Rome, flicked his nose in the air when Dan mentioned that I make pizza from scratch routinely. Reportedly (as I was not present for this conversation), he was unconvinced that I could replicate anything like the pizza of his childhood…and he’s probably right. But I make a damn good effort to get as close as I can to ‘authentic’ having never been to Italy myself, nor possessing a single chromosome derived from Italian heritage.

As a public service announcement, there is an organization called Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana that protects the integrity of “true Neopolitan pizza” (akin to the German Reinheitsgebot for beer brewing standards). The AVPN is, more or less, the Italian Pizza Police. And, despite my best efforts, everything I’m about to say is probably condemning me to the Napoli gallows.

So let’s live dangerously, shall we?!

There is a world of debate on the internet about how best to go about replicating the magic of Naples pizza kitchens. Let’s be honest – it’s really hard. Our kitchens weren’t designed to pull this off, so we must improvise. So how do I attempt to make Napoli-style pizza at home, limited by my American kitchen and grocery? Two things: 00 flour and wicked high cooking temperature.

The first component is easily resolved. You need some of this stuff:

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The “Godfather” of flour

Someday I will write an entire post about flour…all the nuances and mysteries (I could put babies to sleep with all the details), but today is simply a crash course in the context of pizza. 00 flour (“doppio zero”) is a very finely ground flour that is used almost exclusively for making pizza in Italy. This stuff is like powder. It’s probably used as a movie prop for lines of cocaine (don’t quote me on that). And that pulverizing mill process means that it requires less water to make a dough, so you’ll need to do some adjusting to get the right ratio in yours. Also, the protein content in 00 flour is slightly higher than your all-purpose flour that is an American kitchen staple (~12.5% vs ~11.7%), which means more intense gluten development and a fun “window pane” test to help you identify when it’s ready. Developed gluten = better chew, and that’s a beautiful thing.

The rest of the process is a matter of patience and practice. A recipe can say “knead 3 to 4 minutes” but that’s just a ballpark. It could be 2 minutes, it could be 10. Pizza dough, like any bread dough, is a feeling. Hence, the artform.

There is not magic number of kneads, amount of time, or visual identifiers that can peg a dough for readiness. First-timers will probably be annoyed to hear that learning the feel of a finished dough takes time, but once you learn it, you’ll perpetuate the same frustrating advice. See that white scraper thing above? It’s a great tool to start the kneading process when the dough is wet and prevent overworking – it’s simple, plastic, flexible, and costs a few bucks from KAF.

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Window pane test against a window? Meta.

There is plenty of hope for newbies though, as the window pane test is as good as any tool when you’re starting out. After kneading by hand for several minutes, stretch the dough gently and hold it up. If it can hold without tearing and you can almost see through it (yep, like a window pane), the gluten is developed enough but not over done. In practical terms: It’s ready.

 

The second “secret” to awesome pizza is cooking at a temperature higher than any conventional home oven can achieve. In Italy that means wood-fire ovens that reach temperatures of over 1000 degrees. So what do you do when the home designer that built your 1951 ranch home didn’t consider your 2017 need for a wood-fire oven with proper ventilation? Use a pizza stone (or the latest trendy kitchen device: baking steel) and crank your oven to 500 degrees. This may void your oven’s warranty (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Oh, and keep your fire extinguisher handy.

Similar to baking bread, the initial “spring” and sear of the hot stone is key. Slowly cooking a pizza leads to soft, soggy, and underdone dough. So pre-heat that oven and slide the pizza dough onto the stone or steel. A peel is ideal, but I don’t have one. So I have perfected the back-of-a-sheet-pan slide technique that works like a charm, though took much practice. Do not use parchment paper at this temperature – it has a flash point of ~450 degrees (see fire extinguisher comment above).

Another challenge with the pizza stone approach is that the bottom of the crust browns and crisps before the top gets any color. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can switch the oven to Broil for the last 1-2 minutes of bake time to balance it out. Just remember that any time you use the broiler, watch it like a hawk. Things go from beautiful to burned within seconds.

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The rest of pizza-making is creativity. Playing with combinations of sauces, cheeses, and toppings. I’m not here to judge what you put on your pizza…but I will anyway. Here are my thoughts on toppings:

  • Make your own sauce. That jarred stuff is an abomination and a can of crushed tomatoes and some spices is cheaper anyway.
  • In true Italian tradition, pizza does not have a ton of sauce. However, I’m Eastern European and we don’t abide by Neopolitan rules.
  • Similarly, cheese is a topping, not a blanket. But you do you.
  • Don’t use super-fresh mozzarella (the stuff swimming in liquid) or your pizza will become soup. Buffalo mozz is a pizza necessity – just pat it dry beforehand.
  • Dry out fresh tomatoes a bit before using them (slice and sprinkle a bit of salt to extract the water from them). This will help prevent a tomato juice lake.
  • If you’re using fresh basil leaves, tuck them underneath cheese or other toppings to avoid burning. Pepperoni slices make excellent hiding places.
  • Arugula or other fresh green should be added after the pizza has come out of the oven. Have you ever eaten baked salad? Exactly.
  • Use sun dried tomatoes that have been rehydrated in some fashion (either coming from a jar with liquid or DIY in a small bowl of water).
  • Mushrooms don’t belong on or in anything. Ever. This is not up for debate.
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It’s almost like we’re in Ital… Nah, it’s still New Mexico outside.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, Dan’s Roman friend thinks my pizza is awesome. Count it!


 

Carolyn’s Napol-ish Pizza

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups of 00 flour (Antimo Caputo brand can be found online), plus extra for kneading board
  • 1 cup of lukewarm water
  • 3/4 teaspoon active-dry yeast (not rapid rise!)
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of salt
  • Sauce and Topping as desired

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. In a small bowl, combine water yeast and olive oil. Pour into dry ingredients and knead with hands or small scraper for about 2-3 minutes. You may need to adjust water or flour. Dough should be soft and flimsy, but not sticky. Let rest for 20 minutes, uncovered.
  2. Knead down on a lightly floured board for 3-5 minutes. Place in a bowl and cover. Let rise for 3-4 hours. You can also put the bowl in the fridge to rise overnight (*if so, let it come to room temperature before the next step)
  3. Divide dough into two rounds. Using the back of your hands, gently stretch the dough from the center to the outside, rotating the circle as you go.
  4. Top as desired and bake in a 500 degree preheated oven (with baking stone) for about 10-12 minutes. If desired, switch oven to ‘Broil’ for last 2 minutes to even the color on top. Slice and serve with a glass of Italian vino.

 

Carolyn’s Favorite Red Sauce
(Not claiming to be at all authentic, but it is delicious)

Ingredients

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 6 cloves garlic (peeled)
  • 2-3 Roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup red wine (and another glass for the chef!)
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 14.5 oz can, no-salt-added diced tomatoes
  • 2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • Pinch cayenne
  • Dash of soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Red chile flakes, to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven broiler. Cut bell pepper (flatten with hand) and Roma tomatoes in half and place skin-side up on aluminum-foil lined sheet pan. Place garlic cloves on pan too. Broil for 10-15 minutes or until pepper and tomatoes are blackened. Carefully remove and place tomatoes and bell peppers in a bowl and seal with plastic wrap. Set aside for 15-20 minutes to allow skins to peel back. Peel pepper and tomatoes, and chop roughly.
  2. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add a bit of olive oil and saute onion and garlic. Add basil and oregano. Add pepper, tomatoes (roasted and canned), and garlic cloves, wine, tomato paste, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt/pepper to taste. Simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Blend tomato mixture in food processor or blender until smooth. Stir in fresh parsley and red chile flakes, cayenne, and salt/pepper to taste. Use on pizza or pasta!

Bread: A Love Story

Bread is beautiful. It is so simple, yet incredibly complex. Four ingredients can come together in a thousand different ways. Making bread is every bit science as it is art.

For me, bread started it all. So it is only fitting that it is also the start of this blog.

Fresh Beginnings:
If you would have asked me ten years ago how to bake bread I would have little knowledge to offer. I was a college student with a small budget, limited time, and a definitive lack of culinary prowess. I shopped the clearance shelves at the grocery store and concocted weird recipes to satiate my basic nutritional needs. This included day-old bread from the bakery. Less than 24 hours out of the oven a gorgeous crusty baguette or a soft seeded loaf would be cast aside and slapped with a discount sticker (the dunce hat of the bakery world).

For shame.

I considered myself a rescuer of all things gluten and found ways to turn even the gnarliest looking loaf into something delicious (French Toast, bread pudding, breakfast casserole, croutons…you get the idea). Heck, I considered it a challenge. And I LOVE a good challenge.

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All day I dream of baguettes…

I met my (future) husband, Dan, in 2008. There’s a long story about an epic snowstorm, a Mustang, and the Super Bowl, but I’ll spare you those details. Eventually we moved in together when we were both graduate students. Grad school meant working long hours for very little money – supposedly for the love of science (at least that’s what we told ourselves). It didn’t take him long to discover my love of a good deal and a good challenge. So he dared me to make bread.

Bread.

As in, that stuff that makes the grocery store smell so good. The magical loaves that I could only assume were formed by the hands of baking elves and other wizardy.

Crap.

He wants me to become a wizard.

“Ok, Carolyn, you can do this.” I told myself with clueless optimism. It was time for research.

I started where I always do: Google. What did people do before the Goog? “Go the library, duh” says my librarian mother (“Touche, mom”). Quickly I was down the rabbit hole reading about yeast strains, baker’s math, and sourdough starters dating to the mid-1500s. I was in over my head.

But then I came across an article by Ken Forkish. I had no idea who he was at the time and it would be several years before he would publish my favorite book on breadmaking. His writing spoke to me. He explained everything simply, elegantly, and enthusiastically. He explained that bread is only as intimidating as you make it. Humans have been doing this for hundreds of years – you can too. Cheers, Ken.


From Frisbees to Boules

My first attempt at bread was one for the record books. Dan and I still joke about that hard, flat disc. It went into the oven with such potential and love behind it, only to come out as a laughable, flavorless Frisbee.

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Oh hey Frisbee bread!

In hindsight, I did everything right and, at the same time, I did everything wrong.

I am a scientist at my core. I measured everything…twice. I read the directions…thrice. I double-checked my work, appropriately distinguished between volume and weight, adjusted bake time to account for our oven’s uneven heating, and computed Vegas odds of success vs failure.

So how could I have possibly screwed this up?

Well, I wrongly assumed that baking bread was simply science.

Silly psychologist, bread is also an artform.

I failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bread Gods. The ones who whisper in your ear when the dough is perfectly kneaded, the ones who guide your hands to form a flawless round, the ones who watch over your bread in the oven when you walk away to practice tricks with your dog. I did not yet appreciate the zen of bread.

Over months I made loaves that were variations of terrible: flat, “ballooning,” overbaked, underbaked, overworked, full of holes, you name it.

Forgot the salt? Yep. Killed the yeast? Of course. Burned the crust? Let’s just say more than once.

There were a lot of bad batches (translation: a lot of homemade croutons!)
But I got there.
And it was a damn good challenge.

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Hello, Gorgeous!

During this venture I learned a lot of things about baking, but also about myself. Regarding the latter, I’m annoyingly perfectionistic. I hate screwing up but I can adapt quickly and problem-solve in a heartbeat. I’m not patient (surprise!). Baking relaxes me. Oh and I really, really, really, love sourdough (the tangier, puckerier, sourer…yep, I’m making up words…the better).

I now make bread several times per month with old and new recipes. I’ve developed friendships of recipe exchanges with fellow breadbakers. I even attended a three-day conference about breadbaking (more on that later – it was incredible!). I love the versatility of four ingredients – the science and the art coming together – and the end result of a crusty, golden boule. It’s truly a love story without the bizarre photos of Fabio. Plus nothing beats the smell of fresh bread in the oven! Mmmmmm…

Learning to make bread teaches patience, vigilance, and humility. It’s a lesson in failure, resilience, and self-examination. I challenge you to try it. Like me, you may fail the first time. When/if you do, dust yourself off (literally and figuratively) and do it again.

You’ll love the smell of victory from the oven.

 


Simple French Boule

I can’t promise that this recipe is fool-proof, but I can assure you it’s the easiest place to start. Boule is French for ‘ball’ and reflects the shape of the dough as a round loaf. Recipe yields 2 small rounds.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups lukewarm water (100 degrees F)
  • 1.5 Tablespoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)
  • 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (you may need a bit more/less depending on wetness of dough)
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt

Directions:

  1. Whisk together water and yeast. Let sit on counter for 15-20 minutes until bubbly.
  2. In another bowl, whisk 3.5 cups of flour with salt. Add water gradually and combine with a robust mixing spoon until dough is thick and difficult to stir.
  3. Turn out onto a floured board. Knead for about five minutes, adding a bit of flour as you go (up to 4 cups total). Don’t know how to knead? No fear – go here. To avoid Frisbee bread, knead the dough until it can stand on its own without morphing into a flat blob on the counter (these are technical terms, by the way). It should spring back slowly when you press gently with your finger.
  4. Place into a greased bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap or light towel, and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 30-45 minutes).
  5. Shape into a boule. It’s simpler than it sounds. There is an excellent video tutorial here. Cover lightly with plastic wrap or light towel while the oven heats up.
  6. Preheat oven to 450° F. If you want to get fancy, use a really sharp knife and cut a few lines in the bread about 1/2 inch deep.
  7. Bake for 40-50 minutes and crust is golden brown. If crust starts getting too brown before time, tent with tin foil. Allow to cool completely before cutting into the bread. For nerds out there, the internal temperature of the bread should be at least 180° F.
  8. Fun tip: If you want that bakery-style crispy crust with chewy crumb, place a 9×13″ pan in the oven when you preheat the oven (I usually put it on the rack below the bread). Right after you put the dough in, throw a cup of water into the pan and quickly close the oven door. The steam will help create that delicious, crackly crust!