Thursday, March 25, 2010

Home-Made Pizza

Elly and I have fooled around with home-made pizza off and on over the years and have recently come up with an approach we feel is close to perfect. The result is tastier (not to mention healthier!) than what is available at most restaurants and takes surprisingly little time to accomplish.

Making the Dough

The dough recipe comes from Baking Illustrated, a book from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, and my most frequently referred to baking book. We use a variation of the recipe on page 154, reducing the yeast to 1/2 teaspoon and letting the dough rise all day. Many bread recipes call for a quantity of yeast designed to complete the rise in an hour or two. Reducing the yeast causes the rise to take much longer. As a consequence, the dough develops much more flavor.

4 cups (22 ounces) of bread flour

Use Better for Bread flour, not All Purpose flour, for pizza dough. The result will be a crispier crust with a nice, chewy interior. Also, if you do much baking, I recommend getting an Oxo digital scale. These cost about $32 and are well worth the price. Flour is highly compressible. Measuring by volume, rather than weight, requires careful technique for consistent results. Measuring flour with a digital scale is quick and fool-proof.

Mix the following two ingredients into the flour with a wooden spoon, a Danish dough whisk, or with the mixing paddle attached on a standing mixer.

1&1/2 teaspoons salt (Kosher or Sea Salt, never table salt!)
1/2 teaspoon of Bread Machine or Instant yeast

Danish dough whisks cost about $9 and are designed for mixing doughs of various types. Bread machine or instant yeast is similar to regular yeast except it doesn’t need to be dissolved or proofed prior to mixing with dry ingredients. Oddly enough, many recipes, including the Cook’s Illustrated recipe referred to here,recommend using bread machine / instant yeast and then call for proofing the yeast before mixing it into the flour. It’s a total waste of time and completely unnecessary.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1&3/4 cups of warm water

We have a Brita pitcher and use filtered water for all of our cooking. The water should be warm to the touch, but not too hot. About 100 degrees is good. I heat the water in our microwave for one minute to get the right temperature. (It’s cold coming out of our refrigerator.) Making the water too hot (over, say 120 degrees) can kill the yeast, though this risk is considerably diminished by mixing the yeast into the flour dry. The flour acts as a buffer, reducing the shock of pouring yeast directly into hot water. Still, keep the temp about 100 degrees.

Mix the olive oil into the water, then pour the liquid into the mixing bowl with the dry ingredients and mix to a wet, shaggy dough.

It is not necessary to knead the dough. Books have been written on the subject, including Suzanne Dunaway’s delightful No Need to Knead, which offers not only delicious recipes but stories and watercolor illustrations by the author. It is out-of-print now, but an absolute gem. Not to be passed up if you come across a copy. Anyway, just mix until all the flour has been incorporated, spray the top with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap, and leave the bowl on your kitchen counter for the day. You can do this Friday morning for pizza Friday night.

That said, I’m in the habit of mixing the dough in our standing mixer, swapping out the mixing paddle for a dough hook once the ingredients are combined, and then kneading at the lowest speed setting for five minutes. My theory is that it can’t hurt, and why not use a tool we already own? If you don’t own a standing mixer, don’t worry about it and don’t mess with kneading the dough.

Pizza Stone and Peel

Tools you definitely do need for home-made pizza are a good baking stone and a pizza paddle. Old Stone Oven baking stones are the best. They cost about $50. We have an Epicurean pizza peel, made from some sort of composite material with a comfortable rubber handle. It is far better than any wooden pizza peel we have used. It cost about $40.

Preheating the Stone

Put the stone on a middle rack in your oven and heat it up for at least an hour before baking your pizza. Set your oven at the highest possible temperature, which will be something like 500 or 550 degrees. Our temp dial only goes up to 500, but I turn it up above the 500 mark, stopping just below the Oven Clean setting. This is important. You want that stone hot. The biggest difference between a home oven and a commercial pizza oven is the heat level (commercial pizza ovens run at 700-800 degrees and have a stone baking surface). Using a pizza stone properly will get you nearly the same result.

Shaping the Pizza

This dough recipe makes three goodly-sized pizzas. Sprinkle some flour on a clear area of your kitchen counter, and plunk the dough down on it. You’ll have to scrape the dough out of the bowl. Use enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. Put flour on your hands and shape the dough into a thick roll. Cut it into three even pieces and shape into balls. If you’re only making one pizza, wrap the remaining two balls in plastic wrap, but each one inside a ZipLock freezer bag (1-quart is a good size bag), and freeze them.

The dough will hold perfectly for several months this way. When you want to make a pizza, remove the frozen dough from the bag and wrap, spray a mixing bowl with cooking spray, drop the dough in, spray a little more on top, cover the bowl with the plastic wrap, and let it thaw. If you do this in the morning, just leave the bowl in your refrigerator. Take it out when you get home from work and let it warm up for an hour before shaping.

Okay, this is important. DO NOT use a rolling pin to roll out your pizza dough! A rolling pin will squash all the lovely little gas pockets created by the yeast out of the dough, leaving a flat, lackluster crust that won’t be worth a darn. Instead, spread the ball into a six to eight-inch disk gently using your palms, and then, with your fingers, coax it into a nice 14-inch shape. Use flour as necessary to keep it from sticking and flip the disk over so the same side isn’t always facing up. The object here is a thickness of around 1/4 inch. Some areas will be a little thicker and thinner. Be careful about making the crust too thin, which can cause it to burn.

You would think that throwing dough on a blistering hot stone would cause it to burn immediately. However, the moisture in the dough prevents that from happening. Instead, you get a lovely crisp crust with a chewy crumb (the interior). If the crust is too thin, however, the moisture cooks off, and once dry, the area will burn.

Don’t worry about making a perfectly rough crust. It is more important to have a consistent thickness. Let the crust be square or oblong or shaped like an amoeba, just as long as it fits on the pizza paddle.

Forget about Cornmeal!

Most recipes will tell you to use corn meal to keep the pizza from sticking to the paddle. The idea is you spread cornmeal on the pizza paddle, put the dough on top, cover it with the ingredients, and slide the whole thing off the peel onto the stone. This works reasonably well as long as you have used enough corn meal and are competent with the peel, but cornmeal is messy, and your crust will likely be flat and undercooked.

The trick is to forget the cornmeal and pre-bake the crust (on a truly hot pizza stone) before adding any toppings. If you use enough flour to keep the dough from sticking when you shape it, it should slide off the peel with ease as long as you haven't put any ingredients on it. Just fold the shaped dough in half, and then in half again, put it on your peel, and unfold it. Prick it all over with a fork to reduce air pockets when it bakes. Give it a gentle shake to make sure it slides easily, and then slide it onto the hot pizza stone and bake four minutes.

It will look something like this. There will be some bubbles. That’s fine. It’s rustic. It’s authentic. Pre-baking like this causes a nice “oven-spring” when the crust expands rapidly before setting. It creates a wonderful texture that never occurs when toppings are added first.

Pre-baked crust, top and bottom views.

Slide your pizza peel under the pre-baked crust and take it out of the oven to add the toppings. The crust won’t stick at all now, regardless of how many toppings or how much cheese (Elly-Ann!!) you add.

Quick Pizza Sauce

The following recipe makes a delicious sauce in only a few minutes. We started with a pizza sauce recipe from the Cook’s Illustrated Baking book mentioned above and then got real with the seasonings.

1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in puree.

We have come to prefer Hunts canned tomato products to all others.

2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, pressed through a garlic press

1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon sugar
salt, black pepper, and hot pepper flakes to taste.

Heat the oil in a heavy sauce pan for a few minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 30-45 seconds. The garlic should sizzle slightly when you add it to the pan. Don’t let the garlic brown or burn. Add the crushed tomatoes in puree and stir to incorporate. Stir in the basil, sugar, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes. Cook on medium low heat 10 minutes or so to cook off some of the moisture at a gentle simmer. Don’t let the sauce boil.

Final Assembly

Probably a little too much sauce here. :-)

Most recipes will warn you not to put too many ingredients on your pizza. The thing is, if you pre-bake the crust, you can load on as many as you like.

That goes for cheese too, of course.

Canine supervision helps.

The pizza will bake in about six to eight minutes. Faster than you might think. Keep a watchful eye on it, and don’t let it get too brown. After removing your pizza from the oven, let it cool on a wire rack for a few minutes — maybe five — before cutting it. And don’t cut it on your pizza peel! :-)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First Day of Spring

On our first day of Spring, March 20, 2010, we had a blizzard in Kansas City. Or, at least a heck of a lot of snow. It snowed all day. We had maybe 8 inches altogether.

Snowy weather brings many feathered visitors to our backyard, and yesterday was no exception. In fact, we added two new species to our backyard bird list (included on the left side of The Life Less Hectic), bringing our total to 55. The additions are Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrows. Here is a picture of the Song sparrow, which spent most of the afternoon digging for seeds under the snow.

We attract a good many birds, by far the greatest variety of species, by scattering seed on the ground. Many interesting species, including most of our native sparrows, rarely ever visit feeders. They prefer to feed from the ground close to cover like shrubs and bushes, wooden fences, and trees. Here is another picture of the Song sparrow.

And here is a picture of the Fox sparrow, which showed up later in the afternoon. Both birds stayed long enough for Elly to see them when she got home from work around 6:00 pm.

An American Tree sparrow also put in a brief appearance. We first spotted these in our backyard on December 27, 2009, and have only seen them once or twice.

We have had male red-winged black birds for a few weeks now, but hadn’t seen any females until a group of five or six showed up yesterday. Juncos are still plentiful, and will remain in the area into April, when they migrate to northern breeding grounds. We have had throngs of goldfinches, two and three dozen at a time. Late yesterday a group of 6 or more house finches arrived to share perches on our spiral finch feeder, easily the most effective feeder we have found for smaller birds.