Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Homemade Pizza

I live in a ridiculously hot place. The summers can see 115 degrees. During that heat you do not look at your oven. You do not talk about your oven. You do not touch your oven, even to re-set the clock after a power brownout lest you accidentally activate the heating element. But the urge for homemade pizza is strong year-round. Delicious pizza, with as many toppings as you like, cooked until the crust and cheese is well-browned and that first bite is so hot that you typically burn the top of your mouth in a beautiful, masochistic eruption of scalding hot cheese and sauce. Therefore, I have great luck with this pizza crust recipe both in the oven in, say, January, or outdoors on the grill. The outside is crisp and thin, and the inside has a delightful chewy texture.

Adapted from the great pizza man himself, Wolfgang Puck.

Pizza Dough
(Click here for printable recipe.)

2 1/4 t (or 1 package) active dry yeast
a small squeeze of honey (about a teaspoon)
1 cup of warm water, no warmer than 115 degrees, divided
3 c all purpose flour (spoon the flour into the cup lightly to measure), plus additional for kneading
1 t kosher salt
1 T olive oil (canola or vegetable will work as well)

1. Dissolve yeast and honey in a small bowl with half of the warm water.

2. Mix the flour and salt in a mixer bowl. Add the growing yeast mixture and mix with the dough hook until the dough comes away from the sides.

I love to knead. It's soothing to feel the flour on your fingers and the dough under the palms of your hands. If you also love kneading, you can always make the dough completely by hand: after you've mixed the flour and salt, dump it onto the counter and make a well in the middle. Add your pre-mixed wet ingredients and gently mix with your fingers until the flour absorbs the liquid. Then you can begin kneading.

3. Knead by hand on a lightly floured surface for a few minutes, 5 maximum. If the dough is too sticky to handle, sprinkle with flour and keep kneading. The humidity of your kitchen and how you measured the flour can all affect the dough. Let rise under a damp towel for 30 minutes. This ball will make one giant pizza, two mediums, or four smalls. I prefer the small sizes because they fit perfectly in a cast iron pan and are easier to handle on a pizza stone. If you divide the dough, roll each portion into a ball, cover, and let rest 10-15 minutes.

To cook:

Cast Iron in the oven:
You can use a cast iron pan in the oven or on the grill. This works like a dream and is nice because you have a handle. Heat your pan in the oven while it preheats. Roll out the dough, sprinkle the rocket hot pan with cornmeal, lay the dough in the pan, top, then put the whole thing back in the oven. In the oven, bake at 500 degrees for 8-10 minutes depending on your desired level of brown. Best to have a wooden cutting board or baking rack handy so that you can pull the pizza out of the hot pan with tongs and a spatula and not have it go soggy while you make the next pizza. (For two people, I like to cook one, then while the other one is cooking, get the table ready. That way you have one pretty hot and one crazy hot pizza to enjoy with lots of great leftovers, two pizza dough balls for the freezer, and no up and down the whole time you're trying to eat.)

Cast iron on the grill:
This method works great on the grill as well if you don't want to mess with dough right on the grates (but that's also delicious) but can be a little scary if you're juggling a screaming hot pan, a patio door, a couple of dogs and a cold beverage. Of course we get by, but with caution (and really good oven mitts). All grills are different, but usually "high" is a good place to start, and make sure you keep the lid closed so that it works like an oven. Don't forget to preheat the pan in the grill.

Grill, no cast iron:
If you put the dough right on the grates, it's easiest to grill it without toppings for just a moment, then pull it and top the grilled side then finish cooking. That way you're not dealing with floppy dough and toppings and losing heat with the grill lid wide open.

Pizza Stone:
I'm a recent convert to the pizza stone way, mostly because I've just recently acquired a pizza stone. First tip, preheat the stone. In fact, you can leave the stone in the oven all the time to help keep temperatures even (no "HOT while it's heating" then "cools off when the element isn't on" then "HOT while it's heating"). Second, good to have a cutting board just larger than your pizza. Sprinkle the cutting board with cornmeal, then place your rolled out dough on the cornmeal and top. You should be able to shake the board back and forth and have the whole raw pizza slide a little on top of the cornmeal. Say, just like they do professionally with a pizza peel (basically just a cutting board with a handle)? Open the oven, slide the pizza onto the stone, close the door and cook. This takes a little finesse because the heat from the oven is likely melting your contact lenses while you lean down to shake the pizza onto the stone, but it'll work out. Have some beer to cool off. Smaller pizzas are easier to handle in this manner. Pizza stones can also be used on your grill, typically in the same way you use in your oven (best to read your owners' manual to be sure your particular stone can handle the kind of heat a grill will see).

The most important thing to remember is to pre-heat your pan or pizza stone. If you do not do this, you will have an insult to pizza: a well-browned exterior and a boring, doughy crust. Pizza is nothing if it does not have a fine crust.

Pizza is so popular because it's so easy. All you need is a dough recipe you're comfortable with, a rocket hot cooking device, and your choice of toppings. My favorite? Ground beef, cooked bacon, black olives, sauteed mushrooms, marinara sauce, mozzarella and a tiny bit of cheddar cheese. Second place in my heart is cooked bacon and sliced red onions and mozzarella (delicious with just olive oil and roasted or toasted garlic, or shaves of Parmesan). The onions brown up and caramelize and the bacon, well, bacon is great on anything isn't it? Also worth trying and oddly wonderful is topping the dough simply with marinara sauce only. The heat caramelizes the tomatoes into a strong, sweet sauce.

Pizza is also very inexpensive to make and infinitely customizable. Sure, we don't always have a pound of mozzarella cheese handy, but think about what you do have. Any string cheese for lunches that you could grate up (not the cheapest, but sometimes you use what you have)? Cheddar? Provolone? Feta for that Greek salad recipe you tried on the weekend but couldn't think of anything else to use it on? Try it! Don't have any spaghetti sauce or canned tomatoes you feel like making into a pizza sauce? Just brush the dough with olive oil then top with your choice of toppings. "Gourmet" pizzas aren't really that gourmet. They've just got toppings that you can't get at your local chain store. And a major benefit to homemade pizza if you live where I do: you can have beer with it!

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