On Homemade Pizza

Pizza is interesting in that you have connoisseurs who fetishize all aspects of this relatively simple food, and you also have people whose concept of pizza is limited to Dominos or Little Caesars. If you are a connoisseur, chances some of what I’m talking about here has some elements of sacrilege and I apologize in advance for that transgression.  I work with what I’ve got– at least until I can embark on that fantasized backyard pizza oven project.

On the other hand, if you are someone who makes a decision regarding a pizza order based on whether or not the crust is double-stuffed and/or if you get an order of chicken wings with it, there is nothing for you to read here. Move along.

So let’s get started.

The Dough

This is clearly the most important part of any pizza, homemade or otherwise. Here’s my recipe (which is mostly from the Italian cookbook, The Silver Spoon):

1 and 1/4 cup flour, plus a little more depending on how sticky the dough is, plus some for dusting and kneading

1/2 cup lukewarm water

about a teaspoon of instant yeast

a little less than a teaspoon of salt

(I should point out that I’m assuming pizza that has a thin crust; thicker, Sicilian-styled pizzas or Chicago deep dish pizza is a whole different story.)

A lot of recipes say you should use “00″ flour, but I don’t even know where I could buy that (other than mail order), so I say just use a good unbleached organic all-purpose flour. Same with the yeast: I don’t have time to have anything fancier than the jar of Red Star yeast I keep in the fridge. I also routinely triple this recipe to make three pizzas.

To start, I usually mix the yeast in the water until it dissolves, though since I am using instant yeast, I could mix it in with the flour. Meanwhile, put the flour and salt into the mixing bowl of a standing mixer with the bread hook attachment.  Turn the machine on and after the yeast has dissolved/activated, pour all the water in. Once everything is combined, turn up the speed on the machine and keep mixing and mixing, stopping the machine occasionally as the dough climbs up the hook and to test to see if the dough is done.  I often think the dough stays too sticky and I end up adding more flour, but you have to be careful about this. Don’t add more than about a tablespoon at a time. How you know the dough is done is based on experience, but basically, you’re looking for a smooth and elastic dough. This isn’t the same as a “no knead bread;” you want to beat the hell out of this dough, and I don’t think it is possible to over-knead it.

Anyway, when its done– say 10 minutes in the machine, more or less– knead the dough a couple of times on a floured surface, roll it into a nice ball, and then put that dough into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap or a clean towel. If you aren’t planning on eating pizza for quite a while, put the bowl in the refrigerator– it will still rise, just a lot more slowly. If you are planning on pizza in about two hours, leave it in a warm place in the kitchen. If I’m making three or so pizzas, I just leave it as one big ball of dough and divide it later, but you could divide it up into individual pizzas at this point.

Now, if you don’t have a standing mixer, you can use a food processor– this is actually Mark Bittman’s preferred method. The same basic rules apply. You could mix this by hand too I suppose, but unless you’ve got forearms like Popeye, be prepared for a significant workout.

And if all of this seems like far too much to trouble over, then you can either try to buy a ball of dough from your local pizza place– a lot of places will sell you one.

Cooking

About an hour before you are ready to cook, turn on your oven as high as it will go. Since commercial pizza ovens are at least 700 degrees and often much hotter, don’t worry, it won’t be too hot. Also make sure your dough is at room temperature.

I’ve played around with pizza stones and fire bricks before, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort. Plus to really get the advantage of a pizza stone or bricks, you have to slide the pizza onto the stone sans pan and I always mess this up and spill pizza fixings all over the place. So I have a couple of pizza pans that have holes in them to get a little browning/charring on the bottom.

The other thing I do that you’re (apparently) not supposed to do is I use a rolling pin to at least get started.  Then I pick up the disk-shaped dough by the edge and turn it around like I’m turning the top of a steering wheel. This lets the weight of the dough stretch it out a bit more, which is kind of the point of spinning the dough too. Then I put it in the pan and do my best to stretch it out without making any holes.

Top your dough and cook, usually for about seven to 12 minutes, depending on your toppings.

The Toppings

Obviously, the possibilities here are endless. In my house, my wife and son both like old school “red sauce” sorts of pizzas, so I always make a simple tomato sauce. Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a clove of chopped garlic in a saucepan on medium-low heat. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add about a tablespoon of Italian seasoning, a 12 ounce can of chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper. Let that slow-cook while you do other things for about 30 or so minutes. Then blend this– I use an emersion blender, but whatever.

This and shredded mozzarella and you’ve got “pizza,” though there are obviously lots of other traditional fixings. Around here, we like anchovies, mushrooms, sausage (cook it first though), bacon (ditto), all kinds of different vegetables, feta, etc.

The traditional “Margherita” pizza is tomatoes and mozzarella garnished with fresh basil, but I also like using pesto as a sauce, cheese, and then garnish with fresh tomatoes. I made one the other night that had a “sauce” of ricotta and mozzarella cheese spread on to the dough and then topped with prosciutto (I put that on after the cheese browned a bit) and then garnished with arugula tossed in olive oil and lemon. I’m also a big fan of cooked down red onions and goat cheese– another combo that is hard to beat.

All of this has made me do searches for things like this….

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