For the past few years, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making home-made pizzas. When we had a winter rental more than two years ago in Rockport, MA., I ordered Jim Lahey’s book on making pizzas along with a pizza stone but never got around to following up. We are still looking for that pizza stone downstairs somewhere, but I ordered a second one which arrived last night. (If the first one turns up, I’ll give it to C.) My interest to make homemade pizza was piqued once again last week when a full page article by Sam Sifton appeared in the NYTimes food section. In the online article, there was a video that showed a Brooklyn pizza maker handling the dough (gently,) putting on tomato sauce (sparingly) that was made just from canned tomatoes, not a prepared salty-full-of-additives-and-preservatives-jarred-pizza sauce; and thin slabs of fresh mozzarella cheese. Fresh basil leaves were placed on top of the baked pizza after it came out of the oven.
Simple tomato/cheese pizzas (Margherita) are my favorite kind of pizza, I think–just very simple and clean, chewy but not heavy. So this morning, I followed the NYTimes recipe for pizza dough that combines Italian pizza flour (00) and regular flour with yeast, water, salt and olive oil. Jim Lahey just uses all-purpose flour.
The key to making tender pizza dough is the same instruction for making tender scones, rolls or bread: handle gently and as little as possible. When you push out the dough, or let it stretch to make the pizza later on, you’re supposed to handle it “like a baby.” Gently does it. A very little bit of tomato sauce is added, then fresh cheese. Flour the surface that you make the pizza on so you can transfer it easily onto a wooden or bamboo peel (a flat surface with a long handle.)
In the meantime, a pizza stone is gradually heating up in an oven turned up from an initial heat of 350 degrees to 400 and then finally to 500 degrees. Open the oven, stand back and slide the pizza from the peel to the heated stone. Some recipes say to turn off the oven and turn on the broiler on high to “broil” the pizza (Lahey) if you have an electric stove. Sam Sifton in the NYTimes article says to just let it bake at 500 degrees for five to eight minutes, watching it carefully. When the pizza is baked, use the peel to remove it from the stone and onto a board where you can add fresh basil leaves and cut it into serving pieces.
I guess it seemed daunting to make pizzas from scratch because of the equipment required: having to bake it on a pizza stone so that the crust would be light and crispy; transferring it with the use of a large peel, etc. etc. In fact, dear reader, the stone was about $15 and the bamboo peel cost about $12 on amazon.com with free shipping (I have Amazon Prime.) Oh, and I ordered the special Italian pizza flour (00) last week online too. These three ingredients/tools are what I have been waiting for to make pizzas that will hopefully taste like those $18-$22 babies in specialty pizza restaurants (of which there are NONE in the working-class town that I live in–but I have been treated to them in Minneapolis when I visit family there.)
When it came time to assemble the pizzas, I was surprised (chagrined) to find the plastic wrap sticking to the dough. I had to peel it off and knead the dough a little with some extra flour. Then, the hardest part was getting the “baby” yeast dough to thin out and stay stretched out rather than shrinking back again as soon as you let go of it. So, I ended up with a pizza about ten inches in diameter, not twelve. I added a little tomato sauce made from pureeing San Marzano tomatoes with a little olive oil and salt in the Vitamix. There’s plenty of this tomato “sauce” to use later in the week on cappellini pasta with shrimp or to decorate another round of eggplant parmigiana.
The pizza on the stone in a 500 degree oven didn’t bake as fast as the experts said it would. After fifteen minutes, I turned off the oven and turned on the broiler to finish cooking the mushrooms and cheese on top of the pizza. Meanwhile, there were crumbs, flour and basil leaves decorating the front of my clothes and all over the kitchen floor. By the time G. returned home, I was more than a little cranky, mollified later only by the clean taste of the pizza once we got it off the stone and onto a board. Half a glass of ice-cold Miller Lite beer helped a little too. Was it worth it?
Sort of, I would respond, knowing that there’s another pizza dough resting in the fridge for a second trial run at this sometime later this week!