pizza dough and pret-a-porter

January 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

Once upon a time, Friday night was put-on-scads-of-glittery-makeup-and-short-skirts-and-high-heels-and-go-dancing night. Now, its pizza night with the family…though, to be honest, I do sometimes still like to pile on the makeup, just for fun, and also to put on huge gipsy skirts and dance, if we’ve got the right music on.  One of these days I must post directions for making gipsy circle skirts out of every old piece of fabric you have lying about in the house – so that, if you want to confuse your neighbors some cheery summer day, you and your friends can do this:

For now, though: pizza. I’ve been on a quest, for years and years it seems, for a way to make pizza crusts as good as the ones you get in REALLY good pizzerias: crusty on the bottom, even elegantly scorched here and there – dusted with golden cornmeal which gives the whole a delicious, mealy aroma that reminds me of the grain room at the old stables where I used to work – flexible, but resilient and chewy, almost leathery – soft and bubbly on the inside – thin, but by no means paltry.

This is of even more importance now, because my men like to eat a lot of pizza, and – since we are picky about the pizza we eat – this could run us into big money.  If a twelve-inch pizza costs about ten bucks at a decent venue, then we could end up spending three times that much, not counting drinks, of course.  And I shudder to think of the expense when Avila grows up, if she takes after me: when I was thirteen I could eat a whole super-size pizza without blinking once…which is why, alas, when my growth spurt stopped a few years later and I kept on eating like an NFL linebacker during training season, I bulged out of my awesome eighties stonewashed jeans and glam jackets, and now look back on old photos and sigh, deeply…and not just because of the ecologically disastrous quantities of Aquanet I had sprayed on my bleached, brillo-pad-like hair.

My plan to save my daughter from recreating this distressing  image: a) teach her to dance and b) pray that no matter how retro we go, stonewashed denim will remain forever anathema.  I suppose, though, by the time she is a teenager the stuff I am wearing now will be vintage. I’m definitely saving all my craziest shoes from the old days, for her to play dress-up.

I’m not going to stop her from eating, though. I believe in eating – good food, of course, not junk, and with a good healthy appetite earned from a long day of hard work. So, bring on the pizza!

In my quest for the perfect dough, I’ve been through many a trial. First, I labored for many years under the impression that most things are supposed to go into an oven which us heated to about 350 or 400 degrees. Then, I never kneaded my dough enough, so the gluten never got a chance to do its thing, and my crust ended up with big holes, through which the sauce sopped. Oh, and I was always too lazy to reduce my sauce (that lovely, sweet, fresh sauce I can so much of, every summer) so, well, that was a mess.

I now know: around the same time I start my dough, I pour out a quart of sauce into a saucpan, throw in oregano and garlic and salt, and let it start cooking down – down – down. Whenever it’s thick enough, I turn it off and there it sits, patiently waiting for crust to sit on.

I had a brief and bizarre period in which I decided that I was putting too much flour into ALL my dough, and during that time I made some very tasty but not terrifically hold-togetherable breads and pizza crusts, simply by adding no more flour than could be stirred in with a spoon. This was actually understandable – there are some wonderful breads made with a less dense dough (Sofya has perhaps the best recipe for one of these – take a look! – pictures! –  it will make you want to bake bread RIGHT THIS MINUTE) but somehow I was blocking out of my mind the classic image of a baker tossing the pizza dough in the air. If I had tried to toss this dough of mine, I would have ended up covered with little blobs of dough. Not chic. Interesting, maybe, but definitely not chic.

Two items that served as talismans (talismen?) in this quest of mine, were a) the baking stone (you can see that I probably don’t wash mine as often as I should – but no need to worry about germs, in a 550 degree oven!):

and b) the peel.

The effect of the latter can be replicated with the clever use of the backside of a cookie sheet (though it won’t look as pretty hanging in your kitchen).  But the effect of the former, at least in the case of pizza crust, cannot be created by any means I know (Sofya’s bread recipe uses a dutch oven to similar effect, but that won’t work for pizza).  So, go out to Big Lots and get a baking stone.  Or, if you are feeling like doing something outrageous, order one from Williams and Sonoma for like ten times as much. I’m a huge fan of Big Lots, myself.

But even with the baking stone, my pizza was getting bubbly on the top long before it got that delectable crustiness underneath, that crustiness that enables you to actually pick it up without everything going all over your lap.

The final revelation – the vision, as it were – came from a book that I recommend to all bakers, whether you’ve just started messing about with dough or whether you – like my mother, one of the best bread-bakers I know – have been feeding your family with loaves of fragrant goodness from your own over for years and years: “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” by master baker Peter Reinhart. It is filled with lore and insight and good advice and science and artisan recipes and, of course PICTURES.

Reinhart is a world-class baker, so he gets to bake all day instead of having to throw together a batch of dough before running out of the house to teach an evening class at school, or changing a really epic diaper.  So I have not yet, not once, been able to follow his wonderful recipes point-by-point. But that doesn’t matter, really; just following them haphazard has been good enough for me.

So, without further ado, the Holy Grail, the semi-artisan but still pretty damn near perfect pizza dough for the disorganized soul:

1) Put into in a nice big bowl:

4 1/2 c unbleached flour – preferably bread flour

1 tsp dry yeast

1 3/4 tsp salt

1 3/4 c COLD water.

2) Mix ’em all together with a wooden spoon or, if you like, use a bread hook or if you have a large enough food processor, use that. I myself am humbly satisfied with the wooden spoon.

It will get all lumpy and sticky, but if you can’t seem to get ALL the flour to work itself lumpily into the dough, add a teensy bit more water. You should now have one big congealed blob.

3) If you are wearing rings, remove them at this point. And if they are wedding rings, remember to put them on later, after you’ve finished your dough, before your spouse starts asking prying questions.

4) Divide your large blob into three smaller blobs of about equal size, and work each one with your hands, massaging it, so to speak, until it becomes rubbery and sticky and you can stretch it without it falling apart. You will want to work with wet hands. It sounds counter-intuitive, but dough won’t stick to wet hands.

5) Finally, sprinkle a little flour over each blob and form it into a nice little ball.

6) Place your three dough-balls on a greased cookie sheet, and put it in the fridge for about an hour.

7) During this time, prepare three sheets of aluminum foil liberally sprinkled with corn meal. No oil necessary. Seriously!

Then, you can reduce your sauce – change a diaper – write a sonnet – post a smug status on Facebook – put on the Gipsy Kings and pirhouette around the house – whatever.

Letting your dough rest without rising is absolutely essential!!!

8) Remove your little blobs, and let them warm up a bit, so that they JUST start to rise a little. Your dough-blobs will be stretchy and rubbery and less sticky – but if they are too sticky to handle happily, add a little flour. The dough should feel like that sticky-putty stuff you hang poster to a dorm room wall with.

9) Stretch, stretch, stretch, your dough: until it is the size of a small bread-plate.

10) Now, rest it on your knuckes, hands together, as though your hands were a head and the dough a hat – a beret – on top of them. Pull with your knuckes. The dough should stretch out nice and thin, without breaking.

11) Annoy your friend or husband or wife or kids by making them photograph you playing with dough:

12) Put your dough down gently on the cornmeal-sprinkled foil. You can fuss over making it all circular and stuff, but really, why bother? Irregular shapes are more classy. And there’s no such thing as a perfect circle, anyway.

13) If you have a gas oven, put your baking stone on the bottom, the very bottom, the floor of the oven. If you have an electric oven, put it on the absolute lowest rack.

14) Turn your oven on as hot as it will go. Seriously. Mine only goes to 550 – but I crank it all the way.

15) After about fifteen minutes you can dress your pizzas with a thin coating of sauce and a moderate covering of cheese. No need to go overboard: the secret to good pizza is in the quality of the flavor, not in having ten tons of random items stacked all over it.

16) Slide your first pizza, from either a peel or the back of a cookie sheet, onto the baking stone. You will smell that cornmeal right away!

17) It will only take about 5-8 minutes. Watch it closely! Every oven is a little different. It only takes about 5 minutes in mine. Keep note of how long the first one takes, then you can set the timer for the other two. Remove by sliding onto the peel again – then you can just dump it onto the table, and go back with the peel to put the next pizza in.

18) While you are eating pizza # 1, pizza #2 will be baking.  Make sure you pick up a piece to take into the kitchen with you when you go to remove the next pizza – so you get your fair share! You can’t trust hungry guys left alone at a table with pizza.

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