Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Making Your Own Pizza

Last night, Jeff and I made pizzas. One was tomato, mozzarella, broccoli, and garlic, the other was feta, spinach, olive and carmelized onion. Fantastic!

If you've never tried it before, making your own pizza is much simpler and faster than you'd think. The "hardest" part about making pizza at home--for those who've never done it before--is making the crust. I put "hardest" in quotes because, although making crust DOES require some practice and experience, it is actually incredibly simple. Many people who have never done it before are intimidated and think it must be hard. There's no need to be a frightened, little chickie. With practice, you can get results in your own oven that rival, or even surpass, take-out and restaurant pizzas... at a fraction of the cost.

For this recipe you will need some yeast, flour, olive oil, salt and whatever you want to put on top of your pizza: tomato sauce, cheese, favorite toppings and spices (oregano, crushed red pepper, rosemary, basil and whatever other Italian spices you like, dried or fresh).

Lots of recipes will tell you that you need special equipment to make pizza at home: a baking stone, a pizza peel, etc. Those things are certainly very nice but I think it's possible to get great results with nothing but what I've listed above, a baking pan and an oven. That's all you need to get started.

The process of making pizza takes several hours, about 15 minutes of which are actual work.

Begin by putting about one cup of room temperature water in a big bowl. Dissolve a teaspoon of sugar in it, then dissolve your yeast in there too (one package or one and a half teaspoons of yeast). Then stir in one cup of your flour.

There. You've just made the "madre" or "mother" of the dough. You just gotta wait now til mamma's ready. You should wait at least fifteen minutes til the mixture is bubbly and yeasty smelling, but I've found that the longer you wait with this step, the tastier the pizza crust can be. This is a great step to do in the morning before you head to work or whatever. Then proceed with the rest of the recipe in the evening when you get home.

When your "madre" is ready, stir in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of olive oil, and then about* three cups of flour. Stir the dough together until it forms one mass and then transfer it to a clean counter that you've sprinkled with a little bit of flour. Begin kneading it: press it hard against the counter with the heel of your hand, stretching the dough, give it a quarter turn and then repeat. Do this for about five to eight minutes.

*(This is the part that takes some practice: recognizing how much flour to put into the dough, how much is too much and how much is too little. Variations in types of flour, the humidity of your kitchen, the temperature, etc. will all effect your dough. You just have to learn to recognize what the dough should look and feel like. After you knead it a bit, the dough should come together as a non-sticky, pliable smooth mass, like Play Dough. If it seems dry, stiff and shaggy, you'll need to a add a bit more water. If it's a wet sticky mess, you need to add more flour. Just remember, getting it right takes time and practice. And remember that pizza crust is very forgiving, so even if you haven't gotten the proportions perfectly right, your results at the end will probably be okay, as long as you got close. Like Woody Allen famously said: Sex is like pizza. Even when it's really bad, it's still pretty good).

Now put the dough back in your big bowl, pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil on it and toss it around in the bowl so that the outside of the dough is evenly coated with the oil. (This is to make sure the dough doesn't dry out during its rising). Cover the bowl with a clean, damp wash cloth (make sure the cloth doesn't droop down and touch the dough... it will stick). Place in a warm place to rise (the oven, turned off with the light on is usually perfect) for an hour to an hour and a half.

There. You're done with the hard part. That wasn't so scary, was it?

While that's rising is a good time to get your sauce and toppings ready. I like to arrange them on a cutting board or plate because you'll have to work kinda fast once you're ready to assemble the pizza.

(Here's a great tip for you that took me years to learn. What's the best sauce to use? I've been making pizza for years and I've tried every type of tomato sauce from fancy gourmet jars to Ragu to homemade with fresh garden tomatoes. Which is the best? What spices are best to add to the sauce? You won't believe me, but the best sauce, the one that will earn you the most oo's and ah's is plain old Crushed Plum Tomatoes (not sauce, just the tomatoes) straight from the can. Try it, you'll see).

Select a baking pan for your pizza. If you have some sort of stone or clayware baking pan, that's great, if not metal is fine. Use what you would use to make cookies: something long and flat, ie pizza sized. Don't worry if it's square or rectangular. I promise: square pizza taste just as good as round.

When the dough is done rising (it should be bigger and poofy-looking), remove it from the oven. Preheat the oven. The hotter the better. If your oven goes to 500 degrees that's good. Professional pizza ovens can get up to about 1000 degrees. Obviously there's no way you'll get your home oven that hot, but it just shows you that you need a HOT oven for good results. If you have a convection or intensive baking setting, now is the time to use it.

Once the oven is preheated, put your baking pan into the oven with nothing on it. You're preheating the pan so the bottom of the crust will get all crispy and yummy, not soggy.

Roll out your dough on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin or wine bottle or such. If you'd like you can try tossing it up in the air, a la Luigi. This gets air into the crust, and technically stretching the dough this way rather than rolling it is correct and yields better results. (But I find that a rolling pin works fine: it's certainly faster... and easier for the non-professional. And you don't risk dropping your hard work onto the floor!).

When the pan is good and hot remove it from the oven with a pair of oven mitts. Place it on a burn-proof surface or oven mitt on a counter.

Now... QUICKLY!!... Assemble your pizza. Throw your dough onto the pan. Again, you're not looking for perfection: little folds or slightly uneven dough, weird shapes are fine.

Spread on some olive oil, then the sauce, sprinkle with a little salt, toss on your toppings and cheese, sprinkle on your herbs and then slam it back into the oven. Keep an eye on it. I find that eight to ten minutes is usually about right. You'll know when it's done: it'll smell awesome and it will look, well, like pizza.

Remove from the oven, slide it onto a wooden cutting board if you can, cut and enjoy!!

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