Pizza Day, Part One: The Essentials

Carolyn's Kielbasa-Plum pizza.  There'll be many dispatches from the War on Pizza as we continue this series.
Once a month, I throw a pizza party at my apartment.  I used to do it every single Friday in college; by this point, I’ve probably used up twice my body weight in flour over the past three years – ask my old roommates and they’d probably corroborate that figure.  From 2009 to 2011, I probably made around 300 pizzas, give or take a dozen – and I feel that’s a respectable number for someone who hasn’t made a business out of making pizza.  Well.  I call it respectable.  You might call it absurd, obssessive, or somewhat obscene.  Tomato, tomahto.

Here’s how it worked: I’d make enough dough for eight to twelve pizzas late Friday morning or in the early afternoon (I didn’t have a whole lot of classes on Fridays), let it rise all day while I did homework, errands, or grocery shopping – then, around 4 PM, my friends would come over for our writing workshop – we’d critique our own stories, read the stories of published writers, and argue about them, while drinking cocktails and maybe nibbling a foccacia.  Then, at 7, everyone would set about making pizzas – the rule was that you had to bring something to put on the pizza, or failing that, a few bucks to throw in for my sake.

Then I graduated from college, most of my friends moved to New York, and I moved to Chicago.  My Chicago friends and I had all sorts of different things to do on Friday nights (seriously, you guys have no idea how much easier scheduling a D&D game or a weekly party was in college.) – I could no longer do weekly pizza nights, nor did I want to.  But when I learned that my high school friend Daniel was suddenly moving to Hawaii, some well-worn subroutine kicked into drive and I said, “Hey!  Let’s send him off with a pizza party at my place.”  This seemed to be a good idea, so I elaborated: “Everyone brings a topping.  Try to be as crazy as you possibly can.”  Eli brought pears and goat cheese.  Carolyn brought mangoes and fennel.  Julia brought Spam.

So the tradition was resurrected.  Then I met another Chicago-area amateur pizzaiolo, Zac, who was turning pro – my friend Erica hosted a party to advertise his new pizza catering business (you call Zac, Zac shows up with dough and toppings, and he uses your kitchen to make pizzas for your party.  Then he cleans up your kitchen, takes your check, and leaves.  He makes a fine pizza, and it doesn’t hurt his business model that he’s pretty cute, too – the girls just gather in the kitchen and coo.).  I sat in Erica’s kitchen and just stared, watching him work, soaking it all in.  He ages his dough for a day or two; he cooks the pizza at the hottest possible temperature.  He doesn’t toss the dough, he stretches it.  I synthesized some (but not all) of his technique into mine, and I think, after several years of pizza-crafting, I’ve come up with a good dough recipe – one that isn’t difficult to put together, one that doesn’t require specialized technique to pull off, and isn’t any messier than baking cookies.

I scoff at the purported impossibility of recreating a good pizza in the home kitchen without an incredibly expensive battérie de cuisine.  You don’t need a wood-fired oven.  You don’t need a pizza stone.  You don’t even need a pizza peel.  Those things can help, sure!  I use a pizza stone about half the time.

Food writers have been hunting for the ideal home pizza, at the insistence of their editors, for at least a decade now.  Jeffrey Steingarten almost burnt a friend’s house down trying to disable the lock on an oven’s self-clean cycle.  That wacky fellow, Steve Raichlen, as well as many others, advocate grilling pizza, which works just fine.  Mark Bittman recommended giving a pan-fried pizza a shot (I’ve tried it!  It’s fun!).  Now, let me be fair to Mr. Steingarten – he was trying for a neapolitan-style pizza cooked in an absurdly-hot coal-fired oven (we’re talking thousands of degrees Fahrenheit); he was trying to recreate that toothy, chewy texture.  We’re not going for that.  We’re not making that kind of pizza – I think the closest you’ll be able to get to that is the grilled kind.  Look – nobody expects you to be able to make a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse porterhouse steak, the kind thrown into a 2000-degree oven for, like, 45 seconds, at home.  But you can make a perfectly good porterhouse that tastes just as good without a jet engine in your kitchen.  The same thing is true of this kind of pizza.  If you want to make a wood-fired oven in your backyard, feel free.  You already know what you’re doing.

For the rest of us, however, who live in apartments or don’t have the money or inclination to build a stone oven behind our homes, the regular household oven, set to 500 degrees, will have to suffice.

The “secret”, if it is one, to my dough, is the inclusion of semolina flour, which is what you use to make pasta.  It’s a coarse-grained flour made from durum wheat.  It’s about as expensive as whole-wheat flour – maybe a dollar a pound.  You shouldn’t have to upturn heaven and earth to find it – my neighborhood market had some Ziyad-brand semolina, and it’s worked out great.  It’s also about $1.50 for a 2-pound bag, which is a better deal than you’re going to get for rice, for a starter.  The point is, semolina is neither obscure nor expensive, which is why I will insist upon no substitutions.  Stop whining and find it – if you can’t find any in your neighborhood, leave a comment, tell me where you live, and I’ll find it for you.  I’ll stop short of actually purchasing it for you, though.

I use steel mesh pizza pans, which I got for about 6 bucks apiece at a restaurant supply store.  I also got a few serving trays at a resale shop in Seattle.  There’s no reason, however, that you couldn’t make these pizzas on cookie sheets, jelly roll pans, or any other flat piece of metal you can stick in your oven.  Cast-iron skillets are fun, but not really worth it unless you heat them to blazing on the stove first.

Here’s your absolute essential equipment list for pizza:

  • An oven
  • A large steel bowl
  • A cookie sheet
  • A knife, for cutting and serving

And maybe

  • A rolling pin

But that’s pushing it.

Here’s your non-essential but kind of fun additions list:

  • Pizza pans
  • A pizza stone or flat nontoxic paving rock
  • A pizza-cutter (a thing I do not possess)

You probably don’t have a pizza stone or pizza pans.  But that’s okay!  You do not need them.  I’ve made pizzas in a half-dozen kitchens without any of that crap, and the pizzas came out great – the pizza pans just make the dough a little easier to shape into a perfect circle, the pizza stone just crisps the bottom a bit and shortens cooking time.  The pizza cutter?  You probably have one.  I don’t.  Screw pizza cutters.

Pizza Dough
Makes two pizzas, feeds 3 or 4 people, if you give ‘em a nice salad, too.

The Set-Up

(per two pizzas)

  • 2 cups All-Purpose flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp active-dry yeast
  • 1 cup water plus 2 tbsp
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

The Heist
A day or two before you intend to eat the pizza:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients (including the yeast).  Mix with your hands until well-incorporated.I do so like the way semolina whispers into the bowl - it's such a pleasant sound.
  2. Measure out the water and olive oil.
  3. Make a well with your hands in the dry ingredients, and pour the water into that well, then add the olive oil.  You add the oil second because you don’t want it to clump up with the flour and not distribute itself evenly through the dough.Glub.
  4. Begin folding the dry ingredients up from the bottom of the bowl into the wet – scoop up from the bottom of the bowl with an open hand and fold over.  Fold, mix, and knead, until the dough is just shy of sticky.  Add another teaspoon of water or two if it’s still a little dry, but be patient; give it a good five minutes of mixing before you do that.  Then!  Knead it until it’s smooth – punch it, knock it, play with it, roll it around in the bowl while you listen to the radio or watch a cartoon or talk to someone (in person or on speakerphone – you won’t have much luck holding the phone to your ear while kneading – I suppose there is always the bluetooth headset, but let’s not scale Dork Mountain unless we have to.) for ten minutes.It should go from this... ... to this.
  5. Let the dough rise – oil the bowl, oil the dough, and let it sit for, at minimum, an hour and a half, if you intend to cook it that day.  If you’re aging the dough, cover the bowl with a plastic bag and throw it straight into the fridge.  Forget about it for a day or two.  If it gets a bit too puffy, just punch it down.Punch it, Bandit!
    The day you make the pizza
  6. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F – if you’re using a pizza stone, place it on the bottom rack of the oven.
  7. Separate the dough into equally-sized balls.  (I’ll devote an entire post to the technique of rolling out the dough, so never fear if this sounds a little brief.)  Let the balls of dough rise for at least half an hour.
  8. On a floured surface, flatten the balls into rounds and roll out with a rolling pin, continually flipping the dough for even thickness.  Dust off the surface flour and lay on a baking tray or pizza pan.I'll be doing a more in-depth entry on dough-handling, simply because I don't have enough photos of dough-rolling to support it right now.
  9. Top your pizza with sauce, cheese, and toppings (and, again, there will be a separate entry detailing the science of these).I believe these are... Irina's hands.
  10. Put the pizza into the oven, and bake for approximately 13 to 15 minutes, depending on desired doneness and crispness.  If you wish, you may cook two pizzas at once in the oven, with one on the bottom rack and one in the middle – make sure to switch them halfway through for even cooking.
  11. Remove pizzas from oven and allow to cool and set for at least three minutes before cutting and serving – the cheese will coagulate a bit, and you’ll be the better for it because the pizza won’t collapse all over your hands in a searing, melting glob.  Trust me, please.  If you don’t trust me, trust my scars.Mushroom and... salami, I believe.  This was one of mine.

There will be a number of posts on pizza.  I will be elaborating further on pizza technique in subsequent posts, as well as updates from the trenches (what toppings are my friends bringing to the parties?  How does one throw such a party anyhow?), but I figure the dough recipe is the one you’ll be returning to – if you’re interested enough to make a pizza, you probably already know what you want to put on it.

Happy eating!


6 thoughts on “Pizza Day, Part One: The Essentials

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