Pizza Day, Part Three: Getting Saucy, and other pursuits
July 30, 2011
First, a musing on the balance of flavors:
Pizzas are, generally, pretty robust affairs; it’s a rare one that I’ve made that trades on subtleties. I wouldn’t call myself a subtle cook – if cooking were painting, I’d cook in big, wet, Post-Impressionist brushstrokes. A recipe calls for two garlic cloves? I’ll use four. Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds? Hardly – I’ll use half a tablespoon. I like working with bigger swatches of flavor, but that doesn’t mean that I neglect the balance of those swatches. And it’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for subtlety. But if I’m going to go to the trouble of cooking for a lot of people, I don’t have time to waste on subtlety – I want to hit them in the tongues with a gustatory hammer: I suppose, sir, I am above all, an American in this, and every regard.
Where am I going with this?
When making a pizza sauce, if you can’t see the herbs, you can’t taste ‘em. Friends of mine ask me what’s in the sauce – because I’ve gone to the trouble of making all that dough, and putting everything together by hand. I wonder if my answer is disappointing: “Well, tomatoes, mostly. Crushed tomatoes in puree, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, black pepper, and a bit of fennel seed.” Yeah. Canned tomatoes. Most of the year, they’re better than anything you can get in a grocery store, and they’re probably not grown by slaves. Do I have a proper recipe? Barely.
Tomato Sauce for Pizza
(sauce for about seven or eight twelve-inch pizzas)
- 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes in puree (don’t scrimp on this – a good can of tomatoes may top $2. oh no, Scrooge McDuck, my heart bleeds for you.)
- Italian Seasoning (a collection of spices including but not limited to rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, and basil)
- garlic powder
- fennel seeds
- black pepper
- kosher salt
- tasting spoon(s, if you’re squeamish/professional)
- Open can of tomatoes. Using a spatula, empty the can’s contents into a large, deep bowl. Prepare a tasting spoon, because it is the most important part of this recipe.
- Add in a full tablespoon of Italian seasoning, a teaspoon of garlic powder, half a teaspoon of fennel seed, and a quarter-teaspoon each of salt and pepper. You may not need the salt at all, depending on the brand of tomatoes – check the label for the sodium content. Mix. Taste.
- If you cannot see the little green flecks from the Italian seasoning, add another tablespoon. Mix and taste again.
- Repeat step three until you are satisfied.
- To sauce a pizza, take a large soup spoon and dip it into your bowl of well-seasoned sauce. Plop the spoonful onto the center of your pizza, and, using the back of the spoon, spread it out in concentric circles, getting as much even coverage as you can until you need another spoonful. Repeat two or three more times, depending on how saucy you like your pizzas. Be careful, though – once, at a pizza party in college, my friend Jim declared, “This needs more sauce!” and emptied half the bowl onto the dough. The pizza came out wet and soggy. Dammit, Jim.
I know I said I didn’t do subtlety well earlier, but I should issue a warning: Pizza will not brook your excesses. Pizza is a vicious god, and requires a gentle touch when it comes to toppings. Pizza is a balancing act between the crust, the sauce, and the toppings; the toppings, despite their prominence, are not The Main Event of a slice. It is all three components in harmony that make for the best ‘za.
As a rule, the thinner you slice your toppings, the better effect they’ll serve. If you can get ahold of pepperoni from the deli, ask them to slice it paper-thin; if you get it in stick form, go ahead and use that mandoline slicer that you got for your birthday and have been afraid to use (the hand guard is ideal for pepperoni!). If you get pepperoni in a bag, well – don’t hurt yourself trying to cut those slices thinner. Don’t worry about it.
Make sure your slices are in small pieces. This may sound elementary, but I’ve seen pizzas whose toppings were not sensibly cut – usually, they were immense pieces of meat. Zac, the amateur-turned-pro pizzaiolo I talked about a few pizza entries ago, would top his pizzas with large chunks of steak and chicken – larger than the bite-size pieces I would have cut had I been eating the toppings off a plate. They were delicious, sure, but they fell off the pizza, onto people’s shirts or the floor – and they were large enough to choke on. So, if you’re going to put meats on your pizzas, slice them thin and cut them small. The same thing goes for something like prosciutto – I don’t like taking a bite of pizza and inadvertently pulling all the toppings off with my teeth.
Top your pizzas with some consideration as to how someone will eat them, not solely on the basis of aesthetics. I’ve noticed this with a lot of sandwich places; a sloppy sandwich is not assembled with a sense of design – you have to approach the making of a sandwich with the end user in mind. It’s no good to make a huge friggin’ Dagwood if you don’t have the hinged jaw of an Anaconda.
You want your pizza to have flavor, but it shouldn’t have a dump-truck’s worth of toppings on it. There’s no fun in that, especially when it all ends up on your clothes.
Three Simple Rules for Topping My Teenage Pizza
- Not too much cheese. For a twelve-inch pizza, use half a cup to a scant cup of shredded cheese. A scant cup, approximately 7.5 oz, is going to be a pretty heavy covering.
- Not too much sauce. Use about a quarter cup, total, per pizza: approximately 2 ounces.
- Not too much anything else, either. Your total topping volume should amount to about a half cup, or four ounces. Leave overstuffed pizzas to a crust that can take it – I don’t want to eat my thin-crust pizza with a fork. We’ll get to deep-dish pizzas eventually, and it’s then that you can go nuts: pile it on, my gluttonous brother!
If you can keep it delicate, you can get, dare I say it, kind of subtle, like this fig, duck, and tarragon pizza I made at a pizza block party in the East Bay (thanks, Chris and Carol, for the duck leg!).
And if you’re feeling especially adventurous, you could always attempt the ambitious pizza al frutti di mare, or, if you prefer, the squizza.
This needs a different sort of sauce, in my mind, and it takes a little time, and a little classical knowhow. It also takes shrimp heads.
An adventurous treat for the pie-curious
For the shrimp velouté (up to four days prior to making the pizza):
- 1 lb shrimp heads and shells
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 2 Tbsp flour
- 3 cups of water
- black pepper
- cayenne pepper
- 2 oz dry vermouth
For the toppings (the day of making the pizza:
- 3 oz cleaned squid, cut into rings or tentacle bits
- a touch of garlic
- some salt
- 2 oz pre-cooked salad shrimp (the tiny kind)
- 5 oz mozzarella
- half a lemon
A velouté, in classical French cuisine, is a stock thickened with roux. We want to make a somewhat thicker velouté, so we can sauce the pizza with it once it’s cool and somewhat set up. See, you’ve probably heard this a bajillion times, but as you cook the roux, the starch granules in the flour gelatinize and spring open and, erm, basically capture water. Don’t hit me, Harold McGee.
Usually this would be done with chicken stock, or a veal stock. But you know what, if you can find shrimp heads or shrimp shells, I say go nuts and experiment.
The Heist (the sauce part)
- Thinly slice 2 cloves of garlic. Heat 1 tsp of olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium, and when the oil is hot, add them in, stir for about 30 seconds, and add the shrimp heads and shells. Let this cook over medium heat for about five minutes, until everything turns nice and pink, and the heady aroma of shrimp fills your kitchen (NB: if you do not like shrimp, or its scent, do not attempt this recipe – at least not without a fume hood. It is odorous.)
- When the shells and heads have gotten nice and blushy, pour the three cups of water over them, bring to a simmer, and cook for about ten minutes. Then kill the heat.
- Meanwhile, in a much smaller saucepan or skillet, begin making the roux: melt the butter, and stir in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat, until the roux is incorporated into a blondish paste. Don’t overcook it, because we’re going for thickening power, not flavor, here. Once it has reached a sort of tawny beige, kill the heat and let it cool down.
- Carefully strain the shrimp bits out of the stock by pouring it through a strainer into a bowl, and then back again into the pot. Return to the heat, bring to a simmer, and carefully stir in the roux, using a spatula to get it all out of the little pan.
- Whisk the sauce as it simmers until everything is incorporated. Add the vermouth and the other seasonings to taste. Let it cook over gentle heat until the liquid gets viscous enough to coat the back of a spoon (which is the classical metric for judging a thickened sauce’s doneness).
- Let the sauce cool, put it in a tupperware container, and leave it alone, up to four or five days, until you are ready for…
The Other Heist (the pizza part)
- When you’re ready to make the pizza (refer to this entry for more elaborate instructions on that), prep your oven and your dough. Take your dough round and top it with a few spoonfuls of now-cooled shrimp sauce. Sprinkle on the cheese. Throw it in the nice, hot oven.
- Slice the squid and set it aside. You may also slice some garlic, if you wish – one or two clovesworth.
- When half the cooking time has elapsed, about six minutes, take the pizza out of the oven, toss on the (pre-cooked) teensy salad shrimp, and throw it back in the oven.
- While that’s going on, heat some oil in a skillet on the stove. Add the optional garlic and cook briefly, before adding the squid. Cook over high heat until the squid firms up and turns opaque, about 45 seconds to a minute. Kill the heat and salt the squid very gently.
- When the pizza is ready, remove it from the oven, and distribute the freshly-cooked squid on top (I didn’t have you put it in there with the shrimp because squid is notoriously finicky – it’d be a shame to rubberize it, but even worse to undercook it).
- Let the pizza rest a bit, squeeze lemon over it, and serve with additional lemon slices.
I would be surprised if it lasts five minutes. The pizza had barely been cut before I managed to take this picture; in another 45 seconds it was gone – that’s why there are so many slices: everyone wanted to try it.
P.S. Everyone should check out my friend Heather’s blog over at the Minimum-Wage Hedonist; we’ll probably be cross-linking in the coming weeks and months, because her food ethos is pretty similar to mine (for God’s sake, it’s in her title), and she is, barre none, the cleverest and best baker I know.