January 14, 2012
And its multifarious uses!
I adore mushrooms. I love shiitakes stir-fried with strips of flank steak, I love the earthy funk of fresh morels in cream sauce, I love porcini-and-pea risotto – I even love the unjustly-maligned white button mushroom (which is, you may not be aware, the exact same thing as a brown crimini or portobello mushroom – they’re all agaricus bisporus, and they don’t taste different in the slightest.).
I also love that my parents have a membership at Costco, where rather large quantities of dried mushrooms can be had for not too much money. They recently picked up a big ol’ jar for me, at my request, since I’d used up most of the Chinese Black Mushrooms (same species as the shiitake, Lenintula edodes) that my friend Allison gave to me as a host present. Thanks, Allison! They were delightful, and giving people dried mushrooms is the best tradition.
12 B M G F l a t b r e a d
Berkshire bacon, mushroom, goat cheese
There’s no way that could be bad! And of course, it wasn’t. There were chunks of cooked mushroom, little batons of bacon, and half-teaspoon-sized dots of goat cheese – and simply typing that makes me salivate. But the interesting part was the smell. Cooked, fresh mushrooms don’t have a particularly intense flavor most of the time. It’s the dried mushrooms that have that intense, musty flavor. There was, I noticed, a dusty coating on the flatbread. I asked the waitress, “Is this powdered mushroom?” and she was like, “Good eye, yes it is!”
So that was one of those things that I tried and immediately knew I wanted to steal.
Not exactly a spice, not exactly a condiment
You will need:
- 1 cup (by volume) of dried shiitake mushrooms (or other dried mushrooms, but shiitakes are relatively inexpensive)
- A clean and odorless coffee or spice grinder
1. In batches, grind the mushrooms into a rough powder, and gradually add in the mushrooms until they’re all ground up, and continue to process until they become a relatively fine powder. You could grind them into a superfine, almost cakey powder, if you wanted, but I think you’d have to add salt (the added agitation of the salt helps grind other, softer stuff).
2. Put the resulting powder into a bowl – you should have, by volume, about a half-cup. Store in a tightly-lidded plastic container, out of direct sunlight, for a few weeks to a month or so. Whole dried mushrooms have a shelf life of about half a year before they start to lose a lot of their flavor, so I figure the ceiling on this powder is maybe two months.
It won’t last that long, however, because once you make a batch of this stuff, you’ll want to put it on everything, like…
You will need:
- 4 parts mushroom powder
- 2 parts kosher salt
- 1 part black pepper
- a large, heavy pot with a lid
1. Combine the mushroom powder, the salt, and the pepper in your spice grinder and process until everything turns into a fine powder. For a half-cup (unpopped) serving of popcorn, I’d use 2 teaspoons of mushroom powder, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 1/2 a teaspoon of pepper (and feel free to use the whole peppercorns here – they’re getting scrunched up anyhow)
When combined, it’ll look kinda like this:
That is, rather like sawdust and pencil shavings. Never fear, though; this stuff is delicious.
2. Get some potholders ready. Heat a few teaspoons of oil in your heavy pot, measure out your popcorn (more than 1/2 a cup of unpopped kernels in a 6-quart pot will result in I Love Lucy-esque overflow hijinks, so be forewarned.), and stir briskly over high heat for a minute or so, until the kernels begin to turn opaque.
3. When this happens, cover the pot, and wait for the sound of popping kernels. At this point, take hold of the pot’s handles with your potholders, and shake the pot vigorously, making sure it stays in contact with the heat. Don’t shake it up and down, just side to side. Give it a good shake at least once every ten to fifteen seconds so nothing gets stuck on the bottom.
4. When the space between pops exceeds, oh, 10 seconds or so, turn off the heat, and let the pot stay covered for about a minute to protect yourself from rogue poppers. Then decant into a large bowl, and from a relatively high height, sprinkle the mushroom seasoning mixture over it, and toss until coated and tasty. You probably won’t need any additional oil to make the mixture adhere to the popcorn, since the grains are so small they’ll fit in the nooks and crannies of the popped kernels. Health food!
I guess lots of upmarket restaurants, at least in Chicago, are giving out pre-dinner popcorn instead of bread. Graham Elliot is known for it, and so is decorated newcomer Ruxbin. It makes sense. Popcorn is cheap, not particularly labor-intensive, and easier to customize on the fly than bread is. It’s also less filling than bread, but it takes as long to eat. Graham Elliot does theirs with parmesan and truffle oil; Ruxbin does it with furikake. I’d like to put my mushroom popcorn right up against theirs. I also love to douse popcorn in garlic oil, but we’ll get to that.
If popcorn’s not your speed, then allow me to return to a Clean Platter standby: Macaroni and Cheese!
A recipe identical to the Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese, with emendations in bold text.
- 1 stalk of celery
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1/4 of a medium onion – about 1/4 cup, chopped
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup milk, any type of fat (I used skim and it was fine.)
- 3 ounces, by weight, grated/dry mexican cotija cheese (or parmesan)
- 2 to 4 tablespoons mushroom powder
- 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional but awesome; I didn’t have any fresh on hand)
- 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
- a 2-quart saucepan
- a 6-quart pasta pot
- a colander
Prepare identically to the Essential Stovetop recipe:
1. Dice the celery, garlic, and onion; measure your milk, cheese, fat, and flour. Slice the mushrooms.
2. Start heating the pasta water.
3. Melt the butter in the 2-quart saucepan and cook the celery, garlic, and onion until soft, 5-7 minutes. Add in the flour and mix into a paste over medium heat, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Add the milk a little at a time, and stir vigorously but not extravagantly, until all traces of roux-lumps are gone. Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is pleasantly thickened. Reduce heat to low.
5. Add in the mushroom powder, stir, and taste. Don’t add any salt, because the cheese is plenty salty.
6. Yeah! Add the cotija or parmesan cheese. High-five the person nearest you. Kill the heat, stir to combine.
7. Cook the sliced mushrooms in oil over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until they’ve lost most of their liquid, shrunk, and browned. Cook in a single layer.
8. Cook the macaroni in the boiling, salted water, and cook until al dente – then drain and incorporate into the cheese sauce. Add the mushrooms, stir to combine, and serve.
But with tasty chunks of mushroom on top.
Anyway. I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a version of Volo’s bacon, mushroom, and goat cheese flatbread, but with an addition of my own – garlic oil!
You will need:
- a head of garlic or two
- a cup of good-quality olive oil
- a clear plastic squeeze bottle – these should usually cost about 1 to 2 bucks.
- a small saucepan.
1. First, separate and peel all the cloves of garlic and, once peeled, tumble them into a saucepan. Fill the pan with oil to cover the garlic, and put it on the stove over low heat – at the barest simmer. You don’t want to really cook the oil here; you want to heat it enough to soften up the garlic, but you want to keep the oil as bright-tasting as you can.
2. Let it go for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the kitchen smells magnificent. Hot olive oil smells surprisingly fruity, so you may find yourself sniffing around for an unexpected banana (like ya do).
3. Once the garlic is soft, remove it with a slotted spoon. Let the oil cool off, and then pour it into a measuring cup, then a squeeze bottle. Keep it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
4. Do something wonderful with the oil-poached garlic cloves. Slather them on a toasted baguette, eat them plain, throw them into a batch of mashed potatoes, dab them behind your ears – I don’t care. They’re going to be delicious, whatever you do.
Bacon, Mushroom, and Goat Cheese Flatbread with Garlic Oil
Makes either 2 full-size pizzas or 4 little flatbreads
You will need:
- A recipe of pizza dough
- Garlic oil (see above)
- Mushroom powder (see above)
- a 4-ounce log of goat cheese
- 4 ounces of bacon, cut into little sticks
- 4 ounces of mushrooms, sliced thin.
1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Cut your dough into either two or four balls, depending on your preference, and roll them out; place them on an oiled baking sheet.
2. In a small skillet, cook the bacon over low heat until cooked through but not crispy. Reserve the bacon, and cook the sliced mushrooms in the fat until they give off their liquid and turn brown. Take off the heat and place in a bowl.
3. Drizzle each flatbread with a teaspoon or so of garlic oil, then dot them with bacon pieces, mushrooms, and half-teaspoons of goat cheese. Dust generously with mushroom powder!
4. Bake in the 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the dough is crisp and brown around the edges. Let cool for two minutes, then cut and serve.
Well. I think that’s enough for one day, don’t you?
August 12, 2011
It was at Volo in Roscoe Village where Carolyn and I beheld an exceedingly awkward first date: he was a public servant, she was a Tea Party equity manager. He smiled at her blandly, steering the conversation away from politics in an attempt to be civil. She, upon learning that he worked for the government, snarkily retorted, “oh, so you’re part of the problem.” Despite agreeing to meet him at a wine bar, she confessed not just an ignorance of (which would be forgivable), but a disdain for wine. He had traveled to France during Beaujolais season. You can see where my sympathies lay. Waiting for the check, Carolyn and I completely ignored each other to eavesdrop on this date. I gamely pretended to listen as she gamely pretended to comment on the attractiveness of the hydrangeas. But really, who were we kidding? Carolyn wanted to give the guy a pep talk while the girl was in the bathroom, but she never got the chance. I also think the pep talk would have largely been, “Run for your life, handsome lawyer guy!” Watching their awkward meal was the highlight of ours.
However! The second highlight of the meal was the meal, during which we were served a fabulous flatbread, bursting with verdant power, punch and perspicacity; the perfect pairing for pinot noir. Yes, friends: a springtime flatbread. A flatbread that was a paean to pea. It was a smallish, pizza-like disc of dough, slathered with a dollop of shockingly-green pea puree, slightly buttery peas, pea shoots, garlic, and little curlicues of Manchego. It was as appealing to the eye as it was to the palate. Nibbling a piece, I said to Carolyn. “It can’t be too difficult to make this at home.”
And it is not!
Essence of Springtime Pea-Puree Flatbread
makes four flatbreads, which is a cheery main course for four people, or a pleasant first course for eight.
Equipment you will require:
- one saucepan
- an oven
- a food processor
- baking sheets
- a spatula
For the flatbread:
- 1 recipesworth of pizza dough, or enough for two pizzas.
- 1 lb frozen peas (or, oo! Fresh! If you can get them, and it is springtime, and you are lucky)
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 Tbsp butter – one Tbsp out on your work area, the other reserved in the freezer
- a touch of crushed red pepper flakes
- a lemon
- a hunk of hard, fragrant cheese, like Parmesan, Romano, or Manchego
- a handful of spunky salad greens, like mâche or arugula (or pea shoots!)
- 5 to 10 mint leaves, depending on your preference and their size (optional)
- Having made, risen, and rested your dough, form it into four small, equally-proportioned balls and let them sit under a kitchen towel for half an hour while you preheat the oven to 450 and prep everything else.
- Cut the top of the bag of peas – I assume you are using shelled frozen peas (get the sweetest kind you can!) for this recipe. Otherwise, y’know – shell, wash, and weigh out a pound of fresh peas, and lucky you for acquiring them! Slice the garlic thinly, and melt the one tablespoon of butter in a saucepan. When it has all melted, add the garlic and cook over medium to gentle heat, stirring continuously, for thirty seconds to a minute.
- When the garlic is fragrant, add the peas, frozen or not, straight into the saucepan, and stir until they are A) thawed, B) fragrant, C) soft, D) cooked through, or E) all of the above.
- Remove 3/4ths of the peas from the saucepan and put them in the workbowl of your food processor. Puree it finely, and, here’s the fun part – add in that frozen butter! If you want,you can cube it up really small before you freeze it, or after you freeze it, or not at all. This is sort of a takeoff on the traditional monté au beurre. Sort of. Not at all. The idea behind a monté au beurre is that you add a chunk of cold butter to a finished sauce to give it body and sheen, as the butter emulsifies the sauce. The principle is the same here – the cold butter will give the pea puree a little more body and shiny pleasantness.
- Season with salt, pepper, and the red pepper flakes, until it is DELICIOUS.
- Roll out the dough with a rolling pin, a tiny dowel, or by tossing it in the air like a champ. Lay it on the baking sheet or pizza pan. Now throw the rounds into the oven until they’re lightly browned – about six minutes. Remove the pans from the oven, dose with three or four spoonfuls of the puree, a few spoonfuls of unpureed peas, and a few shavings of cheese. Then throw it back into the oven again for another four or five minutes, until the puree is heated through and the cheese, while not the melting sort, should have begun to perspire a little.
- Finish the flatbreads with the greens, and either a little fresh lemon zest, a fairy-dusting of torn mint leaves, or a combination of the two (let it be known that both of these additions were Carolyn’s ideas. And fine ideas they are). Let them cool, cut them into segments, and serve to a grateful public.
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.
May 29, 2011
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
- 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.
Makes two pizzas, feeds 3 or 4 people, if you give ‘em a nice salad, too.
(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
A day or two before you intend to eat the pizza:
- In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients (including the yeast). Mix with your hands until well-incorporated.
- Measure out the water and olive oil.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The day you make the pizza
- Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F – if you’re using a pizza stone, place it on the bottom rack of the oven.
- 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.
- 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.
- Top your pizza with sauce, cheese, and toppings (and, again, there will be a separate entry detailing the science of these).
- 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.
- 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.
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.