Saturday, April 19, 2008

Weekend Pizza (At Home)

My little tribute to the amazing and gone-too-soon California pizza chef Ed LaDou generated a few requests for elaboration on the strategies we use to make pizzas at home, but we were in a transitional period between dough recipes at the time, and I didn't want to make any recommendations until we had a result we were thoroughly happy with. After additional experimentation and a successful round of pies last weekend I think we're there, so here we go.

First off, making pizzas at home is easy, and fun, and is a terrific family activity because the kids can choose their own toppings, work their own dough and really get into the mix of things. Unlike, say, carving a turkey or rendering a batch of pork fat. There's no crying in pizza, as long as you keep the little ones away from the oven, and we've found this meal to be a great and casual option for ourselves or when we are hosting small groups of relatives or neighborhood friends.

We have experimented with a number of dough recipes, and the best ones all have one thing in common - they require this special combination of flour, water and other key ingredients to spend at least one night together, "resting" in the refrigerator. Yes, this extra time and lack of spontaneity really is worth it.

For many years we stuck with the "basic" and the honey wheat dough recipes in the California Pizza Kitchen Cookbook - and they were both very good. Then a foodie friend of ours sniffed at the idea that we were building our majestic pies on a foundation prescribed by two lawyers from LA who had launched what was, essentially, the McDonald's of pizza-land. Appropriately disgraced, we went looking for something a little more serious and substantial.

And we found it on the Web in a recipe by renowned baker Peter Reinhart. We make both the plain/white dough he outlines and also a wheat version we've customized to our own liking. The plain/white is perfect for red sauce, the wheat works very well with assorted "healthy" toppings like roasted chicken, spinach, mushrooms, caramelized onions, goat cheese or dollops of ricotta.

If you follow Reinhart's recipe exactly, right before you decide to scrap the pizza idea and rip your teeth out you will have been tortured by a number of very specific steps - chill the flour before using it, cut the dough into little individual pie-sized pieces before it rises, chant leavening mantras over the bowl while beating a small drum and burning eucalyptus leaves. I'm not sure how much of that is really necessary, we prefer a simple and streamlined approach.

You will need:

4 1/2 cups of unbleached white flour (we like King Arthur or Gold Medal "Harvest King")

1 3/4 teaspoons of salt

1/4 cup of good olive oil

1 teaspoon of instant yeast (sometimes this is called "rapid rise" yeast - it is NOT "active dry yeast," which is typically found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, and needs to be activated with warm water and some kind of sugar before it will work)

1 3/4 cups of cold water

Combine the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and the water and stir with a spoon until the mixture becomes clumpy and impossible to move without causing permanent damage to your carpal tunnel region, then ditch the spoon and get your hands in there to knead the dough for a good five to seven minutes - until the ingredients are integrated and able to be formed into a dense ball. Drizzle a little olive oil into the palm of one hand, use it to coat the ball evenly and place into a glass bowl with enough room for your creation to double in size. Cover with plastic wrap and put into the refrigerator overnight. Now stop thinking about pizza for the rest of the day. Go make a salad or something.

The "healthier" wheat version of this dough uses the same ingredients and technique as outlined above, except we start with a mix of 3 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups of white. We like King Arthur Traditional Whole Wheat Flour. This is a sliding scale, and if you wanted to amp down on the rusticity you could use 1 or even 2 cups of whole wheat flour and the rest white - just find a way to get to 4 1/2 cups in total. This also provides a good opportunity to get all Cyberchase with the kids by involving them in complex math calculations. "So if Hacker uses 1 3/4 cups of wheat flour, how many cups of..."

The above recipe will make enough dough for probably 4 to 6 small/medium-sized pizzas, so plan accordingly, depending on how many people you are feeding. We usually make a batch of each kind so we can experiment with a variety of pies and either freeze whatever is left over in Ziploc bags or just throw it on the pizza stone to make a nice hunk of bread for later in the day or even the next morning. One basic rule applies here, especially given the effort and one-day delay - don't run out of dough. There's probably no greater sin than filling your house with people who have been promised home-made pizza, only to wind up apologizing profusely and searching for the number to Domino's.

Here's a little photo progression illustrating the wheat dough preparation.

[Dry ingredients, mixed, waiting for the water and olive oil.]

[This is about as far as you'll get with a spoon, time to get your hands into that bowl. Recently washed, right? We're not looking for incidental flavor enhancements here.]

[Punch the dough down along the sides of the bowl, then flip it over and repeat. This is a good way to integrate all the dry remnants into the mass.]

[After five to seven minutes of poking and prodding, you'll get to this.]

[Covered in a bit of olive oil and ready for bed, i.e. a night in refrigerated lock-down.]

Once the dough has spent the night rising slowly in cold isolation, it is basically fair game. You can use it that day or the day after that, but if you plan to wait longer you should probably freeze it - there is no warranty expressed or implied in these time estimates, we always make our pizzas the next day.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator about two hours before you are going to use it, you can punch it down at this point and fold it back over on itself, reforming the ball - it will rise again while it comes back to room temperature. When you are ready to start forming your own individual pizzas just use a knife to hack the mound apart into whatever size you feel comfortable working with. You can't get this wrong, seriously. Have a little extra flour on hand to dust the individual pieces, which will make them easier to work with, and then just pull and push and cajole the dough into thin circles, the flatter the better.

About an hour before you want to fire up the first pie, put a pizza stone in your oven and set it to 500 degrees. This is important - you have to give the stone time to absorb the heat for more than just a few minutes before you try to cook on it. Don't burn the house down (again, no warranty expressed or implied), 45 minutes to an hour is fine.

Now onto the toppings. As I said above, we really make two basic kinds of pies. Red sauce, featuring our favorite Sunday Sauce, on plain/white dough with shredded mozzarella cheese (and a little grated Locatelli sprinkled on top), and wheat dough varieties that feature a much wider array of toppings. Our favorites on this canvas include pieces of roasted chicken, sauteed spinach and mushrooms, caramelized onions, clumps of goat cheese, ricotta and, of course, mozzarella. Roasted red peppers actually make a great topping on either base. Ava isn't a big fan of red sauce, so she loves when we make pizza at home because she gets to have just dough (either kind) with cheese - which is actually a nice option, although she yells at you if you try to steal one of "her" slices. Lightly drizzle a little olive oil onto the pies before they hit the oven, it makes a difference.

When you have a piece of dough more-or-less ready for the oven, stretch it out on a pizza peel (we have a wooden one we like, but there are many kinds) on top of a light dusting of corn meal or farina. The small grains will help the finished product slide off the peel and onto the stone, and believe me when I say you do not want to get hung up at that point in the process - you want to flick that pie off the peel and into the oven with confidence. They will take anywhere from 8 to 12 minutes to cook, depending on the thickness of the crust. Let the condition of the bottom - color, texture - be your guide on when they are ready to eat.

Anything is fair game when it comes to toppings - basically whatever you like to eat will work on top of a pizza, so go crazy and start experimenting. But less really is more here. I've told myself this about 100 times, and there are moments when I still don't believe it, but I always regret it after the fact. You are not stuffing a sandwich, this isn't a Subway commercial, the star is the dough - which you are appropriately enhancing with the toppings and flavors you choose.

Overloaded pizzas don't cook right, and they don't eat right, and they are generally a mess. Don't waste your precious ingredients (all fresh and top quality, of course) and the time and effort that goes into this multi-day endeavor by pulling an Icarus and flying too close to the sun on wings of pepperoni. Apply the self-restraint on the pizzas and cut yourself some slack on the wine. You'll thank me. Honest.

Now go and get ready for tomorrow's dinner.


Blogger Rebecca said...

I can't wait to try your dough recipe. Thank you for sharing. We have a great red sauce, but have struggled on the dough side. Our red sauce is the recipe out of The Best Recipe cook book (crushed tomatoes, olive oil and minced garlic). What do you use as your red sauce?

4:24 PM  
Blogger Dad said...

There's a link to our sauce recipe right in this post. It's based closely on the tomato sauce recipe in the Rao's Cookbook.

4:41 PM  
Blogger ShelbyAnne said...

I am crushed, because you're about a week too late with the wisdom of "overloaded pizzas don't cook right, and they don't eat right." So now you tell me. I wondered what was wrong with the cheesy mob I was shoving into my mouth pretending it tasted good. After careful thought, I have concluded that you, my friend, are a genius.

8:31 PM  
Blogger angela_lin said...


5:33 AM  
Blogger Dori said...

I'm always on the look-out for a better pizza dough recipe! I'm partial to the simple, fewer steps ones. I'll have to have a go at this one. Thanks!

10:54 AM  
Blogger dwaves said...

I would love to ad my 2cents on the red sauce recipe.
Aside from the great tomato, garlic, olive oil above i mince carrot, celery and garlic w/a tiny amount of bacon and reduce before adding the rest.

Thanks for the dough recipe.


3:00 PM  

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