Who's a perfectionist? Not me! I'm way too willing to accept shortcuts in the quest for satisfaction. But when it comes to certain classic goodies, I can come pretty close to being obsessive - if not exactly perfectionist - about trying to replicate the character and quality of a revered original, even if I'm OK with taking a few short-cuts to get there.
So it is with excellent bread, as you may recall from my recent excursion into the art of making almost-Parisian baguettes at home. And so it is, too, with pizza, a culinary delight that I have always considered one of nature's most perfect foods.
This is more than a coincidence, for pizza, after all, is really about bread. The toppings are tasty but decidedly secondary: Show me a pizza with a forgettable, Wonder Bread base, and I'll show you, well, Papa John's or Pizza Hut. I'm the kind of guy who, given a proper pizza (and I'm talking thin-crust Neapolitan-style by way of New York, none of your deep-dish variations), will reverse customary procedure by eating up the crust and leaving the center behind. Well, not really, but you know what I mean.
I've been on a pizza-making tear recently. Inspired by the success of the baguette-making process featured in the March 3 FoodLetter (not to mention a trip to Mario Batali's new pizzeria Otto when we were in NYC), it occurred to me that Parisian boulangers and Neapolitan pizzaioli are bound under very similar (and equally strict) formal regulations to ensure the quality of their product: Hard-wheat flour, yeast, salt and water and nothing more. Oh, all right, maybe just a drop of olive oil, but only if nobody's looking.
A couple of years ago, in one of the first FoodLetters, I proposed a simple, small pizza crust that could be built in less than 1 hour before dinner. I'm a little bit embarrassed by that now, although if you're in a hurry, it's still a whole lot better than frozen pizza. But today, let's get serious about making the real thing, an authentic Neapolitan-style pizza good enough to make you burst into song. Preferably "O Sole Mio," or maybe a tenor aria by Verdi.
This procedure addresses the bread, the crust, the noble heart of the pizza. For toppings, use your favorites - I love the pure simplicity of the Pizza Margherita, nothing more than a light ration of pure tomato sauce, rounds of creamy, fresh mozzarella and a few leaves of fresh basil. If you're stuck for ideas, check the March 14, 2002 FoodLetter, "About Pizza,"
Just as for the baguette, I strongly advise you to use an accurate kitchen scale to weigh out the ingredients if you can. You'll get much more precise results that way.
INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)
6 ounces (180g) white bread flour, or half-and-half bread flour and all-purpose
1. Put the flour, the salt and the dry yeast into a bowl and stir in the water, a little at a time, mixing until the resulting dough forms a rough ball. Put it on a lightly floured bread board or counter top and knead it vigorously for 5 minutes or more until it's smooth. If you like, you can use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment to mix the dough and the hook attachment to knead it, but for an amount this small I find it just as easy to work by hand. (NOTES: If you want to serve a larger number, you can make a pie for three - or two very hungry people - by using 9 to 10 ounces flour, 1 teaspoon salt and 6 ounces water. There's no need to increase the yeast. If you want to feed a larger group, don't try to make a bigger pie, which would become difficult to handle. Better to make two pizzas in sequence instead. It's OK, if not as obsessively authentic, to add flavor by substituting about 1 tablespoon of olive oil for 1 tablespoon of the water. Some say that this makes the dough easier to handle, although I don't notice much difference.)
2. Lightly oil a bowl and put the dough in it to rise. Cover with a dish towel or piece of plastic wrap. It's handy to use a clear or translucent plastic container with vertical sides, so you can watch the dough rise and easily gauge its progress. Let it rise in a cool place until it's a full 2 1/2 times its original size, perhaps 3 hours. (NOTE: Most authentic procedures call for keeping it refrigerated overnight and giving it a 12- to 24-hour rise. Call me a non-perfectionist, but I haven't found that the results from this time-consuming process justify the extra effort.)
3. If you have a pizza stone - and I strongly recommend one for pizza and bread - put it in your oven on a lower shelf and crank up the heat as high as it will go - on our gas oven that's a notch above 550F (close to 300C). Give it plenty of time, at least a half-hour, to preheat thoroughly.
4. Form the pizza. Contrary to any old-fashioned bread-making instincts, do not punch down the risen dough. Simply turn the bowl over and let the dough fall out onto a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle it with a little flour, pick it up, and let it stretch out naturally as you handle it. Drape it over the backs of your hands and gently pull and stretch it into a large circle. (If you're adventurous, now's the time to try spinning it in the air. I'm not that adventurous, myself.) Don't press or handle the dough any more than necessary. It's not necessary to obsess about this, but the more you can avoid "de-gassing" it, the better bread it will be.
5. Place the stretched circle on a board or pizza "peel," if you have one, that's been lightly dusted with flour or cornmeal or, in a handy if inauthentic trick, lined with a sheet of parchment paper large enough to hold the entire pie. You can nudge it into a fairly precise circle if you're finicky, or not worry about it if you're not. Don't worry about crimping up the edges. Remember, the less handling, the better; and in any case, the part of the edge that isn't covered with toppings will rise a bit to form a natural (and delicious) breadlike rim without needing any help from you.
5. Put on your toppings, remembering that, in general, less is more. Put the mozzarella down first, then put sauce over it, to protect the delicate cheese from the high oven heat. Don't pour on the tomato sauce like soup, spread it like paint. Apply topping ingredients discreetly - save the heavy loading for lesser pies.
6. Slide the loaded pizza from the board or peel directly on to the pizza stone (or use a pizza pan or cookie sheet if you don't have a stone). If you're using the parchment paper, slide in the pizza, paper and all. After about three minutes, gently lift an edge of the partially cooked pizza (take care, it's hot in there) and yank out the paper so the pie will finish directly on the stone. Check again after a couple of minutes and turn the pie if it seems to be browning faster on one side. Bake until the edges are puffy and dark golden-brown - timing will vary depending on oven temperature, edge thickness and toppings, but at this high heat it shouldn't need more than 6 to 8 minutes. Carefully remove it from the oven, slice and serve while it's hot.
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