“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.” - Yogi Berra
Pizza, to my mind, is one of the most perfect foods. I love the combination of flavours and textures it offers. I love the versatility, the limitless possibilities that pizza affords, the way it can be adapted to climate, season, and locale. I love how much fun pizza is to make. I love to eat pizza and to share pizza. I love the way pizza can bring people together. I love pizza.
Neither of my Nonnas were really pizza-makers. Their specialities lay elsewhere, in soups and stews, sauces and lasagna, and oh so many kinds of dessert. No, my first pizzas were of the delivery variety, usually from Catalano’s or Franco’s and then later Villa Nova, Naples, or Capri. It’s pretty much what you would expect. Not great but neither was it awful: it was good, or at least, good enough. It fell to my Mom and my Uncle to start making pizza at home. Each of them went their own way, my Mom making something like a deep-dish pizza with lots of dough, cheese, sauce, and delicious toppings. My Uncle, instead, focused on lighter and more traditional fare: a thinner crust that was topped with sauce, cheese, and the occasional pieces of salami.
Now it’s my turn to try my hand at being a pizzaiolo or master pizza chef. The latest object of my culinary affections is the simple, traditional thin-crust pizza that is prepared in a wood-fired oven. My goal has been to replicate at home, to the best of my abilities, what I’ve read about online and experienced ever-so-often in Windsor’s Terra Cotta Pizzeria. The challenge in this is duplicating the cooking process because, sadly, I haven't yet found the wood-fired oven in my apartment. After a lot of trial and error, I think I've figured it out.
Making the Pizza
The first step to making the most perfect pizza is the dough. I prefer using a one-to-one blend between kamut flour and regular never-bleached all purpose flour. The kamut is a heartier flour (a healthier one too for that matter) and it gives the dough a stronger, richer flavour. You might also use a whole wheat flour or an oat flour to get similar results. You could also add a bit of cornmeal to the dough. Another bear chef I know, trying to add a bit of fibre, nutrients, and flavour to her pizza, makes this really fantastic dough that has flax seeds in it. There are endless possibilities available to you.
To make the dough, in a fair-sized bowl or, if you prefer, on a cutting board or piece of parchment paper, combine a cup each of kamut flour and regular unbleached flour. You'll need a bit more flour through out this process so keep another cup or so handy. To that, add 1 teaspoon of salt and then mix together until both flours and salt are combined. Form a well (which is called a fontana or "fountain" in Italian) in the middle of your pile of flour and add about half a packet, or around 5 ml, of yeast to it. Sprinkle a pinch of flour, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of lukewarm water (about 50 ml) over top the yeast and let sit for about half an hour or so. Once you see a foam form over top the yeast, you’re ready for the next step. Add about a quarter of a cup of lukewarm water to the well along with two tablespoons of honey. You can use sugar, about a teaspoon if you do, but I find that honey just tastes better.
The next step is to begin to incorporate flour by cupping your hands and drawing some of the flour from the sides into the 'fountain' and mixing. Add more water, a bit at a time, and incorporate more flour, until you have formed a dough, then knead by hand for a good 10-15 minutes. If you find that you've added too much water or the dough isn't doughy enough, simply add a bit more flour to the mix. Coat the sides and bottom of a deep bowl with a generous amount of olive oil, moving the dough ball around so that it becomes coated in olive oil. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and let the dough rest for at least two or three hours.
The dough needs to rest for about three hours. Depending on the temperature and humidity in your kitchen, it might need a bit longer or a bit less. This is an organic process after all and your dough is alive. One trick I’ve learned to help the process along is to place the bowl into an oven with the oven light on. This doesn't mean that more time is a bad thing. The longer a dough rests the more time it has to develop a deeper and richer flavour. I’ve made dough in the morning and then let it rest all day or even the night before so that it has a solid twenty-four hour rest and the results have been amazing.
One of the best parts about being a pizzaiolo is the fun you can have mixing and matching flavours and textures to top a pizza. For this pizza simplicity is key: crust, tomatoes, cheese, and that's all. With so few ingredients, each one will need to work hard. That is why quality ingredients are so very important. Use the best tomatoes and the best cheese you can find and you won't be disappointed.
For this pizza I used La San Marzano di A. Romano Brand tomatoes and a local buffalo milk fresh mozzarella. The San Marzano tomatoes are a bit more than the canned tomatoes you'll find in the
supermarket, but they're worth the cost. Sweeter and fleshier, they're much less likely to taste bitter and acidic once cooked. Open the can and using a fork, remove three or four tomatoes (depending on their size) and place them into a bowl. Using that fork, or if you feel like getting messy, your hands, simply crush the tomatoes into a bit of a sauce. You can splash some of the puree from the can into the bowl to help with this. Whatever is left in the can, seal up into a container and set aside. You can use it to make a sauce or to make another pizza. Buffalo milk mozzarella is slightly sharper and saltier in flavour than fresh mozzarella made from cow's milk. If you can't find buffalo milk mozzarella, the bocconcini you find at the local supermarket will do. You'll need two or three per pizza. The last of the ingredients you'll need are a bit more olive oil, some sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh basil.
About an hour before you want to cook, place your baking stone into the oven and turn the oven up to its highest setting. To come close to replicating the cooking process of a wood-fired oven you'll need both oven and stone to get as hot as possible. After that, open a bottle of good Italian wine and pour yourself a glass. Nothing too heavy, just something that will go well with pastas and cheeses. The wine will help to set the mood and release your own inner pizzaiolo.
Spread out a good sized piece of parchment paper, at least as big as your baking stone. To that, add a good handful of flour, you'll need it. Take about half the dough, and place it on the parchment paper. Using the flour and a rolling pin, your goal is to spread out that dough as much as possible so you'll have the thinnest crust as possible. It'll take some effort -- think of it as a work out maybe? -- but it will be worth it. Don't worry that the dough isn't forming a perfect circle, it will still taste amazing. As William Denton says, "food is to eat, not to frame and hang up on the wall." Once the dough is only about a quarter of an inch thick, perforate the crust every couple of inches with the tongs of a fork, this will keep it from bubbling up as it cooks.
Now the crust is ready for your toppings. Spread out the crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle a pinch of sea salt over this and a bit of cracked pepper. Next, tear your fresh mozzarella into one or two inch chunks. You may need to taste a piece of mozzarella at this point just to make sure the flavour is alright. Pizzaiolo's prerogative. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone if you won't. Add that to the pizza next. Remember, the trick is not to smother the pizza in cheese. Rather, the fresh mozzarella is meant to accent and enhance the flavour of the tomatoes which should really be dominant. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over top the pizza and a pinch more of the sea salt over top the chunks of fresh mozzarella. Now this pizza is ready for the oven.
Using a pizza paddle, or, if you don't have one, a wooden cutting board as a make shift pizza paddle, transfer the pizza and parchment paper to the baking stone. I can't stress enough to be careful as everything in that oven is going to be very hot. Also, remember to keep the pizza flat, you don't want all your delicious toppings to slide off it and onto the bottom of your oven. Cooking time will be anywhere from ten to twelve to fourteen minutes. Keep an eye on the pizza but if you can, don't open the oven door. You want to make sure all that heat is trapped in the oven cooking your pizza, not escaping out into your kitchen. However, depending on how heat moves around in your oven, you might have to rotate the pizza to allow for more even cooking. When the crust has become a nice golden brown, with darker bits around the edges, and the cheese has melted and browned a bit (a process the drizzled olive oil helps along) your pizza is ready to come out.
The smell of freshly baked pizza is going to fill your kitchen and you're going to be overcome with the desire to eat pizza right away. Don't! Trust me on this. For one, you'll burn your mouth and that's not fun. Also, the flavours need time to settle down and merge together. Set the pizza aside on a cooling rack and let it rest for about ten minutes. During that time, clean, and if you like, roughly chop, three or four good sized basil leaves and add that to the top of the pizza. You can also prepare a quick hot sauce for dipping, again a trick learned from Terra Cotta and a fellow bear chef, using a sweet chili sauce mixed with a bit of regular hot sauce.
Once you've let the pizza cool a bit, it's ready to be eaten. This kind of pizza can work well as a primi piatti (a first course), as a secondi (second or main course), or even as a snack. It's equally enjoyable served warm or at room temperature. It works especially well when served along side a simple salad of arugula tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon juice. Be sure to enjoy alongside a glass of good Italian wine.
Perhaps the best compliment to the most perfect pizza, the only thing that can really improve it, is the same thing that makes all food better: good company. All food is better when there is somebody worth sharing it with.