EUSTIS ON FOOD: The perfect pizza, and how to make it
Great Barrington — Pizza has moved from lowbrow, everyday food to almost haute cuisine. It’s earthy and rustic, but can also have inherent sophistication. We’ve all been to those basic pizza joints. But when it’s good… You remember that place, that time, that restaurant whose pizza had that thin crust? And it was so good? And you wish you could make that yourself… We’ll get there.
The making of pizza is a multi-faceted operation, but not difficult. It’s very easy to do at home, if you have a few tools. Pizza is pretty simple: One begins with the crust, and how that is made. There is also the way you cook the pizza — very important. And finally, what you choose to top it with.
Pizza has been around for centuries. The idea of a baked bread topped with something sweet or savory isn’t new, nor has innovation been the sole proprietorship of the current era. In the late 19th century, for example, it is said, to honor the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, the Neapolitan pizzamaker Raffaele Esposito created the “Pizza Margherita,” a pizza garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella., and basil, to represent the national colors of Italy as on the Italian flag. (Wikipedia) There are many regional versions: For example, a New York slice is a thin crust, on which you find simply tomato sauce and mozzarella, and to be folded lengthwise, and not eaten with a fork and knife. What’s au courant is thin-crust pizza, a return to the Neapolitan idea, with fresh ingredients, with greens, either cooked in oven or added at the end. For example, Eat on North in Pittsfield (Mass.) offers their homage to the flammekueche, the Alsace tart. The chef tops it with greens, unconventional, but a modern twist that works. A favorite of ours from Baba Louie’s sourdough pizzas is their Dirty Brutto, roasted red potatoes, pesto, roasted garlic, parmesan and basil. Unconventional, but great.
The crust is the heart of the pizza, and is concurrently simple and quite complicated. It’s important to follow a recipe until you are comfortable with it, then experiment. Below I offer some variations. Use this recipe as a starting point, and experiment.
- The most important thing is a pizza stone. These can be purchased at any local housewares store, e.g. The Different Drummer in Lenox, or The Chef’s Shop, in Great Barrington (yes, I work there). Or, you can use firebrick splits in your oven. Available at Dresser Hull, in Lee, Mass. (Below you will find instructions for using your grill to make absolutely delicious pizza with these firebrick splits.) These stones hold the heat better than thin pans. Finally, if you have really good oven mitts, you can use your cast iron pan to make a good pie in your oven.
Pizza Peels: it really is crucial to have two of these. It is quite hard to assemble a pizza on a cutting board and then transfer it to a pizza peel. It is better to use the peel to assemble the pizza, and if you’re going to make more than one at a time, you will need to have extra peels. Two is enough, but three is useful!
- Coarse Corn Meal. This acts as a lubricant, allowing the uncooked pizza to slide off of the peel onto the stone without binding up.
- Pizza Cutter: Essential. Using a large kitchen knife just won’t work. These are not expensive. Oxo is best, says Cooks Illustrated, but any wheel-based cutter will suffice.
- Stand Mixer: No, not necessary, but without it, making dough can be such a chore. A dough hook equipped stand mixer makes short shrift of kneading a kilogram of dough, which with all that gluten, can be quite difficult. I like my KitchenAid, but Breville makes a solid performer.
- Digital Scale: Volume Measurements can vary dramatically in actual product. The most accurate approach to cooking/baking is to use a scale. And, you can make better coffee with this. They run around $30-35. Worth every penny.
- Bench Scraper: helps to manipulate the dough as you are moving it around. Not essential, but helpful.
- Roulpat: This is a large, silicon mat on which you can roll out the dough. As the dough doesn’t stick to it, you only have to add a small amount of flour when kneading it. Putting it underneath a cutting board will stop the board from sliding. Completely inessential, but I absolutely love it.
The basic elements of pizza dough are flour, yeast and water. The rest of the ingredients are important, but less so. Here’s your recipe for enough dough to make 5 or 6 pizzas. Adjust as you wish, scaling up or down. Again, don’t stress. (I do find, however, that my stand mixer bogs down over 3 lbs/1,500 grams of dough, so I tend to stay below 800-1,000 of dry flour.) Your mileage may vary; if I had a larger stand mixer, I’d make bigger batches of dough.
For the flour, I have found that a combination of flours works best.
- We start with Bread Flour. King Arthur’s has 12.7 percent protein. The protein is important as it makes for more glutinous dough. Again, experiment here. I like and use the below recipe, and I still play with percentages.
- Type “00” flour. Tipo “00” is the finest grade of flour milled in Italy, and it has a consistency similar to baby powder.” (SeriousEats.com) The Caputo “00” Bread Flour is available at Guido’s and contains 12.5 percent protein. Truthfully, you can use all “00” flour, but it’s quite expensive relative to the bread flour, and I’ve found little difference between the two recipes.
- Semolina Flour. I use this to give a certain color, texture and stretchiness that I like. Replace 100-200 grams of bread flour in below recipe with this. I like Bob’s Red Mill; they make good stuff, and it’s available at Guidos. 12 percent protein. Add these two as you get more comfortable with basics.
- Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour; this is just for spice. I use very little of it, but it adds a textural component I quite like. About 13 percent protein. When I use this, I add it to the yeast in place of the bread or “00.”
- Finally, there’s store-bought dough, dough you get from the local pizzeria, or frozen dough from Berkshire Mountain Bakery. All are good options, with the last one being a particularly easy and tasty one.
Basic Pizza Dough
(Append as you will)
- 2 tsp SAF Instant Yeast (you can use a packet of yeast, e.g. Fleischmann’s.)
- 400g Tipo “00” flour
- 400g AP flour
- 1 tbsp honey, brown or white sugar
- 10g salt
- 25g Olive Oil (helps to lubricate dough, adds to stretchiness.)
- Fill a mug or measuring cup with a cup of 105°F water. (Yeast likes temperatures with which we are comfortable, so if you don’t have a thermometer, use hot bath temperature water.) Add yeast and honey. Let sit covered with dishtowel for 5-10 minutes.
- Pour into small mixing bowl. Add bread flour. Let sit covered with dishtowel for 30–40 minutes, up to 4 hours. More time adds a certain flavor, but not necessary. Mop up the flour from the floor.
- Add the remaining dry ingredients (flours and salt) into your stand mixer. (You can substitute a food processor here: don’t use the dough blade, use the cutting blade. If you are using your hands, find the largest bowl you have.) Run mixer to combine the dry ingredients.
- Slowly add the yeast mixture. You will need more warm water. Add slowly until it firms up into a discrete piece of dough. Be careful not to add too much water, or it sticks to hook and just spins around. If that happens, remove from hook, knead on a floured board, adding flour until it dries out a bit, and return to mixer. Let knead for 2–4 minutes. (If using food processor, the mixture will firm up into a ball. Remove immediately, and continue to step below.)
Remove from mixing bowl, and put on a floured board. Knead by pushing the heel of your hand into the ball, stretching it away from you. Fold it over once, from back to front, turn 90°; repeat for a while. When your arms get tired, pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into the mixing bowl or another large bowl. Spin around the dough, wetting all the dough with the oil. Cover bowl with dishtowel, and set aside in a warm, and not drafty, area.
- Wait until the dough has doubled in size, or 8 hours. Somewhere in there. Remove to floured board, punch down, and return to bowl. At this point, you can put in the refrigerator overnight, or leave outside, or somewhere cool. Let rise a second time. This rise is important for the flavor of the dough, but can be skipped.
- Remove from bowl, and punch down again. Peel off balls of around 200 – 300 grams (depending on the size of your pizza stone). You should have 5 – 7 balls of dough. Reserve the ones you need right away, and wrap the rest in Press ‘N’ Seal wrap (it is the best). Put the balls into a 1 gallon ZipLoc bag and freeze. Will keep longer than your patience.
- Let the dough rise on the kneading board, covered with towel, and preheat the stone in the oven, set to 500°. For at least 45 minutes. An hour is better.
- Punch down the ball into a disc, pick up, and like you were holding up a dinner plate vertically, rotate the disc around and around slowly, pinching and stretching. When it gets bigger, you can use the back of your hand to stretch it out further. The edges should be a bit thicker than the center. When you rip the dough and make a hole, just pinch it back together. And you will.
Add a sprinkle of corn meal onto the peel, lay out the dough, and stretch it out gently so it’s about a 10” circle. This will take practice. Alternatively, you can use a rolling pin to get a really thin crust. It’s hard to use this method with a tomato sauce, as the sauce tends to leak over the side. The more authentic hand-stretched has the thicker outside edge.
There are many topping recipes to be found, from the basic Margherita to baroque Brooklyn-y versions with lots of greens. Add what you like, and have handy, and it’s pretty sure to be good. I once turned a crazy hot Mario Batali spicy shrimp pasta recipe into pizza topping with a little plain Greek yogurt, and the guests inhaled it, much to my wife’s surprise. Below are two basic recipes, one white, and one red.
- 28 oz can of Whole Peeled Tomatoes. If you can find San Marzano, they are the best and worth the search.
- Pizza Dough
- I use the food processor grater to grate Sorrento Mozzarella. It’s not as good as fresh mozzarella, to be sure, but you don’t have to drain it. If you want to use fresh, then slice it, put it between two dishtowels and put a weight, such as a cast iron pan, on top for 10-15 minutes. Then dice it.
- Garlic, minced and basil leaves
- Preheat oven for at least 45 minutes to 500° or hotter.
- Open the can of tomatoes, put into a food processor along with minced garlic, and a dash of salt and pepper
- Do a quick, 5-8 second, pulse. No more. You are looking for coarsely chopped pieces. Drain into a strainer over a bowl. The drained mush will be your sauce. Reserve some of the juice to add some liquid back to the sauce, if it’s too dry; and to drink the rest. (It makes a wicked Bloody Mary.)
- Roll out the pizza dough onto a peel, with coarse cornmeal underneath. Stretch gently into a nice circle with the edges a bit thicker than the center. About one ladle spoonful of the tomato sauce, spread out onto the dough, should suffice. Be careful not to overload your pizza. Less is more. Too much stuff will make it hard to move without messing up the layout, and it is more aesthetically pleasing with a more minimalist style.
Top with some grated or diced mozzarella, top with 3 – 4 basil leaves, and slide onto the pizza stone. Technique is key here. If one is hesitant, tentative even, one is likely to end up with a wrinkled pizza and sauce everywhere. Go for it. Push the peel out almost to the back edge of the stone; snap it back dramatically and with authority, leaving the uncooked pizza in a perfect position of repose.
- After 4 – 6 minutes, check to see if it’s bubbling, and if so, pull it out. A commitment to the insertion of the peel beneath the cooked pie is imperative. But be careful you don’t hurl it against the back of the oven. That can be messy!
(This recipe comes from our favorite Pizza Truck from the small town of Coustellet in the Luberon Valley in the South of France. It’s known as a Philou, and is simple and simply delicious.)
- Bacon, sliced into small lardons, or matchstick sized pieces. And cooked, but not too crispy.
- Pizza Dough
- Diced onions, small pieces
- Emmental cheese, or some such Swiss
- Olives, black, pitted. Or what you have avail.
- Crème Fraiche (available at both Big Y and Guido’s, and the Berkshire Co-op.) You can use sour cream, in place of it, but it’s more watery, so adjust accordingly. If you can find Farmer Cheese, mix it half-and-half with crème fraiche, for a lovely tangy base here.
- Preheat oven for at least 45 minutes to 500° or hotter.
- Roll out the pizza dough onto a peel, with coarse cornmeal underneath. Stretch gently into a nice circle with the edges a bit thicker than the center. Spread out 1 – 3 tablespoons of the Crème Fraiche, a thin coating.
- Sprinkle some onions over the dough, followed by the bacon. Don’t crowd the toppings. Trust your judgment here.
- Lay on top the Swiss Cheese, and top with 3 olives.
- Slide onto the stone. Check after 4 – 6 minutes. The cheese should be bubbling, but not browning.
The Final Element to Perfect Pizza
The home oven is good to about 450° – 500°. But just. Sometimes you need real heat, especially for those lovely Neapolitan thin-crust pizzas. Aside from a backyard pizza oven, the best way to get that heat is to use your grill. I’m a gas grill guy, so can’t speak to charcoal here.
A pizza stone on the grill will be the most effective solution. A DIY and budget-conscious approach is to buy firebrick splits. Available at Dresser Hull for $2.09 apiece, buy as many as will fit, without crowding.
See picture for how to spread them apart for the initial heating. Fire up the grill to high, all burners, for at least an hour. This will get the bricks good and hot. Open the grill, and with long tongs, push them together, quickly. Close lid, and let heat back up. With the pizza ready in hand, and that elegant snapping technique you’ve perfected, open the grill top, and quickly lay out the pie onto the stones. Close lid quickly, and check after 3–4 minutes — this is a faster process.
The upside to cooking pizza on the grill is that it doesn’t heat up your kitchen, and it brings the stone(s) to a higher temperature. You can also use these stone in your home oven to make bread, as you can use your pizza stone.
For a wine pairing, I suggest, for the red sauce pizza, a red with higher acidity. Look at Italian reds from Tuscany north: Chianti, Morellion di Scansano, Barbera (perfect pizza wine!), or a Beaujolais (not Nouveau) or a Côtes du Rhône from France. And for the white sauce pizzas, I would try an Alsace Riesling (dry and mineral-y), A Loire sauvignon blanc or Petit Chablis from France, or a southern Italian white, such as Falanghina or Fiano di Avellino. Long Island, too, is making some lovely whites, as are the Finger Lakes in New York. Check with your local, knowledgeable wine store!
60 Railroad St, Lee, MA 01238
Berkshire Mountain Bakery
367 Park St, Housatonic, MA 01236