Is there anything more American than Pizza? I know, I know, pizza is an Italian dish which came over around the turn of the century with Italian immigrants, and was widely confined to those Italian kitchens until returning service men from WWII came home, wanting the dish they had grown to love while stationed in Italy. But come on! Pizza has truly become an American classic.
Pizza is also a source of great debate and local pride. New Yorkers are convinced, (as only a New Yorker can be) that they have the only “authentic” pizza in America. The Italians might have something to say about that! (Pizza Marinara or Margherita anyone?). Chicago sings the praises of its deep dish pizza with the cheese on bottom, and considers anything less to be a poor substitute. California . . . , well as it has always done, California has taken a great idea and transformed it into something beautiful and sublime, but something different. Authentic? Probably not, but then what is? And really, who cares? My criteria for pizza? Does it taste good? Is the crust an integral part of the dish, or just a medium to pile an ever increasing amount of toppings and cheese on the pie? As for toppings, quality before quantity is vital, as is the balance of toppings. More is not necessarily better. In fact, it almost never is.
So with my rambling preamble out of the way, I invite you to pizza night at the Castle.
The hang up most people have seems to be the dough. It’s really not hard. I promise. Even if you are deathly afraid of yeast, this is not a difficult thing. If you absolutely cannot face kneading dough, a great pizza can be made with a Boboli bread shell. But please, try this homemade dough at least a couple of times. It doesn’t take long. The actual hands on time is only about 15 minutes or so. The key is the resting period. The longer the better. In fact, the perfect thing would be to make this dough the day before and let it rest in the fridge over night. If you just must have pizza right away, you can get by with an hour rest on the counter, but understand that the dough will be a little more unruly. Like all of us, dough matures and become more sociable with a little age, (but fragile and gassy if it gets too old.) This dough will keep for about three days, after that, it’s going to be usable, but a little brittle and sour. The dough in these pictures was made about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I started tossing it about 7:30 PM. It behaved perfectly.
This will make 4 to 6 pizzas, depending on how big and or thick you want them. For me, it makes 4.
6 cups of AP flour ( I use King Arthur) A note about flour, yes, whole wheat may be added,, (no more than half), or bread flour may be added as well, but it will increase the kneading and resting time considerably, if you want a well mannered dough.
1 teaspoon salt
4 ½ teaspoons of active dry yeast. (I use regular, not instant)
2 cups of water. Divided
6 tablespoons of olive oil (I usually use half extra virgin, half light, but any mix is fine)
1 to 1½ tablespoons of honey. (see below)
First, you must proof your yeast. Take a half cup of warm water. What is warm? 100 to 110 degrees F. If you are unsure, by all means take its temperature. I test it with my finger, if it is slightly warmer than body temperature, it's fine. I usually add a scant, tiny, tiny pinch of sugar to the water, just to boost it a little, but you don’t have to. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and wait. Don’t stir yet, it will just clump up. After about 15 minutes, you should see bits of foam appearing; now you can proceed.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl mix the flour and salt.
Take the remaining 1½ cups of (cool) water and add to it, the oil and honey. A note about the honey, it is food for the yeast, you could leave it out entirely if you choose, I have played around over the years, and this is what works for me. The longer it will be resting, the more I put in. I usually use 1 tablespoon.
Mix the yeast in with the other liquids, then pour it all over the flour. Mix with a large spoon until combined, then scrape out onto your work surface and begin kneading. Knead for about 10 minutes, or until smooth. Cover and let rest for 5 to 15 minutes. After this first rest, you will come back to find the flour has absorbed all the moisture, and the dough has become softer and much more manageable. Of course, it goes without saying that this can be done in a stand mixer with a dough hook. I used to do it that way, but it is so quick and easy to do by hand , and there is something relaxing and almost sensuous about kneading dough. It is a living thing, and each one is different depending on the humidity, temperature, etc. . . I like to do it by hand, but by all means, use the mixer if you want.
Now is time to choose, refrigerate or proceed? If you are proceeding, go ahead and knead it again a few times, and cover it with plastic wrap. Let it sit there and rise for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how warm it is in your kitchen. Longer is better, both for flavor development and for texture. If it is to be used later, separate it into two (or 4) pieces and place in lightly oiled plastic bags. Use the large gallon sized bags, because it will expand a good bit. Pop it in the fridge until ready.
To make the pies: (If your dough is cold, take it out and let it warm up to almost room temp before proceeding.)
Knead the dough a few minutes to smooth it out, then separate it into however many pizzas you are making. Roll it into balls, flatten them slightly and cover with plastic. Working one at a time, you may shape the dough anyway you want. Some “purist” insist it should never be rolled, I say bullocks to you! I roll mine into a roughly 12 inch circle, just until it starts to want to shrink back. Then, another rest. This one for only a minute or two, then I toss the dough a few times until it’s the size I want. If tossing scares you, just stretch it into the size you need, if the dough has rested, it should give you no trouble.
A word about toppings – Whatever you like!!!! Sauce? When I am really rich with time, I make a wicked good sauce out of oven roasted tomatoes, that I blend with olive oil and simmer with onion, garlic and basil, but for pizza, jarred sauce is fine. Find one you really like, there are some excellent ones out there. I choose one that is smooth, rather than chunky, it is easier to spread, and the kids like it better.
As for cheese? Quality and variety. You want something that melts nice as the base, of course mozzarella is wonderful, as is provolone, even a nice Monterey Jack is good.. Yes, bagged-pre-shredded cheese is fine, if is real cheese. I like to add at least one or two accent cheeses as well, freshly grated Parmesan, Romano, or any number of cheeses from the cheese counter at the deli. A few cubes of fresh mozzarella are nice too. The cheese pizza in the photo has a shredded mozzarella base, with a good bit of hand torn sliced provolone on top. It was then sprinkled with some grated Parmesan, and dotted with a few cubes of fresh herb-marinated mozzarella.
I like olives, bacon, sausage, meatball, onion pepper, etc…. Whatever you fancy!! There are no rules, that’s the beauty of making it at home.
I preheat my oven to 450 degrees F. I start the pizza on a pan, and put it into the oven on the top rack. After 4 or 5 minutes, the cheese starts to bubble, when the edges just start browning, I slip it off the pan and onto the stone. It only takes a few seconds on the stone to brown the bottom crust. Yes, a pan is fine for the entire process; no you don’t need a stone.
Walla: pizza. I let mine cool a few minutes on a rack, and then we cut it on a brown paper grocery bag.