Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's Pizza Pi (For Pi day)

(as always, all pictures may be clicked to embiggen)

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.

I have been making pizza since I was in Junior High. That’s a long time! The way I make pizza has evolved over the 30 years or so since I first opened a Chef Boyardee box and thought, “you know - I can do better than this”. I have played with different crusts, different sauces, topping cheeses, etc . . . . and I can unequivocally say there is no “best” way. The best way is the way you like it, and the way you can, or, more importantly the way you will, do it! If you use good quality ingredients, the pizza you make at home will be better than 90% of the pizza you have ever had! It will be better than 100% of anything delivered in a box.

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.

Pizza Dough

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.

Pizza dough, ready to rest in the fridge.

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.

Rolled, rested, and tossed. See that lip? That is the sign of a hand tossed dough.

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.

Zoe is a true artist, each piece of provolone must be exactly placed!

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.

Zoe's cheese pizza ready for the oven

Zoe's plate

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.

Zoe loves to top Dad's pizza for him.

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.

Pepperoni pizza, on the stone.

Walla: pizza. I let mine cool a few minutes on a rack, and then we cut it on a brown paper grocery bag.

Two kinds of olives, Italian sausage, pepperoni, bacon, and a few chopped meatballs, onion, red bell pepper and five different cheeses. I don't care where you live, that's good pizza.

Finally, Dad gets to eat.


Jennifer said...

Okay, I am officially inspired.

I used to make my own pizza, including the dough, almost weekly - but it's been a while.

We'll have to try this, though.

Anne said...

Oh, that looks good.... homemade pizza is a weekly affair at my parents' house, but I haven't been around for it in a while.

Now I want pizza, and it's only 10am.

seventh sister said...

Thanks foro the recipe. It is very similiar to the one I have been experiementing with.

I like to make my own mozzarella. I'll have to try your sauce. Sounds yummy.

Robin said...

That looks infinitely better than the pizza we just had delivered...

Next time, perhaps.

Bee said...

I'm so glad that you've got your mojo back! (or is that pi-jo?)

This was indeed a beautiful, lovingly described process. I felt like I was reading a Cook's Illustrated article -- only not so clinical, and with a really cute kid model! Your pictures made my mouth water, and I also appreciated the words of advice about dough.

Ironically, my kids had store-bought pizza tonight, as the adults were out for Thai food. I will definitely have to make that up to them. Pizza definitely goes on my to-cook list for the week!

Some personal pizza trivia: When I was a grad student at Rice, I worked at the legendary Star Pizza for awhile. As Houstonians might know, Star Pizza tends to win every Best Pizza contest in town. If you've been to Star Pizza (former and present Houstonians) I'd like to hear about your favorite.
I liked an eccentric Joe's: spinach and garlic, whole wheat deep-dish, add feta.

Is pizza THE ultimate comfort food?

Petra said...

Now here is something for the adventurous:

Pizza Tonno.

Load a thin, thin pizza crust with canned tuna, champignons, asparagus tips, sweet corn and cheese.

Don't scream "yuck". I have converted many an American to this very Italian way of eating pizza.

Jennifer said...

*Restrains self, with Herculean effort, from screaming "Yuck"*

*But remains unconvinced*

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

Jenn - just do it!!!! Other than the time for resting, it's simple. On weekends, If I make dough right after breakfast, before I clean the kitchen, I can include the bowl with the breakfast dishes, and then that evening . . Pizza!.

Anne - I'll just bet your parents pizza is awesome. Do they have a brick pizza oven? I lust for one. someday . . . .

seventh - your welcome! There was a time, right before i got divorced, that i was reading a lot on making cheese, and then in the course of the confusion, I lost interest. What kind of milk do you use?

robin - Not to be filled with hubris, but it is. really.

bee - Thanks, I'm working on it, (the mo-jo)

Thanks for the kind words about the post. The first food post I remember writing was a wake up call as to my writing abilities. Writing every step down, in order, for someone who has never prepared the dish is way harder than i imagined. i tend to write as I think, that is, sort of a "stream of conciousness" sort f thing. Not ideal for didactic writing, or recipes. It is good training for me to force myself to (try) to be concise.

When you say store bought pizza, do you mean actual store bought, or delivery?, or frozen? What kind of delivery pizza is available in England? Is pizza different there? I know in Hawaii, one can get spam pizza. (there is a Monty Python inspired skit in there somewhere).

No, I haven't been to Star Pizza, but do you remember Birraparetti's? They had a white pizza with olive oil, spinach and artichoke, that was just orgasmic.

There was also a place calle Spanky's that had a great whole wheat crust.

Around my house, pizza is not just comfort food, it's soul food. When my kids have friends spend the night, they always ask, "Will your Dad make pizza?"

Petra - I'm with you 'till the cheese. What kind? (of cheese) the rest sounds pretty damned good. I assume Italian canned tuna in olive oil? It sound like an upgraded Salad Nicoise on flatbead, which I'm sure is terrific. Perhaps thinly sliced potatoes on it as wel? mmmmmmm

Jenn - Now, now, Petra isn't asking you to put MAYONNAISE on jello!


Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

I am now officially embarrassed for all of the typos in the above comment. It's late, I'm tired, I can't type.

Thanks for the love guys, really.


Anne said...

Star Pizza!!!! Oh, their whole wheat crust is divine. I'm partial to their margherita on whole wheat. I should have done that when I was back in town last week.

BSRH - My parents don't have a brick pizza oven, but my second family (Papa S. and Mama S., Katie's parents) are building one at their new place in Napa. I look forward to making and eating many a pizza there.

Batocchio said...

Cool! Yeah, California pizza is different, but quite good.

ouyangdan said...


ZOMG your girl is so adorable! what a great smile!

OK, on to the real comment...

when i was a wee lass, back in the days when my parents were still pretending to be happy and we all lived in one home, we used to make pizza together every friday night (FTR we used the Chef Boyardee box), and those nights were some of the happiest times of my life...

i have been thinking of trying it w/ the Kid, now that she is older and loves helping in the kitchen...i think i may have a future foodie on my i may have to try out your recipe! if i do i will take some photos and share!

Petra said...

As to the cheese on the Pizza Tonno - here comes the kicker:

I personally don't like cheese on pizza. I don't mind a tiny bit, but generally... no.

So the way I make pizza is this - one half with cheese, one half without. The cheese part gets mozzarella or sometimes I use sharp cheddar.

I also very often do not use a tomato sauce as a base but pesto. The tomato goodness then comes through sliced tomatoes on top.

As an aside: I am always amused at the aversion people in the US seem to have against tuna on pizza. You guys eats tuna salad on sandwiches - now that is something which makes many a good European turn green around the gills.

pidomon said...

I'd appreciate it if you stopped talking about me in your posts
Like all of us, dough matures and become more sociable with a little age, (but fragile and gassy if it gets too old.)"

If you ever get to Fort Worth you have to try Mama's Pizza on Berry Street. They use sourdough for the crust and it is the best pizza I've ever had (and yes since it is in Fort Worth I'm a bit biased!

Jennifer said...

Mayonnaise on Jello. Heh. Someone's been reading the archives :)

It is a controversial food choice, I'll grant you. Such church-basement covered-dish's either the ultimate comfort food or something to be rejected wholesale. Costa Ricans, on the whole, do. not. want.


For the record, Petra, I'm not a big fan of anything tuna - tuna melts maybe. Sometimes. If I liked tuna itself more, I would have no objection to putting it on pizza.

In other words, I would have had a similar "restraining of the yuck" reaction if you'd called that same list of ingredients a salad or a sandwich. For what it's worth :)

Anne said...

There's a place around here that serves a bacon and dried apricot pizza. Pretty darn good!

Anne said...

I'm with Jennifer on the tuna. Tuna sandwiches combine two of my least favorite foods (canned tuna and mayonnaise). I'll eat--even enjoy--very, very fresh tuna that's either raw or just barely seared on the outside, but that's it. Raw tuna is a completely different creature from the canned stuff.

Bee said...

Pizza in West Berkshire:

Well, in Newbury (close biggish town -- hub of West Berks) there is a Pizza Express. Have you ever heard of this chain? It started in the 60s; used to be known for playing jazz (not so much anymore); does a thin crust, supposedly "Italian" style pizza; famous for "dough balls" which you dip in garlic butter; serves Italian wine; in other words, by "chain" don't think Pizza Hut. They have dozens of styles of pizza. Next time I'm there I will be on the lookout for the weirdest one -- plus, check for tuna. There is definitely a weird one that my sister-in-law always gets. All I can remember is that it has sultanas on it. Also, that it is called the Venetian, and if you order it they supposedly donate 10 p (or something) to the Save Venice fund. I usually get the Four Seasons (ham;mushrooms;artichoke;black olives).

So, at my local Waitrose, we can get "frozen" Pizza Express pizzas. The kids only like Margherita. There is no delivery pizza that I know of . . .

My husband is a pizza snob -- it's the Italian in him -- and when in Italy he wants to eat it for every other meal. We spent two weeks in Chianti this summer and we ate A LOT of pizza.

Yes, I remember Birroperretti's (sp?) on West Gray. They is also one downtown. Big singles hangout from the 80s and early 90s.

I think it's great that you are famous for your pizza with the kids of Port Lavaca. That is just the kind of thing that they will remember all of their lives.

Robin said...

In NC, we have a chain called Pieworks that offers about 150 different ingredients for their pizzas, including chick peas, artichoke hearts, banana peppers, rattlesnake sausage, a mustard or pesto or alfredo or barbeque sauce topping, alligator meat, at least 10 different cheeses--and if you really want, pepperoni or anchovies.

I haven't eaten there in awhile, but I'm drooling thinking about it. Road trip!

Petra said...

Rattlesnake sausage?

Is that just a funny name for some kind of ordinary sausage or is there really rattlesnake meat involved?

Just curious.

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

Hey guys,

I've just been buy, busy, busy.

I took Ryan and Zoe back yesterday evening, and today has just been non-stop.

#2 son had a project due that he "forgot" about, so i have spent most of the day helping him format his paper. It came out of the printer about 30 minutes ago!

Sorry if I'm behind on comments at all of your sites, I will try to catch up tomorrow.

I promise!

Anne -
I should have guessed Katie (Who apparently still isn't single), would have one.

Well, does her Dad need a cook? lawn boy? Looking to adopt a son?

Petra - After I posted that comment at your site last night i realized how it sounds. I was speaking to Karen. You, had obviously seen Chinatown, hence the post.

I think the Tonno would be great without the cheese. Cheese and tuna aren't really my thing.

ouyangdan - Thank you!! She is my little angel. Truly. She is in first grade, she missed the cutoff by 5 days, so she is one of the oldest in her grade.

Jenn - Not the archives!! Our first (drunken, on my part) conversation was at the Shakesville pub, and somehow, that came up.

Bee - Birroperretti's on West Grey closed!!!!! The downtown is the only one left!!!!! Sad, sad day.

Robin - Hey, when did they turn my ex-wife into sausage???

kidding, kidding. . . . well . . .

ouyangdan said...

b/c i grew up poor i miss some of the strangest foods, and sometimes when i am needing comfort food i make a mean tuna casserole, and it is famous amongst my friends...honest to FSM it is! i make a cheesy version and a non cheesy version...but now that i am not as poor as i was growing up i use really really good tuna...yum

but if tuna and mayo squicks you out for sandwiches or salads, try it w/ FF italian dressing instead of mayo...i don't care for mayo at all...

they use ahi or mahi on everything here...and i love it...there are a few places (Maui Taco!) where you can get awesome fish tacos...

konagod said...

I'm all about using my hands as much as possible when making pizza and I stir the water and yeast with my hand to work out those clumps. I did leave the yeast once for about 3 minutes before stirring while I was doing something else and I noticed it dissolved a lot faster.

I might be making pizza tonight and I'm going to try your method of leaving the yeast in the water for 15 minutes just to see what happens.

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

Hey Kona!

I've seen pictures of your pizza, it looks pretty damn good.

konagod said...

By the way, since you are in Texas, I used to buy the fresh mozzarella at Central Market and was buying other organic cheeses that are quite pricey but for the taste they couldn't be beat.

Then on a budget, I had to start cutting corners and I discovered the HEB brand of New York Sharp Cheddar and the Extra Sharp -- one is in a blue package and one in a purple package.

For $3.29 (here in Austin) they are damn good. Once in awhile they are on sale and I load up.

maurinsky said...

I live in Connecticut, we have a bunch of great take-out places within walking distance of our house, but homemade pizza is better, somehow.

RE: Tuna - I sometimes mix it with feta cheese and lemon juice rather than mayo - I just blend the fet & lemon juice into a kind of sauce and mix it up. It's very tangy and salty and delicious.

Pizza toppings - my sister makes a pizza with ricotta cheese and red potatoes on top. It's surprisingly delicious.

I will second the person who uses pesto rather than tomato - I do that with small size pizzas, or when I use naan as the pizza base. It's also good to start with pesto, add a really good tomato sauce (oven roasted plum tomatoes & onions & garlic, pureed is a good option) and then with some shredded pecorino romano on top.

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

Kona - Some of the HEB brand items can be surprisingly good. They have an Italian blend that comes pre-shredded that use.

My little po-dunk town doesn't have a Central Market, but my store does carry a few of those items.

Stay away from "Hill Country Fare".


Maurinsky - nice to hear from you again! The kids aren't wild on pesto, but I love it.

I can't remember where it was, but I had a pizza with goat cheese, lamb sausage and roasted potatoes that was out of this world good.