Question of the Century: Can Good Pizza Be Made at Home?

My mother often lied to me when I was a child. Not intentionally perhaps – oh OK, intentionally, but for my own good, from her perspective. Such as when she convinced my sister and I that the whole world ate catchup on French Toast – she never even mentioned maple syrup as an alternative. I’m sure she did this for our health – and Yes, I’m sure she knew.

Later, when I went away to college, I remember being absolutely blown away that first morning when they served French Toast for breakfast – I stood there is utter disbelief and watched an entire packed dinning room of kids -a nationwide representation no less – all pouring maple syrup over their French Toast!

Wow, what a shock. I remember wandering back into the kitchen and asking for some catchup – “For what?”, was the kitchen staff’s quick reply – I was ready to explain, but the look on his face made me realize that this may only further seal my identity as one of the new nut-cases – so, I turned and left … maybe I’d go try the maple syrup.

However, there were times when my mother’s lies were simply a case of she not knowing what she was talking about. As I reflect on my childhood now, I realize how often my mother engaged in such behavior – but, hey, we all do that – don’t we? (at least I have an excuse – my mother taught me. How about you?)

One of her biggest lies came as a result of my older brother coming home from one of his frequent adventures -of which he told me little- and raving for hours about the fantastic Tomato Pie he had eaten at some restaurant in Trenton, NJ. Yes, the rumors are correct, NJ was a magnet for Italian immigrants – and in the early 50s, Pizza was known as Tomato Pie (why not? NJ was renowned for great tomatoes – and who would’ve known what Pizza was?). Whatever.

My mother listened intently to my brother’s avid description, and then pronounced, “But it can’t be made at home!” “Why not?” asked my brother. “Because those restaurants have special ovens” replied my mother. “And a special cheese too.” Now I doubt my mother knew anything about the ovens in Italian restaurants, but I could be wrong. But my guess is that -as an old farm gal- she and her sisters had more home oven experience than they cared to admit, and more than anything, she simply didn’t want to try making Tomato Pie at home.

And she was right about the cheese – in those days, mozzarella was not sold in local groceries – you had to get it from an Italian deli, and we simply didn’t venture into such places – nor would my mother ever conceive of entering such a store – just wasn’t done, unless you were Italian.

I do remember some very lame efforts at home pizza making – such as the time when our mother heard somewhere that pizza could be made at home with English muffins, catchup (my mother loved catchup) and Velveeta cheese, with lots of oregano -to make it authentic Italian! As you might guess, this was awful – and as I think back now, it may have been a cruel trick of my mother’s to further reinforce the idea that it was fool-hardy to try making pizza at home.

But I think those were the days when American food culture was so immature that collectively, it was impossible for us to be flexible in our ‘food’ thinking. Italian food was very rigidly ‘Italian’ – a cook dared not mix German with Italian, or god forbid, Chinese! I distinctly remember not being able, at my home kitchen table, to enjoy a hamburger simply because it was served on sliced bread, not a hamburger bun! This rigidity was hammered into our brains as the only way we were going to learn to enjoy ‘foreign’ foods. Is it any wonder we couldn’t make pizza at home?

I think the less we say about my early efforts at home pizza making, the better – we’ll leave it at that. And then I began to bake my own bread – and the world changed.

The day I realized that pizza was just bread was my pizza turning point – my pizza became 100% better that day! Not only is pizza just bread, it’s the easiest bread a baker will ever make. And over the past ten years, my pizza has become even easier, because with experience comes built-in improvements – and I’d like to share those ideas with you now.

  • A stone is far better than a pan – if your oven, like mine, only goes to 500 degrees F, baking on a pan will not do justice to the bottom of your pizza crust – a hot stone will.
  • With a stone, you’ll need a short handled peel – I have an aluminum one – its OK, but wood is best.
  • If you put your pizza together on a sheet of baker’s parchment, you’ll have NO incidents of crust sticking to the peel – yes, the pros don’t need it, but I still do!
  • What’s the best crust? To me, the simpler, the better. White bread flour, water, salt, and a small amount of yeast – mix it up well (no knead), put it in an oiled grocery bag, and slip it into the fridge for a loooong rest! (a few days, or up to many days – it’ll take it)
  • For a good crust, remember that a wet dough is better than a dry dough.
  • Give your oven a full hour to preheat prior to baking your pizza – set the temp to whatever is the highest setting on your oven (mine is 500F). If you have convection, turn it on too. Commercial pizza ovens go up to 800F and higher – but 500 will do the job.
  • When it’s pizza time, take the dough out of the fridge and drop it on a well floured board – gently turn it over and gently massage it into a round shape – I like mine to be fairly thick, but with refrigerated dough, you can press this stuff out as thin as you want. But I want lots of air pockets in my crust, so I treat it gently and leave it fairly thick.
  • If you use a sheet of baker’s parchment, transfer your pizza crust to the parchment now – if you don’t use the parchment, simply build your finished pizza on your well floured board or peel.
  • So what should you put on your pizza – What? You want me to be a hypocrite? This post espouses being flexible – put whatever you damn please on it.
  • I especially like what Rick Rosenfield, the founder of California Pizza Kitchens (whose success is based on its innovative and non-traditional pizza ingredients) says – “If it’ll make a good sandwich, it’ll make a good pizza.”
  • For the pizza in my pics today, I used fire roasted tomato (from the garden), several bits and scraps of cheese from the deli drawer, and a chopped up bratwurst from the same place – it’s good to clean out the deli drawer once in awhile – and it’s OK to build your pizza from all you find there – regardless of what my mother says – Oh yeah, drizzle some olive oil over all before baking – BTW, it was delicious!
  • An English muffin with catchup, Velveeta, and lots of oregano will not make a good sandwich or a good pizza.
  • And yes, I am suggesting that you bake your pizza while the crust is cold – in the first 30 seconds in the oven, it’ll rise 100%.

Yes, I like burnt cheese – if you can burn your cheese, your oven is hot enough

I’ll end today with the crust – because that’s the heart of a pizza. And here’s my recipe for a great crust:
take 2 or 3 cups of white bread flour (if you only have all-purpose, use that), add some salt, and maybe a half teaspoon of baker’s yeast – now add enough cool water to make a good pizza dough consistency, and stir real well (no kneading necessary).  Cover with a towel and allow to rest for an hour or so.  Now, put the dough in an oiled plastic grocery bag, and slip it into the fridge for ……… a day, or 3 days, or a week.  Yes, it’ll be OK when you are ready to use it.  Yeast is magic stuff.

What? What’s that you say? I haven’t given you enough measurements? Yes, you’re correct – and I don’t intend to.

Why not? OK friends – time for some raw truth here. There is NO SUCH THING as precise measurement in a bread recipe! Why not? Simply because there are too many variables at play here – the characteristics of your flour – its temperature, and the temperature of your kitchen – the nature of your water, and its chemical structure, plus many more – and the balance between all those variables and the amount of yeast and salt you add. And all of the above is compounded by the skill and experience of the baker, and the processes he or she will apply.

A good bread recipe from a knowledgeable bread maker will NEVER suggest that you adhere strictly to the suggested measurements – and if it does, it’s not a good bread book, and the author is not to be trusted. There simply is no substitute for experience. And a good pizza maker will NEVER need a recipe, because they will have learned to ‘feel’ what their dough should be – and you should learn too.

Start today – and don’t be afraid of making mistakes – they are your best teacher.

So, you ask, ‘what should a good pizza dough feel like?’  Well, the answer to that is kinda like asking, ‘What is pornography?’ The best answer would seem to be, ‘It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it.’ Or, in this case – when you feel it.  Get busy.

About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
This entry was posted in American Food Culture, Baking, Comfort Food, Food and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Question of the Century: Can Good Pizza Be Made at Home?

  1. tuppercooks says:

    Jesus Christ Doc, You’re killing me ! That pie looks freakin’ awesome. You need to deliver!

    • drfugawe says:

      Awww, Tup, your stuff is just as good as anything I’m doing – do you use the chilled dough? You need to try that, cause even when using baker’s yeast, the ‘aging’ in the fridge is fermenting the dough – and that’s where most of the flavor comes from – try it dude.

  2. mattthebutcher says:

    Awesome pie, my man!!!!

  3. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc

    I have been building up to doing a post on pizzas. I too have been thinking about the ‘secrets’ of making a good base. My thoughts were:
    *you need to make the dough a day before you eat the pizza;
    *use plenty of water in your dough (I use the amount of water that allows the dough to clear the *sides but stick to the bottom of the bowl);
    *a stone or ceramic tile is essential; and
    *use a very hot oven.

    Your system certainly ticks off all those points and is easier than mine, as I knead the dough.

    .

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey Glenda,
      I like the way you determine when the dough is right! I call that ‘feeling’, even on a machine. How does Aussie pizza differ from US?

      • Glenda says:

        Pizza in Australia has developed along with food culture in general. The pizza was popularised in the 70′s by all the post WWII Italian migrants. A decent proportion of our population is of Italian decent.
        At first, the crusts were quite thick and bready. They all had pureed tomato and cheese (not mozzarella) on them and a topping, eg ham and pineapple (Oh my God); ham and bacon; ‘vegetarian’ (which would also have olives, capsicum and mushrooms); an ‘Italian’ which would include pepperoni and anchovies; and “The Lot” which would have everything on the bench on it. These pizzas are still around today. Most suburbs have a pizza shop selling pizzas like these.
        About 10 years ago, we had two new waves:
        1. The ‘gourmet’ pizza – which has who knows what on it – sate chicken, Thai chicken, caramelised baked pumpkin, etc.
        2.The woodfired oven pizza – These pizzas are really good. Nice thin crust charred black (much like your NY style pizza) with a small about of topping, often only tomato, basil and mozzarella.

  4. Bob Heiney says:

    Hey Doc,
    I grew up in Trenton, NJ, and for 25 years, a Tomato Pie was just that. Didn’t know what a pizza was. My mom and dad would visit only two TP restaurants in the whole city. Maruca Brothers or DeLorenzo’s. I preferred Maruca’s, because they added a sharp cheddar to their cheese, which by the way, gets put on the dough first so it doesn’t slide off the sauce. The sauce was nothing more than a can of crushed tomatoes mixed with a tablespoon of paste, to lower the watering effect during cooking. This is drizzled on top of the cheese evenly. I usually just drizzle in circle until I reach the center. Throw some (raw) Italian sweet sausage (in small pinches) and several fresh basil leaves. Top with Olive oil and cook to your favorite crisp. Now that’s a Tomato Pie!

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey Bob,
      I’m overjoyed to meet a true ‘Trenton’ Jerseite as a result of this post. Thanks for that description of the build – I had heard that it was traditional for Trenton TP to have the cheese go on first – I’m going to try that.

      My brother went to the Tomato Pie restaurant near the Fair Grounds (don’t remember the name) – I know that because he’d point it out every time we went past the Fair Grounds – which one was that?
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Bob – hope we talk again.

      • Bob Heiney says:

        Doc,
        The Fair Grounds have been gone for a long time. But if this was in the 75-78 time period, that would’ve been Maruca Brothers (the one I preferred). They used to be downtown, but moved out to the fair grounds for better parking. They didn’t do so well there though.

        Thanks for your reply! I always make my own tomato pies. Here’s a trick to crispy crust. Add more water (not a whole lot more) to the dough mixture. This way the crust doesn’t rise as much due to the moisture evaporation.

        • drfugawe says:

          Bob,
          Thanks for that info – It was long before that! Perhaps early 50s. And I’m crushed to know that the Fair Grounds is gone! Did they move it? How could the garden state not have an annual State Fair? Please tell me they just moved it.

          • Bob Heiney says:

            Yes, They moved it to Cherry Hill, across from Philly. Why, I don’t know. It kind of makes it a little difficult for the North Jersey gumba’s to get to.Did you grow up in the northeast area?

  5. drfugawe says:

    Relieved to hear that! But I enjoyed the hell out of that old fair! Since then, I’ve been to many more, but that one was the best in my mind (Yeah, I think memories have a way of being something more than they really were!).

    I’ve lived almost everywhere in NJ – born in Newark, childhood in Nutley, and then Cream Ridge/Red Valley (near Imlaystown) – then Neptune, and Wall Township, and Lakewood, and Oakhurst, and eventually East Orange. Enjoyed my stay, but I’m a nomad, so spent 25 years in FL, before relocating to SW Oregon for retirement.

    • Robert Heiney says:

      I missed it too, when they closed the Trenton Fair Grounds. My da took me to the Trenton 200 indycar race a couple of times. Wow! You had half the state of NJ covered, there. Born in Trenton, lived in Hightstown, East Windsor, Lodi, Hackensack and finally Sayreville, before moving to Texas. I also lived in Ft. Myers, Tampa and St Petersburg, FL. Plan on moving back to Ft. Myers for my retirement. Soon!

  6. Joanna says:

    Pizza! haven’t made that for a long time and I always go for thin and crispy with a bubbly edge but I’m willing to be converted to tomato pie :) I like to make the dough at least the day before and give it a good rest in an oiled bag in the fridge, and I use an American blogger who I met over on Mellow Bakers’ recipe for mine with great happiness. (By the way had you noticed that WordPress have changed the ‘Notify me of follow up comments via email’ default to a ticked box, you have to uncheck it when you leave a comment if you don’t want everyone’s followup comments in your email inbox)

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Jo, Working in the garden today, but not pleasant – some coastal fog moved in, so no sun – and the wind came up in gusts – I had to put heavy clothes on. Your little posies are in my greenhouse, but I think I’ll put some seed directly into the garden too. Should be nicer rest of week.

      Have you ever had ‘thick crust’ pizza? Usually, we bread bakers prefer the thicker crust – after all, pizza is just scaled down focaccia.

      Yeah, I did notice that checked box on comments – quite annoying, but I suppose we’ll get used to it. I also notice that WP seems to be getting less and less sensitive to user complaints.

  7. Joyce says:

    What is baker’s yeast? Is it the fresh refrigerated type?

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Joyce,
      No, it’s the common dry yeast used for baking – you must pardon we sourdough junkies who get tripping over our tongues when trying to make a distinction between sourdough yeast and the ‘regular’ stuff. Sorry about that.

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