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%.
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.