Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Brain On Pizza

I've re-connected with Pizza. I fondly remember being taken to Pepe's in New Haven during my inaugural trip to my Dad's homeland in 1969. I was 7 years old at the time, but already a pretty darn good pizza eater. So I'm told.

Since that early rearing imprint, I had since been to Pepe's maybe once or twice, and to the spin offs, Bimonte's and Sally's. Back to California where I spent my first 23 years of life, and where there was never any good pizza. No where but New Haven and the surrounding hamlets (Hamden, Branford, North Haven, etc.), is there any pizza worth a grain of semolina. That was and for the most part, still is a fact. If you were reared on New Haven style pizza that is. But with the rise of the Boomers, and their decadent if not hedonistic search for up-man's-ship, and multitude of ways to spend their new wealth, a new pizza 'movement' has settle in west. Pizzas have gotten better. Of course, a number of entrepreneur types have gotten rich off pizza whether good or bad, for a long time. But pizza meets west coast tastes, meets the new millennium, and its a new ballgame. There are numerous websites, books, magazine articles, and pizza wonks dedicated to finding pizza nirvana.

For me, trying to duplicate a good tasting pizza at home, had long been a total waste of time. So I sought and ate the best pizza everywhere I've lived for the past 25 years. Until, my smart mother, sent me a DVD for Christmas: "Secrets from Inside the Pizzeria" by Beverly Collins. Took me awhile to even entertain watching the video. You've got to know my mom though, and a lifetime of zany, eccentric, often totally useless gifts. But when it came to food and cooking, mom was usually spot on. My mom was a foodie, long before it was a word. When I finally did watch the DVD I was dumbfounded. It changed my life. Who'd a thought, that something as simple as getting a good flour, an exact hydration, and the real key to all this, a long cold fermentation could make or break what one could do in their kitchen. It took even longer for me to actually try this though, still having that back-burner skepticism. To do it right from the get go, I ordered this King Arthur Sir Lancelot flour a high gluten flour recommended by Beverly. I added the water, yeast, and kneaded the crap out of it for 12 minutes or so. Then I stuck it in the garage, where the temperature stays about 42-44 F all winter. After two days, I pulled it out, divided the dough up, pressed out some pizza shells, and stuck them in a 500 F pre-heated gas oven on top of a ceramic pizza stone I had received from my mom years before that I had hardly ever used. Holy shit, I discovered I can make pizza at home. Not only that, better than most things called pizza I can get at our local restaurants.

I won't try to pretend I have the pizza dough thing totally figured out, nor will I pretend that I have much to contribute here. But here are some pizza dough recipes that I have been following and tinkering with. Up to now I've been mixing and kneading by hand. This Christmas, Santa brought me a Cuisinart 14 cup food processor to mix the dough. There are advantages and disadvantages of a food processor vs a stand-up mixer for dough. The food processor best fits my needs and cooking style.

I base my doughs around two main recipes:
Easy Homemade Pizza Dough Recipe from Pizza Therapy
Jeff Varasano's Famous New York Pizza Recipe

Varasano's dough recipe has a tendency to be a bit flatter than I like so I use more yeast, or I spike my sourdough with a 1/4 - 1/2 tsp yeast when I mix the dough. I use SAF Instant Dry Yeast and keep it in the fridge. Seems like I usually need a bit more yeast than this recipe. I also confirmed with Jeff the amount of salt, that is correct, 2.5-3% salt. Unless of course you need to limit it, but it does add. Yeast activity is diminished by salt perhaps that's why I end up adding more yeast. I don't know, but I like a good rise, and I actually like some bigger holes in the crumb than some afficianados. There are quite a few variables, such as temperature and length of ferment that I don't get overly anal about, hence my varied results. I like that though. Also, according to Jeff this higher hydration dough is meant for hot ovens 600-800 F. For home use ovens and temperatures 450-550F, lower the hydration nearer to 60%.

I like using the Caputo Type 00 flour, it is soft and supple, tears easily so I like to mix it with no more than 50% of King Arthur All-Purpose flour. If I want whole wheat, I'll use 25-50% whole wheat to either KA AP or Sir Lancelot flour, the later I think has the best flavor and strength but can be really hard to work. A blend of 25-33%% Sir Lancelot, and the remainder Caputo has worked very well for me. Every time that I've put a % of durum flour in too has been very tasty. When using whole wheat, it seems to be a little tastier if I add a bit of sugar or honey, and some oil. Oil also helps the extendability of the high gluten Sir Lancelot. While Jeff Varasano will go on and on about dough technique, I'm sure he's right, but what I think really helps flavor is the long cold ferment, while thorough mixing/kneading and the all important resting (autolysing) does improve the structure.

Other notes:

A stone is essential, I've broken 3 so far from heat shock, two beyond salvage, I now use one that is split in two. Buy a good one, the thicker the better. Give it time to preheat.

Because I don't have an exhaust fan in my kitchen my first few times baking pizza on a stone with cornmeal set of the alarms. Now I use parchment. I love parchment. I form the pizza on the parchment and slide it on the peel, then into the oven. I trim the parchment to limit the amount of edge hanging over the round stone. The parchment gets brown and crisp around the pizza and slightly scorched underneeth but I am not sure if it imparts any flavor. I can usually get my oven to about 500 F and the pizzas take 8-9 minutes. As always, go light with toppings, I'm my own worst rule breaker on this.

A real Wood-fired (not phoney stone-fired you see advertised) over is awesome. I only had one opportunity to use one and I went with the Neopolitan DOC on that. Here's my first wood fire pizza at Port Vita Lodge on Raspberry Island:

I didn't quite get the dough as thin as desired, but still scrumptious.

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