Friday, January 18, 2008

Pizza - It's All In The Crust

At best, pizza can be a perfect food, the epitome of synergy. At worst, pizza can be slightly less tasty than the cardboard box it came in, overloaded with soggy, greasy ingredients, and so disgustingly doughy that a starving cat wouldn't touch it (it's an inside joke). To me, pizza is a lesson in balance, where no one ingredient should be allowed to overpower. Extra cheese? No thank you. A good pizza doesn't need it. Just give me that hint of fresh tomato, not too sweet, definitely not too thickly layered, topped with just enough slightly browned, slightly salty mozzarella. Other toppings are optional, and can be very good, just as long as they are limited to one or two so as not to dominate the other elements. And of course, there's the crust. The crust is what makes a pizza truly great. Definitely not too thick, it needs to have good chew with a slight crispy, crackly outside, and that famous char that can only be achieved in wood or coal fired ovens that can get upwards of 800 degrees. The crust is where so many pizzas fall short and not surprisingly, is the greatest challenge to home pizza making.

I always say that when I go out to eat, I want to eat something that I can't even come close to reproducing in my house. I tend to stay away from Italian restaurants, because I feel I can approximate (or even improve upon) most dishes at home. Stir-fry usually meets my craving for Chinese, and I can make a pretty decent Pad Thai. When I go out now, it's usually for sushi, which I don't think I'll ever try to make at home, or pizza, which I tried earlier tonight. Here's how it went.

I decided to use the pizza dough recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, the new cookbook I'd gotten for Christmas. I started yesterday by starting the dough and cutting it into six pieces which were allowed to rest in the fridge overnight. This step helps to develop flavor in the dough.

When I got home today, I took the dough out of the fridge, put it on the counter and patted it into 5 inch circles which sat for 2 hours. When I went to begin tossing the pizza dough to shape it into a larger circle, it began to tear. I think this is because my dough was either kneaded too little (not enough gluten development), or too wet. It wasn't too much of a problem though, instead of tossing it, I just put the dough rounds directly onto the peal and lightly pushed them out into 12 inch circles. Not as glamorous the US Pizza Team, but it worked nonetheless. I topped the first one with some mozzarella, and half mushroom, and cooked it in a 550 degree oven on baking tiles for 5 minutes.

The pie was a bit underdone and probably could've used another minute. The thickness was perfect though (according to me), and my daughter seemed to like it just fine. I thought I could do better. I made a margherita pizza next (fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomato). This time I brushed a little bit of oil on the outer crust to help it brown. The oil did it's job nicely, and the pizza looked perfect. It tasted good, but still needed a slight flavor enhancer.

The last 2 pies I made were a mozzarella with mushroom, and a plain mozzarella. I sprinkled them both with just a touch (about 1/8 tsp) of kosher salt, brushed them both with oil, and included a few red pepper flakes on the mushroom for a bit of an extra kick. These 2 pizzas looked beautiful coming out of the oven and were definitely the best 2 of the night. As I cooked pizza after pizza (6 in all), cornmeal began to collect on the tiles, and burn, which surprisingly added quite a bit of flavor to my bottom crust.

All in all, I'd say the pizza making was a success. The pizzas were thin, with a nicely flavored crust. Much better than anything from a chain restaurant, and at least as good as most pizza joints that use gas ovens. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get that really good charred, chewy crust that I love so much. This is almost certainly due to the fact that a home oven just can't get anywhere near 800 degrees. That's not to say that making pizza at home doesn't have its merits. First of all, it's fun and really not that difficult. While I'm more of a traditionalist, you can top your pies however you want, and pizza parties are a great idea when you're hosting guests. You just keep popping pizzas in the oven and everybody gets a fresh, hot slice every 15 minutes or so. Secondly, the pizza was really good, it just fell a little below my ridiculously high pizza standards. I will definitely be making more pizza at home in the future, as I look forward to experimenting with some different dough recipes to see if I can get that crust a little closer to perfect.

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