Archive for August, 2011

Alright, now we’ve got the home-made crust mojo working, let’s get to the nitty gritty of pizza-making: shaping, topping & baking.

Disclaimer: I’m a pasty white English girl who hasn’t worked a pizza joint a day in her life. I have no doubt that my methods would send any self-respecting pie-maker screaming for the hills. If you’re looking for authentic Neapolitan-style pizza & cultural purity, this isn’t the place.

First off, fire up your oven & get your baking surface of choice ready. I use a large flat baking stone, which gives a pretty great crust – the heavy stone distributes the heat very evenly & doesn’t trap any moisture, allowing for a nice crisp underside to my pizza even when I’m using moist toppings. You can find proper baking stones pretty easily these days (mine is from The Pampered Chef, & NY Bakers has lovely thick, professional -grade ones), but please don’t try to DIY it & use unglazed quarry tiles. Quarry tile isn’t manufactured with food preparation in mind, & there’s some concern over lead & arsenic levels. Shell out the extra cash & get a stone designed for the job.

If you don’t have a stone, a heavy-weight, uncoated baking sheet will do. We’ll be baking at pretty high temperatures, so now is not the time to use anything Teflon-coated.

Move your oven rack to the lower third, & slide in your stone. If you’re using a baking sheet, put it in upside down. No, I’m not on drugs. Trust me.

Preheating your oven & baking surface properly makes a huge difference in your final pizza. Turn your oven to 390-400F a good half hour before you plan to bake, 45 minutes if you’re using a stone.

I bake my pizzas on baking parchment. I find it makes the handling of the ready-to-bake pizza much, much easier, & its presence doesn’t hinder good crust formation. The times I’ve tried the cornmeal-&-baking-peel technique, I’ve ended up with a disaster, so I leave that to the professionals.

On a piece of parchment roughly the size of your baking surface, slap down your chilled dough. Dust your hands & the dough lightly with flour &, working from the center out, push your dough into shape. I like to work in a circle, pushing the fat edge of the dough out bit by bit (this is where the parchment really comes in handy, as there’s no worry about the dough sticking to the counter). Having your dough nice & cold will make the shaping process a lot easier; if the dough starts to fight you & spring back, cover it with a clean tea towel & let it rest for a minute or two, then continue shaping. If you’re not married to the idea of a nice fat crust to hold onto, you can also use a rolling pin. Get the main body of the crust nice & thin & even, but not too thin – it’s got a lot of tasty stuff to support.

Once your crust is shaped, slide it to one side & get working on your sauce & toppings…

We’re largely vegetarian in our house, & I use pizza as a convenient way to jam a ton of veggies into our 5-year-old son (& us grown-ups, who am I kidding). Mushrooms are standard – half a pound of baby portobellos, sliced & sauteed in olive oil over high heat. (Sauteing fresh veggies before adding them to your pizza helps eliminate that watery mess that often comes with adding mushrooms/spinach/peppers.) I love a few roasted red peppers (I buy them jarred from the local wholesale club when I don’t have time to roast my own), & a scattering of chopped olives (a mix of Kalamata & olive-cured). Bitter greens shredded & sauteed make a really nice addition, especially mid-winter, as do a few grape/cherry tomatoes, cut in half.

As for cheese, I usually use semi-skimmed, pre-shredded mozzarella, about 2 cups per pizza. I find the full-fat mozzarella far too greasy for our tastes… For a change of pace, I’ll sometimes go lighter on the shredded & add slices of fresh mozzarella, a handful of crumbled feta, or shredded Parmesan.

Now, to the sauce… There are times when a lovingly-tended, simmered-for-hours sauce is a thing of magic & beauty. 6:15 on a Thursday night is not one of those times.

Down & Dirty Pizza Sauce

1 tin quality tomato paste (I use the organic store brand)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons warm water

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried basil

1-3 cloves garlic, crushed

Optional pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt & pepper to taste

Combine in a small bowl & stir til smooth, adding a bit additional water if necessary.

Using quality tomato paste gives this sauce its rich, velvety flavor. Don’t cheap out – bad tomato paste is metallic & cooked-tasting & foul. Try a few brands til you find which one actually tastes like tomatoes. The added water & oil open up the texture of the paste & allow the herbs to come through. If you’ve got a batch of garlic-&-basil paste on hand, now’s the time to use it – 3 tablespoons of it will replace the olive oil, basil & garlic in the above recipe. If I’m doing a winter pizza with bitter greens, I’ll add half a teaspoon of fennel seeds for a vague hint of sausage-y sweetness.

Now we’ve got all the components ready, time to assemble & get this thing of beauty into the oven.

Sauce first, then toppings, then cheese. You know how to do this part, right?

To get your pizza into the oven, you’ll need another large baking sheet (or a really large cutting board) & a pair of oven mitts…

Turn the baking sheet upside down &, using the parchment, slide your pizza onto the back of the baking sheet. Open the oven &, using the oven mitts, pull out the oven rack as far as it’ll safely go. Again, using the parchment, slide your pizza from the back of the baking sheet onto your blisteringly-hot pizza stone. (It should go without saying that a fair bit of caution is necessary at this moment – this is not the time to have kids/dogs/small amphibians underfoot.) Slide the rack back in, close the oven, & do a little pizza dance.

Crack open a beer or a nice bottle of red, & leave the oven alone for at least 10 minutes. After ten minutes, keep an eye on things – you want the cheese to brown ever so gently around the edges, & the crust to lose its doughiness. Better to slightly over-bake than under.

When you can’t take it any longer, grab your spare sheet pan, open the oven & using the parchment, slide your smoking-hot pizza off the stone & onto the back of the pan. Let it rest for 4-5 minutes before cutting, to give the cheese a chance to set. Drizzle it with a bit of garlic-&-basil paste, or some extra-fancy olive oil, if you like.

Nicely done. Take-out pizza will never taste the same…



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See, I didn’t leave you hanging after yesterday’s teaser

In our efforts to eat more responsibly, we’ve been trying to rein in the whole ordering-out-for-dinner business. One, it’s spendy. Two, now that I’m self-employed, the whole long-day-at-the-office excuse holds no water whatsoever. And three, there’s a limit to the healthy/organic/meatless choices available in these parts. We do still indulge every other week or so, but it’s just that – an indulgence, not a default.

One of the easiest take-out dinners to do at home is pizza, and we fire up the oven for pizza night nearly every week. It’s simple, tasty, & a damn sight better for us than what we’d normally get delivered. Also, it’s gorgeous. And there’s no canned mushrooms, bleargh.

Making pizza at home requires a little pre-planning, but honestly, not that much. Once you’re done it a few times, you’ll be able to knock out a good pie in under 20 minutes. Now, I’m going to throw down the gauntlet & walk you through making your own dough. From scratch. I can hear all the excuses forming in your mind… it takes too long, I’ve never made yeast bread, I don’t have a mixer. Bollocks, I say. Pizza dough takes all of 20 minutes to make (and my recipe gives you enough dough for three crusts), & it’s one of the easiest introductions to yeast cookery you could ask for. Once you’ve made your own, the pre-fab, pre-frozen stuff will be revealed for the tasteless cardboard it truly is. Even bad home-made pizza crust is still pretty damn good when you pile it with your favorite toppings. So, deep breath, hold my hand, & let’s get baking.


Real Pizza Dough

This recipe makes enough dough for 3 medium crusts, about 10″x15″ each

3 cups warm tap water (meaning warm, not hot – aim for 90F if you have a stem thermometer)

2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt (stick to 2 teaspoons if you’re using regular table salt)

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 rounded tablespoon instant dry yeast (see my stub on what yeast I use here)

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

Appx 5 cups all purpose flour

(Note: if you’re using regular active dry yeast, use the same rounded tablespoon, but dissolve it in about 1/2 cup of your warm water first. Stir it well & let it bubble up a bit before adding it to the rest of the ingredients.)

In a large mixing bowl (or your stand mixer bowl), combine the water & salt. Stir to dissolve the salt completely. Add the oil, the whole wheat flour & about 2 cups of the all purpose flour. On top of the flours, sprinkle your dry yeast. (This keeps the yeast from coming in direct contact with the salt water, which can seriously hamper yeast activity.) Using the dough hook attachment or your bare, clean hand (take off your rings first, you’ll thank me later), stir slowly til everything’s combined in a lovely sticky mess. Slowly add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well between additions.

You may need more than 5 cups flour, you may not – flours absorb water at different rates, & ambient humidity plays a factor. The trick is to add flour just until the dough is sturdy enough to hold its shape. It should still be really sticky – you definitely don’t want it to come away cleanly from the sides of the bowl. Stop adding flour when you think you might just be able get it out of the bowl without it oozing all over the counter. Keep mixing for another few minutes, until you start to see some nice stretchy gluten webbing developing. Stop, cover the bowl with a clean, damp dishtowel & let it rest for about 15 minutes. This lets the gluten relax a little & allows the flour to absorb the water undisturbed. It also gives the yeast a chance to start working.

After 15 minutes or so, give the dough another few turns to deflate it & see how it’s holding together. When in doubt, don’t add more flour. The wetter your dough, the better texture you’ll get when it’s baked. Dust your counter heavily with flour & scrape your finished dough out of the bowl. Use a bench scraper or a wide knife to divide it into 3 even masses, & shape each into a rough ball. Wrap two balls in double plastic & chuck them in the freezer for future dinners. Take the remaining ball, slap it in an oiled bowl, cover it with plastic & pop it in the fridge while you prep your sauce & toppings. Chilling the dough helps relax the gluten, making the dough easier to manage when it comes time to shape your crust. You can leave the dough in the fridge for up to 24 hours before baking – just check it in the morning to make sure it hasn’t come to life & tried to colonize the vegetable drawer… To use your frozen dough, defrost it in the fridge for 24 hours – that long slow defrost makes a huge difference in the final texture & flavor.

See? Easy peasy. With a stand mixer, making pizza dough is a breeze; by hand, it’s messy as anything, but still a very simple process, one that I wish more people would try. If you want more detailed instructions on yeast doughs & what the hell gluten is, I’ll do a special Chef Hayley post sometime & put all that pastry school geekery to work.


Next post, I’ll show you how to shape your crust, you can weigh in on my unconventional sauce recipe, & we’ll get this puppy in the oven…

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Yeastie beasties

As I’m going to be doing a few posts on yeast doughs in the next few weeks, I though it would be useful to do a quick stub on what yeast I’m using, why & how.

My yeast of choice is SAF Red Instant Yeast. I buy it in 1-pound bricks from King Arthur Flour, which I pour into a heavy zip-loc bag & store in the freezer. Each pound will last me about a year.

There’s a lot of kerfuffle about instant yeast. Purists will tell you that there’s a lack of flavor, that it reacts too quickly & leads to faster staling in the final product. In theory, I understand their concerns, but in practice, quality instant yeast yields consistently good results for me. The benefit to instant yeast is that, unlike cake yeast or traditional active dry yeast, it requires no coddling or pre-hydrating before being added to a recipe. You’ll notice in my future posts that I don’t do the archetypal step of dissolving the yeast in a bit of warm water & letting it foam before adding it to the rest of the ingredients. That’s because I’m using instant yeast.

So, what if you don’t have instant yeast? No worries. You can use the same amount of active dry yeast as called for in any of my recipes. I’ve found that Red Star is a reliable store brand, Fleischmann’s less so. Always check the expiration dates when buying yeast, especially on those little packets – dig around & pull from the very back of the display, where the air is coldest & the product freshest. Store your yeast in the freezer until you need it – you can take it straight from frozen to your warm water, no need to pre-thaw it.

(Cake yeast, the foil-wrapped squares that our grandmothers used, is to be avoided, in my opinion. It’s devilishly hard to ensure that it’s fresh, & as it’s in a wet environment, it’s very susceptible to mold.)

Now we’ve covered that, let’s get baking…

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Oh August, you are making July look like the dog’s breakfast… After weeks of temps in the high 90s, August has been deliciously kind to us – mid 80s during the day, mid-60s at night, & torrential downpours every few days to keep the garden happy.

And happy it is.

Thus begins the succulent & slightly overwhelming tomato season, when each night’s foray into the back forty yields yet another armful of ripe-to-bursting fruit, when the kitchen counter is overrun & we start to wonder what in blazes we were thinking putting in so many plants. And then my mum brings over a handful from her garden, too. It’s a delicious problem to have, I’ll admit.

I’ll be making a big batch of oven-roasted tomato sauce later in the week, but right now, we’re taking advantage of the bounty & eating as many garden-warm tomatoes as we can stand, usually dressed with basil & garlic paste, a slosh of olive oil & balsamic vinegar, & a scattering of salt & freshly-ground pepper. So this…

…plus this…









Becomes this:

I’ve been using my basil & garlic paste on all kinds of things this summer – it’s quick, easy, & encourages me to harvest the basil before it goes to flower. It stays green for a few days in the fridge, & encapsulates the simple decadence of the late-summer garden.


Basil & Garlic Paste

Appx 2 cups fresh basil leaves, stripped from their stems (we grow mainly sweet basil, but Genovese makes a nice spicy paste)

2-4 fresh garlic cloves, peeled & quartered (use more or less depending on your garlic tolerance – 2 is nice & savory, 4 will slay minor dragons)

Appx 1/2 – 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Pulse basil, garlic & most of the olive oil in a food processor until finely ground, adding more oil as necessary to make a fairly loose, wet paste. Season with salt & pepper if you like (I don’t, as I prefer to season each dish individually). Transfer immediately to a small glass jar, cover tightly & refrigerate until needed.

The extra oil helps seal out the air, slowing oxidation & keeping the paste green. As there’s raw garlic involved, I’d use this within 4-5 days at most – uncooked garlic + anaerobic environment (i. e. stored in oil) = chance for botulism. Always keep any kind of raw garlic & oil preparation refrigerated.

(By now you’re probably wondering why on earth I didn’t just make pesto… don’t get me wrong, home-made pesto is a thing of beauty, & feel free to add 1/2 a cup of pine nuts & 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan to the mix if you’d like to make your own. In all honesty, I find the extra fat from the nuts & cheese too heavy for the delicate flavor of sweet basil – the basil becomes a background flavor, rather than the star of the show. But that’s just me – pesto your hearts out, if you so desire.)

To use, swirl a large spoonful of basil & garlic paste into a medium bowl of hot pasta, mashed/steamed potatoes, fresh chopped tomatoes, sauteed summer squash, scrambled eggs, bocconcini, roasted eggplant… you get the idea. Spread it on toasted sourdough, top with a few warm slices of tomato & have the best lunch summer can offer. Drizzle it over home-made pizza just as it comes out of the oven, like we did the other night…

Yes, I took pictures. And yes, I’ll post the recipe tomorrow.

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