Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pizza Chez Darwin

Pizza is incredible. It's the perfect dinner, and the ultimate comfort food. Everyone loves it: even my two-year-old, asked for her favorite food, chirps, "Pee-ta!" The surest way to be branded as a weirdo and a social malefactor is to announce, "Actually, I don't really like pizza."

Well, we like pizza here (just ask the baby). We've been baking and experimenting with our dough for seven years. When we first were married, we tended to make a very basic bready puffy crust. It was amazingly mediocre -- not very exciting, kind of flavorless, but pretty quick. What first revolutionized our thinking was Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. His excellent overview of the science behind each step of the bread baking process, combined with Pizza Napoletana recipe, instantly transformed our pizza from bland to rustic and tender and delicious.

However, we are tinkerers by nature. Over time we've personalized the recipe through some alterations and additions. We're pretty darn pleased with our crust, so much so that when Reinhart came out with a new book specifically about pizza, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, we tried several of his new crust recipes, shrugged, and went back to using our own version. (This is not to disparage the book, which is a delightful read and had an influence on some of our cheese and sauce choices.)

I like recipes that have lots of details about the ingredients and process, so I'll include a both the long chatty form and the "just the facts, ma'am" version.


Pizza Chez Darwin, Long Version

4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
Bread flour produces a more elastic dough than all-purpose, but you can use all-purpose and leave out the oil.

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons instant yeast (1 teaspoon yeast if planning to refrigerate dough overnight)
Reinhart calls for instant yeast because you don't have to soak it to activate it, and I quite agree -- you can buy it in bulk packages and it keeps a long time in the back of the fridge. If you only have active dry yeast, one packet ought to do it (2 1/4 tsp.), in which case you probably shouldn't hold it overnight.

2 tablespoons ground flax seed
At some point my mother bought me a package of ground flax seed, saying that it was good for me. I've no doubt that there are plenty of health benefits, but to my mind the real advantage of using flax seed is that it gives even dough that only has an hour or two to rise a deeper, nuttier flavor. You can do without it, of course, but then you wouldn't be making my recipe. Ground flax seed is stored in the fridge -- we stack it with the yeast.

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups water

Semolina flour for dusting the peel
In terms of pizza prep, semolina is tops for allowing pizza to slide off a peel and giving a bit more flavor to the bottom of the crust. If you can't find semolina, you can use cornmeal, but it's an inferior substitute in every way -- too gritty and chunky.

Prepared pasta sauce
I've tried making my own sauce from canned crushed tomatoes and herbs and spices, but I confess that I don't really find the flavor that much different from using a jarred pasta sauce, which is more convenient. I usually choose the tomato and basil flavor, though a cheese variety also does well.

Mozzarella and parmesan cheese
I buy the big bags of pre-shredded mozzarella. Avoid those "fancy" shredded cheeses that are grated very fine -- the thicker shreds cover better with less, and don't get as greasy. Grating a bit of parmesan over the mozzarella gives a more intense flavor.

Toppings to suit
Some of our favorites: sliced kalamata olives, red onions, bell pepper, garlic, feta cheese or chevre, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil from our garden. We usually eat pizza on Friday nights and don't put any meat on it, but if we make it for company we'll get some prosciutto. The girls don't necessarily eat all the toppings, but they pick them off and then there's more for the adults.

1. Stir together flour, salt, yeast, and flax seed in a big bowl. Add olive oil and water and stir with a spoon until the flour starts absorbing the liquid. Then knead by hand in the bowl for about five minutes.
This is a very wet sticky dough which will stick to your hand, but the wetness is what makes it nice and rustic. It should stick to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides.

2. Pour a bit of olive oil in the bowl and roll the dough around to coat both it and the sides of the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.
Some recipes call for transferring the dough to a different oiled bowl, but why make more dishes? It doesn't hurt the dough to rise in the same bowl it's been mixed in -- just make sure your bowl is big enough. The dough is sticky enough that you'll need to scrape half of it off the bottom of the bowl and drizzle oil under it, then repeat on the other side. By that point it should move in enough of a mass that you can turn it to coat the top.

3. Allow dough to rise for several hours, or until roughly doubled, or refrigerate overnight. If the dough has been refrigerated, pull it out and let it warm up to room temperature, approximately two hours.
Refrigerating the dough retards fermenation enough to allow the enzymes more time to release more sugars from the starch. Then when the dough is "woken up", the yeast can feed on these otherwise unrealized sugars, making for a bread with a wonderful depth of flavor. It's well worth it -- if you can remember to do it. Frankly, I don't usually think about making pizza more than a few hours in advance. The addition of flax seed is an attempt to approximate the deeper, nuttier flavor of an aged dough without the aging, and I think it works pretty well.

4. Generously flour the counter, and transfer dough from bowl to counter. Sprinkle plenty of flour on top, then divide into four or six pieces. Gently shape each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Flour again, cover, and allow to rest 30 minutes to 2 hours.
This dough is wet enough that I prefer to make six smaller pizzas rather than four larger ones. A longer rest is better, but if you're in a hurry it's not really going to hurt the pizza to rest for thirty minutes, or even less.

5. Place a baking stone on the bottom rack of your oven, and preheat to 500 degrees.
I rarely take my pizza stone out of my oven, except to rinse it once in a while -- I don't really have anywhere to store it anyway. Reinhart recommends 45 minutes of preheating, but I've gotten away with as few as fifteen. Perhaps you're sensing a last-minute theme to my cooking?

Raise the other rack to the top slot to give yourself more room to maneuver later.


6. Generously dust a pizza peel with semolina flour. Shape one ball of dough into an 9-12 inch crust, gently stretching the edges and tossing if you can. If the dough starts to tear, stick it back together, and allow it to rest for a moment before continuing.
Semolina = pizza goodness. This dough is wet enough to stick to the peel if it sits too long, so have all your topping ingredients ready before you start to shape. I can rarely get the dough to stretch more than 12 inches, but sometimes a longer rest will result in a larger pie. If the dough won't stretch for you freehand, you can place it on the peel and tug at it a bit, but you usually won't get much more stretch at that point, and you run the risk of having the dough absorbing the semolina and sticking to the peel when you try to put it in the oven.

7. Spoon some tomato sauce on the pizza and spread it around with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly atop sauce, and grate a bit of parmesan on top. Add toppings judiciously.
You don't have to overdo it on any of the toppings. Too much sauce will bubble over; too much mozzarella will run and get greasy; too much parmesan will burn. If you want to top it further, just add one or two other ingredients, but again, don't overdo it.

8. Slide topped pizza onto stone. Bake about 8 minutes.
Hold the peel at a gentle angle to the stone and give it a shake to slide the pizza onto the stone. Once the pizza makes contact with the stone, withdraw the peel smoothly. Sometimes the pizza will stick to the peel as you try to slide it on, and cheese and toppings will spill onto a stone. This is maddening, so I advise any bystanders to stay the hell back. You can generally salvage toppings by scraping them up quickly with a metal spatula and flipping them back onto the pizza. If the pizza refuses to leave the peel, give it up and close the oven door -- don't keep trying in the heat, or the dough will melt onto the peel. Put the peel back on the counter and work some more semolina under the pie. Sometimes a bit of assistance with the spatula will get the pizza onto the stone.

I find that eight minutes is about the right amount of time for the crust to get all golden, the cheese to melt and bubble, and the toppings to bake. Sometimes the first pizza will take a bit longer; sometimes subsequent pizzas will bake quicker. Keep checking, and take it out when it looks done to you.


9. Remove pizza from oven and allow to cool for a few moments before serving.
If you try to cut a pizza right out of the oven, the cheese goes everywhere.

As I'm generally setting up another pizza on the peel at this point, I use a baking rack to remove the pizza. Then it can cool on the rack before being transferred to a cutting board. Stove top burners also make nice cooling racks, though you'll have semolina all over your stove -- a small price to pay for good pizza.


10. Repeat steps 6-9 for remaining dough balls.
When we make pizza for dinner, we put two or three through before sitting down to eat, and then Darwin and I trade off preparing the remaining pizzas throughout dinner. Don't set up a new pizza on the peel more than three minutes before the one baking is scheduled to come out, or your dough will certainly stick. This makes plenty of pizza, but it stores nicely as leftovers.

Pizza Chez Darwin, Short Form

4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast (1 teaspoon yeast if planning to refrigerate dough overnight)
2 tablespoons ground flax seed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups water
Semolina flour for dusting the peel
Prepared pasta sauce
Mozzarella and parmesan cheeses
Toppings to suit

1. Stir together flour, salt, yeast, and flax seed in a big bowl. Add olive oil and water and stir with a spoon until the flour starts absorbing the liquid. Then knead by hand in the bowl for about five minutes.


2. Pour a bit of olive oil in the bowl and roll the dough around to coat both it and the sides of the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.


3. Allow dough to rise for several hours, or until roughly doubled, or refrigerate overnight. If the dough has been refrigerated, pull it out and let it warm up to room temperature, approximately two hours.

4. Generously flour the counter, and transfer dough from bowl to counter. Sprinkle plenty of flour on top, then divide into four or six pieces. Gently shape each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Flour again, cover, and allow to rest 30 minutes to 2 hours.

5. Place a baking stone on the bottom rack of your oven, and preheat to 500 degrees.

6. Generously dust a pizza peel with semolina flour. Shape one ball of dough into an 9-12 inch crust, gently stretching the edges and tossing if you can. If the dough starts to tear, stick it back together, and allow it to rest for a moment before continuing.

7. Spoon some tomato sauce on the pizza and spread it around with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly atop sauce, and grate a bit of parmesan on top. Add toppings judiciously.

8. Slide topped pizza onto stone. Bake about 8 minutes.

9. Remove pizza from oven and allow to cool for a few moments before serving.

10. Repeat steps 6-9 for remaining dough balls.

16 comments:

Melanie B said...

mmmm.... sounds great.I'll have to try it. I'm still searching for a perfect pizza recipe.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I can personally testify to the quality of the Darwins' pizza: It is delectable.

My quick and easy version of pizza sauce consists of one 8 oz. can of tomato sauce (any brand that is not watery) mixed with a freshly crushed clove of garlic. (By crushed, I mean put through a garlic press.)

crankycon said...

You just made my mouth water.

My mother-in-law just sent us a pizza stone, as well as the book you mentioned. We need to get cookin' with it.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I forgot to ask:

Why do you omit the oil when using all purpose flour?

mrsdarwin said...

Why do you omit the oil when using all purpose flour?

Oil tenderizes the dough, and since the all-purpose flour isn't as elastic and springy as the bread flour, it doesn't need tenderizing so much. At least that's what the book tells me. :)

Amber said...

Wow, this looks great. I've long been looking for a good crust recipe - the ones I have used range from so-so to not worth the effort!

And thanks for your prayers and congratulations :-)

TS said...

When I heard today that Tim Russert gives up pizza and beer for Lent, my respect for the late moderator doubled.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Pizza, God's perfect food!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I tried the Darwins' pizza crust last night. I didn't have any ground flax seed, but it was very good none the less. (I'm glad the long version of the recipe warned me about how sticky and slack the dough would be. Otherwise I'd have thought something was wrong.) Lovely texture though.

bearing said...

Do you ever make it with any whole wheat flour? And if so, how do you alter your recipe? I have gotten the proportions up to 50-50 with decent texture, if I add a couple tbsp of wheat gluten powder.

mrsdarwin said...

We've substituted up to a cup of King Arthur's white whole wheat flour and adjusted the water so that the consistency is still sticky. I don't really prefer the taste, though, so we don't do it often.

Sister Mary Martha said...

I am exhausted from just reading that. And you also have two year old?

Niall Mor said...

OK, everybody! Dinner at Darwin's house tonight! :)

Melanie B said...

We tried this Thursday night. Yum, yum!!! I wrote it up (with pictures!) for our cooking blog.

Lenetta @ Nettacow said...

Though I have enough pizza crust recipes to last until I die, I'm a sucker for new ones, because I can't seem to find one that elicits a response greater than "meh". So! I look forward to trying this one out. :>) I linked to it on my weekly roundup, post is here. Thanks for sharing! (and I love people who are as nerdy as me about including all the details and tweaks they did!) :>)