The Art of Pizza, Chapter One: Dough
Let me sing the praises of the humble pizza pie: fresh dough, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese! There, I’m done, and if your mouth isn’t watering, actually picture it — nay, smell it.
Ask any kid, and most adults, if they could eat pizza straight for a week, and they’d say sure. Pizza’s a versatile beast, and loves toppings… added sparingly. There’s Sicilian, and Neopolitan, and Chicago-style too.
Like many of you, I grew up dreaming of pizza. It wasn’t something we had often — and it was always from a restaurant. It was a kind of special occasion — the day after Passover, say.
Pizza was one of the first meals I learned how to cook right, and I’m going to teach you the same way, because experience is the best teacher.
We start with the crust, because it’s the fundament on which the entire structure is built:
1.5 cups water, warmed to about body temperature — or a bit warmer. The trick to this ingredient is to take a cup of cold, and mix it with a half cup of boiling. Voila! Right temperature, every time.
1 tsp salt — you want fine, so it’ll dissolve without fuss.
2 tsp yeast — a packet will do, but plan on buying a jar, because you want to learn, and learning takes repetition.
White flour — generally around 3 cups.
I use a stand mixer, so I’m going to give you that as a starting point. Add the water (making sure it’s not too hot to touch. you can kill the yeast if your water is too hot. If it is, simply walk away for a bit, and come back later.) Then the salt, and then the yeast.
Get out the breadhook, and put that on the stand mixer, and then add about a cup of flour. Don’t forget to lock the mixer down, and start it on its lowest setting. Let it spin until you’ve got a flour/water soup. Then start adding more flour, about a half cup at a time. Your goal is to get a ball of bread, that doesn’t totally stick to the edge of the machine. It’s better to add too little flour than too much, as it’s easier to add more flour while kneading, than to try and knead in water.
Okay, so you have a “well mixed” ball of dough. Put flour on the counter (or your pastry mat, or your silicone pads, or plastic wrap if you’re desperate…) and then put down your dough. You’re going to want to fold it in half, and then press down on it relatively hard. Then give it a quarter turn, and do it again. You don’t need to be exact, but you do need to keep doing it until the dough’s well kneaded (it will have the consistency of your earlobe). Add more flour if the dough sticks to your hands, and keep it as a ball — if you think you’ve added too much flour, knead it for another five minutes, and it will generally distribute itself well. What you’re doing is stretching out the gluten strands, and forming them into a square matrix, which can hold the air the yeast generates.
Okay, so you’re done kneading! Now what? Take a bowl — at least twice the size of the doughball, and put a bit of olive oil in it. Now, put the doughball into the olive oil, and rub it around. If you put in too much olive oil, don’t worry — after the rising, you can knead it back into the dough. Either cover the bowl with something impermeable (like a secure plastic lid) or cover it with a wet dishcloth. You do not want your dough to dry out, capiche?
Now, the rising: The “quick” way is to just toss it in the fridge overnight (punch down in the morning) and it will be ready for tomorrow’s supper. The less quick way (Sunday Special) is to let it rise until doubled, on a warm counter (or a cool one, it’ll just take longer).
Next, you’re going to want to punch it down — the goal is to get all the air out of the dough, so work it pretty thoroughly, and then form it back into a ball.
At this point, you’re ready to turn it into a crust! You can, if you’re adventurous, try the whole spin it around your head, but that takes far more practice than I’ve ever been willing to do, and it really only speeds the process up a bit. Instead, take a rolling pin, and start rolling out the dough — on your pizza pan (or cookie sheet). You’re not trying to get it “perfectly flat” — just an approximation of a plate, not a bowling ball. Okay, so you have a flat bread. Now, pick it up from the edge, and watch it start to droop, a bit. Move your hands around the edge, and it will continue to stretch out. This is one way to make a pizza pie. If that sounds too fiddly for you, give the flatbread ten minutes, and then start pulling, grab up a crust-sized edge, and pull away from the center. Continue around the edges until it’s done. Try not to tear the dough, and try not to have it be translucent, as that’ll make it hard to cook.
If you want a New York crust, use refrigerator dough, and roll out as quickly as possible. After it’s rolled out, give it about ten minutes before putting it in the oven. If you want a puffier, Sicilian style crust, use warmer dough, or let it sit out about 30-45 minutes (put a wet towel on top so it doesn’t dry off).
This is a simple, everyday — workday crust. It’s about the quickest yeast bread I know how to make — and that’s partially because I just had you make three pizza’s worth! Yeah, you’ve just committed yourself to three pizzas in the next few days (the dough will taste different the second and third day, as it sours a bit, but it’ll be just fine). Practice makes perfect.
Next installment: The Sauce
[Images: Cover photo, Salumi Pizza with Hot Peppers and Honey, via Tod’s Kitchen. Post photo: Pepperoni Pizza Fast Food, via Wiki Commons]
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