I've been making pizza for a couple of years now and just had an aha moment. I was working for the first time with cold fermentation and a recipe for Neapolitan pizza from seriouseats.com, http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2012/07/the-pizza-lab-three-doughs-to-know.html?ref=pop_serious_eats
. What a great dough. Stretchy, supple, strong, and hence a great pizza.
My first pizze were very disappointing. The crust was dry and hard as a rock at the rim and doughy and downright undercooked in the center. I donít remember the recipe for the dough, KAAP, Water, Olive oil, Salt and Fleischmanís fresh yeast. That I remember, but how much of each? Too much, too little and not enough is what the finished product said. I do know that I kneaded the hell out of it as I was accustomed to making pasta and thought the processes were similar. I was wrong, very wrong. This pizza was cooked in a home oven at 400 on a thin metal sheet. It was truly, barely edible. I was so disappointed. So much time, effort, not to mention the cost of materials, to produce this? Well, I Almost called it quits because I had no idea where things had gone so wrong. When you have no idea what to try next itís hard to envision the path forward.
I let it go for a while. A co-worker, whoíd spent considerable time in Italy, told me my pie was soft and undercooked because Iíd piled too many toppings, ďAmerican styleĒ, and that made a for a soggy pizza. He was partly correct, but there was more to it than that. I began searching the internet and found that pizza dough should not be overworked and that it should be wet and a bit sticky. I tried it again, with a wetter dough and fewer toppings and a hotter oven (450). Better, but still not good. The crust had little flavor, was hard to work with and still undercooked in the center. This was definitely not worth it. A week or so later I had another conversation with my co-worker and he said I needed a pizza stone. He was partly correct, but there was more to it than that.
I let it go for a while again as I couldnít see how a stone would make much difference. Iíd read on the internet that lots of people cooked adequate pizza on a metal sheet. There had to be something else I was doing wrong. I poked around on the net and came across www.pizamaking.com
. The best site on the net for pizza information. There you will find a welcoming group of obsessive, friendly and knowledgeable pizza addicts. This is where I learned how to control the too much, too little and not enough of what went into the dough. For my birthday I received a pizza stone and paddle and that spurred me back to the kitchen. Armed with new information and better equipment I was ready to make, if not the perfect pizza, at least an edible and tasty pie.
I cut back on the yeast and olive oil and increased the fermentation time. Three rises over a 5-6 hour period. All mixed by hand and almost no kneading. Wet and gloopy it went into a stainless steel bowl coated with just a bit of olive oil and covered with a towel. Rise punch, rise punch and ball, rise once more and it was time to make a pizza. The stone went into the cold oven an hour ago. The temp was set at 450. My dough was light and airy by this time and had grown into each other. I separated one ball and placed it on the floured counter and tried to work it gently into a pizza shape. I used my fingers to press out a 6 inch disk I then picked it up and tried to use the knuckles of my balled fist to gently stretch it out. It was working sort of. Very uneven, I then tried to toss it in the air with spin, like you see the pros doing and when I caught it, it tore. It was impossible to repair. Every time I pulled to seal a hole I made a new one. And it wasnít nearly the size I wanted. I ended up making a patch work of dough bandages and resorted to a rolling pin to coerce the dough to my will. Finally I had the shape I wanted, moved it onto the peel and began to assemble my pizza. A little red sauce, a combo of Mozzarella and Robusto (A Dutch cheese somewhere between Gouda and Parmigiano) and a sprinkling of Parmigiano topped with a nice hard salami and Italian sausage. I know too many topping, but hey I am an American and I like what I like.
Now for the tricky part, getting the wiggly pizza from the peel on to the blazing hot stone. A little back and forth to get the pizza moving and then a moment of faith that it would hit the stone and not the bottom of the oven I quickly slid the pizza off the peel and on to the stone. It made it! I closed the oven and hoped that this one would be a good one. I checked in 10 minutes and it was looking good. The crust on the edge was lightly browning and the toppings were getting nicely cooked. 5 more minutes and it was looking toasty around the edges, it was time to pull it out. Now I used the metal pan Iíd been using to cook pizza on to remove the hot, bubbling pizza. Such a demotion, but a job it was much better suited for. As it cooled I used a fork to lift the edge and check the bottom of the crust. It was a mottled collection of shades of brown and fully cooked all the way to the center. First piece? Crust around the edge was more cracker like, but not bad. Towards the center it was crunchy and chewy in a good way and supported the toppings with a bit of bend. This was a decent pizza. This was worth making again.
Since then Iíve made lots of pizze that were similar to and a bit better than this one. Makes for a good dinner and some lunches during the week and while Iím pleased with them Iím not necessarily proud of them. Iím proud of the effort. I like making things from scratch. Taking a list of ingredients and assembling them into a whole that is, hopefully, greater than their sum. And this process Iíve developed makes good food. I am pleased with that, but I know thereís more. I know the shortcomings of my pizza. I have to use a rolling pin to get the right shape and thickness. I know this squishes the air and life from the dough. It spends many hours rising, fermenting and filling with lightness and life and I come along and abuse it into the shape of a pizza. This makes the edge of my crust more cracker-like than dough with a nice chew. Itís called pizza dough, not pizza cracker. But here again I didnít know how to solve this problem until yesterday.
Iíd read that true Neapolitan pizza has to rise for long time and partly in a cold environment. I came across Kenjiís recipe and it called for an 8-12 hour room temp rise and then up to 4 days in the fridge. Part of my problem is never deciding to make pizza until the day before. This process is one you have to be thinking ahead and thatís not necessarily my strong point. But after reading Kenjiís article I was inspired to give it a try. Wednesday evening I mixed up the dough in my stainless steel bowl and covered it with a towel. Maybe five minutes. Next morning I pulled it out onto a lightly floured surface and gave it 2 minutes of kneading and then divided it into 4 parts. Each part went in a plastic zip lock bag and into the fridge. Maybe another 5 minutes. And then off to work. That evening I checked on them and was disappointed they hadnít risen more. I donít know why I thought they should, but I did. They looked small and clammy. Not inspirational at all. Friday evening I checked again and still small and clammy. I thought I might need to recombine and make 3 balls to get the size of pizza I was aiming for.
Itís midsummer and heating the oven up to 450 and cooking pizza in a hot house sounded like a bad idea so I decided to cook these pizze on the grill. Around noon I began to get all the ingredients together. I was going to make two chicken and pesto and two salami and sausage pizze. At 4:30 I took the dough out. They stuck to the inside of the bag and it was a bit of pain to get them out. I dusted them with flour and gently peeled them way from the plastic. Iíll have to think about that and see if I can come up with a better method. I formed each into a ball and set them in a lightly floured pan, covered it with a towel and left them on the counter. They still looked kind of small. Maybe they would rise a bit more and Iíd have enough to make all four.
By 6:30 the grill, with the stone, was hot. The thermometer was pegged as high as it could read at 450. The ingredients were assembled and the peel was at the ready. It was time to make a pizza. I uncovered the dough. Hmm, still rather small. I took one out and placed it on my floured counter. It was light and airy. You couldnít hold it as every time it was lifted the part not supported began to droop. The goal here was to not use the rolling pin and yet get the right size and thickness. Once on the counter I used my fingers to gently form a 6 inch circle. Iím thinking thereís no way this is going to make a 12 inch pizza without ripping. Better keep my rolling pin handy. I pick up the circle of dough by one side at a time and let it stretch down by its own weight and itís now about 8 inches in diameter. I then lift it up and use my knuckles to stretch it out. And this is where it became amazing. This dough was supple, delicate and yet strong. As I moved my hands around it stretched without breaking and it moved quickly. I barely moved my hands and gravity was making my pizza for me. It easily became an 12 inch pizza, it could have been 15 or more. I picked it up one last time to get it on the peel and it was so light and airy that as I laid it down it trapped a big air bubble in the middle. I had to lift up a side to release it. No holes, no tearing, no rolling pin. This was just awesome. Letís make a pizza.
This dough was a bit wetter than what I usually work with and I knew I had to work quickly or it would, despite putting a bit of extra flour on the peel, stick and be difficult to get onto the stone. Brush olive oil lightly around the edge, pesto, thin slices of tomato, chicken, artichoke hearts, mozzarella with a sprinkling of parmigiano. Now off to the grill. Pizza on the peel in one hand, lift the grill lid with the other. Start the back and forth movement to get the pizza moving andÖnot so much. It was sticking. Maybe there is a better method, but I often have this issue. I use my finger tips to lift the sticking sides and when it seemed to be moving enough made the bold move of faith and slid it quickly off the peel. And there it was, a 12 inch pie on the 14 inch stone. Close the lid. I had no idea how long this would take. In the housed with my old dough itís 15 minutes. Having read many times where people cook them for a few minutes and having no real idea how hot the grill was and not wanting to risk all the time and effort on the chance of burning this pizza I checked on it after 5 minutes. I lifted the lid and was hoping not to find a charred mess. It was beautiful. The edge and risen a half inch or more and was lightly browning. I lifted up the edge with a fork and the bottom was still whitish, but coming along nicely. Needs a bit more time, close the lid. 5 more minutes and I check again. It looks magnificent. Not at all like my regular pie. Nice, risen mottled brown crust, nicely toasted on the bottom. Off to the counter to cool and pop on the next pizza.
They were all delicious. Chewy, crunchy with flavors I had never had before that I canít even begin to describe because I donít completely understand what they were or how the hell they got in there. I just no they were very tasty. This was not just a good pizza it was a great pizza. Was it a perfect pizza? No, far from it, but one Iíd proudly serve to anyone.
I have done a bit more reading this morning on seriouseats.com http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2011/03/pizza-obsessives-chau-tran-the-balanced-approach-to-pizza-making.html?ref=search
and I think I understand a bit more about what this dough was doing. Itís all about gluten formation. That combination of hydration, protein level of the flour, movement and time. I think I should be able to get a similar effect in a one day dough, but my normal process doesnít get enough gluten formation to allow me to hand stretch. Perhaps too much water, or not enough kneading or too much yeast? Or maybe a combination of all these that can be varied depending on the specific ingredients youíre working with. This will require more experiments, more testing and more pizza. And thatís not a bad thing.