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All About Pizza


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and right, sadly french baguettes seem to be in decline. and "italian" bread is best outside of italy (judging from my many disappointments in northern italy).

Is the baguette still in decline? I thought it reached its nadir some time ago. I often wonder why I ever loved it. Did I not know better or was it much better in the sixties? Was that sort of bread done much worse here in the states back then? I don't know, but I can say that the baguette is not as prized as it used to be in France. The better cafes all seem to charge extra for sandwiches on Pain Poilane and feature its availability prominantly.

The bread in restaurants varies in France. Sometimes it's terrible at the cafe and lower middle restaurant level. Sometimes it's quite good.

Indeed, "Italian bread" and French bread" are names given to breads that are not made in a loaf pan, but are otherwise without significance in the US and I suspect the UK.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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However, time and time and time again whenever you say anything mildly critical you get the Americans bleating company lin: "I wonder how we became the richest, most powerful and most successful nation on earth populated with such idiots?" This argument can go on and on and I do not want to contribute to it.

While I don't particularly support that sort of statement even in the sarcasitc context in which it was posted, more noteworty in my mind is your effort to smear a nationality or group in reaction to a single statement by an individual. You "win" your debates by leaving your opposition wondering whether to defend his point or his honor. It's a cheap shot and it makes me wonder if you get the very idea of discussing ideas or if all your "debates" are about "dissing" the other side and diluting content.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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and right, sadly french baguettes seem to be in decline. and "italian" bread is best outside of italy (judging from my many disappointments in northern italy).

Is the baguette still in decline? I thought it reached its nadir some time ago. I often wonder why I ever loved it. Did I not know better or was it much better in the sixties? Was that sort of bread done much worse here in the states back then? I don't know, but I can say that the baguette is not as prized as it used to be in France. The better cafes all seem to charge extra for sandwiches on Pain Poilane and feature its availability prominantly.

I think the 'baguette tradition' is what you order at the bakery if you actually want a good baguette. I think this is because it is not regulated like the baguette. It is slightly more expensive (near me it is 95c or 1 euro versus 72 c for a standard baguette).

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I think the 'baguette tradition' is what you order at the bakery if you actually want a good baguette.  I think this is because it is not regulated like the baguette.  It is slightly more expensive (near me it is 95c or 1 euro versus 72 c for a standard baguette).

I think I've been told this is the model for the baguettes baked and sold at the Pain Quotidien bakeries in NYC, which I've come to love. As I recall the standard baguette, or whatever it is called, has been regulated by price/weight for some time. I supppose it's not a surprise that bread bakers would allow a product with a minimal profit margin to decline while devoting their attention to products that would earn a better reward for their time and investment.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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and right, sadly french baguettes seem to be in decline. and "italian" bread is best outside of italy (judging from my many disappointments in northern italy).

Is the baguette still in decline? I thought it reached its nadir some time ago. I often wonder why I ever loved it. Did I not know better or was it much better in the sixties? Was that sort of bread done much worse here in the states back then? I don't know, but I can say that the baguette is not as prized as it used to be in France. The better cafes all seem to charge extra for sandwiches on Pain Poilane and feature its availability prominantly.

I think the 'baguette tradition' is what you order at the bakery if you actually want a good baguette. I think this is because it is not regulated like the baguette. It is slightly more expensive (near me it is 95c or 1 euro versus 72 c for a standard baguette).

And, I forgot to say, much better. They are much denser, with unbleached flour, and generally very tasty. The normal baguettes

are much blander -- good for breakfast, and maybe if you want to cook with them in some way, but otherwise to be avoided.

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I think I've been told this is the model for the baguettes baked and sold at the Pain Quotidien bakeries in NYC, which I've come to love. As I recall the standard baguette, or whatever it is called, has been regulated by price/weight for some time. I supppose it's not a surprise that bread bakers would allow a product with a minimal profit margin to decline while devoting their attention to products that would earn a better reward for their time and investment.

The "standard" recipe for 2 14" baguettes is 3 1/2 cups "bread" flour, active yeast dissolved in 1 1/3 cups of water (more or less), 2 1/4 tsps of salt, and 1 Tbs of wheat or rye flour. The dough goes through three rises of 1-1.5 hours each at 70-75 degress F. After each of the first two rises, the dough is firmy kneeded and pushed firmly to deflate them and distribute the yeast throughout the dough. The loaves are formed after the second rising. They are baked in a stone lined oven, with steam at the start, at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes or so, and another 10 minutes, give or take, at 400 degrees F. When the internal temp of the loaf reaches 200 degrees F, they are done.

Assuming this recipe is followed and good quality ingredients are used, how can quality decline. Are the bakers using crummy flour, rushing the rises, or doing a lousy job of kneading?

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Assuming this recipe is followed and good quality ingredients are used, how can quality decline.  Are the bakers using crummy flour, rushing the rises, or doing a lousy job of kneading?

Door number two, jaybee. Rushing the development of the dough, especially where commercial yeast is involved, will result in that soft, collapsible crumb that has been the undoing of the classic French baguette. The traditional French promise of "pain frais toutes les quatre heures" has been upheld with a similarly collapsed production process in order to cut shifts and hence labor costs. As you point out, production costs can't really be cut because the government regulates ingredient specs.

It's a hurryup world, and that's the enemy of good bread dough.

Btw, you may have noticed that the Pioilane loaf at the event yesterday had that beautiful, springy, translucent crumb that is the opposite of what we're talking about here. It is a product of time. And natural starter.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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I think I've been told this is the model for the baguettes baked and sold at the Pain Quotidien bakeries in NYC, which I've come to love. As I recall the standard baguette, or whatever it is called, has been regulated by price/weight for some time. I supppose it's not a surprise that bread bakers would allow a product with a minimal profit margin to decline while devoting their attention to products that would earn a better reward for their time and investment.

The "standard" recipe for 2 14" baguettes is 3 1/2 cups "bread" flour, active yeast dissolved in 1 1/3 cups of water (more or less), 2 1/4 tsps of salt, and 1 Tbs of wheat or rye flour. The dough goes through three rises of 1-1.5 hours each at 70-75 degress F. After each of the first two rises, the dough is firmy kneeded and pushed firmly to deflate them and distribute the yeast throughout the dough. The loaves are formed after the second rising. They are baked in a stone lined oven, with steam at the start, at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes or so, and another 10 minutes, give or take, at 400 degrees F. When the internal temp of the loaf reaches 200 degrees F, they are done.

Assuming this recipe is followed and good quality ingredients are used, how can quality decline. Are the bakers using crummy flour, rushing the rises, or doing a lousy job of kneading?

They go through the last rising already in loaf shape - then are just put in the oven? The oven is at 450 then you lower the temperature or do you need to change ovens?

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All bread goes through its last rise in shaped form, Craig. Then it's loaded. Here at home, I put usually put mine in at 500 degrees for the first ten minutes during the steam phase, then turn it down to 450 for the rest of the bake. The inital higher temperature is meant to enable the "oven spring" effect, so your loaf gets a jump start.

In a commercial deck oven, or in a wood or coal oven too for that matter, I imagine the loaves are moved around to make use of different temperature "spots". I don't have any commercial experience, but I'll try to remember to ask next time I visit a bakery.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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They go through the last rising already in loaf shape - then are just put in the oven? The oven is at 450 then you lower the temperature or do you need to change ovens?

Yes, the last rising is after the loaves are formed. I am following Julia Childs' recipe here, as published in The Way to Cook. I found the same recipe in six or seven other books by different authors. I didn't change ovens,as I have only one. The temperature is turned down to 400F. But I suppose the oven probably loses only 10-15 degrees in ten minutes. I used this to bake two loaves for the bread event and they came out pretty good. I left the loaves to rise for nearly 3 hours. The finished product was pretty dense and chewy.

It got good reviews at the party, but I don't know what someone with very high standards would say. :wink:

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Rushing the development of the dough, especially where commercial yeast is involved, will result in that soft, collapsible crumb that has been the undoing of the classic French baguette.

I know nothing about the baking process, but that description of the "soft, collapsible crumb" resonates perfectly for me with my experience of much French bread. Thanks, Robert, for explaining the reason.

I suppose I still prefer a soft, collapsible crumb to the non-existent crumb in Wonderloaf. I don't know what you call something that instantly transforms to Playdoh when you squeeze it, but it sure can't be "crumb" :raz:

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The "standard" recipe for 2 14" baguettes is 3 1/2 cups "bread" flour, active yeast dissolved in 1 1/3 cups of water (more or less), 2 1/4 tsps of salt, and 1 Tbs of wheat or rye flour.  The dough goes through three rises of 1-1.5 hours each at 70-75 degress F.  After each of the first two rises, the dough is firmy kneeded and pushed firmly to deflate them and distribute the yeast throughout the dough.  The loaves are formed after the second rising.  They are baked in a stone lined oven, with steam at the start, at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes or so, and another 10 minutes, give or take, at 400 degrees F.  When the internal temp of the loaf reaches 200 degrees F, they are done.

Assuming this recipe is followed and good quality ingredients are used, how can quality decline.  Are the bakers using crummy flour, rushing the rises, or doing a lousy job of kneading?

Note Bene

Horrors. :shock: I forgot to add to the above recipe 2 1/4 TBS of sugar added to the yeast in the yeast proofing stage. Sorry. Bad omission. The yeast needs the sugar to be activated.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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  • 6 months later...

I bought a retirement home in Italy three years ago, and I was fortunate in that the house did not need a lot of work. However, with the Euro (well, lira pegged to the Euro) at 85 cents to the dollar, money that I no longer had was nevertheless burning a hole in my pocket. As a consequence, I decided to realize a lifelong ambition: my very own wood-fired pizza oven. After considerable research, I found the perfect model, a combination oven and wood-fired grill, with generous storage compartments for wood underneath each. My friends balked, but I explained that I could use it in life for making fabulous pizza, bread and steak florentine, and then be cremated in the oven upon my passing (and since nobody was likely to use the oven after that, my ashes could be stored in a small urn where the wood supply rests today). Surely that would be much less expensive than a traditional burial alone, and so much more fun! It is the size of an upper middle-class mausoleum, and the exterior was finished to match our house, right down to the terra cotta roof tiles. The whole scene resembles nothing so much as one of those grand old Victorian homes that has a playhouse for the children in the yard which is a miniature and architecturally perfect knockoff of the main house!

But to my point. For the humorous side of obsession with the perfect pizza, I refer you to the earlier thread on this board entitled "Buffala Mozzarella", in which malcolmjolley attached the great Jeffrey Steingarten piece on the perfect pizza. For the past decade, I have been just as relentless as Steingarten, but far more serious. I have tried every possible dough recipe, and every topping combination. I tried pizza discs, pizza pans and pizza stones. I tried electric ovens, gas ovens, convection ovens, toaster ovens and outdoor grills. I used regular flour, whole-wheat flour, combinations of flours, and even sourdough starter. I made thick crusts, thin crusts and cracker crusts. I used regular mozzarella, buffala, four-cheese blends, everything I could think of. I used fresh tomatoes and numerous red, white and pesto sauce recipes. Eventually, I learned The Truth. Great pizza is not so much about any of those things. It is much more about technique. For the successful pizzaiolo, pizza is a spiritual thing, a Zen thing, a fung shui thing, a high-level intellectual pursuit. Like high chefdom or acting, it is about the pleasure you give to others (and, of course, the kudos that come with the territory) more than it is about mere eating. When you are at one with the process, everything else seems to fall into place. After ten years, I experienced such an epiphany this summer.

I do not want to offend any Chicago deep-dish, cracker crust or "New York style" (whatever the hell that means) fans with what I am about to say. Consider the following to be one man's personal Truth. I must also add the caveat that I am arrogant enough to believe that, as remarkable as the authentic Neapolitan pizza is, it can be improved upon (but in truth, only slightly). So here goes:

1. The Oven. You must have a wood-fired pizza oven made of the terra cotta known as cotto refrattario, which, to my knowledge, is not manufactured outside of Italy. It is a material that can withstand temperatures in excess of 1,000F without suffering damage. Among other things, it absorbs moisture from the pizza to produce the perfect crust. No other commercial pizza oven has a prayer of duplicating its effect. In particular, you build a raging fire on the floor of the oven hours in advance of its use, and then leave some of the embers to one side of the oven to provide a convection-like heat to cook the top of the pizza while the floor cooks the bottom of the crust. Such an oven, stoked to 700+F, can cook a thin-crust pizza in two minutes. It gives you that charcoal-blistering effect on the rim of the pizza, while the cheese and toppings bubble like a witch's cauldron. It is a thing of unparalleled beauty to watch!

2. The Dough. Second in importance only to the oven (although you could no doubt have a deep philosophical "chicken-and-egg" debate on that point, I suppose). After years of experimentation, for me, the perfect dough has proven to be a lot easier than you might think. I left my proportions at home, so I'll post them in a follow-up on this thread, but the basic ingredients are Italian "doppio zero (00)" soft white flour, water, olive oil, fresh European-style baker's yeast and salt. (Again, apologies to those who favor whole-wheat flour or other variations.) That is the traditional Neapolitan mix. What I have learned, however, is that such a blend, in the right proportions, produces the perfect TEXTURE, but not the optimum taste, which can be rather flat. I reject the argument that the crust is there primarily for texture, and as the pedestal for the delicate flavors of buffala and perfect, ripe tomatoes. Adding flavor to the crust, if and only if the flavors enhance, rather than compete with or overwhelm, the toppings, makes a superior pizza. As a result, I alter one ingredient (the olive oil) and add another, honey. I boil whole garlic cloves in the olive oil until they resemble roasted garlic, and then, after the oil cools, I add whole cayenne peppers (or crushed red pepper, whichever is available) to the oil, so that the oil carries both the light, sweet essence of cooked garlic and the heat of the peppers. I use the flavored oil both in the dough itself, and also to brush on the crust before baking. The effect is relatively mild, both as to the garlic and the heat of the peppers, but it does add a most excellent complexity to the finished product. (By the way, I have Wolfgang Puck to thank for that idea.) Secondly, I am generous in the quantity of yeast, because I replace a few tablespoons of water with a light, mild honey. This addition is key. It must be done to taste. The goal is to balance the sugar and the salt so that the dough strikes you as neither sweet nor salty. Sugar and salt used that way produce an effect not unlike monosodium glutamate, or the so-called fifth taste, umami. The use of a mild honey (seemingly endless and excellent types of which abound in northern Italy) not only produces the umami effect, but also adds a subtle flavor of its own. Of course, the honey feeds the yeast, so the dough will rise with greater vigor than it otherwise might. For that reason, you need enough yeast to sustain multiple risings. Thirdly, although there is a pizza thread elsewhere on this board that debates the pros and cons of long rising time for pizza dough, it stands to reason that, if taste is the critical factor, pizza dough is no different than any other bread dough-the longer it rises, the more subtle and complex the flavor of the finished product will be. I accept that one or two hours may do the trick for the basic Neapolitan dough, without garlic, peppers or honey. I recommend three to four hours, and, with adequate yeast, you can actually stretch it out to six or seven hours. Another advantage to long rising, pointed out to me by Italian friends, is that the dough becomes less sticky and more pliable without giving up essential moisture. That is what allows the seemingly effortless twirling the dough on one finger trick. A two-hour dough is going to be too elastic to allow that. The dough must be twirled, hand-shaped or rolled to a thickness of no more than 1/4". Building up a rim is of no importance if you use a wood-fired oven, as the exposed rim of the crust will rise quickly to create a crust rim with a damming effect. Lastly, it is important that your dough is not so sticky that, when weighed down with toppings, it will stick to the pizza peel. Adding fine cornmeal to the peel solves the problem nicely. I use cornmeal sometimes, but usually because friends like the slight taste and crunch it provides, but cornmeal is clearly not authentic.

3. The Cheese. Unless you are doing the famous quattro formaggi (four-cheese) or another specialty pizza, use 100% buffala, if you can get it of good quality, or the best fresh, whole-milk mozzarella you can find. I am lucky in Italy, in that fresh buffala is trucked every day from Campania to a little shop in Alba. In the pizza thread mentioned earlier, someone complained that buffala was too soft and wet, and that it ended up running off the side unless a significant edge was formed. Some (including me, once upon a time) drain buffala on paper towels to reduce the moisture (and flavor, too). With a wood-fired oven, that is neither necessary nor desirable. The buffala does need to be cut into the thinnest slices possible, to be sure. And for this style of pizza, "extra cheese" is not an option. When you are using ingredients of such high quality, and doing nothing to interfere with the subtle, delicate and complimentary tastes of the overall product, it is important not to overload the pizza with toppings. The moisture from the cheese (and other water-bearing toppings) allow the crust to achieve perfect crispness on the bottom, but yet deliver a tender chewiness on the top. In addition, the evaporation of surface moisture in a wood-fired oven is so quick that liquid runoff should not exist. (That said, some vegetable toppings may have such a high moisture content that some prepping or pre-cooking may be necessary.)

4. The Sauce (Or Not). For those of you who live on the Bay of Naples, in Sicilia, Hanover County, Virginia or certain spots in southern New Jersey, or otherwise have access to flavorful, juicy vine-riped tomatoes at the peak of the season, sliced or crushed tomatoes are the way to go. However, even in Italy, access to such tomatoes is increasingly a problem. Thus, I often use the following sauce, very sparingly applied, which, to my utter amazement, enjoys great favor among our Italian friends:

2 28-ounce cans of crushed Italian tomatoes of the very best quality you can find, seeded if necessary or desired

1 can of Italian tomato paste (ditto on quality)

4 large cloves of garlic, pressed or minced very finely, as you like

1 teaspoon dried basil (fresh if desired, but as this is a thick sauce to be used sparingly, I find that this is one time that the dried herbs deliver the most consistent result)

1 teaspoon dried oregano (ditto)

Sea salt, fresh ground pepper and sugar, to taste

Olive oil to sautee the garlic (not much)

Sautee the garlic briefly in the olive oil, just enough to take the raw curse off of it, but not browned. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil and oregano, and a little salt, pepper and sugar to provide the base spicing. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Taste the sauce for salt and pepper. The salt-sugar interplay is again for the umami effect, so you may need to add both from time to time to achieve a balance that produces a sauce that is neither salty nor sweet, but rather, seems to highlight the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. Be aware that the tomato paste will add sweetness, too. If you err, err in the direction of sweetness rather than saltiness. Simmer until the sauce is thick and savory, which is usually about 45 minutes. Cool to room temperature before using.

5. The Toppings. With apologies to the Outback Steakhouse people, toppings are a "no rules, just right" proposition. Well, for this particular style of pizza, maybe a couple of rules. All ingredients should be cut ultra-thin, because they will be cooked for a very brief time at extremely high heat. Some things, like eggplant, will benfit from pre-cooking, and others may require a little seasoning as well. This style of crust will not work well with a "meat lover's" approach to toppings. I recommend no more than three toppings (not including tomatoes or sauce and cheese), with one or two favored. Also, ingredients should not be cumulative (i.e., you should strive for the same net quantity of topping on every pizza, and add different toppings together to achieve that quantity). The watchword is less is more. Having gone to some lengths to create a dough and sauce that meld perfectly with the delicacy of buffala, you do not want to add toppings that mask the flavor of any of the components. It sounds hard to achieve, but it really is not if you have a deft, light touch.

And there you have it. I will post the proportions for the dough soon. At the risk of lightning striking me dead, this will make a better pizza than Puck's on the West Coast and John's of Bleeker Street or Frank Pepe's on the East Coast. My friends, to a person, think that it is the best pizza they have ever eaten. Even without the wood-fired oven, it does as well as I am capable of doing. And with only a ten-year investment of time and effort! (By the way, tonight I am going to play with a new toy. Ferrari, the famous automaker, has a home appliance division called GFerrari. It makes a bright-red device that looks rather like an electric wok, but is, in fact, a pizza oven. Two giant electric elements inside, with the bottom element topped with a disc of cotto refrattario. Almost no air space inside. Said to cook a pizza in 5 minutes. It comes only in a 220-volt model, so I had to buy a 40-pound step-up power converter to use it stateside. I know that it cannot deliver that charcoal blistering effect, but on paper, it should deliver a better crust than the old pizza stone in the oven. Wish me luck!)

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I am dumbfounded by the detail, the beauty, and the utter inaccessability of your equipment, ingredients and technique. This is a gorgeous post that will no doubt be picked up by a Major Publication.

Meanwhile, I can't believe you do all this on the Atkins Diet. What a guy!

(Kudos, Bill. I will re-read it in the morning. I'd dead tired and loved the post, but you deserve more than my weary attention.)

Edited by tanabutler (log)
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As promised, here is the dough recipe (for 8 ten-to-twelve-inch pizzas, considered personal pizzas in Italy, given the thinness):

2 ounces (4 heaping tablespoons) fresh European-style yeast (comes in large-ish cubes)

7 cups imported Italian doppio zero flour (Farina Tipo "00"; Barilla makes a good one fairly widely available in the U.S.; King Arthur also offers a good one by mail; also use this flour for fresh pasta)-HAVE EXTRA ON HAND

2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons of the garlic-chili pepper olive oil described in the original post (make at least a cup of the oil-it keeps in the fridge)-I DID NOT SAY SO ABOVE, BUT USE EVOO

2 cups water

3-5 tablespoons light honey, such as acacia; choose flavor of honey based upon personal preference, recognizing that the primary goal is sweetness and yeast stimulation, but the secondary goal is to impart a flavor that subtly enhances the dominant tomato-cheese flavors of the pizza

Before I get into the actual technique of the dough, I must make an all-important digression. Remember what I said about the Zen/fung shui aspects of this process. I am serious. Generally speaking, there are two types of cooks in the world: those who follow recipes to the letter, acquiring technique as they go, and those who seem to have graduated from cookbooks and exhibit both technique and a keen sense of what ingredients taste good together, and how to balance those tastes to maximum effect. Even if you are the first type of cook, you must become the latter type for the purposes of making great pizza. But think of it this way: you will be playing in a rather small sandbox, with relatively few ingredients and techniques, all of which are familiar to you. Everybody knows what great pizza tastes like to them, so it will be fairly easy to measure your success. Best of all, the Zen of pizza allows that, if you are using the best available ingredients, even your failures and disappointments can taste awfully good! The Zen of the toppings is easy: slice ingredients really thin; do not add too many toppings, nor too great a quantity; pre-cook anything that will not cook through in 2-5 minutes (wood-fired or other hot oven); adjust pre-cooking and thickness of ingredients if you are forced to use lower heat and longer cooking time; be aware of toppings that have an unusually high water content , and do something to shed some of the water if you need to (peppers, onions, mushrooms and eggplant do NOT have a high water content for purposes of this discussion, but canned tomatoes or really juicy fresh tomatoes do, so you would want to drain excess liquid and use only pieces of pulp in either case-the key is how much water the ingredient will give up on your pizza, and how quickly will it do so). Likewise, the Zen of the sauce is relatively easy: make sure it cooks down until a spoon will stand up in it; start with minimal amounts of salt and sugar and then alternate adding more of each in turn until the sauce is so bursting with tomato flavor that it is almost painful to taste, and yet, neither salt nor sugar is a dominant taste; remember that you are going to apply the sauce very sparingly, rather like a condiment, so the sauce in its final state needs to pack a serious punch. If you use fresh tomatoes instead of sauce, you may want to sprinkle them with salt and sugar, and you will need to crush, chop or slice them and probably (except perhaps with Roma or other plum tomatoes) drain them, either in a colander, through cheesecloth or on paper towels. As you prepare all of the foregoing, be aware of how you think the components will taste together; underseasoning can be a real problem, and if every component is highly seasoned, the end product could end up, say, too salty. But yet, the Zen aspect of this is that you will not be using large quantities of any one ingredient, so underseasoning is likely to be the greater risk, and harder to correct in the final analysis (i.e., you can always add more salt to crushed tomatoes or sauce if your first pizza is a little lame, or you can sprinkle a little fine sea salt on your buffala if it seems a little flat).

And now back to the dough. I know many people are afraid of dough. It is a strange thing. Nuclear physicists (and commercial bakers, by the way) can make great bread through rigid measurement and analysis of ingredients and strict adherence to a handful of physical laws. Others can make great bread by feeling their way along. Pizza dough is susceptible to the latter. It is one of the simplest possible bread doughs, and very forgiving. It can be too moist and sticy or too dry, but both problems can be corrected before you set the dough aside to rise. Do not fear pizza dough! Here goes. First, take 1 of the 2 cups of water out of the tap. The water should be warm, around 85 degrees F (an instant thermometer is useful to check this, but not essential; lukewarm to the touch is close enough, as the yeast process in pizza dough is less critical than it is in other, more complicated doughs, and we are going to goose the yeast with honey later anyway). Dissolve all of the yeast in the cup of warm water in a medium mixing bowl. Then mix in 1 1/2 cups of the flour, a little at a time, until the mixture is smooth and relatively free of lumps of either flour or yeast. Cover the bowl with a damp dishcloth (plastic wrap is OK, but I like to let the mixture breathe, and perhaps even pick up wild yeasts from the air) and set aside in a cool place (65-75F is fine; just do not put next to an oven or in hot sunlight) for 30 minutes. In breadmaker's jargon, this is called a poolish. The yeast will start to work, so there will be some rising going on, and the result will be really sticky, so make sure that your bowl is large enough to accomodate some expansion. This step is critical. It is in the poolish that the flavor of the dough begins to develop.

And now, the heresy to end all heresies: pour the remaining flour into the bowl of a Kitchenaid, large Cuisinart or similar appliance with a dough hook. (If you do not have a machine large enough to work 7 cups of flour, or if you have no machine and will be working the dough by hand, cut the recipe in half.) I can hear people screaming about how the dough should be worked by hand and as little as possible, blah-blah. Not true. Fresh pasta, yes. Pizza dough, no. Notice that you see "hand-TOSSED" pizzas advertised. Hand-tossed (the twirling trick), not hand-kneaded. If you make a full recipe, only The Incredible Hulk could hand-knead 7 cups of flour! Uniformity of texture and speed yield a better product in this case. To the flour, add the yeast mixture, the salt, the olive oil and the second cup of water, as well as 3 tablespoons of the honey (to start). Following the manufacturer's instructions, knead the dough until, when you pinch it, it more or less springs back to its pre-pinch position. Before you get to that point, stop the mixing and taste the dough. Here is the Zen of the dough: if it seems salty, add more honey until you get the umami effect (really flavorful, but neither particularly salty or sweet). If the dough seems a little dry, add more oil and/or water (but only a little at a time, as oil or water can turn a dough that is nearly right into a sloppy mess in a hurry!). If the honey or other liquids have made the dough too sticky, add more flour (again, a little at a time). After any addition of ingredients, turn the machine back on (or hand knead) to incorporate the ingredients, and then test again. You want a dough that is slightly moist and elastic (the pinch test) at this point. When it passes the pinch test, put the dough into a large greased bowl to rise. I use regular EVOO to grease the bowl. Rub the bottom of the dough against the bottom of the bowl so that the dough picks up a light coating of the olive oil, then turn the dough upside down in the bowl, so that the oiled side is exposed to air. Make sure your bowl is large enough, or use multiple bowls. The dough may not only double in bulk, it may TRIPLE (because of the yeast and honey) if you are not watching it and punching it down periodically. Cover the bowl with a damp dishtowel or plastic wrap (plastic does not matter by this time, as keeping flavor in has replaced letting wild yeasts in). Put the bowl(s) in a cool place as before, and let rise for about 2 hours. If you needed to, you could use the dough at that point, but I prefer to punch the dough down and let it go for 2 more hours. Depending upon how quickly it accomplishes the repeat rising, I may punch it down a second time, and let it rise for another hour or two. There is some risk associated with the third rising, since, if the room is too warm or your yeast not the freshest, you may use up the leavening effect of the yeast before the pizzas make it into the oven. There is no harm to adding a little extra yeast at the outset, to guard against that. The multiple risings allow subtle and complex flavors to develop in the dough, and also cause the dough to become smooth and tender as it sheds its elasticity, making it easier to shape.

When you are ready to make pizzas, punch the dough down a final time, and divide the dough into 8 equal portions (4 if you halved the recipe). Form the pizzas one at a time, leaving the rest of the dough covered, so that it will not dry out. (As a practical matter, I just break off pieces of dough from the big ball. After some experience, you can eyeball the dough and end up with 8 more or less equal pizzas.) Lightly flour your piece of dough as needed, to avoid sticking. Form the crust on a floured surface. If you are so inclined, try that old Neapolitan parlor stunt, triwling the pizza in the air. If the texture does not easily permit that, you can form the crust by hand. I reject both methods in favor of a rolling pin. Among other things, a rolling pin lets you make weird-shaped pizzas (heart-shaped, for instance, a real crowd-pleaser), and one thing that I have learned is that most people think that irregularly-shaped pizzas taste better than perfectly round ones. Also, I shoot for the thinnest possible crust that I think will support my ingredients, since the pizza will puff up rather violently in the wood-fired oven, and if the dough has lost sufficient elasticity, you can get a really thin crust (1/4" should be the maximum, but if you like a thicker crust, have at it-this dough will still work). If you are using a pizza peel (you should), you should place the dough on the peel before topping it, to see if it slides freely. If not, you can flour the peel, or, if you like the effect and taste, sprinkle yellow cornmeal on the peel before putting the crust on it.

Next, with a pastry brush, spread a light coating of the garlic-chili oil over the entire crust, and then add the toppings as you like and pop it in the oven. If not wood-fired, I recommend using a pizza stone which has been pre-heated in a 550F oven for at least an hour. Longer is better. You can achieve extra crispness by having a spray bottle of water close at hand, and spritzing the oven right after you have placed the pizza on the stone. With a sufficiently hot stone and oven, the pizza should cook in around 5 minutes, but it is an eyeball thing regardless of what type of oven you use.

tanabutler, the anti-cancer benefits of this pizza outweigh any possible benefit of the Atkins diet, but note that, the thinner your crust is and the richer your cheese, the less violence this will do to your diet!

Next installment: oven-dried tomatoes-better than sun-dried tomatoes as a pizza topping? Talk amongst yourselves...

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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A magnum opus branding you as certifiably nuts, Bill. Of course, the fact that I sought out terracotta tiles from an Italian oven maker to line my own home oven here in New York is perfectly normal...

I agree - in fact I preach to anyone who will listen - that all bread baking is about technique, temperature and state of mind, not recipes.

Just this question: all that yeast? Typically flavor is developed by using a very small amount of yeast (the Italians make a biga), and by fermenting the dough in bulk in a cool environment for an extended period of time. Successive turnings of the dough promote the extensibility that allows the pie to be shaped by stretching rather than rolling. What is the advantage of so much yeast?

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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When I read your posts, I feel as though I've just eaten, Bill. Yet strangely empty.

Y'all (collective "y'all"—no true Southerner ever calls one person "y'all") can just call me "Tana." When I signed in, I didn't know my user name would be the handle. I'm a little embarrassed not to be properly named "Tana Butler," but on the other hand, it's nice not to be rigid about it for once. Just "Tana" is fine.

Grazie.

Edited by tanabutler (log)
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Robert, I was not sure whether you were speaking of Italian breadmaking in general or pizza dough in particular. I certainly agree that it is time more than anything else that makes the dough suitably malleable, and for breads generally, the long, cool rise does develop flavor. However, I have eaten very little Italian pizza where I thought that adequate effort had been made to develop the crust's flavor potential. It seems to me that yeast does three things in this context: adds a desirable "yeasty" element (aroma more than taste), seems to punch up the other flavors involved (this observation is strictly unscientific, but the yeastiness seems to unlock other aromas as well) and insures that the pizza will undergo the essential explosive, blistering, instantaneous rise when it hits the oven. Could you do it with less yeast? Probably. But there is nothing worse than the dough working for hours, and then dying or coming up lame at cooking time, giving you a cracker effect. I also think that my approach develops significantly greater complexity of flavor than the biga approach, and in a reasonable amount of time. Remember that the addition of honey, definitely not the usual in any Italian approach that I am aware of, has an accelerating effect on the yeast, and tends to burn it up sooner than a long, cool rise would. Lastly, a word on yeast. The quantity given is for European compressed fresh yeast. The granular European yeast found in the U.S. does not appear to have the same pop. I will post appropriate quantity adjustments for European granular and good old active dry yeast. I haven't used either lately.

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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