Ahh, pizza perfection. If I do say so myself.
Pizza is back on the menu at our house (if you don’t know why it was temporarily forbidden, you’ll have to read my last post “Feeding a Broken Heart”). I have had more than a passing acquaintance with pizza for most of my life — I have delivered pizzas for a living, fell in love with my husband over pizza, and once made pizzas shaped like guitars for my daughter’s 10th birthday party.
Pizza was a major player at my 5th birthday party. My mother and I lived in New York City at the time and I went to a daycare run by her friend Judy, who lived on St. Mark’s Place. It was 1971 and St. Mark’s Place was a kaleidoscope of flowing beads, multicolored dashikis, and patchwork blue jeans. Every kind of music swirled out of every window, creating a cacophony of sound that was somehow still pleasing to the ear. Each day I was eager to see the young woman I called “Dandelion” — she was, to my 5-year-old eyes, tall and beautiful, with a halo of blonde afro that floated around her head in the breeze, and electric blue eyes that seemed to look right inside your soul as she floated down the street as if carried along by her hair.
There were a handful of us who spent our weekdays at Judy’s daycare, and on my early November birthday, we trooped to the corner of St. Mark’s Place at lunchtime. Judy went inside to order our pizza, and the rest of us stood outside with our noses pressed against the glass, watching the pizza man flip the dough up in the air in smooth circles, a flying carpet of delight. We carried it back to Judy’s brownstone apartment the way a young ringbearer carries that satin cushion, a precious charge to be protected and cherished until the final moment of reckoning — which, for me, was sitting in the darkened apartment while my friends chanted the Birthday Song, candles flickering across the surface of the pizza, dropping little bits of wax into that cheesy goodness.
Like many families, pizza is often a Friday night tradition in our house, and, many years ago — 17 to be exact — I invested in a pizza stone, which sits permanently on the lower shelf of my oven. At about the same time, I came across a practically foolproof pizza dough recipe in Gourmet magazine, and have never looked back.
There’s a popular television commercial which shows a woman who now makes pizza at home because of the poor economy. I’d like to say that I save money by making pizza at home, but I suspect that is not the case. If you are going to go to the trouble of making pizza at home, it simply does not make sense to use substandard ingredients. For me, the pizza begins its journey at Eastern Market, an historic market here in my Capitol Hill neighborhood which offers everything from empanadas to pig’s feet to chocolate ravioli.
Jack helps me plan the perfect Friday night pizza, with a plethora of cheeses from Bowers Dairy.
Once I enter the Market, I head straight for Bowers Dairy, crossing my fingers that either Jack or Tess will be behind the counter. They trained my child to be a true cheese aficionado from the age of two with samples of Stilton, Castello, and Chaumes, and they always know where to find that elusive hunk of Argentinian “parmesan” that no-one else can ever find when I place my order. Typically, I will purchase about $20 worth of cheese (I told you it wouldn’t be cheap) for my pizzas — generally, a combination of part-skim mozzarella, fontina, smoked Applewood cheddar, sharp Canadian cheddar, parmesan, and maybe a little Maytag, sage Derby, gouda, or whatever else catches my eye.
Is there such a thing as too many olives? Bite your tongue.
Once I’m done at Bowers, I turn around and purchase some good olives like Nicoise or a Greek country mix from Eastern Market Grocery, and before I leave the building I’m usually also armed with an assortment of peppers, mushrooms, onions, and other assorted goodies. When I get home, I can begin the process of building the perfect pizza — it isn’t as quick as delivery and there are no 2-for-1 coupons, but I can guarantee that no other pizza will ever compare and you will become a hero to your family.
I told you I don't skimp on cheese. What would be the point? If you're going to go to all this trouble, then you may as well go all the way.
Pizza Dough (adapted from Gourmet magazine, October 1993)
This dough is made using a food processor method, which I think works best if you have a plastic dough blade, although you can use it with a regular blade. The recipe is enough for two thin-crust pizzas.
2.5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 packages fast-acting yeast
1 cup hot water
2 TB olive oil
2 tsp. honey
1 tsp. salt
1 cup cornmeal
2 tsp. assorted herbs and spices (I generally use black pepper, tarragon, oregano, paprika, crushed fennel seed, or whatever sounds good at the moment)
In the food processor, mix up 1 cup of the flour with the yeast and then add the hot water with the motor running. Turn the motor off and add the oil, honey, salt, cornmeal, herbs and spices, and a cup of flour, mixing together until the dough begins to form a ball; add more flour until it is no longer sticky but soft and pliable. This whole process should take no more than two minutes — be careful not to work the dough too hard in the food processor, otherwise the pizza will be hard and chewy.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, knead 10 or 12 times, then let it rest covered with a towel or a bowl for 20 minutes.
To make the pizza:
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a circle or some approximation of one (no, I do not flip my dough in the air, but you are more than welcome to try it out) and crimp the edges in a pizza-like fashion. I like to put each circle of dough on a sheet of parchment paper so as to keep my pizza stone from getting a lot of burnt cheese on it. If you don’t have a pizza stone, just use a cookie sheet.
I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you what to put on a pizza. Red sauce, white sauce, olive oil — whatever you like — usually about 3 large spoonfuls of red or white sauce. I like my pizza pretty cheesy, so probably use about two cups of grated cheese on each pizza. I generally spread the mozzarella and fontina on top of the sauce, add toppings, and add the cheddar and other specialty cheeses on top of that, finishing off with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of oregano, and maybe a little cracked black pepper. I like to brush the edges of the crust with olive oil and sprinkle a little Kosher salt on the edges, or grated parmesan.
Bake each pizza for about 10 to 12 minutes until hot and bubbly and let it rest for about 5 minutes before slicing. It’s torture to wait, but totally worth it.
The pizza on the left is about to go into the oven; it featured carmelized red onions, Nicoise and Greek olives, and a meat-free "sausage". The one on the right is fresh out of the oven and cooling off -- it had chopped red bell pepper, diced pineapple, hot cherry peppers, and a drizzle of pesto. Yup, they were pretty tasty.