Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pizza Margherita

About one week after I left Italy and returned to the US, I started having terrible terrible yearnings for pizza. Hot, thin, crusty pizza with streeetchy mozarella and oozy tomato sauce... I couldn't stop thinking about it, or talking about it, as my friends and family will testify.

The funny thing is, I didn't go to pizzerias that much in Italy - maybe once or twice a month on average. I'd definitely gone far longer than a week there without eating pizza*, so why was I going through such serious withdrawal after only one week out of the country?

*A note: by pizza here, I mean the thin, round pizzeria-type pizza, not the fluffy square kind you get for lunch in Italy, which I ate roughly every other day.

I think my withdrawal was less of a sensory thing and more of a psychological one - the knowledge that even if I wanted a good pizza I wouldn't be able to get one was vastly depressing. Ok, there is some decent pizza this side of the Atlantic, but decent is not the same as incredibly unbelievably wonderful. Even the pizzas at my favorite local Italian restaurant which has some great traditional dishes and is owned by an Italian don't come anywhere close to the ones I could get for a mere 6 euros at any of the 3 crummy little hole-in-the-wall pizzerias that sat within 100 meters of my Milan apartment. Maybe it's the ingredients, maybe it's the equipment, maybe the technique, maybe the water for all I know. I do know that something about the pizzas here just isn't right, and every Round Table or deep-dish pizza place I saw sank me deeper and deeper into my pizza funk.

Other than shelling out several hundred dollars for a plane ticket to Italy, there was only way I was going to get out of my funk. I was going to do something I would have never dreamed of doing when I lived in Milan or in Florence where pizzerias are as common as Starbucks is here. Yes, I was going to bake a pizza.

I prepared. I went to zillions of Italian and American websites looking for help on ingredients and techniques. I learned all about ovens and the best conditions for pizza-baking, and I learned to be ready to accept that no matter what I did, my home-baked pizza would never be able reach the level of one baked in a real wood-burning oven; nevertheless, I did not weaken in my resolve to make the closest thing to a real pizza that I could.

As it turned out, the pizza was actually pretty easy to make. The trickiest part was simply getting it to slide off the peel onto the 500 degree baking stone and then scraping it back off the stone when it was done, but I eventually managed to accomplish those feats with no major bodily harm to myself or the pizza. So, for anyone feeling the need for a (nearly) authentic Italian pizza, here is what I ended up doing:

You will need:
Flour (Though white is almost the only type used, I used whole wheat and it turned out fine)
Sea salt
Tomato sauce (I used plain canned tomatoes)
High-quality pizza mozzarella (the kind that doesn't come in water)
Toppings - for the Margherita, I used nothing more than a few fresh basil leaves and the pizza was absolutely delicious. Remember that simplicity is often a good thing!

First you'll need to prepare the dough. If your yeast is the active kind as opposed to the instant variety, put it in a little bit of tepid tap water until it forms a sort of foam on the top, at which point you can add it to the flour. If it's instant yeast, just throw it in with the flour immediately. Add the salt and then the water a bit at a time, mixing until the water is well incorporated into the flour. You want pizza dough to be pretty floury - more so than for normal bread.

Once you have a good doughy mixture, turn it out onto a floury surface and knead for about 10 minutes. I always knead in the following way: fold the part closest to you up over the part farther away from you, press down quite hard a few times, give the dough a quarter turn, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Continue repeating until your arms are about ready to fall off. Then repeat some more. At some point you should notice a change in the consistency of the dough - it will seem to sort of fight back when you press it down. This is good. When you get to this point, knead for just a couple minutes more, than ball up the dough, put in it a bowl, cover the bowl, and leave in a fairly warm and undrafty place for a minimum of one hour. Do not leave it in the oven, because you will need to start preheating your oven long before the dough has finished rising.

In fact, I put the baking stone into the oven and started to preheat it pretty much as soon as I was done with the kneading. The whole thing about baking pizzas is that they need to get very hot very fast. For those of us who have not yet installed wood-burning ovens into our homes, the closest we can come is to use a preheated baking stone in an oven set to as high as you comfortably can set it (about 500º F/250º C usually). If you have a convection oven, that's even better because then the hot air will be distributed more evenly. Luckily, I was house-sitting for my parents at the time, and they have both a baking stone (a gift from me in fact) and a convection oven, so equipment-wise I was set. If you do use a baking stone, you need to put it in the oven during the preheating because the stone takes time to absorb heat. Thus, if you put the pizza on the stone and then put the stone in the oven, you're completely negating the effectiveness of the stone, and you would have been better off just using a baking sheet. If you do use a baking sheet and not a stone, it should not be preheated - it just goes in with the pizza on it, and you have to hope for the best.

After your hour is up and the dough has risen, you get to do the best part - the pizza-shaping! I was originally planning to just roll out my pizza into a nice circle, but while I was shaping it, I tried tossing it in the air a few times just for fun and I realized that each time I did, the dough came back down much springier and more pliable. I later read that it is in fact a good idea to keep the dough in the air as much as possible while you're shaping it, so even if your pizza-spinning skills are as terrible as mine, at least try giving the dough a few (gentle) tosses. Just don't drop it!

During the shaping, make sure you put your pizza onto a peel or some other thing that will make it easy to slide into the oven. If you're not using a baking stone, put the pizza directly onto the baking sheet you're planning to use. Finally, and this is the only way to get anything close to an authentic Italian pizza, your final dough disk must be thin thin thin! As thin as you can possibly get it without tearing. The pizza should be large, but it should not be thick. Those are lunch-style pizzas. They don't count.

Once the dough is in a nice big circle, spread your tomato sauce all over so that it covers everything but the very edge and thinly enough that you can still kind of see the dough through it. If you can't see the dough, it's probably spread too thickly. Then either grate or chop the mozzarella into little pieces and distribute them evenly onto the pizza. Finally, wash and dry the basil leaves, and arrange them in a pretty pattern on top.

Next, with oven mitts, and being very very careful, open the oven and use a large metal spatula to sliiiiide the pizza onto the stone (or just insert the baking sheet if you went with that method), shut the oven door, and let bake for about 7-8 minutes. My pizza took 7 minutes to bake, but I was using the convection feature and the baking stone, so if you don't use those things, it may take a little more time. Just make sure the pizza doesn't burn and simultaneously make sure not to open the oven door unless absolutely necessary (quite a trick if your oven doesn't have a glass door).

When the pizza is done and safely transferred to your plate, pour yourself a glass of good Italian wine, grab a fork and knife, and eat as soon as you possibly can without burning yourself!

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