Monday, May 25, 2009

My Journey in Pizza

My journey in pizza officially began when I was 11 years old. My mother was very very sick with the flu, and I stayed home from school to help take care of her. For some reason, I decided since my Mom couldn't make dinner, I was going to make us a pizza. We were living in the "city" at the time: for about 9 months after we moved from the Northwoods to the Coulee Region of Wisconsin we lived in the actual city of LaCrosse while my parents were looking for a rural place for us to live. My Mom was (and still is) a from scratch cook and baker, and even while living in the city I remember us ordering in a pizza only once. So it didn't occur to me that if we wanted a pizza, we could order one - that and I was 11 and my Mom was so sick I probably wouldn't have thought to ask her anyway.

I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I actually, from scratch, made a crust and pizza sauce, added some cheddar cheese and used some kind of sausage (which I didn't cook before putting the pizza in the oven...). It may have been edible if the meat had been cooked through, though I doubt we starved after my Dad got home from work. I remember my Mom was pretty impressed...

When I was a kid, I was certainly not excited about cooking or baking...and am frequently reminded by my parents that I vehemently and verbally made it known that I would rather be mowing the lawn or stacking wood than stuck helping out in the kitchen. (And as my brothers will not let me forget, part of the reason I was banished from such helping out of doors was because once I hit the swimming pool with the riding lawnmower...) But from that first foray into a homemade pizza until today, when I made a couple for our dinner, I have no doubt made several hundred of all different sorts.

I think it was high school, maybe my Junior/Senior year when it started to amaze me that you could make a dough out of flour, yeast, salt and water (and sometimes sugar). As I recall, at that time, my Mom never measured for pizza dough, and I didn't either. My first attempts were usually edible, but probably not great. After that, the college pizzas a roommate and I concocted included pocketing salad bar options from the cafeteria and assembling also not great doughs in the dorm "kitchen". Later, my personal attempts usually with all whole grain flours where I would aim for a almost a cracker like crust. I guess through the years I tended to judge a good pizza first by the dough...

For the few years, I only make pizza on a stone, and now would never dream of going back to assembling and baking on a pizza pan. But as I sit down to think about it, a lot of trial and error has gone into what I now think is the best pizza. Things are best in my mind when I can't think of a pizza anywhere that I would rather eat than one I made myself...not that I'm so bloody terrific, just that I finally have the method down to where the pizza I make is the pizza I actually want to eat. Yes, I have to be content that my home oven only can heat up to 500 degrees and not the 800 + of the professional pizza oven, but in our area of the country, not many local pizza restaurants probably have proper pizza ovens anyway.

Until last year, I was very contented with the 8 hour pizza dough from Cook's Illustrated's The Best Recipe cookbook. Then I watched Alex Guarnascheli by accident one Saturday morning on Food Network making a pizza dough that she then seared on both sides in a cast iron skillet like a flatbread, topped, and finished cooking in a medium oven. I immediately printed off her recipe.

I think it's the easiest and fastest by far (I like to let it sit around for about 3-4 hours though, because I think it tastes better) and I always marvel how nice and silky the dough is to work with. The first time I used it, I made it her way in the cast iron pan (one of my favorite kitchen workhorses), but made a Mexican pizza, with leftover tacos ole meat (my husband's favorite from the back of the Frank's Red Hot bottle, but I think I used part beef and part buffalo) and other assorted Latin ingredients from my fridge.

I didn't feel that it baked thoroughly until I slid it out of the pan and then onto the bare rack in the oven, but it was really good. My next attempt with the dough I decided to just pull it out into shape the way Alton Brown so adeptly demonstrated in one of the shows he did on pizza. Now I was onto something. The photo at the beginning of the post was my favorite so far, which had bacon, thin sliced new potatoes and chives.

Tonight's pizzas were a last minute affair in which I used stored "no knead" dough from (former obsession contender) Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It was good, but something was missing. While I only add olive oil to the outside of Alex's dough I wonder if it's just that seductive trace of fat that I need to say it's perfect. That, and her recipe has salt and pepper - pepper being a definitive ingredient.

While I am indebted to Alex for this dough and its transformation of my pizza, I'm sure I'll set out to try others and continue to evolve. I inadvertently got on the King Arthur Flour email list, and they recently sent a 24 hour recipe that I think I'll have to try - but who knows when. I used to be able to say that I planned meals, but not they kind of evolve as I navigate through my days. If sometime in the next few weeks I know I want pizza 24-48 hours out, I'll let you know what I think.

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