Recently I picked up a copy of Peter Reinhart’s “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza,” and got struck with the idea, the mere chance that I could make real pizza at home. I’ve made lots of attempts over the years; those slightly scary boxed pizza kits, Boboli sponges, making our own dough, or even buying it raw from the local pizza joint. Without having even a basic understanding of how pizzas actually worked, even my best efforts were pretty lackluster. It was all edible and some of them even tasted good, but there was never any question that when we wanted real pie, we’d go out. Amazing the difference you can make by taking the time to learn and do something the right way instead of just assuming.
We’ve done these versions of Reinhart’s crust and sauce a few times, and each time I learn a little something that makes the next pizza better. It’s all very simple, but simple is relative and there a number of variables, each of which could make large differences in the outcome. The first time I didn’t let the yeast re-hydrate well enough, the second I neglected to let the dough rest long enough to start rising again. A pizza stone is hugely important to get the texture of the crust right. Also, note that a pizza stone straight out of a 600-degree oven will a) burn you, and b) shatter when one screams and drops it into the metal sink (interestingly, hot wine glasses from the dishwasher do the same thing).
What takes a pizzaiola, a real pizza guy, perhaps 3 minutes to smoothly toss, assemble, fire and serve probably takes me thirty minutes to mangle, start over, tear, patch, curse, shove in the oven, get burned, and serve. And that doesn’t include actually making the dough or sauce, just the assembly. I make it sound like it is much harder than it really was. Really doesn’t matter, since the ability to make real pizza at home without having to deal with a surly delivery guy is worth it.
A few nights ago we made a simple sauce and a few different pizzas with friends. Sausage, pesto, a margherita with mozzarella di bufala. It all turned out well, but of course not as well as the first few times we’d tried making real pizza at home. Still, using fresh mozzarella and serving good Chianti more than made up for any of my shortcomings as a pizzaiola. A few observations on things that make a big difference in the quality of my pies:
- Use a pizza stone and peel, not a pizza pan. Your puny metal pans will wilt and shrivel in the heat. Not really, but any nonstick or protective coating they have will surely suffer. The real reason is for the heat retention properties of the stone and the impact it will have on your crust.
- Use real mozzarella, and not that pre-shredded low-moisture sawdust.
- Preheat your oven and stone for 45 minutes to an hour. 550-600 degrees about the best you can do in a home oven with involving your local volunteer fire department
- If you tear your dough, start over with another round. Otherwise, the sauce and gooey cheese run out through the hole and binds your dough irrevocably to the hot stone. Shortly thereafter, your smoke alarm will go off, the dogs will howl, your partner and neighbors will nod knowingly and once again get to question your judgment out loud.
- Less is more. The cheese-lover in me chafes at this, but it’s true. Don’t get carried away with the toppings. Not even with the sausage.
Reinhart’s pizza dough recipes are all over the web already, so I won’t reprint them here, but we’ve especially enjoyed the Napoletana and New York-style recipes. American Pie has about a dozen different crusts to try, and an equal number of sauces. This is the one we’ve enjoyed the most:
2 14 oz cans diced tomatoes – not the flavored ones
3 tbs minced fresh basil
1 tbs fresh minced oregano (1 tsp dried)
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground pepper
2 tbs lemon juice (or red wine vinegar)
5 large cloves minced garlic
Pulse the tomatoes a minute or so in the Cuisinart to chop them down a bit smaller. Mix in a non-reactive bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Season with more or less salt and pepper as you like. I make this a day ahead of time to let the garlicky goodness permeate throughout. That’s all you do – no cooking before you bake the pizza. It cooks enough in the hot oven in the 4 or 5 minutes it’s in there. And it makes great bruschetta or a topping for hot pasta.