Friday, October 19, 2007

A new pizza dough

Photo collage of two pizzas on baking stonesThe Baseline
I have been baking pretty good pizza at home for years using a set of recipes and techniques that have come from many sources.

My crust recipe is from the May/June 1995 issue of Cook's Illustrated ("Professional Pizza at Home"). Now and then I tweak the recipe a bit -- perhaps replacing some of the water with milk for extra richness or adding cornmeal for a different texture -- but in the last few years I have used it verbatim.

The toppings have been improvised, with inspiration from books like The Greens Cookbook, Fields of Greens and various restaurants. Two non-standard favorites are feta, caramelized onion, black olives and roasted red pepper; and roasted thinly-sliced potato, gruyere cheese and sauteed leeks.

Until recently, my baking technique was simple and straightforward: turn the oven up all the way, let it preheat for about one hour and bake the pizza directly on ceramic tiles (with a piece of parchment paper separating the pizza and tiles -- the paper makes it a lot easier to get off of the peel). Recently, however, I have been following the baking instructions in The Cheese Board Collective Works cookbook. It's a three-step process: 1) bake the pizza on a cookie sheet for a few minutes to allow the dough to set, 2) move the pizza from the cookie sheet to a bare rack to dry out the bottom of the crust and cook the toppings, and 3) finish the pizza with a few minutes on a baking stone to give the crust a distinct crispy base. I prefer the crust that this method produces to the 100% on the stone method. It also allows two pizzas to be in the oven at one time.

A New Dough
Despite my relative home pizza stability, I was intrigued by an article by San Francisco Chronicle Wine section editor Jon Bonné about his search for the perfect home pizza recipe. His target was the ultra-thin, Neapolitan style (like the pies at A16 in San Francisco).

Mr. Bonné's recipe is very different from the one in Cook's Illustrated -- you can make it without working about the clock. In the Cook's recipe, a timer is always running: the dough rises for a certain period, the shaped crust rises for a little while, but not too long, or else all hell will break loose. Bonné's recipe is not like that at all. You mix the dough, give it a quick knead (just a few minutes, no need to pull out the stand mixer), then let it rise at room temperature all day or overnight, basically exhausting the yeast. And bringing more flavor to the dough (a cardinal rule of bread making: flavor is proportional to the time spent rising).

Although I was a bit apprehensive about letting dough go for so long, it was certainly easy to fit into my schedule.

Rolling, Topping and Baking
The recipe calls for the dough to be formed into three 12" diameter discs. With enough flour, the dough was malleable enough for that task to be easily accomplished. But then moving the thin, flexible round onto the peel was quite a task -- my beautiful circles were mangled into strange geometries that would baffle all but the most skilled geometry expert.

I used too much flour to keep the dough from sticking to the peel (my peel is made of metal, perhaps that makes a difference), resulting in an unappealing layer of flour on the bottom of the crust. A better approach could be to place the dough on a piece of parchment paper near the end of the rolling process, using the paper to prevent the pizza from sticking to the peel. (detailed notes on this are in a section below)

I used three toppings on this batch of pizza:
  1. Cooked tomato sauce, Spring Hill Portuguese-style cheese, and Parmesan cheese.
  2. Ricotta cheese (seasoned with salt and pepper), braised broccoli raab (a.k.a. rapini).
  3. Pesto, fresh tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.
The baking didn't go so well because of a mistake I made before even turning on the oven. I use four quarry tiles that are 6" on each edge as a baking surface. Since I have about 10 of them, I made two layers thinking that I would get "more brick" from that arrangement. Two is better than one, right? Wrong. The air gap between the bricks acted like an insulator, preventing the top layer of bricks from heating up.

Despite the above missteps, the pizzas were pretty good. Even though the bottom of the crust wasn't properly crisped, the very thin crust had enough integrity to support the toppings without sagging. The long rising time (8 hours in this case) imparted the dough with a deep flavor not normally found in my pizza dough.

I'm looking forward to trying the recipe again, the next time without the foolish double-stacked baking tiles.

Possible improvements
Brushing the outside crust with olive oil would give it a better texture and color.

Using parchment paper instead of a generous dusting of flour (or cornstarch, which I really do not like) to prevent the dough from sticking to the peel could be a big improvement. Here's a complicated (and unnecessary?) way to put the paper between the dough and the peel:
  1. Roll out the dough on a floured cookie sheet.
  2. Brush off excess flour.
  3. Put a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough circle.
  4. Place the peel on top and then flip over the entire assembly so that the cookie sheet is on top.
  5. Roll or stretch the dough so it is the right size.
  6. Brush off excess flour.
  7. From the edge of the crust and add toppings.

Making my oven more like a brick oven by placing oven racks in the highest and lowest positions, then placing one layer of bricks on each one to apply brick heat to both the bottom and the top of the pizza.

Random link from the archive: Preserving Summer with Plum Jam

Technorati tags: Pizza : Baking : vegetarian : Food


Krizia said...

Ironically, I had some pizza from Cheeseboard last night and was wondering how I could mimic their pizzas at home! Does their book give out their dough recipe? Or is it just a general step-by-step outline on how to make pizza dough? Can't wait to see how your improvements play out the next time you try making this dough.

Catherine said...

I enjoyed reading about your pizza making experience. I have a wooden peel, but dust it with cornmeal to prevent sticking (Cookiecrumb'st trick). This has really worked for me - creates a rolling effect.

Love your choice of toppings!

Marc said...

Krizia -- I don't actually own the Cheese Board book -- I have absorbed the pizza technique by reading a sample copy of the book during long waits for service at their cheese counter (it can get crazy in there sometimes and many of their customers are very picky about their purchases, leading to long waits).

The good news: the Cheese Board book has the complete pizza recipe.
The bad news: they use a sourdough crust, so unless you want to go to that level of effort (I don't), you can't identically reproduce it.

The Cheese Board book also recipes for some of their famous creations like the cornmeal-dried cherry scone, the "chocolate things," and their brioche wheels.

Catherine -- thanks for the kind words. I've seen the cornmeal coating many times, but I don't like the cornmeal residue. Perhaps if I found the right grind it would be OK, something slightly finer than polenta.

The ricotta - broccoli raab was a real winner. Be sure that you chop the greens somewhat finely to make eating easier. It can be annoying to have a huge blob of the topping come off all at once.

Rachelle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Few Reservations said...

Hey, I just wanted to say thanks for all your comments and support. It's nice to know I'm not crazy. ;) Or maybe I *am* crazy, and you're crazy, too. In which case, thanks for the wonderful company.

Rachelle said...

FYI, I received the Cheeseboard book as a gift from a friend last year, and made the sourdough starter and crust. Its really not as much work as it seems. Yes, it takes 12 days, however, it only takes ~10 minutes each day. Not bad considering you have a starter for life. Just thought I'd share that.
Here's one that only takes ~7 days (I haven't tried it, so I can't vouch for it, but I'd assume its similar).
P.S. When mother nature gives you 80 degree weather in October, what else can you do but make sourdough starter? I started mine last night!

Rachelle said...

Hi Marc,

I forgot to mention in my earlier post that the Cheeseboard also sells balls of their pizza dough in the shop.