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Home Made Pizza In The Summer

June 30, 2012 2 comments

It takes a special kind of crazy to coax a 550º temperature out of your oven in the dead of summer. Maybe I was just running out of recipes for my greens. Maybe I just had the feeling that no matter how good the pizza in my area was, I could do better. Whatever the reason, despite knowing the forecast of continuing heat and humidity, I decided to make some pizza dough the other day. 

Proper pizza dough is never a one hour rise and bake. If you see a recipe that calls for mixing flour, water, and yeast together, letting it sit for an hour, and then cooking your pizza, you’re best bet is to move along. Sure you might end up with something that resembles a pizza crust, at least superficially. It will be flat and it will support a layer of cheese. At best, though, it’ll end up tasting like drywall. If you want pizza NOW, order in. The dough you want is going to take a couple of days in the fridge to reach it’s full potential  

Today we, the intrepid, decided to soldier on. While every fan in the apartment set to spinning, we kicked the oven into high gear. 

I always like to make one pie per person. That’s just enough to leave you uncomfortably full, which is where you should be after putting up with so much just to start making pizza in the first place. Each dough has been measured out to about 13 oz. We take the dough and shape it into a ball, stretching the outside as much as we can without tearing the dough, creating a surface tension. When the yeast create CO2 during their proofing, this surface tension will capture the gas and help the dough to raise. This part is very important when cooking pizza. You tuck the dough into itself to create a tight ball, then pinch the bottom closed. Then you slap the doughball down on your work surface and slide it around to even out the seal. It’s hard to describe. There are videos on YouTube, but none of them are right. 

After a second raise, the dough is ready to be worked. You can tell if it’s ready by poking it. Seriously. If you give it a gentle poke and it doesn’t spring right back, then it’s ready to go. 

After flattening out the first pie, we dressed this with some fresh mozzarella, some blue cheese, and blanched napa cabbage. I got my mozzarella at Taste Of Italy in Tinton Falls. The flavor was good, fresh and well seasoned, but I found the texture to be watery. Creating a good ball of fresh cheese can be hit or miss. It’s a very physical activity. The milky water needs to be wrung out thoroughly without damaging the curds.

Before it goes in.

I will admit I never had cabbage pizza before, unless you count sauerkraut (don’t ask). It was good, with just a bit of grassy flavor to cut through the richness of the cheese. The dough was high hydration, approximately 67%. As you can see we got some tremendous oven spring. 

Photo

Some hobbyists can get caught up in the tools. This is true with any pass time. Sure we all like to have the nice Cuisinart for making the dough, or a professional 3 by 6 plastic container for raising our doughs. But all of those things are simply luxuries. What’s really important in pizza making is your ingredients and your oven. Without having a decent machine in your kitchen and knowing how to use it, the pizza will never get that perfect crisp/tender/chewy texture. I’m still learning with this oven here. The undercarriage is getting cooked perfectly, but the tops are still a bit blonde for my taste. If I leave them in much longer, though, I’ll risk burning the bottom. It’s going to take a bit more tinkering to get the settings just right. 

As I write this it is 90º and I do not have air conditioning. This is the time of year when you put away your break and pizza making skills for a few months. The oven is not doing you any favors. Sure, you can always make grilled pizza, and the diehards will simply build a wood fired oven in their back yards. But for me, this was a good way to end the season. In the mean time, I’ll probably take the time to explore the local pizza joints in Monmouth County, and look forward to getting back in the kitchen come fall.

Categories: Nom, Pizza Tags: , , ,

Umberto’s Grandma Pie

In more delicious news, Tom Boyles goes to Long Island in search of a Grandma Pie.

“Tom,” he said in his thick New York-Italian accent, “I am going to let you in on a pizza secret that isn’t known outside of New York and Long Island. We’re gonna go to Umberto’s and you are going to try Grandma’s Pizza.”

It’s not exactly true that the Grandma pie is unknown outside of New York and Long Island. I’ve actually been seeing a number of neighborhood slice joints here on the Jersey Shore embracing this style. A small local chain, Gianni’s, has been heavily pushing their version. In Long Branch alone, I can think of 3 places that make a quality Grandma pie, two of which sell it by the slice. I plan on getting some reviews posted in the near future.

As the name implies, this isn’t a new invention. I remember my great Aunt used to make one of these every time she knew the kids were coming up from New Jersey. She would take the squares of pizza out of her refrigerator and put them back together on her baking sheet like a puzzle. Because her eyes weren’t so good, she’d have to lean in very close to the oven to set the temperature. Any one of us could have set it for her, but she insisted on being the generous host.

Even with all the Grandma slices I’ve eaten over the last couple years, I still miss the smell of my Aunt’s kitchen. I miss the very thin layer of cheese she would use, that seemed to fuse with the dough. I miss the garlicky tomato sauce, and the heavy helping of Kraft parmesan she had sprinkled over the whole thing. Food has a strong ability to take you to different moments of your life. I think that, for me, this type of pizza will always bring me back to that formica table on the outskirts of Boston.

This article is a great look a some others who take this style of pizza seriously. There’s even a quick walk through for those who want to try their hand at baking one of these.

It’s interesting that the author states that Umberto’s uses a Sicilian dough, when I’ve always found the crust of a Grandma pie to be closer to a classic NY style that hasn’t been stretched out so much. Proofing the dough in the pan also seems like it’s a key step.

This is a great primer if you plan on experimenting with a few recipes, are curious about a type of pizza you hadn’t tried before, or just want a trip down memory lane.

…But How Good Was Your Last Pizza?

September 29, 2011 1 comment

As I’ve written about before, I’ve been spending time training in an awesome Neapolitan pizzeria in Brooklyn. Once a week I show up there after work to help cook. The problem with dropping in like this is that you’re jumping blind. You don’t know how the dough has been, how the oven’s been working, how busy they’re going to be.

Bread can be temperamental on a good day. Working with a wood burning oven only makes it harder. The problem isn’t getting a decent product, but getting consistency. Trying to make a style. If you like a pizza with a certain level of doneness, you’re talking about roughly a 3-5 second window where you’re not too pate and undercooked, but also not too black. You’re trying to get the top of the pie to finish the same time as the bottom. Your oven’s temperature can change from minute to minute as a burning log shoots embers and then collapses in on itself. And to top it off, you’re juggling 2 or 3 pies at the same time.

This is where it becomes hard to have a style. But not impossible. I do feel that I’m becoming more consistent the more I practice. You get to learn the little cues that let you time your cook precisely. You get a feel for how the dough works. Today it was woking against us. I believe that it had over-proofed, and the gluten was starting to break down a bit. Every pie you made there’d be a little hole in it.

It’s probably possible to figure out an exact formula for the perfect pizza. X floor temperature + y dome temperature + z minutes = transcendence.  Except for about 50 more variables. So many variables, in fact, that you’ll never be able to write it all down. What you have to do is trust your brain to do all of these on the fly. Art is just science done in your subconscious.

 

Categories: Pizza

Balancing Act

August 14, 2011 1 comment

I spent this last week making some of the best pizza in New York City. I know, I know, that’s a pretty bold statement. We’re talking New York here. The official shape is “the slice”. With the possible exception of pastrami on rye, there’s no food more “New York” than pizza. Yet even with all the history, pizza is still the hottest food in town.

Everyone knows the standard New York style slice. It’s an icon, like the Empire State Building or Woody Allen’s neurosis. But lately Neapolitan pizza has been popping up all over town. These pizzerias use wood burning ovens and menus entirely in Italian. They’re a combination of the traditional and the experimental. The process dates back to the dawn of history. Cook stuff on top of bread. Yet the flavos and presentation are distinctly modern.

Getting back to the story, last week I was lucky enough to be able to train at Forcella, a new Neapolitan pizzeria in Williamsburg. The restaurant has only been around for a couple of months, but the pizzaiolo, Giulio Adriani, has been cooking this style of pizza for decades in Naples, Argentina, and Brazil. Now he is opening his own place in Brooklyn, with one more spot on the way in the Bowery.

I was glad to work with Giulio because I think he represents both sides of the new pizza. He understands tradition, not just how things were always done, but why. From there he’s not afraid to experiment, and to try to fit the local tastes.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the whole operation. From the mixing of the dough to the firing of the pizza. I rolled dough balls, made mozzarella from scratch, crushed the tomatoes and worked the oven. When you see pizza from this end, it’s not a commodity product, sliding off a conveyor belt. Each one is it’s own struggle of balance. You must time the fermentation of the dough just right. The oven must be burning at the proper temperature. The crust must achieve a harmonious mixture of doneness and char.

Essentially you are walking a fine line between perfect and destroyed. We’re talking about a matter of seconds. Not tens of seconds. Seconds. You have waiters screaming, people pushing past, pizzas lined up to be cooked, and you’re trying to make the one, two, three, or even four pies you have in the oven into a transcendent pizza experience.

Cooking a pizza like this is a lot like mixing a song. There is no precise amount of midrange that should be applied at all times, and every time you inch up the fader, you’re not making a perceptible difference. But pretty soon you tweak a couple knobs and you’ve got a cacophonous mess. The same can be said of cooking in general, but really Neapolitan pizza in particular. You can start getting so focused on minute details that you begin to lose sight of the big picture. You shoot for the perfect leopard spotting, only to miss and end up with char.

I’ve actually never worked in a professional kitchen before. I’ve done a bit of under the table catering, but I’ve never worked in an actual restaurant kitchen. To say this was a wake up call would be an understatement. Cooking for a busy dining room full of paying customers is completely different from anything I’ve ever tried before. Most people there are as interested in the social aspect of it as the food. They went with friends to have a good time. Maybe they’re trying to impress a cute hipster chick. It could be a reunion with an old bicycling club. Whatever the reason, they expect you to do your job so they don’t have to think about it. Any nagging thoughts about problems with their food are a distraction and are not what they signed up for.

Transcendence can be found just about anywhere. We live in an amazing world and it’s important to open yourself up to what you see all around you. However, trying to create this from base parts (flour, salt, water, yeast, tomatoes, cheese) is a whole other story. They say practice is the most important thing. It’s clear that what you want is to get it into your muscle memory. Thinking only exacerbates the problem. You want transcendence to feel like just a part of nature.

Update: You want photos? No problem.

Categories: Nom, Pizza