For four short months when I was interning at one of Boston’s more popular “French country” restaurants in the mid-90s, I had the assignment, every Sunday night, of preparing family meal for the entire staff, both front of the house (restaurant managers, servers, bussers etc) and back of the house (the cooks). It was the only night of the week that the entire staff could, without charge, eat a meal free of the watchful mean eyes of the restaurant’s owner.
Family was served every night, but Sundays were special because Sundays were, without exception, pizza night. There was no specific recipe or recommendation: the intern (me) was responsible for the recipe and putting the meal together. Every Sunday, just before dinner, I’d rummage through the walk-in cooler, identifying and cherry picking the leftovers.Sometimes this was good news – leftover proteins (steak, sausage, chicken, shellfish) and a slow-moving Saturday night special could mean a substantial, hearty pizza (there was usually a meat-free option available, though few considered themselves vegetarian). Cheese was always a risky venture; sometimes we had cheese, sometimes we did not. Sometimes all I had to work with was cream cheese, something that just didn’t taste good on a pizza, especially when coupled with equally pizza-alien toppings like sardines and curry (yes, I did that once and was justifiably shamed by the staff).
Sometimes my pizza was perfect – I made a huge batch of tomato sauce, froze it, and pulled it out on Saturdays to thaw out just in time for family meal. Sometimes it was only okay, such as when cheese pickings were slim, and once it was terrible (see cream cheese, curry, and sardine pizza, above).
The dough recipe I used, and have since lost, was a paragon of simplicity: flour, water, sea salt, yeast. No sugar, no oil. It was chewy and yeasty and crispy and seasoned just right. The recipe was from American Flatbread’s owner, George Shenk, and included the directive that it needed to be baked in a 700 degree wood-fired clay oven. Since this was not an option for me, I baked our Sunday pizza in a convection oven set to 500. Not quite the same, but good enough for family meal.
For many years after, pizza making parties became a staple of my entertaining, what little there was of it. Pizza was easy and communal and fun; I could make the dough in advance, prepare the toppings, set my oven to 11 and let people get creative with their dinners. When I left Atlanta for the cooler climes of Boston, I celebrated with a huge pizza-making party. And that was the last time I remember making pizza regularly. I now almost never make pizza. In part because of laziness, in part because of the availability of better pizza locally than anything I could make, in part because I now almost never eat pizza due to a possible gluten intolerance.
And then I signed up with The Daring Bakers, a website/social network focused around monthly baking 'challenges' that all members must participate in. There's no winner, but everyone posts on the same day at the same time - on their blogs and on the site. I'm not sure how I stumbled upon it, but taking a weekend of every month to bake a recipe that I ordinarily would not bake seemed like a fun thing to do. While I do my best to be gluten-free, there's something really pleasing about baking using gluten-laden wheat flour. And so when the Daring Bakers pizza challenge was posted (at the beginning of October, in their members-only section) I printed it out immediately and brought it home. I considered trying the gluten-free alternative, but I didn't love the conversions (Daring Bakers - FYI - in the world of gluten-free, the use of oats and oat flour is controversial at best. Many avoid oats, even oats that are certified gluten-free).
The recipe we used for the challenge was the Napoletana Pizza Dough from Peter Reinhardt's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. It is a good, simple, retarder recipe (that's the technical term bakers use for doughs that are meant to spent time under refrigeration to slow the action of the yeast and, often, give a deeper, less 'yeasty' flavor) that is easy to make and very easy to handle.
Because it is a retarder dough (ingredients are mixed cold and not allowed to proof), it is meant to spent a fairly long amount of time in the refrigerator - up to three days in the refrigerator or three months in the freezer. You won't see the magic of CO2 pushing the dough outwards - but trust the dough. It will behave exactly as you want it to once you've pulled it out the day you are planning to use it.
Rather than read all about how I made this dough, step by excruciatingly detailed step, I've taken some pictures I'd like to share with you of the process. I didn't always follow directions - I called on my experience in the bakery (thanks culinary school, The Four Seasons, that Boston restaurant, and everywhere else where I was making bread and yeast-based doughs) but I can assure you that the results were exactly the same.
You'll need to print out a copy of the recipe to follow along. The link above is quick and handy.
Add wet to dry ingredients. I incorporate the (cold) ingredients with a wooden spoon before I turn on the mixer - it is easier than starting with the paddle and switching to the dough hook.
After just a little mixing with the spoon, it looks like this:
Using the dough hook, mix on medium speed. Here's what it looks like after about 2 minutes. Notice how 'lumpy' it looks?
The gluten has only just begun to form. Gluten - wheat protein - creates the structure of bread and wheat-based doughs and batters.
After a few more minutes, it begins to look smoother as the gluten continues to develop:
At this point I decided I wanted to knead the dough by hand, as the dough hook wasn't hitting the dough quite right. Notice the still-forming gluten-strands right below my palm?
I check the gluten development by taking off a pinch and stretching it out between my fingers. The goal is to have a 'window' that is smooth and 'clear'. The gluten is not yet sufficiently developed yet:
A few minutes later I check it again. Sorry for the out-of-focus picture:
This is much improved - the strands are small, thin, and long. I could take it further, but I don't need to for this recipe. Additionally, the addition of the olive oil makes this dough 'short' - the oil keeps the strands from being too long, and contributes to the overall tenderness of the dough (it will not be exceptionally 'crisp' because of the addition of oil, which is fine, though I prefer oil-free doughs). I don't want to over-knead it because I don't really want the yeast to activate - since this is a retarder dough, it needs to stay relatively cool so it can proof -exceptionally slowly- in the refrigerator.
I roll out the dough and cut it into roughly equal pieces. Because my kitchen scale is still packed away in a box, I just eyed it. Ooops.
I formed the dough into rounds by pushing and circling with my hands. It is an extremely fast way to form dough - learned it in culinary school. The results? Six attractively rounded pieces of dough.
The pieces of dough are then oiled and placed on a tray to sit in the refrigerator:
The next day the dough has relaxed
After a 24 hour rest, and exactly 2 hours before making pizzas, the 6 oz piece of dough is flattened out into a disk about 1/3 inch thick and 5-6 inches in diameter.
After resting a few hours, the dough can be further stretched and tossed to make a thin, chewy crust. I asked one of my friends to take tossing pictures for me, but she's not much of a photographer and missed every single one. She did, however, manage to capture a little bit of stretching:
I really should have worn a different sweater. Or, better yet, no sweater.
Because I didn't have a pizza stone or acceptable clean substitute (there were dirty bricks outside, but I wasn't motivated to clean them and stick them in the oven to create a brick oven deck), I dusted an upside-down sheet tray with coarse semolina and used that as my building platform for the pizza. In this picture you can also see how much the dough has been stretched - the small disk above left is the flattened dough, and the dough on the right is the stretched dough:
And then the pizza magic happens. First a simple margherita pizza - sauce, mozzarella, a little basil leaf:
I then made a pesto and tomato pizza. Have I mentioned that I really like sauce? A lot?
Then I stepped it up American-style - mozzarella, feta, olive, basil leaf and chicken sausage pizza:
While I didn't love the dough recipe (I'm definitely going to try it again and take out or reduce the oil) I really enjoyed the 'challenge' and documenting each step of the process. Can't wait for next month's challenge.