Living Below Your Means
Mother of All Pizza Posts

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By 5000fingers
May 12, 2003

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Last night I took a Viking Home Chef course on pizza making, taught by Tony Gemignani, who owns a pizzeria in the Bay Area and has won world championship acrobatic pizza-tossing competitions in Naples. He was also on Jay Leno. It was fun to see him demonstrating his acrobatic skills - that man does things with pizza dough that you wouldn't even imagine. But luckily the class focused on more useful things such as how to throw a good crust, baking considerations, recipes, and the like. Knowing this to be one of the favorite non-SUV topics here, I thought I'd jot down my notes - in no particular order - in hopes that it might be helpful to all the budding pizza makers on this board. BTW, the price of the course was $75, but I did try to make it as LBYM as possible by being one of their clean-up assistants (a $25 discount).

With regard to a "traditional" way to make pizza, there is no one right method, because there is an Italian tradition, and a few different American traditions, which are all equally valid in the pizza-making world. The most traditional Italian way from Naples (where pizza started) involves forming the dough with your hands on the floured peel without a rolling pin (though many Italians do tossing, it's less purely traditional there), with a nice thick edge, thin and chunky sauce, large bubbles in the crust, and just a few simple fresh topping ingredients. This type of pizza is rustic in appearance and appeal. There are different American traditions - New York (thin crust, limited toppings), Chicago (layered toppings, "deep-dish" crusts), and California (medium crust, many creative toppings). The American tradition is for a pizza crust that is tossed (or with the thin crust the dough is often rolled with a rolling pin or special machinery), and more and thicker sauce in general than in Italy.

One of the most discussed topics of pizza baking is that of flour. Is all purpose OK, and what about bread or cake flour? Well, as it turns out, the flour should be high in both gluten and protein (to say high in protein is just relative to other types of flour; I doubt that pizza will ever be good for those poor misled Atkins or Zone Diet people). The kind of flour you use is all-important to getting that nutty taste and crispy-yet-chewy crust. The only type of flour you should use to make real pizza dough is (drum roll.................................!) pizza flour! Go figure. You can buy pizza flour in just about any restaurant supply store, some gourmet shops, or even a place like Smart & Final if you have it in your area. It usually comes in 25 lb. boxes. However pizza flour is not expensive and well worth making a few phone calls to find (The official cold-rise pizza dough recipe to follow). You might even be able to buy some from a local pizzeria if you get on good terms with the owner or manager.

The crust. Start with a proofed ball of dough at room temperature, on both sides into a bowl of flour. If you want to have the nice, rounded, chewy edges on your pizza, and you use a rolling pin, you have to be careful not to use the rolling pin all the way out to the edges of the pizza. You should move the rolling pin back and forth through the middle of the dough only, coaxing it out into a round shape rather than forcing it. If you push the rolling pin all the way out to the edge, it will pinch that edge and break any air bubbles in it and you will lose the crust there. If you hate crust and are making a thin crust pizza maybe you might want to do that on purpose, but if so do it all around the crust equally. If you want to toss your crust (the best thing to impress women), you need to roll it out to a round shape about 10" in diameter to start it. "If it's not round on the table it won't be round in the air." After starting with the rolling pin, slap it back and forth in your hands a couple times to remove the loose flour, and then toss it up, twisting it in the palm of your hand as fast as possible. Twist with your wrist as you toss it up. Toss it as high as possible and spin the dough as fast as your skill level will allow. Catch it on both fists. Right-handers will throw it up counter-clockwise and left-handers clockwise. Some people toss it with both fists rather than the palm of one hand but that limits the speed of the twist. The faster the twist, the faster the dough gets to the correct size with the least possibility of problems (thin areas, etc.), so try to learn to toss it with the palm of one hand, and sort of "helped" underneath the with the fist of the other. You might need to stretch the outer crust as you go, so that the middle doesn't weaken faster than the edges (the most common problem). Of course this is a skill that needs to be practiced but it's really not that difficult. In order the throw well, the dough should be well proofed (see recipe) and close to room temperature. (I have found that it helps to listen to Italian opera and get a slight chianti buzz going to really get in the groove of pizza tossing).

Regarding pizza stones and baking, he says that for the sake of speed or difficulty with the peel, a pizza screen is perfectly acceptable. If you are having a big pizza party at home (or are working a huge night at a restaurant) you can have lots of assembled, uncooked pizzas waiting on pizza screens, and ready to go in the oven at the same time. But if you have to wait to use a peel, the pizzas would have to be made one after the other on the pizza peel and that would slow things way down. If you do use a pizza screen and want to get the nice finish on the bottom of the crust that a pizza stone gives, you can cook it half-way on the pizza screen and then move it to the pizza stone, and it will come out perfect. That's a perfect, foolproof solution for folks who don't have a peel or are hesitant to use one.

Traditional American pizzas don't have lots of big bubbles in the crust, so unless you want that Italian bubbly effect, halfway into the baking you should puncture the bubbles that are rising with a fork. Just reach into the oven to do this; don't take it out of the oven!

The oven needs to be as high as possible, 500 or more if it goes that high (but not on broil!). Convection ovens will work nicely also. They are slightly preferable to regular home ovens. Preheating a home oven with a pizza stone for more than five to ten minutes is a total waste of energy. By the time the oven temperature rises to 500 and you see the little red light turn off, the oven and stone are ready to use, it's not getting any hotter. The best place in the oven for pizza is usually right in the middle. If you don't have a convection oven you might have to turn the pizza halfway to avoid any cold spots if your oven has them. Cooking times will vary, but usually eight to sixteen minutes will work well if the oven is hot enough. If you use a ton of toppings and/or make thick crust or deep-dish pizzas, you will want to lower the oven temperature and lengthen the cooking time. Wait for a nice, golden brown crust and don't cook it so much that the cheese burns. Toppings that are browned a little with a little carmelization, but not burned, taste the best. Don't put in a dish of water as you might sometimes with bread baking, and don't soak the pizza peel in water. Pizza ovens should be dry.

If you are using a pizza peel (that big wooden paddle that you make the pie on and slide it in and out of the oven with) and are having problems with the pizza sticking to the peel as you try to slide it onto the stone, you are either using dough that is too wet, didn't put enough flour on the peel, or more commonly you are taking too long to put the pie together. You should have all of your ingredients ready to go and nearby, and once you put the crust down on the floured peel you need to assemble it very quickly and slide it into the oven ASAP, especially with pizzas that have lots of toppings. Too much flour on a peel will burn in the oven, but it won't totally ruin the pizza.

Wisconsin and California make the best widely available cheese by far. Of the two, Wisconsin usually slightly edges out California in quality. The best mozzarella to use is whole milk, but you can use part skim and it will be fine. If you have a local dairy that makes a really fresh, organic product, then by all means use that.

Toppings: Anything goes, especially in California (the teacher says he gets teased about pineapple when he travels to New York or Italy). If you like big slices of tomato like on pizza margherita, try adding them fresh after it comes out of the oven so it doesn't drain tomato water all over as cooked tomatoes tend to. If you put greens on the pizza like spinach or basil, be careful it doesn't shrivel up and burn. Put the spinach under the cheese to avoid burning. Use whole basil leaves for a traditional pizza margherita (named after an Italian queen; it has the three colors of the Italian flag), but coat them in olive oil first. Onions and bell peppers should be sliced fairly thinly and placed on top to let them sweat and carmelize. Nobody likes undercooked onions.

There is no one right type of sauce. Italians use a thinner, chunkier sauce with very little tomato paste in it, whereas Americans usually prefer thicker, less chunky sauce with lots of tomato paste and bolder flavors. It all depends on what you like, and many pizzerias advertise their sauces as "secret," so it's best to experiment with what you like.

Dessert pizzas are great! He made one with a regular crust, which he partially baked with a little butter on top. Separately, in a saucepan he cooked up sliced apples in some water and butter, and when they softened he added brown and white sugar, cranberries (fresh, frozen or dried are OK) and some cinnamon. After these were cooked thoroughly, he spread them out on the crust and baked them together the rest of the way. When it came out of the oven he sprinkled it with powdered sugar. It was divine! Lots of fruits can be cooked this way for wonderful dessert pizza toppings. The pie that he made with apples & cranberries would have been great for the holidays; summer fruits would probably be better this time of year. Mascarpone cheese, or sweetened ricotta would be good on a dessert pizza.

COLD RISE DOUGH - Makes 2 medium sized, medium thickness crusts.

5 1/2 C High Gluten High Protein Pizza Flour

3/4 C Warm Water
1/2 t. Red Star dry active yeast (1/2 teaspoon is less than a whole package)

1 1/2 C Cold Water
1/2 T. Sugar
1/2 T. Salt
1 T. Olive Oil

Pour the flour into a mixer bowl with a flour hook. In a measuring cup, combine the yeast to the warm water and whisk for a couple minutes. In another cup, mix the cold water, sugar, salt, and oil together for one minute. Pour this cold water mixture into the mixing bowl with the flour, followed by the warm water mixture and mix at low speed for 10-12 minutes. You may need to add a teaspoon or two of water if the batch appears to be dry. If you don't have a mixer, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead it until it has a smooth, even consistency (it should feel like an earlobe if you pinch it).

Divide the dough in half, forming each half into a smooth ball. Place each ball into a zip lock bag and refrigerate for 6-8 hours at least (24 hours at most). Take the each zip lock out of the refrigerator to proof approximately one hour before use.

If you need a quicker rise, use all warm water instead of cold.

Adding 1 TB of honey stabilizes the dough, making it more durable while tossing.

You don't need to punch down the dough and knead like you do with bread.

You can freeze the dough without too much effect on quality. Thoroughly thaw the ball before proofing.

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