Italian style pizza – it’s a beautiful thing

Pizza Margherita

Growing up in India on a steady diet of Archie comics, Jughead’s prodigious pizza consumption always fascinated me (I have written about this before). In fact, as I mentioned before my first restaurant meal out of India was at a Pizza Hut in Geneva, Switzerland. Pizza, I found, as I traveled more, is the closest thing to a universal food. There are as many types of pizzas as there are countries. While many of them are good, some even great, the best (to my palate) is the simple southern Italian-style Margherita Pizza – tomato basil sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil, and excellent dough.

With the growth of wood-fired oven pizza places in the US, we finally have access to good pizza, beyond the bready-cheesy-Pizza Hut/Domino style pizzas. But, these places are not cheap and so my cheap desi (south-east Asian) instincts kicked in and I had to find a way to replicate an Italian style pizza without having to get a HELOC on my house. After a good many thoroughly enjoyable experiences that didn’t get me too far, I chanced upon a blog by Heidi Swanson. She put it best, she said “I can make a mean pizza, but it took me a while to learn how. Maybe I should rephrase that – I can make a mean pizza, but it took me a while to find the right teacher. ” That was it. I had not found the right teacher. I was lucky, I found one fairly quickly in Heidi.

The pizza dough recipe below is not difficult neither does it rely on any fancy ingredients. Cold fermentation and time is what makes this recipe work. So with a little foresight and a pizza stone you can create culinary heaven with some homemade tomato basil sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil. But before we get to the recipe, here are Foodydoody rules to making great pizza.

Rule No. 1 -Use a pizza stone – No two ways about it. If you want a nicely cooked pizza both from top and bottom, use a stone. Preheat the oven and the stone for at least 45 minutes at 450F.

Rule No. 2 – Don’t go crazy on the sauce – You want a nice layer but it shouldn’t overpower the pizza. Skimp a little on the sauce, you should be able to see the dough when you smear the sauce. And, don’t be lazy. Make your own sauce.

Rule No. 3 – Keep the number of toppings under 4 – This includes the sauce and cheese. The ingredients shouldn’t overpower the pizza. A good pizza a zen-like thing. There should be balance between the bread, sauce and toppings.

Rule No. 4 – Dough is king – I found that using an Italian OO flour gave me the best results for both pasta and pizza. This is finely ground flour and works very very well. I found some at Central Market and online. Use this flour if you can get it, or use high-gluten bread flour if you can’t.

Rule No. 5 – Use fresh ingredients – I used grated cheese below. Fresh mozzarella is better. The pizza is way tastier with it. Use your own sauce and fresh herbs instead of store bought sauce and dried basil.

So without further ado, here is Peter Reinhart’s pizza dough recipe that I got via Heidi Swanson. I have made some minor changes to it.

INGREDIENTS (for 8 medium pizzas)

4 1/2 cups (20.25 ounces) bread or OO Italian flour, chilled
1 3/4  teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1/4 cup olive oil
Ice cold water

STEPS (for hand kneading the dough)

1. Mix the flour, salt and yeast together.

2. Add the olive oil.

3. Start adding the ice cold water a 1/4 cup at a time and using your hand to knead. Keep dipping your hand in cold water to keep the dough chilled.

4. Keep adding the water and kneading the dough with one hand while turning the bowl with another till the dough is nice and elastic and slightly sticky (it should still leave the bottom of the bowl).

5. Roll into a ball.

6. Dust a chopping board or counter-top with flour and using a pastry cutter, cut the dough up into half, then quarters and then eighths. Roll each piece into a ball.

7. Oil a large baking pan and lay out the pizza balls on it with at least three inches of separation. Make sure the balls are greased with olive oil (you can grease your hands while rolling the balls or use a spray). Use two pans if one is not big enough.

8. Using a cling-wrap, cover the pan(s) and put it (them) in the fridge overnight.

9. Two hours before you are ready to make the pizza, take the dough balls from the fridge and flatten them into five inch diameter, 1/2 inch thickness discs and put them on a floured counter surface. Loosely cover the discs with some cling wrap.

Pizza discs warming up two hours before the baking

10. Since I am not at expert at twirling pizzas, once I was ready to make the pizza, I picked up a disc by the edge and started moving it anti-clockwise and letting the weight of the dough and gravity do the work for me till I had the pizza disc formed of a thickness I desired. The dough is pretty light and elastic at this point.

11. You should have a pizza peel generously covered with corn meal at this point. Put the pizza disc on top.

12. Add toppings and slide on to the preheated pizza stone.

Pizza ready to go into the oven

13. After about 5 minutes, I turned to oven to broil to let the cheese bubble and the crust brown slightly (should take another 3-5 minutes).

14. Using a peel, slide the pizza out, let it cool for 3-4 minutes to let the cheese set.

15. Cut the pizza into slices and enjoy.

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8 Comments

Filed under Italian

8 responses to “Italian style pizza – it’s a beautiful thing

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