Pizza dough

I have a new best friend.

It’s the pizza dough I have learned to make.
There is just something so… relaxing (?) about a pizza night, especially during the workweek.  Maybe it’s the fact pizza is often reserved for weekend nights in, whether homemade, picked up, or delivered, eaten alongside people you really like, while wearing very comfortable clothing and drinking special beverages (adult or otherwise), and probably watching something heartily entertaining on a screen.  And when you have a recipe that gives you the opportunity for not one, not two or three, but SIX pizza nights, each with very little forethought or preparation, that recipe becomes your new best friend.
pizza
About a month ago — maybe even two — there had been an occasion to make pizza at WSS headquarters.  Neither Danny nor I can remember exactly what the occasion was, but knowing us, here’s a pretty solid guess:  it was a Friday, there was new music to be heard and a few days’ worth of steam to let off.  I wanted a new kitchen project that would a) not take an extraordinary amount of time, and b) result in something that went with many beers.  (Answer to b = anything, obviously.)
I consulted my modest but treasured library of cookbooks and found a relatively traditional pizza dough recipe from Jamie Oliver that promised to be easy enough.  I had heard of Jim Lahey’s no-knead recipe, and a few other minimal muss/fuss techniques hailed by pros and laypeople alike.  But for the same reasons my hands and countertops get floured and cleaned and floured again at least once every few weeks for some good old-fashioned bread making, I was not (yet) interested in a shortcut, real or perceived.  I may — nay, probably will — be taking those routes before I know it, but for now, in the earlier, golden days of what I hope will be many years of bread making, I want to understand how it all works.  I want to see the difference between messing up and getting it right.  I want to be able to say I did it all by myself.
Damn.  Is this the 10-year-old overachiever in me talking?
So be it.  Some things never change.
And, you know… call it fussy, but what I do like about the Jamie Oliver recipe is its mention of ’00’ flour — a fine-milled flour generally found in specialty or Italian shops, and one that most American pizza dough recipes do not bring up.  (Bonus fact: whole wheat, ground to 00, makes unbelievable pasta.)  Not that there is anything wrong with regular white flour; it’s what I used in the first batch of this recipe.  But amid the sea of low-maintenance how-tos, I appreciated the context of tradition (00) vs convenience and the everyday (AP flour), and that the recipe encourages one to strive for the former when it’s reasonable to do so.
That said, and you will laugh now, I did not have the 00 flour at my disposal at that moment.  I do have a nice little bag of it, courtesy of my mom, sitting right next to the semolina flour for next time.  Which should be very soon since we just polished off the last of the 6 dough rounds from the original recipe all those weeks ago.
When rolled out thin, this crust comes out sturdy but chewy in the middle, with the occasional classic bubble on the outer crust.  Some of the first pizzas came out a bit dry, but I realized that had more to do with the orientation of my pizza stone than the composition of the dough.  Notes on that are below.
Other pro tips:
  • When using fresh mozzarella (answer: every time), take the time to press the moisture out of the cheese.  This solves that age-old issue of the swampy middle and relative absence of crispness.  This is something we learned back in the early days of Danny & Jeanelle, during a summer spent cooking pizzas on Danny’s old grill on top of a garage in Humboldt Park, and based on advice from a Mark Bittman recipe that no amount of internet scouring can yield.  (If you can find it, happy times!)  How to do it:  slice the cheese into 1/2 – 1/4 inch rounds, set on a cutting board or flat surface between several layers of paper towels, then put your heaviest stuff on top of that.  I tend to use a baking pan (easy to clean, non-porous), topped with a few cookbooks and 3 nesting cast-iron skillets.  Overboard?  Maybe.  But it dries the cheese nicely in the time it takes to preheat the oven and prep the other ingredients.
  • Get a pizza stone.  And a pizza peel.  We got both from the grocery store and have had no problems with either.  No fancy kitchen store visit necessary, unless you’re into that sort of thing (which I kind of am, but I am also lazy and cheap).  I feel like there are roughly 3 pizza stone producers in the country, so you could probably go in any direction and be fine.  Our peel is made from hippie-friendly compressed wood fiber, and has held up like a champion.

 

  • Buy some cornmeal.  Medium-grind is fine.  This is your passport to a free-sliding pizza, and a slide-y pizza is a safe pizza.
Finally, the sauce is optional.  The first several pizzas born from this batch of dough were sauce-less, the dough simply rubbed with a bit of olive oil before topping with whatever.  Tonight I did whip up an incredibly fast half-batch of the pizza sauce I told you about way, way back, just after the holidays.  I still love the twinge of sweetness of that sauce, but depending on your toppings you could skip or reduce the maple syrup, according to taste.
The link to the Jamie Oliver recipe gives the proportions in metric measurements; my book had both!  Translation for you here, because I love you.  Adapted from Jamie at Home.
Get this:
  • 7 cups white all-purpose flour or Tipo ’00’ flour, OR 5 cups either of those flours (or a combo) plus 2 cups of semolina flour
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  •  4 1/2 teaspoons (or two 1/4-ounce packets) active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon raw sugar
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
Do this:
 
If you are using the dough right away, preheat your oven to 500F.  Place an oven rack at the lowest level, then put your pizza stone on the rack.  (Yes, you guessed it, you’ll want to do this before you turn the oven on.)  (Also: I found that putting the stone on the very bottom, the floor, of the oven made the crust a bit too dry — I think it got just a teeny bit too hot down there, if that is possible.  The few inches off makes a difference.)

You can also freeze the dough when it’s done — just put each ball in its own bag and throw in the freezer.  I put all my little bags of dough into one big, freezer-safe bag to avoid the risk of funky freezer burn.  I’d use up the dough within a month or two of freezing it.

 
In a large bowl, mix the yeast, sugar and olive oil into the water and let sit.  (I tend to put the bowl on the top of the oven while it’s heating up.  Helps the yeast wake up.)  Once the mixture is foamy, after about 10 minutes or so, measure the flour(s) and salt onto a clean countertop and make a little well in the middle, and pour the yeast mixture into the well.  Grab a fork and work the flour in gradually from the sides, swirling it into the liquid.  Keep mixing, bringing in more & more flour until it starts to come together and resemble actual dough.  At that point, ditch the fork and work in the rest of the flour with your hands.  Knead until you have a smooth dough that springs back a bit when poked gently.
 
Put the dough in a very large, flour-dusted bowl, and flour the top of the dough as well.  Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or cloth, and let rise in a cozy spot for about an hour.  (Somewhere near your preheating oven is a good spot if it’s chilly outside or you’ve got your AC on.)  The dough is ready to be played with again once it’s doubled in size, so the hour is just a good guide but isn’t a strict cutoff.
Now, the funnest part:  remove the towel, make a fist, and press the dough down slowly with your fist. (Is your dough farting?  Maybe.  It’s natural!)  Turn the dough back out onto your workspace, which you should dust again with flour.  I like to knead it very lightly here, just to get some smoothness back.  Divide the dough into six or eight little balls (six will yield what I think of as medium/large pizzas; eight will give you small/mediums), and use or freeze as you like.
 
If you’re using it right away, roll out a ball of the dough on that floured surface until you get a good thickness (according to preference).  I love a nice, crisp thin crust, so I get it to about 1/4-inch thick, if not thinner, especially in the middle.
 
Now prepare the peel with a small handful of cornmeal.  You just want a dusting so it acts as a sort of ball bearing for the dough, and it’ll slide right onto your pizza stone (and back onto the peel).  A sticky pizza can be a pain in the ass, not to mention dangerous, as you try to unstick the dough with any number of kitchen tools (or your hands, oh my god) that may or may not enjoy the 500-degree inferno you have arranged for your pizza delectation.  Gently lift the rolled-out dough off the counter and on to the peel, placing it evenly in the center.  If you give your dough a little shimmy on the peel, that is a good test to see where or whether you need a bit more cornmeal.
 
You can put your toppings on the pizza once it’s all situated on the peel.  Do this quickly, if you can, to keep the dough from warming too much and getting tacky.  Regardless of toppings, I find that 10-12 minutes is all the pizza needs in the oven before it is perfect and bubbly and golden brown at the edges. Depending on your oven, you may need to do one or two minutes more.
 
 

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