How to Make a Proper Pizza, Part 1

Ok, here’s something you may already know: pizza is the new number 1 popular food in the world (having just replaced rice though nobody really knows because everyone has their own opinion about food in this world, some, for instance, would say it’s pasta, some think it’s the burger etc…) The history of pizza is unclear, with a variety of theories and speculation. Some claim it is based on the pita bread found in the Middle-East, some think that it came from the unleavened bread “matzo” brought to Rome by Italian legionnaires while others insist that the humble pizza evolved from the famous “foccacia” served in Rome about 1,000 years ago, as a snack.

Another theory is that pizza was brought to Italy by Greeks, during the first century (but do not say that to a burly Italian!) What we do know is that pizza may have been developed by inhabitants of in and around Naples, Italy. This early pizza consisted of flattened bread dough with olive oil and a little cheese (tomatoes were from the New World) and baked in bread ovens.

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The first cookbook to mention tomatoes was published in Naples in 1692 so it’s safe to assume that not long afterwards some clever cook worked out a sauce and used it to make the dough less dry and ameliorate the taste. Pizza, as we know it now, is credited to Raffaele Esposito of Naples. In 1889, to honor a visit by King Umberto I and Queen Margherita, he created a special pizza which resembled the Italian flag. The pizza consisted of basil (green), mozzarella (white),and tomatoes (red) and, swoosh, unknowingly had set the standard for the modern day pizza. Today Pizza is a $30 billion plus industry in the US. More trivia: 93 percent of Americans eat a slice at least once a month, nearly 70 percent of Super Bowl viewers eat pizza while watching the game, and the average American puts away about 23 pounds a year. I read those heady statistics so you don’t have to. Sobering news!

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The most important rule in cooking is to choose the right ingredients. The humble pizza is not different. To make a great dough one has to buy the right flour. The Italians, French and Americans use different terms to describe their flours, which cause much confusion. While the American baker is accustomed to seeing gluten % on the flour package, the Italian producers often don’t publish gluten, but rather use 0 and 00 to describe how finely the flour is milled. 00, which is more fine, can be used to make different types of bread, cookies and pastries (as well as pizza). In France we use a type system: type 45 (cakes & pastry) type 55 (all-purpose, high in gluten, ideal for pizzas) and so on.

 

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According to the DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) in Naples, the only flour to use is an Italian flour rated 00 Flour 00 Caputo Pizza Flour 3 lb. is selected and milled specifically for pizza, it is higher in gluten than general purpose flour, and lower than bread flour. 00 flour hydrates well for moist pizza and is 100% natural without any additives. So when you purchase your flour make sure you get the one you want. Having said that, I have in the past used ordinary flour and the results were quite good, not as crusty as I would have I liked but in these recessionary days, at times, it simply has to do.

 

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I make the pastry by hand. There’s no point and no fun using an appliance when you’re dealing with a kilogram or so of dough, besides I love the feel of kneading and malleability, even though I end up covered in flour, must be a throwback to those distant days when I played in clay sloughs…anyway here’s how to make the pizza dough:

1 kilogram flour, half a teaspoon of dried yeast, 3 eggs, 1 glass of olive oil (roughly 200ml or a little less than half a pint – someday I will learn how to properly convert), a glass of warm water, a pinch of salt and if you want fancy, add a pinch of Provencal dried herbs. First, dissolve the yeast in a little warm water, whisk in the olive oil, the salt and the herbs. Make a small flour well, break the eggs and knead, adding the oil mixture and some of the water till it gets into a firm ball, add flour if too wet. Let it stand for an hour or so to let it rise and knead it again briefly, then start rolling according to your pizza tray, round or rectangle, making sure you dust them well with flour beforehand. Freeze what you don’t need or add brown sugar to the dough and make fun shapes cookies for the kids (mine add sugar pearls on top, among other goodies, see pic below.)

 

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Next the sauce, universally made out of tomato or concentrate, is liberally flavored with garlic, spices and herbs. It ought to be of reasonable freshness and quality and that said, most people would buy it from a supermarket. I prefer to make mine, it may not save time but I like to know the amount of sodium and the kind of seasoning that end up on my frisbee. The following ingredients are for a few fillings, what’s left ends up in shoring up another sauce or a tomato velouté. 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 knob of butter 2 red finely chopped onions cup onions, 2 chopped celery sticks, 4 minced garlic cloves, a pint (half a bottle) of passata sauce, 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, fresh basil (if you can get it otherwise I use a green pesto) a pinch of dried oregano, celery salt and black pepper to taste and a dash of Balsamic vinegar. When in season I add one finely chopped fennel. Fry all the vegetables in butter and oil, add the passata and the concentrate, then the vinegar and the cheese, season it and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally.

 

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Now that we have the dough and the sauce out of the way, let’s talk cheese. Most if not all pizzas are topped with mozzarella. Why? Because at high temperatures, it bakes well and won’t burn, unlike cheddar and similar types. I use goat cheese but only in conjunction with mozzarella. Same with blue or smoked gouda. When you buy the real thing, fresh mozzarella should have a sweet, creamy and milky taste – like eating a glass of milk. No additives are used in mozzarella fresca but some manufactures add Titanium Dioxide (commonly used in white paint) to make their cheese appear whiter (always check the labels!) Vacuum sealed fresh mozzarella is slightly less-moist and perfect for sandwiches & pizzas and it’s quite easy to make your own.

 

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Now we come to the most interesting and creative part of the pizza world: the toppings. And that’s the subject of Part Deux, in a couple of days. All will be revealed: how to make the perfect Calzone, how to make a Japanese pizza, tips for gluten-free dough for celiacs, even how to build a brick oven in your backyard, and much more!
A word or two on Mozzarella: legend has it that mozzarella was first made when cheese curds accidently fell into a pail of hot water in a cheese factory near Naples and soon thereafter the first pizza was made! Actually, new cheeses are often formulated when mistakes happen, so there well may be truth in the tale. Mozzarella was first made in Italy near Naples from the rich milk of water buffalos. Because it was not made from pasteurized milk and because there was little or no refrigeration the cheese had a very short shelf-life and seldom left the southern region of Italy near Naples where it was made. As cheese technology, refrigeration and transportation systems developed the cheese spread to other regions of Italy. However, to this day it is widely known that the best and most highly prized artisanal produced is still found south of Naples near Battipaglia and Caserta where small factories continue centuries-old traditions making buffalo mozzarella fresh daily for their local customers, who line up at the factories to buy this delicacy. See you in a couple of days!

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