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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!