Pizza was sacrosanct in my family, growing up near New Haven, Connecticut. At the end of a rainy fall Saturday, looking at dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum, my dad would take us to Wooster Street for scalding hot and bottom-burnt, bubbling thin crust apizza. There were other pizzas in my life, of course. School lunch pizza, scissor cut into squares with tough love by the tight-lipped lunch ladies of Joel School; birthday party pizza, oregano-mottled Greek style from Clinton Pizza, located on Main Street, next to the Cumberland Farms; frozen, rectangular squishy Elio’s shared with my mom at the kitchen table, before the kitchen was redone in country colors and stencils on the walls. But the style that reminded both my parents of home, which has leeched into my genes and bones and memory, is the Neopolitan version made popular by Pepe’s and Sally’s, and our personal favorite, Modern Apizza. A study in minimalism and ovens as hot as the fires of Mordor.
Moving to Mexico was the mother of invention. Our options there were Domino’s and a local delivery chain called Pizza Messina, whose cheese tastes like regurgitated goat curd. I’ve written before about how different an experience it would have been, living there, without access to the internet, the world beyond our briny backwater, a town without paved roads, or an ATM machine. Sometimes I think a total disconnect from civilization would have been better. We might have gone native, and liked it. What we were afforded was time and space to create and experiment. I easily could source the three ingredients: flour, yeast, salt. So I consulted a few sources and started mixing up dough. The one I settled on called for a quick rise, facilitated by the warm, moist climate of our beach house. I dissolved sugar and yeast in warm water; whisked salt into sifted flour, combined wet and dry and let it rest for a few hours. The result was a better quality pie than we’d had, and I was satisfied. Humanity restored, comforted by a simple taste of home, this is what cooking is really all about.
Back in the USA, it becomes quickly clear that there is always room for improvement. Better ingredients, and the motivation to seek out not just an acceptable recipe, but the best method. The most pressing piece of business was finally getting a pizza stone. That equipment secured, I felt I could begin trying different preparations and perfecting my technique. The first new dough I made came from Peter Reinhart, preeminent bread baker, author of books on bread baking, teacher, and theologian. I have a few of his books and expected to follow his instructions and develop the most ideal pizza ever created. I did everything he said to do. I used cold water, a metal spoon, oiled parchment, instant yeast, and waited while the dough did its magic thing. I was somewhat disappointed in the resulting crust. It was good, but bland. And while the top bubbled and blackened nicely, the bottom did not crisp. It was a little flabby, especially for a Neopolitan.
Then the March issue of Bon Appetit arrived with an amorphous, blistered, red, white and green pizza adorning its cover. Inside the issue was a recipe written by Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery. His no-knead bread recipe circled the interweb a few years ago and has been a staple in our house ever since. His no-knead pizza dough is similar in that resting and rising is the key to success. As geology is the study of pressure and time, bread baking, in my interpretation of Lahey, is the science of yeast and time. Keep the dough warm and bubbles will form. Eighteen hours on the counter and six minutes in the oven later, and lo and behold, it was the best pizza I’ve ever made. If Reinhart is an alchemist, Lahey is Prometheus. There’s no mystery or occult art to his style. Anyone can access this. And we should.
There are two main reasons that pizza at home never tastes like pizzeria pizza: Inadequate heat, and a directional heat source. In a pizza restaurant, the hot brick in 1,000+ degree ovens cook and blister a pizza from all sides simultaneously, in as few as a couple of minutes. We can’t replicate that heat at home, but we can distribute the heat better. By combining a preheated pizza stone with a hot broiler, we can cook the pizza crust quickly from the bottom, while blistering and melting the toppings using the broiler. The result? A crust that’s crispy on the outside, chewy and airy on the inside, and a perfectly cooked on top.
Having a long-handled peel is a must for sliding the pizza onto the super hot stone. Be sure to use a lot of cornmeal, or your sticky dough will get stuck. So, from the bottom up: Cornmeal, peel, dough. When you get the dough situated on the peel, add your desired toppings. Don’t muck around with storebought pizza sauce; it usually tastes like raw oregano and sadness. Instead, open a big can of San Marzano tomatoes, crush them with your fingers, add a tablespoon of tomato paste to thicken the sauce slightly, and two minced cloves of garlic. Done. Pull apart pieces of fresh mozzarella, and break basil with your fingers to add at the last second. That’s it. That’s all pizza should be. We have been experimenting with other toppings, such as caramelized onions, mushrooms, chorizo, and goat cheese, but simple, fresh, and unadulterated ingredients are still the ideal.
No-Knead Pizza Dough
Adapted from a recipe by Jim Lahey for Bon Appetit
- 7 1/2 cups all purpose flour (plus more for dusting, shaping dough)
- 4 teaspoons fine sea salt (I used Morton’s table salt)
- 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 3 cups water
Whisk flour, salt, and yeast in a big mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to gradually incorporate water. Mix by hand and form into a ball. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover with plastic and let rest in a warm spot for eighteen hours. It will double in size, and bubbles will develop. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface, and divide into six equal portions. Fold each dough ball over on itself, seam side down, and let it rest for an hour under a damp kitchen towel. [This can be done three days ahead. Wrap the dough you don’t plan to use in plastic to store in the fridge.] Preheat your oven on the highest bake setting for at least an hour, with the pizza stone on a rack in the top third of the oven. Stretch dough by hanging, pulling, and/or rolling. Use a peel, generously coated with corn meal, to transfer dough – topped with whatever you’d like – to the stone. Broil 5-7 minutes. Pull it from the oven with the peel, transfer to a wooden board, let it rest five minutes then dig in. Serve with a simple green salad and lots of wine and sparkling water.
With this recipe at your disposal, and a pantry stocked with flour, salt, and yeast, you have all the tools you need to create perfect pizza at home, wherever you are.