Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some Progress

For my second attempt, I made sure to mix the yeast in luke warm water first (adding a pinch of sugar to activate the yeast) and then mixed in the flour, salt, and olive oil. I ended up with much better results, and with dough that much more approximated a normal pizza. However, the big problem was that the crust. Even though it was chewy in parts it was too stiff overall. The edge of the pizza (or cornicione) was completely solid, and I couldn't even chew it.

My brother had noted that he read recently in Cooks Illustrated that one of the problems with using all purpose flour is that it's too high in protein, so it's important to use a mixture of a softer cake flour with the all purpose flour to lower the protein content. That's what I'm doing with my next batch, and I'll report back.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First Night

I delayed writing this account of my first official attempt at pizza making on Monday because my day job called. But the bottom line is that the dough was largely a failure, while the sauce was amazing.

Even before I tried to make the pizza, I noticed that my dough didn't seem to be rising at all (the conventional wisdom is that balls of pizza dough should rise by 1.5 to 2 times). I thought that maybe I was mistaken and that all would work out to be fine, but it sure didn't. First, when I attempted to stretch out the dough, it started to fall apart. This I was able to mostly rectify by using a can of tomato sauce as a rolling pin at the suggestion of a friend (and later merging two dough balls into one so I had more dough to shape), although I still ended up with some oblong pies. Then when I cooked the pies (I made five small pies overall) the dough still didn't rise, leaving the crust way too thin. While I'm a fan of a thin crust, I also like for it to be tasty and chewy, but this one was more cracker like.

So what went wrong?

The main recipe that I used called for mixing the yeast in with the flour first and slowly adding cold water. But everything else I've read about yeast since my mishap has said that you have to dissolve the yeast in warm water first (just over 100 degrees) and then add it to the flour. While I did make a second batch of dough in which I added yeast to warm water, that recipe called for brewer's yeast, and also the flour to water ratio was way off, so I ended up having to add more and more water arbitrarily until the dough felt right, and that may have messed up all of the other ratios. As I noted in a previous post, according to the official rules of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani (the Association of Neapolitan Pizza) pizza should be made with either natural or brewer's yeast rather than instant yeast. But I've decided that in my next attempt I'm not going to focus on flavor or fancy yeasts as much and instead just use the most basic, dummy-proof, fast-acting yeast I can find to ensure that my pies are at least functional before I move on to tweaking the taste.

The one bit of good news is that my sauce was amazing -- exactly what I was looking for. Just crushed San Marzano tomatoes with two cloves of minced garlic, olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. The perfect pizza sauce. As I mentioned, I decided to use cheapo shredded mozzerella cheese while I'm experimenting so that I don't waste really good stuff on substandard dough. Once I'm satisfied with my dough, buying better cheese is easy.

A friend of mine also brough over some turkey pepperoni she had in her fridge, so I added that to a few of the pies as well.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Doughs

Here's a photo of my first attempt at dough, which was based on this recipe adapted from Peter Reinhart's book.

Though I haven't cooked with it yet, I sense that I messed it up, because there are various cracks in the dough even though most of the dough balls I've seen posted elsewhere are very smooth. My guess is that it's because I didn't knead the dough for long enough. I made this by hand rather than using a mixer, and basically was satisfied when the flour, water, yeast, olive oil, and salt were all mixed together evenly, and the dough seemed, in accordance with the recipe, "springy, elastic, and sticky, not just tacky." Truth be told, I never really understand how the adjectives used in recipes relate to anything in reality. So I just sort of started guessing. I pulled the dough apart and tried bouncing it against the bottom of the bowl, then used it to gather up all of the excess flour around the sides to test the stickiness factor. I mean, if it bounces a bit, does that mean it's springy? If it expands like a Stretch Armstrong action figure, does that make it elastic? Or does that tip the balance to the wrong side of the tacky scale? In any event, in hindsight, I think that I would have ended up with a smoother dough if I had worked it a bit longer.

Given that I had already determined I was going to make pizza on Monday night while I watch football, I decided this would be a good excuse to try a different dough recipe for comparison purposes. While the first one has been fermenting in the fridge since Saturday night, I figured I'd make a different dough that only ferments for three hours in a warmer place . As I was trying to decide, one of my brother's suggested I check out the official rules of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani (the Association of Neapolitan Pizza). By not having the right oven, I'm already violating one of the major rules to begin with, but even so, one rule I found interesting was that Neopolitan pizza has to be made with natural or brewer's yeast. Since I used active dry yeast in the first dough, I decided that for my second dough, I'd use brewer's yeast (which I tracked down in the dietary supplement section of Whole Foods).

After doing some searching for a recipe that would give me some guidance on the ratio of brewer's yeast to flour, I came across this one from Kyle Phillips. Yes, it's from an article, which doesn't have the appeal of some dusty old recipe from an Italian cookbook I dug up from the bargain bin a used bookstore in Naples, but again, this is just my first attempt, and I have to start somewhere simple.

As for the toppings, I decided that during the experimental crust phase I should use cheap toppings. No need to invest in pounds of ultra-expensive Italian cheeses just to waste them on substandard crust. Instead, I'll just use processed mozzarella in a bag. Luckily, I was able to secure canned San Marzano tomatoes -- the ones used in NYC pizza -- for a relatively cheap price. I bought the crushed tomatoes instead of the whole peeled tomatoes because I prefer a saucier type pizza to one with giant chunks of tomatoes.

As far as baking is concerned, the big thing I'm looking out for is whether the cheese melts at relatively the same pace as the crust cooks. Some people I've read have suggested cooking the crust on its own for five to 10 minutes, then taking it out and putting on the toppings, allowing the crust more time to bake since the cheese melts faster. Other people say even at 500 degrees, it should work out just fine without giving a head start to the crust.

Ok, so enough build up. The next time I write a post, it will be to report back the results of my first experiment with actually baking pizza.

Cracking the Pizza Code

Like many New York transplants living in the nation's capital, I've always found myself whining about the inadequate pizza options in my adopted city. Typically, I don't even bother trying to eat pizza in DC and I content myself with waiting until I visit NYC to satisfy my cravings (this is better for my triglyceride levels, anyway). But a few weeks ago, after being particularly underwhelmed at a highly-rated DC pizza joint, I had an epiphany. I decided that with enough work and experimentation, I could do better.

This was (and is) a bold and, frankly, arrogant statement on my part. I'm very picky about what type of pizza I enjoy, but I've never attempted to make pizza myself, and don't have any sort of formal training as a chef. I don't have NYC tap water, which I've been raised to believe is the key to the crust, and my oven only reaches 500 degrees. By all accounts I've read, you need an oven capable of reaching 800 degrees to get a charred/crispy crust. The importance of the temperature really kicked in when I read Jeff Varasano's crust recipe in which he wrote, "Try baking cookies at 75 instead of 375 and see how it goes." I don't think that's an ideal analogy given that obviously it isn't proportional. And clearly you can't cook anything at 75 degrees whereas you can at 500 degrees. But it did drive home a point -- i.e. that certain things are baked at a certain temperature for a reason. (Varasano himself went to drastic measures to achieve the right temperature. After figuring out that the cleaning cycle in his oven reached as high as 975 degrees but that his oven locked during the cleaning cycle, he used gardening shears to break off the lock thus allowing him to bake pizza during the cleaning cycle. He now has his own restaurant in Atlanta though, and I assume has overcome such limitations.)

After doing some thinking, I decided that if I get really serious about this, I can bring back NYC tap water when I visit and store it for when I make my dough. I also remembered that over the summer, I was helping a friend do some grilling for his son's birthday, but our effort was complicated because he accidentally bought competition grade charcoal and dumped a whole bag of it in the grill. The grill ended up being so scorching hot that we could barely flip the burgers, and I ended up severely burning one of my fingers on a metal chicken skewer. (I've since recovered, though at the time I was convinced I'd never get feeling back in the tip of my finger.) In any event, a friend of mine has one of those outdoor brick grills in his backyard, so after poking around the internet, I realized that I could put my pizza stone on that grill, and with the right amount of charcoal, can get the temperature close to the desired heat range, if not hit 800 degrees outright. (And luckily for the nerve endings in my hands and arms, a wooden pizza shovel is longer than a burger flipper).

However, before going to such great lengths, I understand that I have to take some time to do initial experiments at home with dough until I at least find something with a satisfactory flavor. And that's what I'm in the middle of doing now, starting off really basically.

Right now, I have a batch of dough sitting in my refrigerator that I made on Saturday even though I don't intend to use until Monday night. That's because under one philosophy, it's better to let dough slowly ferment in the refrigerator for a few days before using it. But I also intend to make another batch tomorrow night, because other recipes call for simply making the dough three hours before consumption.

My early research into the art of dough making has made me appreciate what a miracle truly great pizza is, as well as understand why you can go to hundreds of different pizzerias and end up with the food tasting totally different even though the essential ingredients are the same. A basic dough is just flour, water, salt, and yeast. But there are an infinite amount of variations beyond that. Different pizza chefs prefer different types of flour, and in some cases, use a blend of several flours. Some use kosher or sea salt, others use plain salt. Some insist on adding olive oil to the dough, others warn against it. Some say that having NYC water is key, others say that it's a myth. Some recipes call for luke warm water, others say it must be ice cold. Some say that you mix the yeast in the flour first and then slowly put in water, others say you dissolve the yeast in the water first and slowly add flour. And what kind of yeast to use? Active dry yeast? Brewer's yeast? Natural yeast? Sourdough yeast? It actually turns out that there's a whole subculture surrounding yeast cultures. For instance, one site sells two Italian cultures for $16, and boasts:

We searched for Italian cultures unsuccessfully for 15 years and suddenly have two, one which has been carefully guarded and is almost impossible to obtain. They are both from the Naples area, where the first pizza was made in the 1800's, and are among the best we have ever used, consistently producing fabulous breads that are flavorful and that can be quite sour. We were told when we received them that they were different, and we confirmed that difference. We will keep the secret, and let you determine what it is when you use them.
I'm far from the point at which I can get my head around such stuff, but I hope through this blog I'll be able to explore all of these different pizza-making issues. If this is a project I keep up with as opposed to one that proves ephemeral, maybe this site will eventually be a helpful forum for others, too. Or else, perhaps it will serve as a cautionary tale for any other arrogant New Yorkers out there who think they're capable of making good pizza just because they've watched it done before.