On Saturday evening we witnessed our first Unsilent Night in New York (check out the photo set). Listening to the sounds of the city mesh and mingle with the sounds of the Phil Kline’s soundtrack while walking from park to park with New Yorkers clutching boomboxes, some dressed as santa, was definitely a unique urban experience. On Sunday I woke up wanting pizza.
Pizza is one of those things you cook that is all about fun and flavor. There’s nothing practical about it. There’s nothing thrifty about it (especially not with the NY options). There’s nothing quick about it (between the rising of the dough, etc, you’re looking at leave 4 hours). Oh boy is it tasty, perfect for groups, satisfying hand work, and customizable to anyone’s taste (except gluten-free diets, so sorries!) with mix and match ingredients.
Yes, pizza can be an all-day affair. Which makes it perfect for a Sunday. Unless you’re not feeling well and all you want is pizza. Then you end up cutting some of your vegetables on a cutting board on the floor, and making one dreamy pizza, and one totally horrific disaster. Even if you fare as I did, it’s still delicious and fun.
Mike coached us through technique (how long should the dough rise?), options (to saute or not saute your toppings), the importance of the cornmeal (it acts as ball bearings to help the pizza slide into the oven), how thin to roll out your dough (about the thickness of the non-filling half of an Oreo cookie), and weighed in on the question of what to do with the perishable basil (it dries up if you top the pizza with it before going into the oven).
The recipe is from my mom’s wonderful Baking Handbook. She and I had used the white flour dough recipe a couple of years ago, but I wanted to try out using much more semolina (scandal). I think I can fairly confidently exclaim at this point that white flour alone is just not that flavorful. Regardless of how you top it, try out this mostly semolina dough recipe, and see how crispy your pizza gets.
Making the dough
Semolina flour is usually associated with pasta, but it also produces the most crispy and flavorful pizza crust. Dough made from this hard durum wheat flour is especially suitable for moist fillings. Semolina dough is much more elastic than basic pizza dough made with white flour, so it must be rolled out rather than stretched. The dough should feel moist but not too sticky, and might need a few extra tablespoons of water to attain the right consistency. If it sticks while it’s being rolled out, dust the dough lightly with a small amount of flour. (If the dough tears, that means it is too dry. Just gather it up into a ball and add a small amount of water, knead the dough until it is softer, and give it a 15-minute rest before continuing.)
Yields 2 14” pizzas
1 cup warm (110-115 degrees) tap water
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup all-purpose white flour
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 2 1/2 cups semolina flour
Pour the water into a medium-sized mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Stir gently with a fork until the yeast is dissolved and the liquid turns light beige in color.
Add the all-purpose flour, olive oil, and salt and stir with a wooden spoon. Add 1 cup of the semolina flour and mix. The dough should be soft and should start to come away from the sides of the bowl. Add more water by the tablespoon if the dough appears to be too crumbly and dry.
Measure out the last 1 1/2 cups. Sprinkle some over the work surface and flour your hands generously. Remove all of the dough from the bowl and begin to work the mass by kneading the additional flour in a bite at a time.
To knead the dough, use the heel of your hand (or both hands) to push the dough across the floured work surface in one sweep. Clench the dough in your fist and twist and fold it over. Use the dough scraper (bench knife) to help gather the wet dough that sticks to the work surface into a ball while kneading. Repeat this action over and over again, adding only as much flour as it takes to keep the dough from sticking to your hands. Work quickly and don’t be delicate. Slap and push the dough around to develop its gluten and to facilitate its rolling out.
When the dough no longer feels sticky, push the heel of your hand down into it and hold it there for 10 seconds. This will test its readiness; if your hand comes up clean, the dough is done. If it sticks, a bit more kneading will be necessary. Once the dough is no longer sticky, do not overwork it by adding more flour. Continue kneading only until the dough is smooth and elastic (it should spring back when pressed) and no lines of raw white flour show. The whole process should take 5 to 10 minutes. Now it’s time to let the dough rise.
Lightly oil a 2-quart bowl with vegetable oil. Roll the ball of dough around in the bowl to coat it with a thin film of oil. Tightly seal the bowl with plastic wrap to trap in the moisture and heat from the yeast’s carbon dioxide gases. This will help the dough rise faster.
Place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place, preferably in an oven with a pilot light. For electric ovens, set the thermostat to 200 degrees. Let rise until the dough triples in size, about 2 hours. Punch the dough down in the bowl and mix around until the outer crust on the dough is smooth again. Let rise for another 40 minutes. Punch it down again.
Getting the oven ready
Oh, to have a pizza oven. Sigh. To get your home oven hot enough (500 degrees), you need a pizza stone or quarry tiles that will fill one rack in your oven. You’ll also need an oven thermometer to confirm the correct temperature. Make sure the rack is in the lower third and pile in the tiles or place the stone down. If you’re using tiles, remember you’ll be setting the pizza down directly on this surface, so make sure there’s no space. Also take note of the diameter of your surface, so you know how big you can make your pizza (typically no larger than 15”).
Set the oven to 500 degrees at least 30 minutes in advance of cooking the pizzas. If you’ve never made pizza before, it’s advisable to try this in advance to make sure you can get your oven hot enough. If you can’t get it quite hot enough, it’s better to make the pizza thicker (1/4 inch). Check the oven temp before putting in your pizza.
Throwing and rolling
Pizza peel or cookie sheet
Once you have all the ingredients assembled, you’re ready to roll out the dough. Take out your pizza peel (or use the back of a cookie sheet) and sprinkle cornmeal across the surface.
Begin to stretch the dough with your hands. Ball up both hands into fists, and hold the dough atop your fists. Moving your fists in a clockwise motion, toss the dough into the air above your head so it twirls. Catch it again with both fists. Turn the dough over using one hand. Toss and twirl again. Toss as long as its manageable and you’re not in danger of ripping the dough. (We were forced to stop at 12” when we made a hole. Heh.) Finish the dough with a rolling pin until it’s less than 1/4 inch.
Once it’s evenly rolled out, make a lip around the outer edge of the dough by pulling up on the sides with the tips of your fingers. Fold over the edge.
Pizzas need a lot of cheese. Cheese is good food. Hence, pizzas with cheese are excellent. For this one we used a mozzarella fiore de latte and a Farmstead (semi-hard cow cheese with a subtle Gouda taste) that we bought from the Union Square Farmer’s market. For each we used about 3 ounces of cheese. I usually like using mozzarella and then something slightly more complicated. I think it makes for a more complex flavor. Cut the mozzarella into thin slices, and grate the harder cow cheese on the largest setting.
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Spanish onion in 1/2 inch dice
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
1/4 carrot, grated
1 28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes (not salted or flavored)
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pot on medium heat. Once hot, drop in the onions and saute until transparent, about 5-8 minutes. Add in the garlic and saute for another couple minutes. Add in the thyme and carrots and saute one minute more. Add the tomatoes and turn up to boil. Turn down to simmer for at least 30 minutes, until desired thickness. Salt and pepper and remove from heat.
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
1 bell pepper, preferably orange or red, cored, halved, and sliced thinly
A handful of fresh basil leaves, washed and chiffonade
1 Italian eggplant (or other small, thin eggplant)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
Slice the eggplant 1/4 inch thick. Place in a bowl and cover with a paper towel so it doesn’t oxidize. Heat the oil on medium heat in a saute pan. Once hot, drop in the garlic and saute until golden, a couple of minutes. Add in the eggplant and saute until tender, 5-8 minutes. Remove from heat.
Assembling and baking
Ladle a thin layer of sauce onto the pizza. Top with the cheeses and vegetables. Sprinkle some cornmeal in the oven. Check the temperature. Place the peel in the oven and with a jerking motion, move the pizza from peel to stone. Bake for 10 minutes, but keep an eye on the pizza. You’ll know it’s done once the crust begins to brown. Slide the peel under the pizza and move to a surface you can cut on (preferably stone). Divide the pizza (generally 8 pieces). Top with some fresh basil and enjoy!