I mentioned in my last post, A Sunday in the Kitchen, that I had made sourdough pizza dough and put it in the refrigerator. Sourdough produces a thin, crispy crust as long as you don’t overburden it with too much sauce and cheese. Sourdough pizza dough needs to sit for around nine hours so the easiest way to make pizza is to make the dough the night before you plan to make the pizza. Monday afternoon I pulled it out at about 2 PM. At 4:30 I divided the dough into thirds and shaped each third into a round. I then let it rest for twenty minutes, covered — sourdough is a lazy dough and it likes a lot of rests between steps. While the dough was resting I stacked up three racks in my oven from the lowest position to next to the highest, placed a pizza stone on the lowest rack and preheated the oven to 450. The oven needs 45 minutes for the stone to get good and hot.
Then I turned my attention to cheese. I sliced about a pound of mozzarella and then cut the small slices into small pieces. I could have grated it but my hand gets tired grating and it is just as easy to cut slices, stack the slices and cut small pieces from the stack. Plus, I don’t have to clean a grater. I then used my trusty microplane to grate Pecorino for flavor, 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Don’t put it away yet — you’ll be grating some for the top as well. Parmesan is good, too. If you are out of hard cheese, consider adding some cubes of feta. A pound of mozzarella is enough for three ten-inch pizzas: you don’t want more, especially if you are trying to make thin crust pizza that stays in one piece.
By the time I have sliced all that and oiled some pizza pans, the dough is ready for shaping. I do this by hand, because it is fun. Take your first round and flatten it into a disc. Now poke your eight fingers into the dough as though you were typing, making concentric circles of dimples, leaving a small border at the edge. After your dough is flattened and dimpled, slide the backs of your hands under the dough and turn your hands, pulling the dough in the process. You will develop a feel for it. Stop before you make holes in it — it will need some thickness to support the toppings. Don’t pull it out to more than ten inches diameter, please. If you make a hole in it, it is best to collapse it, dimple it and pull it again rather than trying to patch it. Throwing it up in the air is completely unnecessary — I would only recommend doing this if you have worked in a pizzeria and are trying to impress your children. Place the pizza on the oiled pan.
Optional step: If you want a tiny bit of insurance that your pizza won’t leak or tear in the middle, you can put the pulled dough into the oven for a few minutes. I tried this for the first time the other day. The advantage is that my pizza did not tear. The disadvantage is that the crust rises a little and thus is thicker.
Now it is time to build your pizza. Sauce is optional. Sometimes I make pizza without it, sandwiching fresh vegetables between layers of cheese on the pizza crust. The advantage is that without the sauce you will have less likelihood of making a thin-crust pizza that develops a sink-hole in the middle when you try to transfer it between racks. If I am making a traditional pizza I usually take some sauce from the nearest jar of Prego marinara and spread it thinly on the pizza dough, thinly enough so that what I have is streaks of red with white crust showing. Do not glop on the sauce (Homemade marinara would perhaps be even better, but Prego is one of my shortcuts: my favorite is the Italian sausage flavor).
After I spread the sauce, I divide most of the cheese between the three pizzas, saving a little to drizzle on top of the toppings. For these pizzas I used sliced Spanish olives (the kind with pimentos inside), strips of roasted red bell pepper that I tore with my hands, and tiny cubes of ham from the freezer. I made one vegetarian pizza and two with ham. I sprinkled the reserved cheese over the vegetables and grated a little more Pecorino on top. I usually use whatever odds and ends of meats and cheese we have (ham, Canadian bacon, sausage) and vegetables, including peppers, cooked eggplant, mushrooms, olives or tomatoes. If you have parsley, cilantro or fresh basil, it is nice to garnish the pizzas with them when they come out of the oven.
To cook the pizzas, set the first pizza on the middle oven rack for ten minutes. Then rotate pizza number one to the top rack and start pizza number two on the middle rack. After another ten minutes, transfer the first pizza directly onto the pizza stone. I use a wooden peel to make the transfer and I pull the rack out a ways to make it easier. I highly recommend getting a peel and a pizza stone if you plan to make pizza frequently. Continue to bake the remaining pizzas in the same rotation. Please note: baking times are approximate — if your pizza is too soft to transfer to the stone, bake it a little longer before the transfer. If your pizza on the top rack is browning too fast, transfer it a little sooner.
Food Notes: You don’t need to buy fancy whole milk mozzarella for pizza. When I was first learning how to make it I asked the guy at The Cheese Board what cheese they used for their pizza. He sold me some plain part-skim mozzarella. Now I buy it in two pound blocks whenever I find it on sale and stash it in the freezer for pizza-making. I would normally caution you not to cook with cheese you would not eat out of hand, but I only use mozzarella in pizza and emergency cheese sandwiches and I always add some other cheese to add flavor.
I am not going to tell you what to put on your pizza. If you live in New York, you may choose to stick to cured meats, onions, peppers and mushrooms. If you live in California and you want to make pizza with gorgonzola and fresh figs or purple cabbage and walnuts, that is your privilege. It is nice to use fresh tomatoes in tomato season and things in jars in the winter.
I usually make all three pizzas at once. I like pizza a lot and it keeps well and reheats well. Sometimes I sandwich a cooled pizza between pieces of cardboard and put in in the freezer for later.
If you do not have sourdough starter, you can make pizza dough with yeast, water, flour and olive oil. I use The Cheese Board’s recipe from The Cheese Board Collective Works. You will find that recipe here. And, as I mentioned on Sunday, I like to substitute whole wheat flour for part of the flour. I learned a good deal of what I know about pizza-making from this book: if you would like step-by-step photos, plus several recipes for pizza, master sourdough, yeast breads and assorted bakery goods, I highly recommend purchasing the book. And, no, I am not on the payroll — I’m just a happy customer. If you can buy it from your local independent bookstore, I’ll be even happier.