Pizza. It seems like such a simple thing. Well at least it did for me. My favorite job while in high school was delivering delicious pies for Bella Vista in Peters Creek, Alaska. I sure do wish I had paid more attention to how Bobby made his pies.
Leap forward 20 years. Robert wants to make a pie at home that is better than what I can order from the myriad of pizza places that surround me on all sides. Seems easy enough, some flour, water, salt, yeast, and voila. Well you know as well as I do that the last sentence is exactly why everywhere you turn is one more of those average pizza joints scraping out a living. Serving up mediocrity in a cardboard box for $13-$22 a pie.
My first pizzas were courtesy of Boboli. I know, shameful. Then I actually decided on crust from scratch. You know the recipe, 3 cups flour, 2 cups water, 1 Tbsp yeast, and a pinch of salt for a from home delicious crust. Yeah, my ass. How come recipe sites, chefs, bloggers, and every other person sharing a pizza recipe has a version of this they are willing to share?
Then I stumbled on Jeff Varasano’s pizza recipe. Talk about an eye opener. Not only does he share his hard earned information, he also shares photos of the best pizza around the globe. That recipe and those photos are what I have used as a primer. I have also been reading Slice on an almost daily basis.
It all starts with the yeast. Natural yeast is the only way to develop a great pizza crust. You might be able to get a great looking crust with dry yeast but it will never have the flavor of a crust utilizing a sourdough starter. After seeing an episode of Julia Child, Cooking With Master Chefs with Nancy Silverton of LaBrea Bakery, I had a well respected chef’s guide on making my own starter. Wanting all the details I followed my friend Kitty’s suggestion of buying the book, Breads from LaBrea Bakery. Many of the details for care and feeding of the starter are detailed there better than either I or any other source can do.
Start off with some grapes. Organic is best. Wrap them in several layers of cheesecloth.
Rough them up a bit with whatever you have handy.
Now submerge the grapes in mix of 2 1/2cups flour and 2 cups of water. Cover with a lid and leave on the counter for 2 weeks. Every once in a while you can give it a stir. This is after about 7 days.
Notice the bubbles. That means you have active yeast at work. After 14 days you will have the very hungry beginnings of a sourdough starter. It needs to be fed and fed often. Start by dumping out the grapes. Squeeze out the package into the starter. Mix thoroughly so the the mix is uniform in appearance. Now take out two cups of the mix and put into a clean bowl. Add in 1 1/4 cups flour and 1 cup of water. To make things a little more simple, I am using tap water and King Arthur Bread flour.
This is where I start to make my own way on the sourdough. Silverton recommends doubling the starter three times a day. Then tossing out the excess every morning. It seems like such a waste of good ingredients. So I toss out all but 2 cups every time I feed the “bitch” (not my term, I stole it from Bourdain). You are still tossing out several cups of starter a day while actively feeding it. Only on the day before and the day that I am going to use the starter do I feed her three times a day. Many days I just put her in the bottom of the fridge and forget about her. I have done so for weeks on end. Two days of steady feedings and she is back in shape for whatever you ask of her.
I have changed my feeding schedule to 1 cup starter, 1 cup King Arthur AP flour, and just shy of 1 cup warm water. When I am feeling ambitious and the starter is at room temp, I will feed twice a day. Otherwise I just feed it once a day. In the fridge it will last for weeks.
This sourdough or poolish can be used for many things other than pizza. Authentic pain au levain comes to mind, so does any number of other artisanal breads.
Michael Ruhlman recently posted about a similar method for making your own starter. Well worth the read. Especially because it was inspired by another Alaskan cook, Carri of Two Sisters Bakery in Homer. Her version uses purple cabbage to quickly introduce wild yeasts to the flour and water mix. If you try this version let me know how it works and how it tastes. I am very curious.
Now I get back to the Varasano recipe. Well kind of. He publishes a chart on his recipe page that gives guidlines for your pizza dough. Also very detailed mixing instructions that I would have more than likely followed if only I had a fancy KitchenAid or Electrolux stand mixer. I have nothing but me paws for this kind of work. Well that and a food processor.
I mix 3 cups flour, 1 scant cup hungry starter, heavy pinch of salt and just enough water drizzled in the top of the food processor to allow the dough to come together in a ball. This is then tossed out and hand kneaded until it is smooth and uniform. I then split this amount into four equal portions.
I left this to rise/proof overnight at room temp in individual plastic tubs. This is really too long with my starter. I am thinking a 12 hour rise or less starter is in order.
Now this is the part that takes some practice. I have done this in phases over the past 6 months or so. Make ten pizzas, a few successes, a few failures, many a malformed pizza. You will get better. You will develop a sense of what your dough is doing, needing, or telling you.
Take out your dough and put onto a floured surface.
Stretch out and form onto peel.
I used an uncooked sauce of canned tomatoes, oregano, s&p, and just a little bit of grated parmesan. The tomatoes were first allowed to drain in a fine mesh strainer before being seasoned and blended with an immersion blender.
Just a bit about the oven. I am still playing around with a hacked oven. Do not do this on my instructions. It can be dangerous. But basically I have hacked my normal electric oven to work in the self cleaning mode and allow the door to still open. After about 45 minutes of preheating, I am getting temps of 815F on the stone. It is still a struggle to get the right balance of stone or bottom heat and top or reflected heat. Once I get my formula a little more dialed in, I will update.
Now for the pies. Just a little sauce, some homemade Italian sausage, red onion, and a drizzle of olive oil. I also season with s&p before and grate some parmesan and fresh basil after it comes out.
This one got a little hot on one side ( I didn’t spin it halfway through ) and cooked maybe 20 seconds too long. Pie was done in under 3 minutes.
Next was a Italian sausage and mushroom.
Although not as much char on top of this one, check out the pretty upskirt.
Next was a proscuitto with mozz and parmesan that was finished with baby arugula, olive oil, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper. It was my favorite pie of this batch. The salt of the proscuitto really set the flavor off.
Working with an electric home oven provides many challenges to the pizza maker. That does not mean you can’t make excellent artisanal pies at home.
Next for me is finding an Italian 00 flour. I have made the rounds around Anchorage but have come up empty. Any suggestions on a source?