With new pizzerias introducing styles of pizza that are relatively new to Richmond, the quality of the pizzas that we make in our own kitchens should be skyrocketing from all of the inspiration. Anyone who’s been to Bellytimber is probably not about to bring home a Boboli to dress up for dinner. If you’ve had Aziza’s snappy thin crust, then a spongy pan pie will probably feel like a brick in your belly by the second slice. Making the pizza rounds in Richmond can be an exciting roller coaster, with new spots like Belmont Pizzeria and Fresca on Addison joining in and keeping it interesting. But for many of us, the real taste adventure begins at home, when we try yours hand as amateur pizzaiolos. This entry will hopefully start a compilation of shortcuts and best practices to help you (and me) make better pizza – for dinner and for fun.
Back in June, amidst all of the hype over woodfired ovens (a favorite flavor generator of mine), I weaseled my way into an invite to the Pizza Club gathering that had been meeting for most of the year. Victoria and Joe’s communal food party had just landed in Richmond Magazine, and the guest list was starting to get unwieldy for a Richmond row house. All the same, I really wanted to see what I could learn about making pizza from the folks calling themselves the Pizza Club, so I stopped by, totally unprepared (no pizza toppings or wine to contribute – just my cute toddler as a foil for my sleuthing).
Once I got past the Pizza Club’s secret knock, I made a bee-line for the backyard to check out this alter of fire that had monthly magnetized people to this Museum district house. What I found was a surprisingly small adobe igloo-looking thing (more or less like this one), and Joe babysitting the fire and the discs of dough as he shuffled the before and afters to and fro. It was puzzling at first. There were more questions here than answers. The clay hut seemed like it could barely hold a 12″ pie with burning embers relegated to the edges of the mini-dome. But, Joe made the most of the tools he had, and he’d clearly had opportunity to learn through trial and error ( he was steward to about 40 pizzas at each Pizza Club gathering).
One thing Joe did was to rotate the pizza to lightly char it all the way around (after the bottom had started to sear and it had released from the hot firebrick). At home, on a pizza stone, we can rotate the pizza too. Under a broiler, if you choose that tactic, you better be ready to move or remove the pizza, strategically. As a last step, Joe scooped each pizza and lifted it up to the apex of the dome, exposing it to convection where the real high temps gather. So, maybe the upper part of your home oven is the place to bake the perfect ‘za, but I quickly learned that the battle for pizza perfection is only partly about woodfire vs gas/electric, and mostly won or lost before the ingredients are shoved into an oven. No offense, Joe.
In the kitchen, Victoria has dozens of dough balls prepared ahead of time. She uses Italian double-zero flour, but would condone good quality bread flour, if buying ingredients at your average grocery store. She stretches them out thin on a floured pizza peel, maybe a little olive oil at the edges, and then she paints a thin layer of homemade sauce before adding toppings. And away the pizza goes to Joe (and probably a cold beer for his trouble). When it comes back, it’s light, crisp in some spots, chewy in others, and the toppings just sing. So, did you catch the magic trick in there? Me neither. Maybe we need a slow motion demonstration.
Fast forward a couple months and Victoria has announced a new endeavor called Pizza Tonight, an outgrowth of her pizza parties. That heavenly dough and zippy red sauce are now available for purchase (along with several other accoutrement). And it’s not just to keep her growing network of pizza fan friends from invading her house (the Club still meets). She sells pizza-making packets to anyone in the Richmond area who wants to get a head start on a great homemade meal through Facebook and Fall Line Co-op (and starting December at Nates Taco Truck Stop at 315 N. Second Street and next year probably at two farmers markets). As someone who loves to taste and talk about dough and sauce, I might like to try buying all of Richmond’s varieties of each while making my own versions for comparison, but I don’t think you can really do much better than the components that Victoria assembles for sale. As soon as I heard about Pizza Tonight, I jumped at the offer and begged Victoria to make a pizza with me so I could pick her brain for pizza pointers. And to my surprise, she came over.
In my kitchen, I asked Victoria to take charge so I could jut soak up the technique. But, beforehand, I had already interfered. I have a pizza stone and a somewhat obscure trick for getting the pizza onto the stone – sliding wet dough off of the peel being a real stumbling block for most home cooks. Victoria’s solution: parchment paper. Little need to flour the surface, so the pizza isn’t powdery on the bottom. Even heating, top and bottom. No mess. I was skeptical, but as many times as I’ve tried it since, I’ve been impressed every time. Still, stubborn as I am, we went with my method, at least for entertainment purposes, as you will see (further down).
Victoria put the dough on the work surface in a relatively flat circle and let it rest . The 10-20 minutes of downtime lets the dough’s gluten fibers relax for easier stretching. She picked it up on the backs of her hands and the dough just draped over her slightly bent fingers, gravity doing most of the work. The center was thin and the edges were left with some pudge for a bubbly, chewy cornicione. Awe heck, let’s just let her show you how it’s done:
We both agreed that a perfect circle isn’t as high a priority as avoiding over-handling the dough. For those craving a perfect loop, make the pizza on the cutting board, carry it to the oven, then back to the cutting board, and there’s your circle. (she has more dough handling tips here)
Toppings went on lightly. This is important for pizza purists who want to show off their crust, which is generally considered by far the most important element of a pizza. But, if you’ve got a bunch of heavy toppings that will go great together, and the wine demands it too, then maybe a little thicker crust is in order to keep the pie proportionate. Personally, I’m partial to NY Style: thin everything, but big on flavor and texture. I know I promised the secret to a perfect pizza, but since there are so many palates to satisfy and processes that you may need to adapt, perfection is going to be subjective. Luckily, the choose your own adventure approach makes for even more secrets.
For Victoria, the perfect pizza is one that’s fun to make and involves the whole family. She and Joe have a 15 and an 18 year old, so making pizzas that everyone enjoys means being flexible and not taking it too seriously. If it makes you happy, it’s good. If it makes teenagers happy, it’s perfect. That’s right, pizza is subject to its environment. But, that doesn’t mean that Victoria isn’t dead serious about accumulating every iota of pizza-making wisdom that there is. Shortly after we found out that we both shared a major inspiration in Peter Reinhart’s American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Victoria had signed up to attend one of Reinhart’s baking seminars in Colorado. If that’s not going straight to the source, she made a trip to Italy not long before, sampling the pizzas of Naples among other Italian destinations. After all, there’s a big demand for culinary authenticity these days.
All of this happened in the few months since she was over at my house! I imagine by now, she’s probably got that glow when she touches the dough (you know, like in The Last Dragon when Bruce Leroy fights the Shogun of Harlem). So, besides practice, passion is one of the secrets to perfect pizza. Personally, I just hope some rubs off on me when I pick up my pizza packet. And maybe with enough prodding, she’ll show up here, answer questions, and take part in a discussion in the comments section.
So, I guess I should include my own preliminary conclusion that the quest for pizza perfection is relative to the pizzaiolo. Peter Reinhart went to absurd lengths to figure out what elements make up the best pizza and then maps out instructions on how to make your own in his book. Victoria has followed in his footsteps (foodsteps?) to a degree while also investing in a woodfired oven and convening enormous informal focus groups in her own home. And I’ve bought dough from everybody who will sell it to me in Richmond and conducted some crazy pizza stone experiments in my kitchen. So, whoever you are, it’s a process. Euphemistically, perfection is about the journey, not he destination.
Here’s a funny anecdote to kick off my short list of best practices. I asked Victoria to demonstrate proper dough handling for me and she asked where she’d be placing the dough for saucing and topping? I pointed to the butcher block and said no pizza peel or parchment would be necessary. Her eyes widened. Crazy talk. How are we going to transfer it? Magic! Just wait. She clearly viewed my plan as a recipe for disaster, a waste of dough, and sauce, and cheese, and time. She didn’t say, “your funeral dude,” but it was evident as she floured the work surface liberally so the dough wouldn’t stick. After adding sauce and cheese, we just had to get the thin, raw, wet, delicate creation into the oven in the same shape as we’d made it.So, how would we scoop it and slide it? Impossible, right?
Introducing the Super Peel. After my amateur pizza-making was almost shelved by nightly nervous breakdowns as the pie refused to slide off of my pizza peel, my wife got me one of these as a present. I’d compared every alternative I’d seen online, but couldn’t swallow the price tag on a gadget that seemed too good to be true. Luckily, Karen made the decision that I wasn’t able to. Now, I get all giddy every time I pick up raw dough and place it in the oven without my blood pressure going up in the slightest. For many of you, this could be the secret to pizza sanity, if not perfection. Keep in mind that parchment paper accomplishes a similar result, as you can put it on the oven grates or on the pizza stone with the help of a rimless cookie sheet.
Here are a few of my suggestions for making better pizza at home.
Bake close to the broiler, in case you want to brown the crust. However, the toppings may burn before your crust gets to where you want it. Maybe broil before adding the cheese. And if you’ve got a convection fan, give it a whirl. They’re supposed to accelerate cooking and even out the temperatures throughout the oven (probably won’t work with the broiler).
Turn off the TV and watch your pizza baking. If the heat is high enough, it could burn before you know it. Also, you’ll want to give it a turn to make sure it cooks evenly and that the crust is getting crispy.
When the pizza comes out, take a picture. I’m not suggesting you blog it, or keep a journal. But, unless you have a photographic memory, it’s hard to remember what went right or wrong with past pizza-making experiences. A picture might jog your memory.
Pizza has a handle on the end. It’s intuitive enough even for a toddler to eat (unless the cheese got burnt by the broiler). At age 2.5, Jasper wants to be involved in pizza-making, and unlike most everything else we serve him, he’ll actually eat it. This tip is just about being social, relaxing, and let the family/friends/neighbors in on the fun. Bad pizza is better than no pizza. And was the pizza really perfect if no one was there to share it?
Peek at the underside of your pie. Remember what your perfect crust looks and feels like. This one was done on a stone, still had some flour stuck on it, and it was rigidly snappy, just the way I like it.
Let the pizza cool a bit before cutting it. More importantly, don’t let it sit on a cutting board immediately out of the oven. The crust is likely to steam and go limp (see Stuzzi’s nastiness) under the hot sauce without some air circulating underneath. Here I used a cooling rack, but if you don’t have one, just put the pie on the grates of your gas range for a few minutes. Besides, burning your mouth does not pay homage to the pizza.
Here’s a peek underneath a parchment paper baked pie. Notice how thin I got it and how little flour residue there is. Bonus!
This pizza isn’t pretty. And what’s that black stuff? (it was caramelized onions) The important thing is that it tasted great. And I was really glad to make use of the tail end of a zucchini that needed to get used. Pizza is convenient like that. Whatever you got could be a topping. If it goes terribly awry, hit it with Sriracha and wash it down with a beer. Or maybe the dog deserves a treat (no onions for the dog, please).
This might be the best way to approximate the woodstove effect at home. You leave a cast iron pan in the oven until it’s screaming hot. Have dough, sauce and cheese ready. With a thick pot-holder, pull the pan out, drop the dough in it (there will be goofs here – notice the folded over crust on the left side of this one). While the dough is hissing and recoiling from the pan, sauce it quickly. If possible, use a fresh tomato sauce or use crushed San Marzano toms with garlic and herbs. Put it under a high broiler. Within a minute or two, the crust will be golden or dark brown in spots and the sauce will reduce a bit (ideal for the water in those unadulterated crushed toms), Pull it out and throw your cheese/meat/veg on top and put it back under the broiler 1/4 turned to make sure it cooks evenly. Pull it out when it looks perfect. Let the pan cool for a couple minutes before sliding the pizza out (again, potholders). The dough edges should be fantastically crackling and poofy. Don’t do this drunk.
Forget the sauce. Pizza is all about the crust. (just brush on some olive oil) Sometimes the sauce undermines the flat bread with its wetness anyhow. If you’ve got that part down pat, then just show off some toppings. This pizza has goat cheese, vegan chorizo, fresh corn, chives and avocado (added after baking).*
That’s all I’ve got to share for now. Hope you enjoyed my encounter with Victoria, the Pizza Club, and Pizza Tonight. If you absolutely must have more pizza porn pics, search for “pizza” on my blog or better yet, go here.
*actually, there was a really thin layer of red sauce, but you get the point, and it’d have been good without it.