August 11, 2014

Pizza Margherita

I've been visiting family in New York for the past few days, and one of the highlights (besides seeing all my relatives of course) is definitely the food. New York is a melting pot, and I've definitely had my share. I've had pasta and Chinese food and a few too many burgers, but my best meals were usually what New York is extra famous for: pizza. I was lucky enough to have both New York style pizza and extremely authentic Neapolitan pizza, and I still can't decide which was better. It was all so delicious that I was inspired to attempt my own at home. Despite the lack of a proper pizza oven, I think it turned out pretty well.

I'll start from the top. Two weeks ago, I taught you how to make mozzarella. Pizza is one of my favorite ways to eat mozzarella, and if you make a Neapolitan style pizza, you'll only need to slice up half the cheese the recipe makes. You can always buy mozzarella (I usually do), but pizza highlights the salty creaminess of the homemade cheese while also letting you save a lot of it for other purposes. If you do buy the cheese, I find that whole milk mozzarella melts and tastes better. You can shred or slice the mozzarella; I find that slices look prettier but shredded will cover the whole pie in gooey yumminess.

Some of you might be confused at this point. Is the cheese really the top? Well, I wanted to make a pizza margherita, which only has the crust, sauce, and cheese topped with some fresh basil and a drizzle of good olive oil. However, you can add whatever toppings you want. Some of my favorites are caramelized onions, sliced prosciutto, meatballs, and crispy bacon or pancetta. Keep in mind that a thin crust can only hold so many toppings, and if you use homemade mozzarella, you probably want to taste it more than whatever meat or veggie explosion you concoct.

The next step is the sauce. Anyone who has eaten Italian food with me knows how picky I am about it. It must be completely smooth, and if I find lumps or chunks, I will pick them out no matter how fancy the restaurant is. That's why I almost always use tomato puree for my sauce. You can use crushed or even whole or diced (though you might want to puree or blend those a bit) if that's your preference.

I do have one recommendation, though. I'm willing to sacrifice my velvety smooth texture for San Marzano tomatoes, which are only available crushed or whole. Yes, I know they are more expensive. A canned tomato is a canned tomato, right? Wrong. Certified San Marzano tomatoes are a special strain of tomatoes that can only be grown in a certain part of Italy, which has a unique soil composition. They definitely taste different (especially if you highlight them in a simple dish like a margherita pizza); I think they are sweeter and a bit more acidic with a more pronounced tomato flavor. You'll notice a difference, so splurge once to try it and you'll be hooked.

Now for my favorite part: the crust. Well, it's usually my favorite part, but maybe not when I'm using homemade mozzarella and San Marzano sauce. Regardless, this is a darn good crust. It's really easy to make, you'll end up with enough dough for two or three good sized pizzas, and it's a pleasure to work with. I often avoid making pizzas because I get so frustrated working the dough when the dough doesn't want to stretch or otherwise cooperate. This dough, however, is elastic and soft and can be stretched and rolled and molded really easily. You can make it extra thin or a little on the thicker side and it will still bake up nicely. There is a ton of yeast, and the initial yeast mixture practically triples in volume, so use a bigger bowl than you think (I learned the hard way). I add a bit of sugar to the yeast mixture so the yeast can "feed" on the sugar and rise even more. There's also some more sugar and honey in the dough because I'm a pastry chef at heart and I like everything a little sweet. Other than that, it's a pretty standard dough. All purpose flour works just fine here, so you don't have to worry about getting a whole sack of bread flour just to use part of it.

You'd think assembling a pizza would be simple enough, and it is. But I do have a few tricks to help. The main idea is to do everything as fast as possible once you have it all prepped. Crank your oven up as hot as it will go (at least 450F) and put your pizza stone in at the beginning if you have one. You want your stone to be nice and hot so your crust will start cooking as soon as it hits it. If you don't have a pizza stone and don't want to invest in one, just use a flat metal baking dish or cookie sheet but don't let it heat up in the oven; the metal will heat up quickly enough. Once your oven is preheated, pull out your stone, transfer your rolled out/tossed crust, and quickly spread on a thin layer of sauce and add the cheese. You want to work as quickly as possible so the sauce doesn't make the crust too soggy. Stick it back into the oven and cook it until it's as brown as you want it to be, usually ten minutes or fewer, so keep an eye on it.

I don't think anything will ever compare to a true New York style pizza or a real, authentic Italian pie. It's hard to compete, especially without a pizza oven (graduation gift anyone?). But I do think I've gotten as close as I can while still staying at home. Although I might not have an Italian grandma teaching me all her secrets or a brash New Yorker giving me instructions, there is definitely something to be said for high quality, made-from-scratch ingredients.

Pizza Dough:
2 0.25 oz Packets Active Dry Yeast
1 T + 1 tsp Sugar
5 Cups + 2 T Flour
2 Cups Warm Water (105-115F)
2 tsp Salt
1 T Honey

Whisk the yeast, 2 T flour, 1 tsp sugar, and 1/2 cup warm water together and let stand for 10 minutes or until foamy.

Combine the salt and 3 cups flour. Stir in the yeast mixture, remaining warm water, and honey until just combined. Gradually stir in 1 cup of flour. Knead the dough, adding the remaining flour as necessary, for 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic.

Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour.

Tomato Sauce:
Mince two cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil in a medium pot. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about two minutes. Stir in a 28 oz can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, 1 T sugar, 1/4 tsp basil, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, and 1/2 tsp onion powder. Season with salt and pepper, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Pizza Margherita:
Heat oven to the hottest temperature, at least 450F, and leave your pizza stone in the oven while it heats.

Roll one third to one half of the pizza dough out to the desired thickness. Slice or shred some mozzarella, and prepare toppings if desired. When the oven is preheated, quickly transfer the dough to the hot pizza stone, spread with some of the tomato sauce, and top with the mozzarella. Add the toppings or sprinkle with fresh basil. Bake for 6-10 minutes or until golden.

Pizza Dough Recipe Adapted from Pizzeria Bianco

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