On The Continuing Quest for Great Pizza.

I think at some point in his or her life, most people who enjoy baking naturally become obsessed with making the perfect pizza. Pizza, born of Italy and Greece, seems purely American to me, and every American I know has a pizza preference whether it be thin, thick, sparse or dense with ingredients. Pizza is one of the first things I ever made without help, and one of the things that grows with me as I change little by little in my kitchen life. This newest incarnation would satisfy just about any pizza eater regardless of pizza preference, and it comes from the guy who unknowingly started me on my path to real bread making.

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A continual learning process had dropped me off on the corner of sparse toppings (as a general rule, I use no more than three ingredients) and medium weight, sourdough or sourdough-esque crusts. That is a very happy corner to wait around on! I snatched up Jim Lahey's new book, My Pizza, at my library recently and near instantly applied his maverick electric oven hack to a different pizza dough and was thoroughly impressed.

I'm even more impressed now that I've made his conventional yeast dough. The dough is a no-knead type, made quickly and then left with an 18-hour or so relax time. When it comes time to bake it, it bakes up fluffy, soft and with a thin brittle bottom crust. It has just the perfect amount of deep, near black scorchings, and a perfect blend of crispiness and chewiness. Baking a pizza by broiling it also puts a hot pie on the table in about 3 minutes, which is pretty amazing too. A quick bake time allows to eat them nearly on demand, immediately after they emerge - which is always when pizza tastes best - and then easy repetition to bake off another one in short order.

(Food52 has the new Lahey method pizza recipe back up on their website, the only tweaking I did was to use Kosher salt and a handful (50 g.) of high protein whole wheat flour in place of 50 g. of the white stuff. I detailed the electric oven hack in the caption of this flickr photo if you are curious... For the pizzas I made last night, I just used several 1/4 inch thick slices of portobello mushrooms, some fresh mozzarella, and some red sauce as a base layer.)

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A full recipe of Lahey's new dough makes 4 pizzas, but I cut one of the quarters in half to please my Kiddo who only eats sauce pizza. I make my pizza sauce with drained quarts of homecanned tomatoes augmented with garlic, spices and maybe some tomato paste if it seems too thin. Baking the smaller pizzas under the broiler seemed to make them too dark too fast, so I experimented by baking it at a solid 500 degrees and omitting the broiler altogether. It worked well, but make a thicker crust all around - an even, airy crust that maybe would have been weighted down a little more if there were more toppings (any toppings) involved.

baked at solid 500
baked at solid 500, side

I stretched the other three portions into 12 inch or so rounds, the dough soft and stretchy, a remarkably easy dough to work with when floured and handled gently but firmly. I really think this pizza is going to hang around for most of the Summer, it was so easy and so good. Since my stand mixer has died a third time, I'm thinking that less work and less hand kneading may be on my agenda for awhile whether I like it or not, but recipes like this one are a solace to my machine angst, reminding me that I don't need machines to produce great food.

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While there were many good pizza combinations in the good book, I was disappointed with petty things like the font, the book size and feel, and the hastiness of the author voice. I loved the first (My Bread) book so much - and I haven't forgotten that there is a Lahey Project tab at the top of my page here regarding it, I may just resume work on the recipes from that book soon - that this one couldn't compare. Though certainly I will soon be making vegan pizzas with pureed walnuts in lieu of sauce, and the simple pork sausage recipe I already made was a definite keeper... perhaps even worth the cover price alone for ease and taste.

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The road to great pizza winds on, and this approach is definitely worth the time to experiment on. Whenever I get all excited about a new pizza, I forget that before it came a pretty great pizza, and that is what baking life is all about. I hope I never tire of finding new doughs, new techniques, new toppings to inspire me never to eat pizza outside my home ever again. As of this writing, I'm feeling pretty close.

This post has been Yeastspotted.

Sourdough Hybrid Pizza Dough.

Is it terribly American of me to feel like I could eat pizza at least once a week, if not more often? I'm not talking about frozen or delivery pizza mind you, but pizzas of my own concoction, made usually with leftovers on all accounts. For the past month, I dove more in depth into sourdough pizza dough, playing on variations of Peter Reinhart's non-sourdough version in Crust and Crumb.

early June (sourdough) pizza, baked in oven.

You'd think that Peter had asked me personally to run P.R. for that cookbook, but I can not help how excited I get when ratios seem to be perfect no matter what you do to vary them. So far, each loaf I've tried has been stellar: my results only failing when my patience for the rising wanes or when I suspect my starter isn't vigorous enough. Not once, however, has a loaf emerged that was inedible... and the same can be said of this pizza dough.

I have had a few hard and fast rules of pizza. I always bake at 500 or higher, and on a stone. I always topped with cheese after the pizza was mostly cooked. This endearing dough has me changing my once cemented pizza ideals. I've lowered my temps a bit to cater to it and pop the entire pizza into the oven with cheese and all. In exactly 10 minutes, I'm ready to eat pizza - and usually the dishes are done meanwhile. It's also a thicker crust, blistered outside with plenty of tunneling holes submerged within the outer crust. It's a pleasant escape from super thin (and nonetheless addicting) Lahey crust, and I love that it's fast, freezes well, and bakes directly from the fridge.

It's hard to get an idea of the weight of dough from a photograph. This dough is not at all dense, it's appearance is shocking to the actual weight of the dough - it feels airy, light. Because it contains both sourdough and active dry yeasts (what I affectionately call "hybrid dough"), it seems to have the best of both worlds when considering flavor and time spent.

It does it's second rise in the dark, cold privacy of the refrigerator and finally the time comes to bake: reaching in for a pleasantly plump, well risen orb is always a surprise - the dough is resilient, not prone to deflation without some coercion. It's the dough dreams are made of, and since I'm so addicted to Reinhart's bread that requests me to have a firm starter (rather than the 100% hydration that sits on the counter) going most of the time in the fridge, if I even have an inkling that I want pizza for supper it can be done in fairly short order.

Reinhart's dough uses a poolish, a pre-ferment starter made the day before from instant yeast. Instead, I use firm starter (also the base of the Reinhart Pain Au Levain that I love so well). With a little feel for the dough, you can probably use any type of starter if you also alter slightly the amount of liquid in the recipe.

Reinhart's recipe also calls for buttermilk. I make a viili style yogurt which is much more runny than commercial yogurt and substitute it often. I've also used whey, or whey mixed with some strained (Greek-style) yogurt. The dough should feel "soft, stretchy, and tacky, somewhat like baguette dough", but poolish starter is likely a bit higher in hydration. This dough is not so sticky, but more satiny, like the feel of an under-inflated balloon. A bit of practice will guide you to the correct feel, so long as you don't stray too far from the ratio.

(To make firm starter enough for this recipe: combine 1 c. 100% hydration sourdough starter with 1 c. bread flour and about 2 T. water, just enough to form the dough into a ball. Knead it lightly for a minute, and let it ferment at room temperature for 4 hours. Transfer to the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days. This starter is very sticky, using wet fingers will help. Let the firm starter sit at room temperature for an hour before using if you can, although I have used it right from the fridge in a pinch. The rising time for the pizza dough may be slightly longer if you do that.)

Sourdough Hybrid Pizza Dough (adapted from Peter Reinhart)
  • 1 lb. (3 1/2 c.) bread flour
  • 1 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 T. instant yeast
  • 1 T. honey or sugar
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 3/4 c. buttermilk (Reinhart says to use it at room temp, but I never remember to take it out and cold seems to be fine, first rise time may increase a tad...)
  • 8 oz. firm starter
  • (additional room temperature water - as needed, about 1/4 c.)
Combine everything in a stand mixer. (You may also do this by hand). Mix with dough hook on low speed for 1 minute, then increase speed to medium and continue mixing 10-12 minutes. (If kneading by hand, mix in bowl until dough forms, then transfer to floured board and knead 12-15 minutes.) I usually have to add a little water to get the dough up to the right consistency. Dough is ready when it passes the windowpane test, and feels neutral in temperature.

Place in a clean bowl, cover, and let rise until it "swells noticeably", about an hour.

On a floured surface, divide dough. (You can make anywhere from 3-6 pizzas, I usually make 4.) Roll the pieces into balls (This is a good video to see how to form the balls: Peter Reinhart visits a LaBrea bakery which is using huge portions and is somewhat mechanized, but you can see how the dough is shaped by hand. This is how I "rolled" dough when I worked at a bakery.)

Place shaped balls on a lightly floured baking sheet that has first been lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Enclose the whole pan inside a plastic bag, and transfer to the fridge. Let it rise at least one hour, and up to 48 hours. You can also freeze the dough after this second rise, it will retain it's lift for up to 3 weeks. (I freeze the balls on the baking sheet until hard, then transfer to a zip top plastic bag with a date on it.)

To bake in oven, heat to 475 (Reinhart says 550, I've done 500 - depends on my mood) with a baking stone in the lower third of the oven. Press dough to deflate, and stretch using hands, knuckles, rolling pin if you like, to desired thickness. Leave a thicker amount of dough around the outside edge. Transfer dough to a peel that has been sprinkled well with cornmeal, top and bake until the top is golden.

I decided, since I'm newly addicted to baking on my grill, to grill pizza tonight. Having never done it before, I'd say I have some learning to do. I had the heat pretty high, and the bottom was "nicely caramelized" (a.k.a. kinda burnt). It didn't stop us from eating the whole thing, but next time, I have to remember to throw some unglazed quarry tiles down to temper the heat. The top didn't brown, but everything was cooked through, and even though the bottom was a bit blackened and extra crisp, it wasn't really unpleasant. There was still a good amount of chew to the outside edge, and I have to put yet another mention out there for the candied jalapeno, which is the crown jewel of my homemade pantry. Every bite tastes better with a candied pepper.

grilled pizza.

oven pizza. so far, I'd say the oven version is better - but I'll still try grilling one again.

I think I need something hot on every pizza I've ever eaten because of my Mom. As long as I can remember she eats pizza with peppers alongside, either her own pickled jalapenos in oil and vinegar, or as a last resort purchased pepperoncinis. She orders them on the side if we happen to eat pizza out, but also like my Mom, we tend to make our pizzas at home rather than do that. We may not have the ovens of the professionals, but we do our best - and this crust makes me feel one little step closer to the unattainable Perfection of Pizza.

This post has been Yeastspotted.

The Lahey Project (kinda...): Cauliflower Pizza

Being in the throes of sourdough, I have lately abandoned my Lahey Project fervor. I have not forgotten dear Jim, since yesterday I produced my best loaf of sourdough to date using his ratio (in metric) of flour to water, and counting a heaping 1/4 c. of my starter in the liquid part of the equation. When I saw this Habenero Apple Jelly recipe today, I knew I had to rush off to my favorite apple vendor at the farmer's market in West Allis to get some cider - and while I was there I couldn't pass up a yellow cauliflower. One thing always leads to another, doesn't it?

Even though I have ample things to eat, I know that the winter season will soon be upon us and then that yellow cauliflower will then be the only thing I can think of: so often is that the case when I don't give in to instant gratification. And, while I'm at it, if I'm going to be instantly gratified, it behooves my healthfulness to include a cauliflower. High in vitamin C and fiber, and full of cancer fighting phytochemicals, the yellow version shouldn't actually taste much different than a milky white varietal. I swear that the yellow version is gentler and much more sophisticated. But then again, it's probably just the divine combination of ingredients that comprise a Lahey pizza...

Long before the purchase of said cauliflower, I had started a whole wheat dough this morning using my sourdough starter. I applied the same idea of counting a heaping 1/4 c. of starter as a liquid, and tried a mostly wheat "no knead" dough from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I own this book, and was initially very excited with it (before Laheyitis set in...). The premise of both Artisan Bread in Five books is that you are able to mix up a large batch of no knead dough, and then bake with it for a week or longer. The bread is good, and the time saving is valid for those who may be busy. But after trying my first bite of Lahey bread made with a minuscule amount of yeast, I couldn't go back to stored dough; my new breads developed much more flavor over that longer period of fermentation time.

I also have the luxury of pretty much babysitting any dough project since I work in the home... and there is a very satisfying reward for me personally to be able to bake on demand and set my alarm clock for the middle of the night or supremely early in the morning to attend to such needs of experimentation. It's kind of funny that here I am, trying to take a simple method and make it more laborious, but that is what I do I guess. There are a lot of great recipes in the Artisan Bread books, and now that I know I can make more work for myself, I may set out trying to replicate more of them using a longer, single baking approach.

I scaled back the HBin5 master bread dough recipe to 1/4 of it's intended amount (fairly easy, since the book lists metric weights for the master recipe) using my starter, and compensated for having ALL of my windows open for most of this unseasonably warm November day by leaving the dough in my oven with the light on to raise for about 8 hours. It was ready by dinner time, and by then I had this gorgeous cauliflower. Though I may be stretching to count it in my Lahey Project, I used the recipe for the topping from My Bread.

The dough was super sticky, so I rolled it super thin on a piece of parchment, and baked it on a stone at 500 degrees. When the dough "set", I slid the parchment out from underneath.

Brilliance. The mandolined cauliflower tossed with green olives (I "borrowed" queen sized manzanillas from my in-laws), chile flake, fresh garlic, Parmesan cheese and a trace of olive oil. The dough was nice and crisp - but to be honest, I was so enamored of the topping it was clearly in the backseat. I saved the rest of my dough in the fridge to play with tomorrow - and am figuring that I'll likely make the second half of the cauliflower into another pizza tomorrow night, dutifully complete with Lahey crust.

(Oh, and I forgot to mention that this cauliflower pizza is topped with breadcrumbs. Beautiful, uniformly dusty breadcrumbs now thanks to the VitaMix! But breadcrumbs of any size or shape and added to the top of any pizza just prior to baking are probably only going to enhance your outcome, and that is just one thing I have learned from Jim Lahey.)

The only enhancement that can make a Lahey Pizza better in my eyes is some heat. Even with the ample chile flake my heavy hands added, pizza in my book needs to be consumed with peppers alongside. My candied jalapenos were perfect, and I ate a slice with each bite until my eyes were hot and nearly watering. Not so much watering as "sweating". I've said it before and I'll say it again, you know it's good when your eyes sweat.

The End.

The Lahey Project: Pizzas Potato and Zucchini.

Friday evening was a good occasion to knock out two more Lahey pizzas: Pizza Patate and Pizza Zucchine. I made two Lahey pizzas in one pan, a half and half pizza, since I have to carefully schedule the Lahey recipes I know won't be immediate hit with my Husband around the times when I have friends or family visiting. It works out splendidly, since I can be generous with the servings and not too gluttonous in my own consumption. Fortunately for me, Lahey pizzas are well designed to be both a bit unorthodox and extremely delicious - both happy mediums for casual dinner parties. And, I know that had he felt adventurous enough to try it, both sides of the pizza would have been a hit with my Husband, too.

(It is also a benefit that since the pizzas are all vegetable, lazy salad makers such as myself do not even feel guilty for only serving pizza and nothing else - well, except for the Mostly Foodstuffs Rhubarb Liqueur and Rhubarb Custard Tart! I have to get my rhubarb servings in when I have company as well...)

This week's CSA box had a pound of new Yukon Gold potatoes and zucchini, last week's box had a yellow squash and a sweet onion, so proudly all the ingredients (save the flour) are native to Wisconsin!

The potato side begins with a salt water soak. I have never soaked potatoes in salt water before, but it actually draws out some of the moisture, making the potatoes both crisp and creamy when they bake. Since the pizza bakes at a blistering 500 degrees, wafer thin slices of potato (tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper) turn golden and parched on top and stay creamy underneath - a combination that is satisfyingly hearty. A carnivorous eater would gladly add bacon, pancetta or prosciutto and never again order out for pizza. I'll save that trick for another day.

I soaked my mandolined potatoes for about 90 minutes, and meanwhile shredded 20 ounces of zucchini/squash, tossed it with salt and let it drain over a colander. I have a number of clean muslin bags in my kitchen drawer that I made from unbleached cotton muslin. I find that I use them for everything: from straining grapes for jelly to this tried and true technique of pressing the excess moisture out of the zucchini. I actually am able to get incredibly dry zucchini by loading it into the bag, then twisting and pressing it until it is virtually dehydrated. Coincidentally, I think the first time I employed this technique was to make the Mostly Foodstuffs Chocolate Zucchini Cake, which is also a winner!

I recently read this post by Otehlia at World of Flavors, where she explains how most recipes that contain zucchini make a large amount, since to make a dent in a zucchini supply, you have to be able to use a lot in one recipe. It is true (and her bread recipe at the link above does look like it will have to be tried sometime soon), and I found myself noticing that many of the zucchini recipes I have do contain rather large amounts of this prolific vegetable. A pound and a quarter on half of the pizza may seem like a lot, but it was not too much, and it was probably the best slice of pizza I've had in a long time. If it is one thing I can't recommend highly enough, it is the proportions in this book. They are spot on - and I am not someone who goes about measuring everything when I'm in the kitchen. I do swear firmly upon weight measurements in My Bread. They have not failed me yet!

The zucchini is supposed to be tossed with Gruyere cheese, but I had some Wisconsin Parmesan on hand from Country Connection, and I used an equal amount of it: 75 grams for the half amount. The pure genius moment of this half of the pizza is that it is sprinkled with bread crumbs over the top before baking. At the high oven temperature, this created gorgeous blackened crunchy bits. This little addition alone endears Pizza Zucchine to me forever, but indeed the flavors of the entire concoction are really inspired. They are simple, but perfectly balanced.

I added just a bit of grated nutmeg... I couldn't resist!

The only thing I could be more excited about than Lahey Pizza lately is rhubarb. I recently crowned Deena my Rhubarby Guru, and it is the truth. She posted a recipe back in May for a liqueur that I finally made, bottled and am trying patiently to let it mellow, but it is so delicious that I keep sampling it. She says it needs time to mellow, but it is already so good, that I can't imagine it getting much better. It is smooth, and tart, and sweet. It is Rhubarb Liqueur, and you need to make some now, if you can still get some fresh rhubarb.

My own rhubarb masterpiece, the family recipe that I almost can not make for fears of devouring all of it's buttery greatness, took a back seat to another of Deena's recipes that I had wanted to try: Rhubarb Custard Tart. I had to use frozen rhubarb here, and I decided to bake it frozen instead of letting it drain - just a little bit of a mistake. It looks fine and tasted delicious, but got just a tad watery as it sat. Overnight in the refrigerator took care of most of the problem, but I would imagine that it would be stellar with fresh, unfrozen rhubarb. The tart crust was particularly nice, and since I had only an 8 inch tart pan, I made a dozen little tarts out of the remains. We ate some, and I gave some away, but still have some left and let me tell you it is hard not to keep swiping spoonfuls on my way past. Rhubarb is like that: A love it or hate it thing, but once it gets in your blood you are hard pressed to not crave it.

So, I'm moving right along, Mr. Lahey! Looking forward to my next My Bread adventure, whatever it may be... the greatness of these pizzas makes me think it just may be the Pizza Cavolifiore: Cauliflower Pizza.

Asparagus Pizza (with Lahey crust, of course...)

Yesterday, I read that innBrooklyn was starting a feature called "The Virtual Veg of the Month", in which they are are looking for seasonal vegetable submissions for photographs and recipes. Asparagus is first on the list, and fortunately for me, I had some on hand.

It seems like spring has been on fast forward this year in my neck of the woods. In less than 24 hours, the Maple tree out front has budded out completely, and the Forsythia in the back is showing off his bright yellow. Both are clear signs that this early warm spell indeed signals the end of the cold. I don't know about other cold-dwellers, but I almost go into denial when the weather warms up - forgetting that I don't need to grab any of my growing knitwear stash, or bundle up the Boy-O when we venture out of doors.

When I read about innBrooklyn's challenge, it made me more than happy to realize that asparagus season is finally here after all, and that I had a challenge to attend to. Moments after reading, I googled "asparagus pizza", since I knew I wanted to make a pizza today. I like to have a jumping off point, but this is dangerous, since it does lead to link saving most of the time. Fortunately for me, I ran into another amazing blog: A Chow Life.

Not only is this a really lovely blog, full of amazing photography and effortless writings, here was an asparagus pizza, exactly as I could imagine one to be. Needless to say, RedMenace instantly gained a follower, and I knew that I would have no chance at making my pizza look as wonderful as hers! But that is OK with me, since there is a lot to learn from viewing beautiful photographs, and there are many, many of them there to choose from.

While A Chow Life photos of asparagus pizza are ethereal and light, mine remind me of an abstract Pollock's - hard and vivid. I know I'm starting to take myself too seriously, when upon waking to a dark, thunderstorming sky this morning, my first thoughts were "how am I going to get great photos of my pizza this evening?"...

While at the moment, photography takes a back seat to my learning of Spanish, I'm more than content to focus still of the making of a pizza. And the eating of a pizza, since this one was really delicious and used up some Easter leftovers. It was actually one of two pizzas, since I had unexpected company from Frankee and her two girls. Let me also note that if you happen to have some leftover frozen meatballs in your freezer, they too make a delicious pizza...

The beauty of pizza is always that you can use as much of each ingredient you like, however, I will note the amounts I used below.

Asparagus, Ham and Roasted Red Pepper Pizza (on Lahey Crust)
  • 1/2 lb. asparagus, blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes and plunged into ice water. (Then carefully slice each in half lengthwise. I used extra thin asparagus, if you use thicker, you may need to boil for an additional minute or so.)
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, sliced as thinly as you are able
  • 1 1/2 roasted red peppers, sliced into strips (I had some in my freezer from last fall, but you can also use jarred or roast them yourself.)
  • 1 c. diced ham (prosciutto or Serrano ham would also be great substitutions)
  • grated cheese, 1 cup or more to your taste. I used a Wisconsin Munster (made just down the road from my Parents' house), and a little mild provolone, since I was using up what was in the fridge.
  • drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle liberally with black (preferably Tellecherry) pepper.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Arrange your toppings, except for the cheese, on the pizza dough (recipe below). Bake for 10-12 minutes until the crust begins to look brown along the edges, and center appears cooked. Remove from oven, and sprinkle with cheese. Bake an additional 5-8 minutes until cheese is melted and browned to your liking.

Lahey Pizza Dough
You have to buy this book, since it is the greatest! He includes the weight measurements that I use in addition to the conventional measurements listed below.
(makes 2 half sheet pans, use a half recipe for a single pizza.)
  • 3 3/4 c. bread flour
  • 2 1/2 t. active dry yeast
  • 3/4 t. salt
  • 3/4 t. sugar
  • 1 1/3 c. room temperature water
Stir flour, yeast, salt and sugar together in a medium bowl. Add water and mix until blended. Cover the bowl with a towel, and let rest at room temperature until dough has more than doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

Scrape the dough from the bowl out onto a floured surface and form it into a rough ball. Divide it in two pieces, place them apart from each other, and cover with a damp towel to rest for 30 minutes.

When oven is hot and you are ready for making the pizza, liberally oil the pans. Place a ball of dough in the center of the pan, moist side down. Pull, press and stretch the dough to the size of the pan. It will cover the entire thing. It is now ready to top!

You, too, can join in the fun of the Veg of the Month Club! I love a challenge, especially, since sometimes I get sidetracked by what I want to make and not by what needs to be used up. The freezer is still very, very full and countless meals could be produced here without leaving for a store. Augmented by seasonal veg, I think I'll see what I can come up with in the next few weeks as a way to make space in my freezer and make room for strawberries. Last year, I froze 15 pounds in quart jars, and that takes up some space! I'd also wager that I could eat pizza, especially with the Lahey crust, every day for at least a week. And I never thought I'd say this, but I could almost do it without the cheese! You know then for sure that Lahey crust must be a great recipe.