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Published: Tuesday, 4/24/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Cheaper, better pizza made at home

BY MARK BITTMAN
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- I'm here to insist once again that not only can you cook it at home, but you likely can cook it better.

''It," in this case, is pizza, and the impetus for today's installment was a visit to a highly acclaimed pizza joint in New York, where I was served (for $15, or about four times the cost of the ingredients in a supermarket) a perfectly ordinary, overly poofy, drearily sauced pizza. Granted, the mozzarella was first rate. Big deal.

This followed by a couple of days what has become a not-atypical dinner at my house, where I served a pizza bianca, lightly sprinkled with olive oil, salt and rosemary, and threw together a pie with a tomato sauce based on a slew of onions and a bit of guanciale (only because I happened to have some), along with a sufficient amount of grated Parmesan to make its presence known.

I won't even get into the money-saving part; people who cook at home for economic reasons already know about that. I will say that my crust tasted better, and my pizza was more properly cooked (yes, that's a matter of taste, but do you really want to eat a bialy with tomato and cheese, as seems to have become de rigueur?) and better sauced than the one I ate a few days later.

Yours can be, too.

It's about three things: some confidence, practice, and a food processor. This piece is my attempt to instill you with the first, encourage you to get the second, and implore you to use the third, although even that's not necessary, since there is an alternative: the no-knead method. I've gone back and forth between the two, but for ease, lack of mess and more-flexible timing, I've come to prefer the food processor. Still, make the dough however you like, because you won't go wrong.

From the beginning, the food processor was justifiably promoted as a tool for making dough. I love it for pizza because you can make the dough in five minutes. Although rushing isn't ideal, you can start pressing or rolling out the pizza 20 minutes later. (Use the larger amount of yeast if you're doing this.) Which means, in a pinch, start to finish in an hour.

What is ideal is letting the dough rest for a while in the refrigerator or even freezer, although for best quality not for more than a few days. The advantages of this technique, besides the obvious convenience (make the dough in the morning or up to a few days before, and just let it come to room temperature before proceeding), is that the dough matures, marginally improving its flavor and making it considerably easier to handle.

There are, of course, some fine points, but even here there's flexibility. Should you roll the dough or pat it out? That's your call. (If you pat it out, you can leave it thick and dimpled -- use your fingertips -- and call it focaccia.) Should you use a pizza peel and a stone? Well, yes, and if you preheat the stone for a good half-hour, the crust will crackle even more, but it isn't essential. I didn't have a peel for a couple of years (no room) and used a piece of plywood or a flexible cutting board. And if you don't have a stone, a baking or cookie sheet will do fine; just use a little olive oil to keep the dough from sticking. This will give you a crisper crust, one sort of halfway to fried dough.

A whole-wheat crust? Sure, 50 percent; it won't be as crisp or have the same "pull," but it will have a deeper flavor and give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. (You can also integrate herbs, garlic, dried chiles, loads of black pepper, cornmeal, whatever, into the crust; the food processor makes this incredibly easy.) Extra-crisp crust with extra-moist topping? Prebake the crust about halfway, with just a bit of olive oil on top, then add everything else and return to the oven.

Mix the dough by hand? Yes, but you're increasing your workload or, if you go for the no-knead method, your time. If your food processor isn't big or powerful enough for the recipe here, halve the recipe or get a new food processor.

Other uses for the dough? Fried pizza or calzone, rolls or bread or even those silly garlic knots. But pizza is the highest and best use.

The options don't stop, and we haven't even started on toppings. When it comes to these, I'm pretty conservative, favoring the kind of treatments I mentioned earlier, or pizza with potatoes (a legitimate Roman favorite, obviously for carb lovers), eggplant or zucchini.

Others include the obvious, like tomato sauce of almost any type, with or without mozzarella and/or Parmesan; fresh tomatoes; pepperoni; anchovies; sausage (cooked or crumbled); chorizo or other cured meat; olives; onion cooked to any degree or not at all, with olive oil; pesto (or fresh basil); eggplant or zucchini, sauteed or grilled first, with or without cheese and/or tomatoes; seafood (raw clams, oysters, shrimp, scallops, lightly steamed mussels, lobster, whatever), preferably with garlic, oregano and oil.

I don't wander far from those, which doesn't mean you can't. It's all optional, and all good. Better, in fact.

Time: 2 to 3 hours, mostly unattended, or less in a pinch

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, or more as needed, plus more for kneading

1 teaspoon fast-rising yeast (2 teaspoons if you're in a hurry)

2 teaspoons salt, plus more for sprinkling

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as necessary

Rosemary, optional.

Put the 3 cups flour, yeast, 2 teaspoons salt and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a food processor. Turn the machine on and add 1 cup water through the feed tube. Process until the mixture forms a slightly sticky ball, about 30 seconds. If the mixture is too dry, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time and process for 5 to 10 seconds after each addition. If the mixture refuses to come together, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process until it does.

Rub a little olive oil or sprinkle a little flour onto your hands and shape the dough into a ball; wrap in plastic. Let rest at room temperature until the dough doubles in size, 1 to 2 hours. Or, if time is tight, let it rest at least 20 minutes before proceeding. Or refrigerate for several hours, deflating if necessary if it threatens to burst the plastic. (Or divide in half, wrap each ball in plastic, slip into a plastic bag and freeze.) Let it return to room temperature before proceeding.

Reshape the dough into a ball and cut in half, forming 2 balls. (From here on, use olive oil if you're cooking on baking sheets, flour if on a pizza stone.) Put them on a lightly floured surface (a pizza peel is ideal), sprinkle with flour and cover with plastic wrap; or brush then with a bit of oil and place on a lightly oiled sheet. Let rest for about 20 minutes, while you heat the oven to 500 degrees.

Press a dough ball into a 1/2-inch-thick flat round, adding flour or oil to the work surface as necessary. Press or roll the dough until it is as thin as you can make it; let it rest a bit if it becomes too elastic. (Patience is your friend here.) You can do two baking sheets at once, or one after another, as you'll have to if using a peel. If doing the latter, slide the dough from the peel onto the stone.

Sprinkle the pizzas with olive oil (just a little), salt, and rosemary. Bake for at least 10 minutes, perhaps rotating once, until the crust is crisp. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 2 pies, 4 to 6 servings



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