Now that cold weather's back and it's oven-using season again, I was inspired yesterday to build a pizza from scratch.
Every time I do this, I end up asking myself why I'm willing to spend several hours making something that I can wander over to the local pizzeria and purchase, particularly when it's technically impossible to emulate the perfect commercial 'za in the home oven.
But then when it comes sizzling out of the oven, I remember: Homemade pizza is GOOD! Chances are that you'll use better ingredients than any but the finest pizza joints; and while the crust out of the home oven -- even with the near- essential pizza tile -- may be a little different from the product of a commercial pizza oven, but "different" doesn't have to be "worse." An excellent home pizza crust is very much like fresh, hot'n'crusty Italian bread, and that's not a bad thing, not at all.
Here's the procedure I used yesterday to make a near-classic pizza alla Napoletana, a medium-size pie that was enough for two (although I could have eaten another slice or two if we'd had 'em). It's a personal recipe that's evolved over the years, mixing up a number of recipes and a lot of watching commercial pizza makers at work in NYC and Italy.
Start at least three hours before dinner, preferably longer. In a large bowl mix 1 1/2 cups of bread flour and a generous half-teaspoon of salt. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon dry bread yeast and 1/4 teaspoon of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water, and wait for it to start to bubble. Make a "well" in the middle of the flour, pour in the liquid and 2 teaspoons olive oil, and mix well until the flour and liquid form a ball-o-dough. The exact proportions of water and flour may vary, so be prepared to add a little of either as necessary to make a firm dough that cleans all the flour from the sides of the bowl. Knead on a board for five or 10 minutes or until it's soft and smooth, then pop it back into the bowl, dusted with a little flour, and cut a deep X in the top. Cover with a cloth towel and set aside until it doubles in size. (For a quick pizza, put it in a slightly warm oven to make it rise fast. But if you've got the time, a slow, even overnight, rise in a cool location (below 70F) will yield a lot more flavor. When the dough's fully risen, punch it down and then press it out on your board into a pizza-size round, making it as thin as possible in the middle with a bit of a rim around the edge. Dust the board with a little flour if necessary so it won't stick, and cover again with the towel to let the round rest and re-rise while you get the toppings ready and preheat the oven.
To approximate an Italian-style polpa di pomodoro (tomato pulp), you can start with fresh, canned or boxed tomato sauce or canned Italian-style tomatoes. (I used a cup of the frozen sauce I made from our garden San Marzanos back during the season.) In any case, warm a teaspoon or more of finely-minced garlic in about a tablespoon of olive oil, and when they're aromatic but not browning, pour in the tomato sauce or canned tomatoes (breaking up the latter), add a few grinds of black pepper, and cook over low heat until a lot of the liquid has evaporated, leaving behind a thick, garlicky sauce. Stir in about a teaspoon of fresh chopped oregano (preferred) or 1/2 teaspoon dried.
Use fresh whole-milk mozzarella cheese if you can possibly get it. Slice off eight to a dozen thin, long ovals (about 4 ounces total) and set them aside. Set aside an equal number of anchovies.
ASSEMBLY AND COOKING:
Put your pizza stone in a shelf near the bottom of the oven and fire it up to 425F. Let it preheat for a good 20 minutes or so before cooking.
Take the towel off the pizza round and jiggle it to make sure it hasn't stuck to the board. Drizzle a teaspoon or two of olive oil on the dough and smear it around. Pour on the thickened tomato sauce and smear it around until the pizza is well covered. Arrange the mozzarella slices, clock-face fashion, and then place an anchovy on each. Drizzle on a little more olive oil and some black pepper. Then ... CAREFUL, here! ... slide the assembled pizza from the board onto the pizza stone. I find it helps to pull the oven tray out during this step to allow easier and safer access. Bake for 20 minutes or until the edge of the crust is golden brown and the mozzarella is starting to toast. Slice and serve with a big green salad and your choice of beverage. Gutsy reds are the traditional pizza accompaniment, of course, but the anchovies made me think of a white last night, and the first-rate Matanzas Creek '93 Sauvignon Blanc did very nicely indeed. And needless to say, the classic pizza beverage is BEER!