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13 Jul 2008

Thin-crust pizza – Friday was a good day. It didn’t start out as a particularly exceptional day, but any day that culminates in homemade, thin-crust pizza is a good day in my book. Yes, after carrying on about my silly survey (whoops) for weeks on end, I thought I’d switch gears and post something that might actually interest my readers. Enough babbling—on to the photos.

This is the dough, pre-ferment (the halo around the edge is the reflection of the flash off the bowl). It took quite some time to arrive at what you see above, and by that I don’t mean that it took a long time to prepare, but that it’s been a long journey searching for a pizza dough with which I am comfortable. My experiments with pizza dough started with the recipes in my bread machine book. The dough always seemed a little wet, so I would often add flour to make it easier to work with. Then my youngest brother Matthew got me an amazing bread book for my birthday, Local Breads, by Daniel Leader. This book not only has recipes for some amazing European breads, it also includes a lot of information about the art of bread making itself and stories of the author’s adventures in Europe as he sought out these artisan breads. It feeds both my bread geek side and my adventurous (and Europe-loving) side—in other words, it is the ideal bread book.

But enough about the book. If there is one thing that I have taken away from Local Breads—beside an overwhelming desire to try sourdough—it is this: don’t be afraid of wet dough. The wetter the dough, the lighter the bread. Because I started out using a bread machine, I’ve always been a bit leery of wet dough. The reason for this is that a wet dough will more often than not collapse in a bread machine because you can’t make the necessary adjustments to the baking environment. But if you can knead, ferment, shape, proof, and bake a wet dough properly, you will be rewarded with what Daniel Leader calls “consistent inconsistency”— air bubbles that vary greatly in size but are basically uniform across the loaf (that is, you can cut into the loaf anywhere and find the same pattern of large and small air bubbles.

Armed with this new-found knowledge, I set out to make a thin pizza in the Roman style (this wasn’t the pizza I made on Friday, but its predecessor, which I made a couple weeks ago). The dough contained 85% water—85% in baker’s percentages, of course, which I will explain in more detail below—and was far too wet to be properly kneaded in the bread machine. So I took it out of the machine after the kneading cycle was finished and put it in my stainless steel bowl. It looked more like cake batter than dough, just as Leader said it would. The recipe called for a twenty-minute knead at high speed, but my bread machine can’t do that (there is no way to adjust either the length or speed of the kneading). I attempted to knead it by hand, using my hands as mixing blades, and achieved a modicum of success. Then I let the dough ferment for a few hours, as instructed. Unfortunately, probably because it wasn’t kneaded properly, the dough collapsed after rising to almost three times its original volume. I made a pizza out of it anyway, and it was edible, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

My new knowledge had been tempered by the harsh reality of experience, and I decided to take a step back. There was no way my bread machine could knead such a wet dough properly, so instead I modified my own pizza dough to be a little bit wetter than usual. The dough I made on Friday consisted of the following ingredients.

Water: 60%

Olive oil: 10%

Salt: 2%

Bread flour: 25%

Cake flour: 50%

Semolina flour: 25%

Instant yeast: 1%

Again, the numbers here are baker’s percentages. The flour adds up to one hundred percent, and everything else is figured in relation to that. So, if you have a total of 200 grams of flour (which, incidentally, is just the right amount for a 12-inch or 30-centimeter pie), you would have 120 grams of water, 20 grams of olive oil, 4 grams of salt, and 2 grams of instant yeast. The batch I made used 300 grams of flour—I’ll get to why at the end of the entry.

This dough is my creation, based on my experience with pizza in the past and what I learned from Local Breads. It is a little bit wetter than what I’m used to working with, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to handle than the 85%-water dough. The olive oil in the dough is not traditionally Italian, I don’t think, but it adds flavor and texture, and my wife likes it. The semolina flour is a relatively new addition to my pizza dough—I tried it when Kevin came over shortly before he left for his epic journey, and I liked how it turned out. If you don’t have semolina, you can just substitute bread flour. I’m not sure if “cake flour” is the right term, but the Korean term for this flour isn’t in the dictionary. At any rate, it has the lowest gluten level of the baking flours available here. Bread flour has the highest gluten level, so all together the flours probably approximate all-purpose flour, and in a pinch I suppose you could use 100% of that.

After lightly oiling my stainless steel bowl, I loosely shaped the dough into a ball, placed it into the bowl, and covered it with a towel. While the dough fermented, I went to work on some of the other ingredients.

This is the flesh of two fresh tomatoes. I peeled them and then removed all the seeds and goop, leaving only the solid red flesh (actually, if you look closely, you can see a seed toward the bottom—rest assured that I removed the offender before continuing). Once I got them into the form you see above, the only other step I took was to roughly chop the flesh, and then they were ready for the pizza.

For as long as I’ve been making pizza (which, to be honest, hasn’t really been that long), making a sauce has always been part of the process. Then I stumbled across Jeff Varasano’s NY Pizza Recipe. If you are interested in making pizza and have an hour to spare, I would highly recommend heading over to that page and soaking in all of the wonderful information there. I’ll save you a bit of time, though, and quote the relevant section here:

DON’T make a sauce. That is, don’t pre-cook the tomatoes. The tomatoes will cook on the pizza. If you cook a sauce first, it will cook again on the pizza, turning it brown and yucky. No need to make a sauce. Look at how overcooked many sauces are. The best places don’t do this. This is actually the one step in this whole process that you can save yourself some time.

Reading this was like finding out that you’ve been staring at shadows on a wall your whole life, and then turning around to see the blinding light of reality. Why had I never thought of this before? It was just one of those assumptions that I had never questioned: pizza was bread, sauce, and cheese. Not making a sauce would be like not putting cheese on top. I knew that traditional Italian pizza doesn’t necessarily have cheese, but growing up in New York, crust, sauce, and cheese were the Holy Trinity of pizza. It never occurred to me that the sauce might simply be a raw tomato puree.

I wanted to take it one step closer to nature, though. In my previous attempt (the one with the collapsed dough), I simply peeled, seeded, and chopped two fresh tomatoes and spread these over the dough. Then I sprinkled salt, basil, and olive oil over the top and baked it. Like I said, the crust didn’t turn out so great, but the tomatoes on top were amazing. Not only did they taste great, but they also made the pizza easier on my stomach. Maybe it’s just me, but pizza with a pre-cooked sauce gives me heartburn/acid reflux. Friday was the second time I’ve made pizza with fresh tomatoes, and so far I have had no problems in that regard. Given the taste and ease of digestion, I doubt I will ever cook a sauce for pizza again.

With the tomatoes ready, I moved on to the cheese. I had gone more traditional Italian with my previous pizza, but I wanted this one to be more substantial. I had some mozzarella for the base, and we had picked up some cheese at Costco that I wanted to use as a highlight. It is called Bleu Doux, and it is a type of blue cheese. It is not a real blue cheese, like Gorgonzola or Stilton—instead, it seems to be more like a cross between a soft, ripened cheese like Brie or Camembert and blue cheese (the English on the container describes it as a “blue-veined cheese”). That’s pretty much what it tastes like, too: soft and creamy, but with a blue-cheese tang. Take a look.

The wedge is cut out so you can see the inside, of course, but it was also so Hyunjin could taste it to see if she liked it. She didn’t use to like blue cheese, but after trying a Gorgonzola pizza here (it’s a popular item among pizza lovers these days), she decided that her tastes might have matured. Fortunately she approved of this cheese, and I chopped up half of the round (about 60g).

With the toppings ready, it was time to check on the dough. It had been fermenting for about an hour, and I was pleased to see that it had risen beautifully. It was at this point that I felt things were going to work out well.

I scraped the dough out of the bowl and onto the floured tabletop. After shaping it into a rough ball, I put it on the scale and divided it: two-thirds for the pie, the remaining third for later (it went into the refrigerator while I finished up the pizza). I shaped the two-thirds into another ball and let it rest for a few moments, and then I began to work it into a flat round.

This is a little over 30 centimeters in diameter, or about a foot. I flipped it onto my mesh pizza pan and then began the topping process. First, a light coating of olive oil. Then the chopped tomatoes, sea salt, and basil.

Finally, the cheese—equal parts of mozzarella and Bleu Doux. The mozzarella was shredded and formed the base, and I spread the Bleu Doux on top in circles radiating out from the center.

Once all the toppings were on, the pie went into our electric oven, which was preheated to 240 degrees Celsius (approximately 475 Fahrenheit). If your oven goes higher, go as high as it goes. Ours only goes to 240, so 240 it was. I baked it for about fifteen minutes, and here is the result.

This turned out exactly as I was hoping it would turn out. The bread was thin and crispy in the center with a nice crust around the edge, the tomatoes were juicy and flavorful, and the Bleu Doux cheese added its tangy goodness to the browned mozzarella. I think this may be the best pizza I have made to date. As we ate it, we started thinking up topping ideas for future pies: Hyunjin suggested halved cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced garlic, and I wondered aloud about a four-cheese pizza, with a different cheese in each quadrant.

This is my first slice; we sliced it into four pieces and had two each. You can see here just how thin it is—I would say it’s a few millimeters thick at best. This is what I wanted to achieve. When I first started making pizza, all my pies had thick crusts, and there were a number of reasons for this. For one, I used way too much dough for a single pie, More importantly, the dough was much drier, and I didn’t feel comfortable stretching it out. There is a test for pizza dough called “windowpaning,” which involves taking a small piece of dough and stretching it so thin that it becomes translucent. If you can do this without the dough tearing, it is ready. I didn’t do that with this pie, but in the process of stretching out the dough, I got it pretty thin.

That’s another important point I should mention: pizza dough should be stretched, not rolled. In my bread machine cookbook, the author says to roll out the pizza dough and that you should never stretch dough because it will just pull back to its original shape. Actually, if a dough pulls back after being stretched, it hasn’t been kneaded well enough. And if you roll a pizza dough, you risk destroying the bubbles formed by the yeast during the fermentation stage. Pizza does not have a proofing stage (proofing is the second rise, after shaping and before baking), so if you destroy the structure of the dough in the shaping, you’re out of luck. If you scroll back up and look carefully at the photo of the shaped dough, you’ll see a lot of dark spots. These are bubbles that were preserved due to my careful handling of the dough, and they puffed up and baked into crispy and tasty caverns.

If I seem overly proud of this pie, well, maybe I am. I feel like I am starting all over again, and it’s a great feeling to see things turn out well. The pie is not perfect, of course. As Hyunjin pointed out, it probably could have stood more in the way of toppings—I could have chopped up another tomato, and we probably could have also fit the whole round of Blue Doux on there. Still, there is something to be said for minimalism. More importantly, though, the crust was not quite as golden brown on the top as I would like. Thanks to the mesh pan, it was very golden and crispy on the bottom, but the top was a bit pale. Unfortunately, there’s only so much I can do about this. Our oven only goes up to 240 degrees Celsius, whereas real pizza ovens can get up to twice that temperature. This turns the crust golden brown but keeps the inside chewy. I baked this pie for fifteen minutes, and any longer would have made the crust harder—as it was, I think it could have been a little chewier on the inside.

There is hope, though. Our electric oven has a number of different settings, and these control the intensity of the upper and lower lamps. The “bake” setting, which is used for all breads, sets both the upper and lower lamps on low. There is also a “grill” setting, though, which turns off the lower lamp and sets the upper lamp to high. Next time I might try baking the pie for ten minutes on “bake” and then switching to “grill” for two or three minutes to see if I can get the top a little more golden. I will never even begin to approach a real pizza oven, but I might be able to get a little bit closer than I am now.

All in all, though, I was very happy with the pie. The leftover dough was put to good use as well. We had some leftover cheese mixture in the freezer that needed to get used, so I whipped up a quick calzone and put that into the oven to bake after the pizza came out. Because it is much taller than the pizza, the dough on the top was much closer to the lamp, and it browned quite nicely.

I was tempted to eat it right then and there, but it would have been too much. So instead I let it cool completely on the rack, put it in a plastic bag, and stuck it in the freezer. I can defrost it and then pop it back into the oven for a bit, and with some fresh tomato for garnish, it will make a nice lunch sometime.

As I said above, I feel like I am starting all over again when it comes to pizza, and it is exciting. Although I don’t usually bake pizza during the summer, I’m eager to try my hand at it again with some different toppings. My folks are coming to visit toward the end of August, and while we will be eating a lot of Korean food, I think they (and my father in particular) might appreciate a pizza night. I’ve also got neighbors I can experiment on, so I imagine we’re going to be seeing a few more pies before the summer is out.

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