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13 Apr 2010

Pizza for one – For the past two weekends, my wife has been gone for at least one day, and I have had to fend for myself when it comes to dinner. The weekend before last it was Saturday, when she went down to her mother's house to help prepare food for guests the next day (I later got to eat some of this food, which included my mother-in-law's famous braised short ribs and a Chinese-style seafood dish, so it all worked out in the end). This past weekend it was Friday, when she went out with some of her colleagues to paint the town red (or at least break some dishes).

“I am always trying to get better, and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone.”

I suppose I could have just fallen back on pre-cooked rice and other instant foods, but I thought I would take the opportunity to hone my culinary skills. So, the weekend before last, I decided to make pizza. Pizza is something that I have gotten very good at, but only in the utilitarian sense. That is, I can throw the ingredients for the dough in the machine, prep the toppings in less time than it takes for the dough to ferment, put the pie together pretty rapidly once the dough comes out of the machine, and have everything ready to eat not too long after that—from start to finish in about 90 minutes, with most of that time spent doing something else while I wait for the dough to ferment.

This does not mean, though, that I am necessarily a skilled pizza maker. I can throw a pie or two together for dinner or for guests, and so far no one has complained, but I'm still very much a student of the art. In fact, even though I've been making bread in general for a number of years now, I still feel like a novice. I have this silly dream of running off to France and plopping myself down on some Parisian baker's doorstep until he agrees to take me in as an apprentice (short-term, of course). It will never happen, but it's fun to think about at times.

Anyway, the point is that I am always trying to get better, and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. After all, there was no one else but me, so if I screwed things up too badly, I could always just whip up some instant food to fill my stomach. I wasn't too worried about that, though—I was pretty sure that I would end up with something edible, even if it wasn't my best result.

The ingredients for the dough—half of what I use for a normal pie for two, of course—went into the machine and I went to work on the toppings. I decided to keep it simple, because I wasn't really interested in experimenting with the toppings. I can do that with my wife around, since she's just as adventurous as I am, and often comes up with some interesting combinations. No, what I wanted to focus on was the dough and my pie-shaping technique, so the toppings were simply a can of diced tomatoes that I drained and then chopped up a bit, along with some grated mozzarella to go on top.

When the dough was done I dumped it out of the machine and onto the well-floured table. Pizza dough tends to be a lot wetter than most bread dough (unless you're making something like a ciabatta), so you need a lot of flour or it will stick. I've seen pizza makers on television on occasion, and they use a lot of flour. I can't use that much flour, for a couple of reasons. For one, it would be wasteful. And then my wife would kill me. (The aforementioned reasons are not necessarily in order of importance.) But I did have enough flour on the table, maybe even a little more than usual. I tried to imitate some of the techniques I had seen used: pushing the dough out while it's on the table, holding it up by one edge and then pressing it as you turn it so that it hangs down and stretches out, etc. It's actually pretty hard to describe these techniques in words, but the idea is that the dough needs to be stretched out one way or another.

There is one technique, though, that needs no description at all. It is a technique that just about everyone is familiar with: tossing the dough. This is one technique that I had never tried before, primarily because... well, let's just say it's one of the two reasons why I don't use a lot of flour on the table, and I'll let you guess which reason it is. I had seen it done before many times, so I knew the basics of it, but knowing how to do something and actually doing it are two different things.

I started by stretching the dough a little with my two fists, rotating it as I stretched. This was actually harder than it would normally be, I think, because of the amount of dough—usually I would be working with twice as much. Still, I managed to get it to the point where I thought I would be able to toss it. And then, for the first time in my life, I tossed a pizza base into the air. I gave it a spin as I did so, and I watched it stretch out into a circle and hang there, perfect and round. And then, all too soon, it started to fall. Now, catching it is not that difficult—it is, after all, a big round of dough, and hard to miss (despite what you see on sit-coms). But you're supposed to keep it rotating after you catch it so it maintains its shape and doesn't tear. The catching part was no problem, although I failed at keeping it rotating. Fortunately it didn't tear, but it didn't remain in that pristine circle. I tried a few more tentative tosses and spread it out on my pizza pan.

What I have been doing with my pizzas for a while now has been pre-baking the base for a few minutes and then putting the toppings on before baking it the rest of the way. That's what I did this time, baking it for four minutes, taking it out, putting on the tomatoes, seasoning (salt, pepper, basil), and cheese, and then putting it back into the oven for eight minutes. As it turned out, this was longer than it needed, because it was a little overcooked when it came out. (Of course, in a real pizza oven, you wouldn't have to cook a pizza for twelve minutes, but certain compromises have to be made when you have a mini-oven that only goes up to 240 degrees Celsius.) Still, with the exception of being a little on the stiff side, it came out fine.

If you look closely at the crust, you'll see some cracks in it along the edges. Those are there because the pizza base puffs up during the pre-bake and then sometimes cracks as it falls again. I've tried to avoid this puffing up by stabbing the base with a fork, vigorously and repeatedly, before putting it in the oven, but the holes just close up and the dough puffs up like a balloon. On the bright side, I know that I'll have no problems making pita bread, should the mood ever strike me. At any rate, despite the slight stiffness and the cracks, the pizza tasted fine. Not quite as round as I would have liked, but not bad for my first time tossing the dough.

You can probably guess by now what I did for dinner this past Friday. That's right: pizza again. This time I got a little more creative with the toppings. We had some very ripe Gorgonzola in the refrigerator, so I sliced up some of that, and I also grated up a bit of cheddar for some extra color and flavor, in addition to the base of mozzarella. The tomatoes I prepared in the same way. When it came to the dough, this time I was a little wiser and a little braver. I tossed it more frequently and got it spinning at a pretty good rate. I still have to work on keeping the momentum going when the pizza comes down, but I was more pleased with my efforts this time.

I carefully placed the dough on the pan and, instead of doing a pre-bake, I just put the tomatoes on the uncooked dough, seasoned them with salt, pepper, and basil, and then arranged the cheese on top. Then, drawing on something I had seen at a restaurant here (where they had honey for dipping thin Gorgonzola pizza), I drizzled honey over the top. This went straight into the oven for about eight or ten minutes—I don't remember exactly how long it was, but I know it was shorter this time. The results were very pleasing to the senses when the pie came out of the oven, but unfortunately all I can share with you here is the sense of sight.

You may notice right away that the pie is a little bit bigger. I think I was a little more comfortable with tossing the dough this time, and was thus able to get a bigger pie. The plate you see here is 26 centimeters in diameter, which makes this pie a little over 20 centimeters in diameter (the first pie was probably about 19 centimeters). In terms of area, that's actually more than half of what I usually get out of a normal-size pie. (Of course, my normal-sized pies only barely fit on my pizza pan, so I don't know that getting a larger base would do me much good.)

This pie also looks much nicer in general. For one, there's no cracking of the crust, and the crust also seems to have risen more. Thinking back on it now, I think one of the reasons I decided to go with the pre-bake in the first place was that pizzas can end up soggy if you use ingredients that have a high water content. But there was no risk of that here, so there was no need to pre-bake. As you'll see in the next picture, the bottom of the crust turned out just fine.

I wish there was some way to convey smell and taste through the internet, because that Gorgonzola pie smelled and tasted really good. The honey was not pronounced, but it definitely added something to the very ripe taste of the cheese (as you can see here, I also used a part of the cheese that had a lot of mold in it, so it was especially ripe-tasting).

All in all, I think my experiments were reasonably successful. If nothing else, I've decided to go back to putting toppings straight on the base and cooking them all together in the oven, and I think that will be an improvement. Now, the next time I make pizza for two, all I have to do is convince my wife to let me try tossing the larger base, just to see what happens.

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