Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Mama Mia!"

Pizza in the US and Italy is something special: thin, crispy-but-chewy crust, zingy tomato sauce, and dripping with cheese fat (and sausage grease, if that's your cup of tea). Like most foods, pizza is a total experience, and a proper pizza is only a proper pizza if it hits all of the marks at once. There's no in between--if the sauce is off but the crust is not, if the crust is off but the cheese is not, then it's just not a good pizza. It may still be an edible pizza, and I suppose if you never go to Italy or New York in your life, you might even learn to like it. But having been spoiled by a youth full of sinful, cheesy, chewy goodness, what passes for pizza in the Netherlands just doesn't cut it.

There are a multiple of pizza sins committed by Dutch pizzas: the crust is usually too thick, too spongy. The sauce is too sweet, not zingy. There is NEVER enough cheese (and I say this as someone who is, on the best days, indifferent to the stuff), and the toppings can just get plain weird: tuna? Admittedly, I've not tried it, but tuna just doesn't seem like the kind of stuff that would go well with any sort of cheese. I suppose there are Italian restaurants where you can get a proper pizza, but considering what pizza is--a way to use up leftovers--is it really worth the exorbitant price?

So what's a pizza lover to do? Make her own, of course.  It's easier than you might think:  yeast doughs are not mysterious, slightly-dangerous things, and are more forgiving than many people imagine them to be.  And because it's pizza and not bread, you only need one rising.  The one thing you do need is time and patience:  the entire recipe takes up most of an afternoon if you're doing it in one sitting, but there are some good stopping points for both the crust and the sauce.

Right off the bat, we need to make clear that it's not possible to get a crispy-yet-chewy crust in a home oven, unless you're privy to an industry-standard hot box. The temperatures required to get that crispy-chewy crust are between 600-800°F (320-425° C), well-beyond the range of most home ovens. It might be possible to grill a pizza on the barbecue (and indeed, there are several sites that show you how), but I haven't tried that.  But it is possible to get a thin and crispily-crusted pizza, which is half the battle.

A stand mixer is not required, but it does minimize the amount of work you have to do--kneading is hard work, and if your boyfriend is an anal-retentive control freak gets flour everywhere.  Activate your yeast--I use about 2/3 C of warm water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and one packet of yeast, stir until everything is dissolved, and let it sit for about 5 minutes.  Use the down time to set up the rest of the dough:

2 C flour
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Optional:  herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme)
stand mixer with dough hook

Give this a quick whir with the stand mixer to blend everything, and then, still stirring, add the yeasty water.  Let it stir for a minute or two--if the dough is still "shaggy", add more water; if it's too wet, add more flour.  After another minute, it should come together to form a smooth, kneadable dough.  Keep it in the machine for about 10 minutes.  

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, covered with a sheet of plastic wrap, and let it sit for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.  I tuck it the bowl inside a throw blanket--our apartment isn't exactly warm.  To be completely honest, I've never watched the time too closely at this step.  I usually clean the kitchen, hang up a load of laundry, do the vaccuuming, watch an episode of Scrubs, make the sauce, etc.  At some point, I'll remember that it's there, and by the time I do, it will have doubled in size.  

At this point, you can freeze the dough (this is what I've heard, though I've never done this; if you've got any experience freezing yeast doughs, feel free to comment), or refrigerate it overnight (this works well).  What I usually do, though, is parbake the crusts:  preheat the oven to 200° C.  Roll out the crust--either one massive sheet-pizza, or several smaller ones--as thin as it will go.  Slide it into the hot oven for 5-7 minutes, depending on how big it is.  What you're looking for is the lightness and fluffiness of bread, without any of the color.  Let it cool.  At this point, the crust can be frozen, wrapped in an airtight container.  

As you can see, a relatively small amount of dough translates into a relatively large pizza.  This is the size of a pizza for one person--it seems pretty big, but you have to remember how thin it is.  The amount of dough is about the size I'd use to shape 1 1/2 rolls, which is hardly excessive for a single person.  

As for the sauce:  I cheat.  I admit it--I use canned tomatoes.  If you wanted to, you could boil a pot of water, skin the tomatoes, press out the seeds, chop the tomatoes, and then cook them for forever.  But if even the Italians use canned tomatoes, it's good enough for me.  I mean, it's a LOT of tomatoes, and a LOT of work, and fresh tomatoes are tricky to season well and it's just not worth the hassle unless you're working in a Michelin-rated restaurant.  

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small dried chili pepper (1 cm, optional)
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dried sage (optional)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper (optional)
2 X 400g cans of tomatoes (blokjes)
1 bouillon cube (Maggi's Tuinkruiden)
1-2 teaspoons of light brown sugar (optional)
Dried or fresh oregano, parsely, basil (optional)

As you can see, a lot of the ingredients are optional.  These are what I use to make the tomato sauce that we both love for our spaghetti as well as for the pizza (I reduce it more for pizza sauce); your tastes may differ.  The only thing you need to be aware of is that herbs such as oregano, basil, and parsely are very delicate and should not be added until the last 10 minutes of cooking.  I make no claim to authenticity--only that this sauce is "zingy" and flavorful and not too sweet.  

Heat the olive oil in a pan, and add the minced garlic.  Crush the chili pepper into the hot oil.  Give it a quick stir--be careful not to let anything burn--and then add the onion. Stir regularly until almost translucent, then add the sage and black pepper if you're using them.  Stir continuously until the onions are translucent, and then add the tomatoes and bouillon cube.  If you're opposed to using bouillon for some reason, you can toss in a few anchovies.  They'll dissolve in the sauce and salt it up nicely; about 1/2 a small tin will do.  

Let it come to a boil, and then simmer, stirring occasionally, until it begins to approach the consistency you need.  The exact amount of time depends on the consistency you want and the shape of the pan you use--if you use a frying pan, it will thicken to "pizza sauce consistency" in about an hour.  Adjust the seasoning. I don't always add sugar to the sauce--it depends on the flavor of the day, as it were, and in any event, I don't add as much as you'd find in commercial pasta sauces.  It's less to sweeten the sauce and more to take off that tangy edge that it can sometimes have.  The sauce can be portioned and frozen at this point. 

Assemble the pizza.  If you're doing this all in one day, just leave the oven on when you finish parbaking the crust.  If you're not, then thaw the crusts and preheat the oven to 200° C (400° F).  Put whatever dastardly toppings you want on it.  Artichoke hearts, sliced mushrooms, fresh basil, four cheeses, six cheeses, yesterday's chicken, etc.  Slide it into the oven for 10-12 minutes.  Take it out, and enjoy!

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