Updated 2009-02-16 23:52:41 ID=287:0

© 2009 The Romantic Table
©2008 The Romantic Table, Susan McGourty's Table Talk, a California Central Coast Lifestyle blog. 2011-06-09 16:33:16:80
©2008 The Romantic Table

Susan McGourty's Table Talk

Homemade Pizza: my quest for a really good recipe.

For YEARS I've led a personal quest for finding and developing the technique for a truly great PIZZA made totally from scratch at home. At last I'm putting it to recipe and sharing it with you!

Years ago, at a "Miss Indiana"(Miss America) Pageant, I laughed to myself when a contestant when asked the question "What is your favorite food?", replied that her favorite food was "Pizza" I thought to myself that she must have really had a food-sheltered life-never experiencing some of life's more sophisticated foods like Lobster Fra diavola, Fresh Clams in white wine sauce, or a good Lamb Osso Buco!

Now, years later, I have finally come to my senses and realized that nothing can beat a really good homemade pizza. I could eat pizza every week -especially on Fridays when I get two days in a row that I don't have to get up by six a.m.! But this quest of coming up with the right ingredients and technique for great home made pizza has taken me on a long pizza-journey that's lasted a couple of decades. But finally, like Eliza might have said in "My Fair Lady" "By Jove I think I've got it!" But oh! what a journey it's been!

The biggest challenge was figuring out the right ingredient combination and cooking technique for the crust. Thankfully, our oven goes to 550 degrees, so using a pizza stone works pretty well and gives the crust a nice quickly-cooked (six minutes) puffy texture. But I was never satisfied with the bread dough. Please see my Homemade Pizza Dough Made With Yeast Starter.

Years ago when we were living in San Jose, I used to make from scratch three loaves of bread a week for our breakfasts and sandwiches.That got me used to working with unbleached flour and a little whole wheat flour for texture. I started a lot of my REAL cooking those years, partially because I wanted to cut down on my salt consumption back then, and the food companies hadn't yet made the connection between salt moderation and a healthy diet.

Back then I was almost "militant" about home cooking and against almost all types of canned and processed food. Of course when I started watching my salt content, my husband naturally adopted a lot of my salt moderation practices just by eating the food that I made. That's also when we started to really experiment with different food and spice combinations to enhance the natural flavors of the food.

Over many years, I have tried different crust combinations, and as I gained more insight, the crusts got better and better. But it wasn't until I had tasted an "American Flatbread Pizza" and analyzed it, did I come up with the idea for my current recipe for pizza crust. Not that my pizza crust has anything remotely resembling an American Flatbread pizza which is more like a focaccia. My ideal crust is a thin crust New York Style pizza with many textures and tastes. But the "American Flatbread" pizza reminded me of my forgotten bread recipe made primarily with unbleached flour with a little whole wheat flour mixed in.

So I then got to work on yet another evolution of a pizza crust. Currently, I'm using about a two to one ratio of unbleached flour to whole wheat. A little of the whole wheat gives it a nice peasant loaf quality. If you're to "err on one side" err using the unbleached.

Now my husband and I have a theory about what makes a good pizza crust. We think it should be coarsely textured like a true Ciabatta (not what most chain grocery stores sell as Ciabatta which in our opinion is doctored-up Wonder Bread), but with a few puffy air bubble pockets, a nice yeasty smell, and with a nice crunch when you bite into it fresh. Oh! Is it ever glorious! I swear I hear Frank Sinatra and orchestra playing when I am crunching on my way to nirvana!

The only drawback to my crust is that it's a bit time-consuming to make. -You know it's a bit of a prima donna! Don't even think about making this on a busy day! It takes way too many steps. In fact, this recipe goes against my ideal of what makes a good recipe's prep. But for the gratification part of eating it, it's almost too much front-loaded work! If it wasn't for the fact that it tastes so good and the the sauce and toppings are such a snap and second-nature for me to make (and the "leftover" so delicious the next day) I just couldn't justify the time to make it!

How I make Pizza

First off, two days before you plan on making the pizza, you need to make a Biga, which is a yeast-starter. This is what gives the pizza dough its fragrant yeasty-smell. You make this by mixing one package of dry yeast in one cup of warm water. Then you add two cups of unbleached flour (or whatever type of flour you prefer) to the yeast-water mixture. Mix well until it is pasty-gooey. Cover well with plastic wrap, then a towel and place in a warm area of the kitchen and let set for 2 to 3 days before use. This makes all the difference in the world. When you finally take the plastic wrap off, and smell, it's like a "brewery" with its alcohol fragrance.

On the day I make pizza, first I start with the crust. Mixing the yeast, flour and biga, Including the kneading time and the clean-up, that takes me about thirty-five minutes. Then I set the dough in a barely warm oven, with the oven window closed and let it rise for about three hours.

After three hours, I punch down the dough and divide it into three bowls and again let it rise. (Covered in the barely warm oven.) About an hour and a half before I actually assemble the pizza, I roll out the dough and put each portion of dough on to a pizza pan that's been sprinkled with cornmeal. Then I put the dough-covered pans back in the warm oven and let rise some more until just before dinner.

A half hour before baking the pizza, I remove the uncooked pizza dough first then preheat the oven with its pizza stone to as high as I can. (We use 550 degrees.) In the meantime, I start assembling the pizza with my homemade sauce and accompanying toppings.

That's it.--I'm finally on the home-stretch! And OH! does the house smell good! --You'd swear you've got a pizzeria for a kitchen.

My favorite Pizzas

My favorite kind of pizza is a Pizza Margarite It's so simple with its flavors and you could argue healthy too. For this, you start with Basic Homemade Tomato Sauce, then layer 3 ounces grated part skim milk Mozzarella, several fresh Basil leaves, 2 ounces of sliced Provolone pieces, then sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan and good extra virgin olive oil. Yes, you cover the basil leaves! This helps the basil to hold it's flavor during the cooking process. When tomatoes are in season and sweet, skip the sauce and just start with a layer of thinly sliced tomatoes.

I can go on about the flavors of a Pizza Flame, which is made simply by using extra virgin olive oil, very thinly sliced red onions, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes...

Or the merits of Pizza Marinara, simply made with a little homemade sauce, mozzarella cheese and adorned with anchovies, capers and a little Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil. If you like you can skip the cheese. Though it's a little salty for me, it's my ex-New-Yorker-husband's favorite.

Then there's the Four-season pizza! This is a really showy one. It starts with a thin layer of basic homemade tomato sauce spread on top, then layered in quarter sections, each with just ONE of the following toppings: Prosciutto (Winter), mushrooms(Spring), artichokes(Summer) and black olives (Fall). As you eat you experience the whole year!

And finally, another one of my favorites, the Pizza Blanca! This is just extra-virgin olive oil, artichoke hearts and grated Parmesan Cheese (no sauce). So simple- but so yummy!

In Italy, the pizzas are more like this, they're not crammed-full of toppings. Simple distinct flavors but so delicious, easily digestible and surprisingly healthy (as pizzas go!)

In the cold winter months when you are inside anyway, make some pizzas! They're delicious. If you don't have the time to cook from scratch, you can cut-corners a bit and use quicker methods like using ready to bake dough. But let these pizzas "inspire you" to try some of these more simple toppings at least.

But whatever you do, enjoy some Pizza!

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A tip from Sue!

If rushed, prepare your ingredients in advance.

If you know you’ll be rushed at cooking time, pre-measure out as many of the ingredients as you can, and arrange them by the cooking order of the recipe.

If it’s going to be more than several minutes before you actually start making the dinner, be sure to cover the perishable ingredients with plastic wrap or place in containers and put them back in the refrigerator to hold until you are ready.