The pictures in my iPhoto go almost straight from Bee in a witch costume to Bee with her miniature Christmas tree. Granted, this is in large part because my parents came for Thanksgiving and took charge of the photographic duties, thank goodness; nevertheless, I’m more than a little alarmed by the passage of time. As you know! For instance, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share for ages. A few months ago, probably in the summer (“summer”), I had a revelation while making pizza, a revelation that was reinforced the next month by something I saw in a restaurant.
What happened this summer was that I put together a batch of Mark Bittman’s basic pizza dough, which I have made a million times, and found that it was far too wet to work with. Very exasperated and wondering what we would eat for dinner, I was preparing to scrape the yeasty goop into the compost bucket when I realized that maybe I could do that thing people used to do a long time ago, that thing I’ve read about, where you just add flour until the dough feels right.
“You sound crazy,” is what Andrew would say if he were reading over my shoulder, which he is not. I know that for most people tinkering until something is right is second nature, but I am a follower of rules and recipes. I am still a little amazed every time I make dinner without opening a book—now that I have been cooking on a daily basis for about six years. Tampering with a recipe for dough—dough!—well, I would have thought it beyond me.
But I’ll tell you what. I kneaded flour into that wet mess bit by bit until it turned into a nice, springy ball. And then, instead of being heavy and floury, it was some of the finest crust I’d turned out in a while. So lesson number one was don’t be afraid to add flour until the dough feels right.
What happened in September was that Andrew and I went to dinner at Nopa. This was a big deal, at least for me—the second time in fifteen months that we got to go out to dinner alone. It happened on the spur of the moment, however, so we didn’t have reservations and were lucky to be seated at a little bar area right next to the kitchen. The restaurant buzzed at our back while we had no choice but to gaze at the master of the pizza oven.
He is a calm, slender man with a long black ponytail. Although he didn’t stop moving the entire time we were there, he never seemed rushed or frazzled. There is only one pizza on the menu, an appetizer, but he was also in charge of some wood oven sardines and other tiny dishes. When an order for pizza came in, he would take a ball of dough from a large plastic container full of floury dough balls, which I believe came out of a refrigerator. Calmly, always calmly, he rolled the ball in a little more flour and then stretched and spun it into a large, thin disk. He brushed it heavily with what appeared to be a puree of roasted garlic (it was in a container labeled “garlic schmear;” I have yet to try this and really want to) and then sprinkled it with sausage, onions, and a little cheese. (I think. This was all three months ago.) He had obviously done it innumerable times, but he didn’t look bored, or even aware that anything existed outside of the pizza station. He just looked zen.
Me, I’m not so zen, but I resolved to try using more flour when I stretched my pizza crusts at home. I also decided to stretch them over the backs of my hands instead of patting and pushing them out, as I had for some reason taken to doing. The result is that now I feel like I really have a handle on pizza dough. Now that I’ve made it a million and five times and tried a few things out and kept my eyes open while other people were making or talking dough.
(This reminds me that I should tell you that I did not finish my NaNoWriMo novel, not at all, even though I was using the “cheat” of updating a classic, but I did relish the experience. It teaches you how much time there is in your day if you really look for it, and it reminds you what pleasures are incompatible with squeezing out those extra quarter hours—in my case, the internet, television, and wine. [And I am talking not about a half bottle with dinner but about a single glass of wine, which may relax you just enough to pack it in for the day just when you should be picking it up.] As a cynic and a longtime holder of the position I Can’t Do This, I was really delighted to discover that I can dredge things up out of my own head when compelled. For me the key lesson of NaNoWriMo, however, was that if you want to do something, you have to do it. Again, I know this sounds obvious to all of you who add more flour without even thinking or start businesses instead of mentally tallying all the ways those businesses could possibly fail, but for some of us, just getting started feels impossible. But you have to get started, and then you have to do a little every day. And some days, a lot. This is the only way your storytelling skills will improve instead of stalling where mine are, which is, I think, about neck in neck with two-year-old Bee’s drawing skills. I got good, not great yet, but good, at making dinner by doing it every night for six years. Nothing just happens.)
Ahem. The marvelous thing about practicing making pizza is that everyone is happy to eat your test pizzas. They may even like them more than things you put much more effort into or have higher hopes for, like certain tofu-millet pilaf-maple roasted squash dinners I could mention. At this point I even have a method that bends all the pizza rising and kneading to my schedule, but I’m not sure it’s replicable. I’ll do my best to put it into words, and then you’ll just have to try it for yourself.
So here’s how I make the dough, with Mark Bittman’s quantities and my no-knead-inspired method. The night before I want to eat pizza, right before bed I put 3 cups (14 ounces) flour in a big bowl. I use bread flour, all-purpose, 00, or some combination of these, depending on what I have on hand; my tastebuds are not sensitive enough to register a preference. I add 2 teaspoons kosher salt and a slightly rounded quarter teaspoon instant (bread machine) yeast. I once tried to cut the salt back to 1.5 teaspoons, and while the result was certainly edible, my tastebuds were hip to that alteration and demanded a return to the original recipe. I whisk to combine the dry and then use a wooden spoon to stir in a cup of water and 2 tablespoons olive oil. If a bit of rough stirring fails to suck up most of the flour in the bowl, I add more water a tablespoon at a time until the flour has all been incorporated. It isn’t really stirring any more, but I do use the spoon to bully the dough for a minute before covering the bowl with plastic wrap and a dishtowel and moving it to a quiet corner of the counter.
The next day, at nap time—around noon, say, 14 hours after the dough was mixed—I turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for about 5 minutes, adding more flour as necessary to make it easy to work with. Is this kneading necessary? I have no idea. I just do it, hoping to reach a stage where the indentation left by a finger poking into the soft, smooth dough springs back immediately. Then I roll the dough in flour, put it back in the bowl, and cover the bowl again. Sometimes I leave it on the counter, but I have also refrigerated it, just to see. If you choose to refrigerate it, experts say you should remove it an hour before baking, but I have forgotten to do that until just before stretching and baking and found that it didn’t make a huge difference at all.
Half an hour before dinner, preheat the oven to 500 and divide the dough into two to four balls, depending on how many pizzas you want. Knead them for a minute, just enough to leave them smooth and round, and then sprinkle their tops with flour and cover them for 15-20 minutes. After this little rest, stretch them into rounds. I like to work on a piece of parchment paper, which I later slip right onto my pizza stone (slightly more confident I may be, but do I look like I’m pizza peel confident to you?). Plop a ball of dough in the middle of the parchment and then dust your hands with flour right over the dough, so that the excess showers down on it. Many advocate spinning and stretching the dough without picking it up, but I like to pick it up and pull it wider and wider in the air. I drape it over the backs of my hands, gently pull them apart, rotate the dough, and pull again. If your dough refuses to stretch and keeps springing back into its original shape, let it rest for 10 minutes and then try again. If your dough tears, all I can say is that I have had luck pinching tears together or, in extreme situations, kneading and starting over with the stretching. After many months of patting out rounds of even thickness, I discovered that I have to leave the rim a little thicker for crusts that I won't just leave on my plate but instead will eagerly take from the baby.
When a round is ready, brush it all over with olive oil, top, and bake for about 10 minutes, depending on your toppings. I find that 8 ounces of mozzarella is enough for one batch of this dough, and I make a very simple tomato sauce by cooking a few cloves of crushed garlic in a few glugs of olive oil and then adding a box of tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of oregano, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to simmer until thick. This is too much sauce for one batch of this dough, but you’ll use the leftover one way or another. If nothing else, you can thin it out with water, use it to simmer red lentils, and call it soup, maybe adding some carrots in the beginning or a spoonful of yogurt at the end.
I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures of pizza. I’m always so dying to eat it that I can’t bring myself to slow things down by getting out the camera. I must say that if one of the hardest things for me about becoming an adult, a real one, has been letting go of fantasies of instant success, one of the nicest things is making a really good pizza and sharing it with an enthusiastic two year old, especially if Andrew is home and Christmas lights are up in the dining room. It doesn’t get better than that.