For my birthday, I asked my family for a pizza stone, because I felt certain that every ache and disappointment of my life would be quelled by the ability to make pizza in my own home. You may be surprised to learn that the truth was a bit more complicated.
As it turns out, pizza is not something you just dive into. There is research to be done, opinions to be solicited, and quite sadly, mistakes to be made.
Unlike, say, a bad lamb outcome, which you can often blame on the recipe, or a fallen cake, which can be usually corrected with adjustments to leavening, pizza dough will trick and vex you. You will try and try to get its consistency just right and you will feel confused; it will frustrate you as you attempt to stretch it out. Some dough may never rise, making you question how you ever succeeded at anything in culinary life; other batches will taste and feel like rain boots, causing you to throw away an entire day of anticipated glory. Pizza: it can bring you low.
I began as I always do, perusing the offerings of the great cooks on food52. The array of options -– and opinions -– was vast. There was the question of olive oil or no olive oil in the dough, and debates about how long the dough should sit, and where. The spectre of semolina was raised. My friend and colleague fisheri, who has mastered much of Italian cooking, said only, “You must fridge the dough overnight. It makes a huge difference,” then fled for Belize.
A baker colleague on the Hill, whom I refer to simply as bread boy, said that a rolling pin was the key to glory. Then, my friend Steve, who has also recently procured a stone and has made many successful pizzas with his wife, Margaret, suggested perhaps I was over thinking it. “It is pizza, so maybe it’s not that complicated,” he offered. This gave me a great deal of pause. Steve has often been a purveyor of fine life advice – “Buy your shoes at a proper running store!” “Stop referring to the boss’s Monday morning meetings as 'The Bore-a-Thon when he is in earshot!” Could he also be correct about pizza?
Sadly, this seemed unlikely. Why else would there be websites devoted to debating the best place to eat pizza in nearly every major city in the world? Why else would the good people of food52 spend great lengths of time crossing swords over whether or not Neapolitans would or would not moisten their dough. Pizza has caused more than one street fight, and almost certainly ended some romantic relationships. Pizza, I believe, is something one does not enter into lightly in the home.
Finally, I stopped chattering, and started cooking. First, I tried a quick-version crust, and my dough never even rose. Moving on to another recipe, my second attempt produced a crust so thick around the edges, my pizza resembled a mozzarella quiche. I fobbed it off on the Incipient Pescatarian and her friends and moved on.
Yet again, for the life of me, neither pulling, nor rolling nor coaxing could make that dough stretch out. The dough just sat there, a sad tan blob, the life of good yeast wasted on a peel. I turned to foodpickle, where users helpfully suggested other types of flour, rolling methods and, in one case, draping the dough over the counter.
So, my dough for two pizzas hung, like Salvador Dali clocks, for 30 more minutes as I prayed. This technique actually helped a bit, and so I added my toppings, which on one pizza was the sauce from pierino’s Una Pizza Rustica e Autentica for Sophia Loren and the other, Savour’s recipe, only I simplified it by softening the leeks in the rendered bacon fat and leaving it at that, without the involvement of cream.
It was good. But it did not rise to great.
The next time I was in the office, I recounted my lack of pizza success mournfully to a colleague, concluding that my failure with the dough had made me so distraught that I was considering giving up cooking all together. The boss walked by and suggested that in fact I should consider this, but I am pretty sure what he meant was, “Could you spend a little less time talking about pizza dough and maybe a bit more figuring out whether or not the government is going to shut down?”
That night, arriving home late and with no family around, I tossed around the final ball of dough, now full of pleasant bubbles from resting four days in the fridge, and patiently prodded and pulled at it. I rubbed the pizza with a bit of olive oil, then tossed on whatever was in the fridge -- a bit of mozzarella, some nice parmesan, an anchovy or two and some nice cured meat of some sort.
Somehow, ten minutes later, I had something rather fine, if lacking in the bubbly cheese, charred crust deliciousness I sought. The crust was a tad thinner; perhaps I just had practiced a bit, gotten to know it and make it come to me, not unlike communication with a pre-verbal child. I ate it quietly with a glass of Montepulciano, and pondered the notion of the good enough pizza.
Then a friend emailed to point out this fact: “An outdoor grill is really the only way you can come near the heat required to make beautiful black blisters on your pizza dough.” Or, of course, an outdoor pizza oven.
Hmm. Next birthday.
For the toppings:
By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, covers Congress for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now