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Adventures in Pizza II: The Finished Pie

Pizza cooking on the bottom of cast iron pan

Pizza cooking on the bottom of cast iron pan

Two days to make pizza calls for two days of blog posts.  Seems fair to me.  Yesterday I went over the process I used to make what I consider the ultimate pizza dough.  When we left off the dough was relaxing, fermenting, and possibly rising a very little bit in the refridgerator.  After its overnight stay there it has to be left to stand at room temperature for two hours (three is probably better if, like our apartment, you keep your kitchen around 17 degrees celsius).

I actually find this more annoying than having to make the dough the night before.  It seems more reasonable to expect me to predict, on Thursday say, that we are going to want to make pizza sometime over the weekend (remember that the dough can stay in the fridge for up to three days) than it is to expect me to have the forethought to pull the dough out three hours before we want to eat.  Ultimate recipes are hardly ever the most convenient though.

Marinated peppers ready to top a pizza

Marinated peppers ready to top a pizza

While the dough warms I turned my attention to toppings.  I have never been particularly enamoured with tomato sauce on pizza.  I’m just as happy with a healthy splash of olive oil and some caramelised onions but if the fancy for red sauce strikes (and it did for us) a can of tomatoes–whole make a marginally tastier sauce but take longer to cook, diced or even crushed are better for weekday meals–gently simmered with chopped garlic and oregano (or a good-quality italian herb blend) will definitely satisfy.

Other than the sauce I doubt I have to offer much direction on how to dress a pizza.  I guess the best advice is that when you go to this much trouble with the dough and the cooking process don’t overload your pizza with superfluous toppings.  Heed this advice if for no other reason than because a heavily-weighted pizza will be harder to slip off the peel and into the oven.  My only real breakthrough on this front was that thinly sliced peppers dressed with vinegar and lightly-crushed fennel seeds and left to marinate for twenty or so minutes tastes excellent on pizza.

Gently stretching pizza dough -- let it go where gravity wants to take it

Gently stretching pizza dough -- let it go where gravity wants to take it

Transforming the dough from a ball to a round was actually quite easy.  Flour your hands generously, form your fingers and thumbs into a point (like Italians do when they are going to kiss their fingers or as like a close-mouthed sock puppet),  pick the dough up and manipulate it so that it stretches evenly into a round.  The all white flour dough of the first time just started stretching itself amazingly quickly and all I had to do was rotate it a bit to keep it even.  The part wholewheat dough needed only slightly more encouragement.  Tossing the dough in the air is optional.  Don’t stress over getting a perfect circle because it is likely that you won’t be able to keep it that way when it is going into the oven.  Once you’re happy with your dough round put it on a wooden peel or inverted sheet pan that has been generously dusted with cornmeal.

Alright, now for the real meat of this process.  I got the idea for this amped-up pizza technique from the Paupered Chef and from their postat Serious Eats.  Its pretty straight foward: heat a 12″ cast iron skillet on high; meanwhile set your broiler to pre-heat on high; once the pan has been pre-heated on the stove (to a temperature closer to the ideal 800 degress F) the idea is that it gets flipped over, briefly heated, bottom side up, under the broiler; and the pizza is slid on top of the pan’s bottom side and then cooked under the broiler in less than ten minutes.  They do a better job of explaining things and I have not modified their technique very much at all so I strongly suggest you take a look at their posts.  They credit Chef Heston Blumenthal with developing the process.  The process is pretty unusual and I’ve now experimented with it twice so here are my suggestions and hints:

  • Your kitchen will become quite smoky while pre-heating the pan. The first time around find some way to get your girlfriend, or any roommates, out of the kitchen.  By the second time they’ll know that the suffering is worth it and will complain less.  Also, open a window.
  • The smoke is caused (I believe) by cure breaking down and smoking. If you are lucky enough to have one this is a good time to use your backup cast-iron skillet.
  • A dough this wet will desperately want to stick to your wooden pizza peel or inverted sheet pan. Sprinkling corn meal–the yellower and coarser the better, I find–on your delivery device helps.  Be generous with it, concentrate it particularly near the delivery edge, and replenish after each pizza goes in the oven.  There are a couple pictures in the first pizza post that might give a good idea of how much cornmeal to use.
Hanging over the side of the cast iron pan

Hanging over the side of the cast iron pan

  • An upside-down cast iron pan is a small (and blazing hot) target. About half the time some pizza hung over the edges of the pan.  This was bad because it scattered toppings on the oven floor so I would recommend placing a sheet pan on another rack to catch anything that falls.  Also, keep your pizzas on the small side to be safe.  On the other hand this overhang unintentionally created “shoulders” near the edges of the poorly-aimed pies that were crispy and extremely tasty.  If you think you can accurately hang an inch over the sides without spilling toppings go for it.
  • The original recipe appears to use a drawer-style gas burner. I have never encountered one of these and have only ever used an electric top-of-the-oven broiler.  The recipe definitely works with this equipment but it will take slightly longer than the the minute and a half of the original.  Think in the six to ten minute range.  Pay close attention (don’t walk away) and check the bottom of the crust before removing from the oven.
  • The relevant oven rack should be set in the second position from the top. The top position is closer to the heat but in my oven this left only millimeters of clearance between bubbling cheese and a red-hot electric element–too close, trust me.

Ultimate Pizza Napoletana

Adapted from the Paupered Chef/Serious Eats post about broiling pizza
  • 3 balls of Ultimate Dough from my earlier post
  • sauce and toppings for three pizzas
Finished Pizza

Finished Pizza

  1. Remove the plate of dough from the fridge 2 – 3 hours before you want to eat.
  2. Turn the broiler on to high and heat for 20 minutes.  Heat a 12 inch cast iron skillet on medium-high to high for 8 – 10 minutes.
  3. Stretch the dough into a round using the tips of your fingers to hold it up off the counter and place it on a pizza peel or inverted sheet pan dusted with cornmeal.  Leave the other remaining dough covered while you stretch, top, and bake the first pizza.  Top the first pizza.
  4. Put the pan upside down under the broiler, on an oven rack in the position second from the top, to finish pre-heating for two minutes.  Put a sheet pan on a lower to catch any fallen toppings.
  5. Once the pan is fully heated and the pizza is topped carefully slide the onto the bottom of the pan and under the broiler.  Bake for 6  – 10 minutes.  You want the cheese to bubble and the bottom of the crust to be dark-golden brown.

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