Monday, October 5, 2009

You can't have a pizza without a crust

Making fresh dough isn’t as easy as opening a wrapper or cracking into a cardboard tube, but it does have its rewards. Mixing flour and water is ancient custom, one of the earliest ways human beings fed themselves. The heady scent of developing yeast and burgeoning dough is an almost primal connection to the past.

It’s also a great way to introduce kids to the kitchen while throwing in a little science and math for good measure. What makes powdery flour and warm water turn into a satiny elastic? How does dough rise? How do you double a recipe to make two pizzas instead of just one?

But dough isn’t all there is to a good pizza. To cover the basics in full, you’ve got to have the sauces, the spices, and some of the other things that any good pizza chef knows inside and out.

Simply Splendid Pizza Dough

I would like to pretend that this is my recipe. I can’t. It’s my husband’s. It really had to be. Matthew is so Italian he bleeds olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and if a crust isn’t up to snuff, he has no problem picking off the cheese and pepperoni and leaving the bread lonely on the plate. Let that be a lesson to you. While good toppings can cover a mediocre crust and give you a great meal, a great crust is the first step in something that’s truly wonderful.

1 envelope active dry yeast
½ c. hot water
½ c. milk
2 t. sugar
1 T. butter, melted
3 c. bread flour
1 ½ t. salt

Place yeast in bowl. In a glass measuring cup, combine hot water, milk, sugar and butter. Pour over yeast and mix gently. Allow to sit about five minutes or until yeast is developed and creamy. Add half of the flour and all of the salt, stirring until thoroughly combined. Add remaining flour a spoonful at a time, kneading by hand until dough is thick and tacky. Continue kneading for at least two minutes. Dough should be smooth and stretchy when ready.

Drizzle dough with oil. For truly Italian flavor, use extra-virgin olive oil, but any vegetable oil will do. Use a couple tablespoons, enough to lubricate the dough and the bowl. Set aside for about an hour, or until dough has doubled in size.

If you are not ready to bake, the dough can be wrapped and refrigerated for up to two days.

When you are ready to get baking, let your dough come back to room temperature. By hand, pinch and pull your dough into the same basic size and shape as your pan with a heavy lip around the edge. A round metal or stone pizza pan is your best choice, but the final decision will have an impact on how your crust turns out, and how long it takes to cook.

On a metal pan, crusts will cook to a chewy, doughy turn in about 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees. For a firmer or crisper crust, push that a little further. The best way to judge whether a fresh dough crust is done is to check the lip for desired doneness, then use a spatula to lift the pie off the pan and check the color and doneness of the bottom. As a rule, if the bottom of the crust is golden brown, the inside will be perfectly cooked.

On a stone pan, cooking time will actually be lower, if you place your pan in a cold oven and bring up to temperature as the oven preheats. This means you have to form your crust on another surface and slide it onto the hot pan. My favorite way of doing this is to use a cookie sheet (a pan without sides, not to be confused with a sheet pan that has shallow sides like a cake pan) dusted with corn meal to allow the crust to slide easily. This can take a little practice and may result in some abstract, free-form pizza shapes. Don’t worry about it. They still taste good.

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