Monday, September 06, 2010

When the moon hits your eye...

Pizza seems to be the all-American food, despite its suspicious Italianate origins.

Something very similar to pizza was served as street food in Naples, where it was modified from the Greek idea of herbs, olive oil and a little bit of cheese on a flat bread; the Neapolitans added tomato into the mix and chowed on this for years. It wasn't until 1889, when the Royal Palace commissioned a special pizza in honor of visiting Queen Margherita, which was made in the colors of the Italian flag - red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella), and voilà (to add yet another country to this story), we have the basic cheese pizza, referred to in Italian as the pizza margherita.

(Bonus trivia time: technically, Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna of Savoy was only the Queen Consort to King Umberto of Italy, but nobody really cares about that. Also, the tomato was brought to Europe from America in the seventeenth century, but wasn't very popular after it arrived. Because it was a member of the nightshade family, they figured it was poisonous. But it grew easily in Italy, and became popular among the poor people in, for example, Naples. So there you go.)

Nobody can agree on when the pizza came to America first, but sometime, probably in the early twentieth century, Italian immigrants brought it to America, possibly to New York, or Chicago, or even possibly New Haven, Connecticut. But it's hard to tell, since 3.2 million Italians immigrated to the United States just in the first two decades, and several of them are claimed to be the first Pizza Guy.

But it actually took a while for pizza to catch on.
Food writers in the 1940s who were worldly enough to take note of the traditional Italian treat struggled to explain the dish to their readers, who persisted in imagining oversized apple-pie crusts stuffed with tomatoes and coated with cheese. “The pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew about it,” The New York Times lamented in 1947, illustrating its plaint with a photograph of a pie subdivided into dozens of canapé-sized slices.
But when it finally took off, it did so in a big way. The standard estimate (widely spread across the internet, so it must be right) is that Americans eat 23 pounds of pizza per person per year. As a group, we eat 3 billion pizzas every year - around 350 slices of pizza every second, or 90-100 acres of pizza per day. A $30 billion industry, with almost 62,000 pizzerias across the country.

And yes, there is a, to help you find pizza parlors in your area. (It has a couple of other pizza-related functions, incidentally. As you'd expect from "," I guess.)

While rankings vary depending on who compiles the list, pizza is usually pretty high on any list of "Favorite American Foods." Unless the word "homemade" is added to the title. And that's kind of a shame, because pizza isn't as difficult as some people think.

First, of course, you need the crust. We used to use Alton Brown's recipe, but this one is actually easier - it's modified from a recipe by Andrea Meyers. We have a KitchenAid stand mixer - you'll have to adjust if you're using anything else.

(By the way, you need some standard all-purpose flour for the gluten to give you a crust, but I haven't figured how much yet. The flour needs to add up to 2 cups, basically - you can go with 100% standard white flour if you want.)

Pizza dough

1 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (or 1 package of quick-rising yeast)
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
Stick them all in your mixer bowl with the paddle attachment, set at low, and add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 3/4 cup hot water.

(The yeast blooms better with a little warmth - not boiling, though. Tap water is fine. And you can use extra virgin olive oil or not. Nobody will notice.)

Once the dough comes together, switch out for the bread hook, and beat it on medium for just a minute to knead.

Lightly flour your work surface (cutting board, counter, whatever you want), take the dough (which should be a ball right now), and slap it down on the floured area. Oil one side of a piece of plastic wrap, and cover the dough. Let it rest for fifteen minutes (a half hour wouldn't hurt) while the yeast does its thing.

Once it's rested, preheat your oven to 500°, cut the dough in half, and deal with it. Two choices:

The easy way: Roll it out with a rolling pin. Make it round-ish. (The gluten won't really make a solid mesh, so it might fall apart on you a little. But you'll save time.)

The pizza way: Lightly flour your hands. Flatten the dough with your palms, then pick it up and hold it by the edge, rotating the dough in a circle. This stretches the dough and strengthens the gluten. Lay the stretched dough on a floured surface. Take that rolling pin again, and roll out the dough, rotating a quarter turn every couple of passes. Keep going until you have a 12" (or so) circle.

Somewhere between those two methods lies happiness. You'll have to judge exactly how much work you want to do.

(And to be honest, the true pizza auteur would eschew even that much rolling pin work, in favor of hand stretching - using your knuckles, press the pizza dough out in a rolling motion from the center and moving out, until it's about the thickness you want. It tends to be more amorphic than round, with the characteristic edge that marks a homemade pizza. If you're really into this whole thing, the traditional spinning is supposed to round the dough out with centrifugal force [although you'll lose a lot of dough until you practice]. Again, it all depends on how much work you want to do.)

You can do this on a cookie sheet, a pizza pan or peel (I agree with Alton Brown regarding unitaskers, though), or whatever you want to use. However, you need to dust it with cornmeal, or it's going to stick like duct tape.

Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until the edge is lightly browned; the bottom is usually done by that point.

Now, a couple of thoughts on the rest of the pizza:

• Spaghetti sauce is pizza sauce. Don't be fooled. If you like it on pasta, you'll like it on pizza.

• Too much sauce is a mistake. If you can't see most of the crust through a thin layer of sauce, everything's going to slide off on you. That's bad.

• The type of cheese doesn't matter. If you like it, run with it. Mozzarella is the standard, but I like adding a little bit of whatever cheese is around, for variety. Dust a little Parmesan on before adding the rest; feta isn't going to melt, so keep that in mind when you sprinkle it around; cheddar can overpower the pizza, so use half as much as you do mozzarella (unless you like cheddar). Just not too close to the edge, or it will melt off. And don't make it too thick (unless you like that) - remember, it'll be happy to slide off and mess up the oven.

• Some people like caramelizing the onions. I think it makes them too sweet - you lose too much onion flavor. I think you can just put them straight on; the Trophy Wife, on the other hand, prefers to sauté them (cook them at medium heat with just a little butter or oil) until they just turn translucent. Your choice.

• White pizza is not heresy. Sauté as much garlic as you want (start with four cloves - adjust later), add 3 tablespoons of flour, enough butter or oil to make a roux, add milk, simmer for a while, add more milk to loosen to roughly spaghetti sauce consistency.

• Precook the mushrooms. Trust me on this. If you put raw mushrooms on a pizza, they'll release a bunch of liquid, and your crust will be mushy. That's bad. Sauté them on medium (I like butter) until they release their liquid, and then darken just a little.

• There are no bad toppings, but round things roll off (and if you flatten beans, that's just ugly). I've had corn (don't go crazy - remember, rolling is bad), seafood (the tiny little squids adorning my trilingual pizza frucht de Mer in Trier nearly made my mother-in-law heave), spinach (chop reasonably fine and consider a white sauce instead of tomato), whatever you have lying around (for example, I like artichoke hearts). Just chop them to pizza-sized bits. The only rule is, the pizza is only as good as the toppings - bad sausage won't get better.

Pizza is easy. Life is hard.

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