By Shelora Sheldan
From deep dish to thin crust, wood-fired to grilled, pizza’s popularity shows no sign of abating. Making pizza from scratch is very satisfying. You have complete control over ingredients — it’s basically just a marriage of flour, yeast, salt and water. With a little patience for rising times, and if you let go of the notion that pizzas have to be perfectly round, you’ll be a budding pizzaiolo in no time.
How to “Do” Dough
Thin crust or deep dish? Your choice is as personal as your favourite toppings. There is much debate on what type of flour produces the best crust. Pizzeria Prima Strada uses very finely milled Doppio Zero (00) flour, one of the requirements for their Italian-certified Vera Pizza Napoletana status. Aficionados say this flour’s high protein content produces a very soft dough and crust, great for long and slow rises, and suitable for temperatures above 700°F.
For pizza Sundays at Fry’s Bakery, baker Byron Fry created his own blend of flours using Canadian heritage wheat varieties, some locally grown, some hand-milled on site. The freshness of the grains adds depth of flavour and a delicate natural sweetness.
Fry recommends finding locally milled whole-wheat flour, sifting off the bran, then blending it with Anita’s organic white flour at a 60/40 ratio. He also suggests making a sourdough or, failing that, to use 1/10th of the yeast recommended in a standard recipe and leaving it out overnight to ferment slowly. Both Fry’s and Pizzeria Prima Strada use a natural starter and a long fermentation process, which also develops a flavourful character, and a wood fire for toasty notes.
I’ve experimented with different flours for my dough. I found bread flour too stodgy whereas a recipe using whole wheat, cornmeal and unbleached flours in combination provided a nice texture and was easy to roll out. My old reliable recipe uses 100 per cent unbleached white flour with regular yeast, olive oil and salt, and it only takes a couple of hours from start to roll out.
Once the dough has risen, I punch it down and combine stretching and rolling it to the desired thickness and shape. I no longer worry whether it’s perfect. If you don’t want to make dough, pre-made flatbreads such as Indian naan or Mediterranean pita breads are easy to work with.
For home cooks, the addition of olive oil to the dough creates crunch and flavour. Emily Lycopolus of Olive the Senses makes pizza once a week and adds extra gusto with many of the store’s fused and infused oils. Her favourites include basil, Tuscan herb and garlic-infused oils, and the fiery Baklouti green chili oil.
A hot oven is also key for pizza success. The recently opened 900° Wood-Fired Pizzeria features an Italian Ferrara oven, which heats to the titular 900° Fahrenheit. Owner Adrian Ortiz-Mena says because pizza is essentially cooking fresh bread with moist toppings, the higher temperature and fast cooking time ensures the pizza won’t be soggy. Of course, without an oven that can heat beyond 500° F, restaurant-quality pies are often out of reach for home cooks.
But there are ways around it. Affordable pizza stones, available in round, square and rectangular shapes, produce a quick and even bake to the crust. Simply heat the stone at the highest setting in the oven, while you prepare your pies.
I use a pizza stone at home with great results; I’ve also made pizzas over a charcoal grill. The key is to have hot coals only on one side of the grill. Once you lay the dough on the hot grill for a minute or so, flip it and transfer to the non-coal side.
The toppings are then laid on in reverse: a slick of olive oil, cheese, meat and, lastly, tomato. Quickly transfer the pizza to the hot side of the grill again and within minutes it’s done. There are also grill stones made especially for barbecues and box “ovens” for larger grills.
First, the sauce. A good tomato sauce base begins with good tomatoes. Quality canned varieties are fine, especially Italian San Marzanos — another important ingredient for VPN status pizzerias. I buy them canned and whole, then hand-squish them and cook them down with a sprig of basil and a glug of olive oil. And you don’t always have to include tomato sauce! White pizza, or pizza bianca, might seem sparse, but it’s equally delicious. One of my favourite combinations is freshly chopped rosemary in tandem with sliced cooked potato. A drizzle of good olive oil, salt and a snowy topping of fresh Parmesan is all that’s needed.
When it comes to toppings, anything goes, from traditional Italian — think classic pizza Margherita — to local and seasonal ingredients. Here’s the key: don’t overload the pie with toppings; you want everything to cook evenly. Par-cooking helps in the case of ingredients like caramelized onions and sauteéd mushrooms. Your toppings, including cheeses, should be at room temperature.
The Secret Ingredient
I asked Cristen DeCarolis Dallas, co-owner of Pizzeria Prima Strada, to tell me the hallmarks of a great pizza. “My short answer for all pizza,” she says, “is a passionate commitment to quality ingredients and a willingness to take the time to make the best product you can.”
And that, as they say, is amore!
Easy Pizza Dough
Courtesy of Shelora Sheldan
Makes approximately two 10-inch or four 6-inch pizzas
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1 envelope active dry yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 4 cups unbleached white flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cups cold water
- 1 tbsp olive oil
In a bowl, add the warm water, yeast and salt and stir to combine. In a food processor, mixer, or by hand, add flour, salt and stir to combine. Add the yeast mixture, cold water and oil. Mix until a ball is formed (careful not to overwork the dough!). Scrape dough onto a lightly floured counter and knead for several minutes until dough is smooth. Place dough in oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature for about one hour.
Punch down dough, divide into two or four balls and let rise for another 30 minutes.
Heat up pizza stone in a 500°F oven. Stretch out dough and quickly roll out to form pizza crusts — don’t worry if they’re not a perfect shape. Place on a piece of parchment or pizza paddle. Add toppings. Place on top of hot stone and bake until golden, about 10 minutes.
- Fresh greens like arugula, basil or baby spinach contribute a lively note. Add them just before serving along with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Grilled zucchini or eggplant paired with sliced black olives, roasted garlic, feta and fresh oregano.
- Sautéed leeks and roasted red peppers paired with crumbled fennel sausage, sliced ripe tomatoes and ricotta.
- Ready-made rotisserie chicken, shredded and paired with roasted, peeled Anaheim or poblano peppers, or sliced pickled banana peppers, along with queso fresco, a fresh cheese with a salty-sour kick.
- Duck confit, shredded, sautéed onions, just-wilted spinach and an egg on top. Add grated Parmesan and freshly cracked pepper just before serving.
- Roasted sliced pears with gorgonzola blue cheese and walnuts.