Cheese First vs. Sauce First

Sauce first, then cheese first. Completely different results. Both delicious.

I made these two pies over the weekend with the exact same ingredients yet the first was topped with sauce followed by cheese and the second started with cheese and sauce came last. They look and taste completely different! Starting with sauce makes sense because pizza began as a peasant food and the high cost of cheese made it more of a garnish than a main event. As costs decreased, cheese proportions increased and became what we see today as a typical “New York Style” pizza. But cheese is a great base because it protects the crust from getting gummy.

I love doing cheese first because it melts right onto the crust and you get little to no cheese drag: when your bite pulls a blanket of hot molten mozzarella off the slippery surface of a saucy pie directly onto your clean face and shirt. It also means that the surface sauce is more susceptible to evaporation, so it tends to thicken and sweeten. This order is sometimes referred to as tomato pie, as at Delorenzo’s in Trenton, NJ, but it’s also the preferred method at New York joints like John’s on Bleecker Street, Sam’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, Arturo’s in Greenwich Village and Totonno’s on Coney Island.

600g flour (I used Pillsbury bread flour for this batch)
396g water
13g salt
6g dry yeast

Starting with the water (room temp), add yeast then flour. Mix in salt and fully incorporate all ingredients. Give it a few minutes to rest while you check the mail and then knead it until smooth and springy. Cut into 4 even pieces and round into balls. Store for 1-3 days in sealed container inside refrigerator. I used mine after 2 days and it was lovely but I bet it would last 5 if push came to shove.

If you want to get a bit more depth, you can mix together 50g or flour and 50g water plus a pinch of yeast (~1g) 10-12 hours before making your dough. I did that before heading out to do a pizza tour, then when I came back 10 hours later the mixture had more than doubled in size. (Room was 71 degrees F so a warmer room will rise faster, cooler room rises slower.) I added this mixture to the remaining ingredients in the recipe (550g more flour, 346g more water, 5g yeast) and continued with the process. This allows for some fermentation to occur in advance with just about a minute of prep time. There’s no salt in the preferment because it slows down yeast fermentation. I did this preferment for the crust you see in these photos. It would be more effective if you could have tasted it. Not as much flavor as using a starter, but still really tasty. 

Where the Buffalo Roam

This is the second post in a series about my recent trip to Italy.

I can’t believe I overslept. It’s hard enough to arrange private farm visits from across an ocean (Italians and Americans have a very different idea of scheduling), so when my travel buddy / fellow pizza enthusiast Jason shook me awake just fifty-four minutes before our train was scheduled to depart I felt like my carefully orchestrated plan to visit a buffalo farm was destined to crumble. With only two trains from Naples to Capua and a five hour interval in between, failure was not an option. All thanks to Jason and none to my Radio Shack travel alarm clock, we rushed to the station only to find that the train was delayed 25 minutes. Crisis averted, we made it to Capua and met our guide for the day, Luigi Stabile, whose family has been in the buffalo biz for over two hundred years.

The Asian water buffalo, not to be confused with the North American buffalo.

Luigi’s father Nunzio started A.B.C. (Coop Allevatori Bufalini Casertani) in 1978, along with Onofrio Piccirillo and Salvatore Caterino, just as the buffalo mozzarella market was beginning to expand around the globe. They immediately started exporting buffalo mozzarella to the United States, becoming the first company to do so. Most Americans are familiar with mozzarella as a cow’s milk cheese, but the word mozzarella traditionally refers to that which is made of buffalo milk. The term fior di latte is used for mozzarella made from cows’ milk.

Luigi told us that buffalo have been in Italy for nearly 700 years and their milk was being used to make fresh cheeses before cows were even on the scene. Thinking back, I did not see a single cow during my stay in Southern Italy. That’s probably because buffalo are more suited to the climate of the region. Unfortunately, buffalo produce only a quarter as much milk as a cow, which makes this cheese more expensive. 

Our adventure in buffalo land began with a tour of one of the 15 farms that provide milk for A.B.C. We saw everything from the grazing fields to the baby buffalo birthing area to the milking room to the storage and delivery area.

Top row: All the ladies want to be in Jason’s photo; baby buffalo daycare
Bottom Row: Jason absorbs information in the milking room; small storage tank for lower Winter yield, larger tank for Summer yield.

After spending some time on the farm, we headed to A.B.C. headquarters for a look at the production facility. The day’s milk had already been processed, so we were privy to a full view of the facility without getting in anybody’s way. After being pumped through a filter, all the milk gets pasteurized and heads into the central production area. The overall process is as simple as heating and curdling the milk, melting the curds, stretching until protein bonds develop, and finally shaping and cooling. You can do it on a small scale at home, but these guys and gals are producing tons of it every day. Home cheese makers usually introduce an acid (lemon juice or vinegar) to help curdle the milk quickly, but A.B.C. lets the process happen naturally with the use of a byproduct of the previous day’s production, known as serum.

Top row: Pasteurization gear; Jason learns the ropes
Bottom row: Sneaking a quick snack; A.B.C.’s sweet batch of serum

After a full overview of the process, it was time to chow down on some fresh mozzarella, ricotta, and butter - all made on site from fresh local buffalo milk. We learned about the difference in texture and moisture content between the different sizes and shapes of mozzarella; the smaller the piece of mozzarella, the lower the moisture content. All you need is a nice loaf of bread, some cured meats and a bottle of local wine and you’re good to go!

Top row: Fresh ricotta; mozzarella
Bottom row: Jason documents bocconcini; enjoying an espresso with my new pal, A.B.C.’s director Maurizio Spataro.

That was some delicious cheese indeed and I cannot overstate the degree of freshness we encountered. But most of us will be purchasing our mozzarella di bufala at groceries and markets in the US several days after it is produced in Caserta. There are some subtle differences between the product purchased in Italy and the product exported to the US. First of all, mozzarella gets shipped to the US packed in plastic bags that are filled with the brine in which it is produced. The cheese is then sold by the bag rather than being sold by weight as it is in Italy. This is why export mozzarella is shaped uniformly by forming rolls whereas cheese made for domestic sale is largely produced by hand. It’s just too difficult to be consistent while forming mozzarella by hand, so A.B.C. prevents angry phone calls from distributors by creating a uniform product.

The forming rolls pull the cheese tighter, which helps maintain interior moisture levels and fortifies the cheese in shipping. Luigi also explained that shelf life is extended to nearly 30 days because export mozzarella contains less salt than domestic batches. According to A.B.C., a higher salt component would damage shipping bag and promote spoilage. That’s probably not the best idea for a product that takes 4-10 days alone just to reach US shores.

A.B.C. is based in Caserta, one of Italy’s two mozzarella di bufala producing regions. You can read about mozzarella from the area south of Naples in my post about two companies I visited in Paestum in 2009.

Say Cheese!

So I’ve noticed a pattern with myself lately. After reading a couple books about tomatoes, I ordered some seeds online and planted a tomato garden in my backyard. Then I read some books about oven construction and thermodynamics only to readjust the heat strategy in my home oven (I’ll explain that in a future post). Well last week I was trying to figure out what book to read (just finished Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families) when something magical happened. Immortal Milk by Eric LeMay arrived in my mailbox to answer my pizza-related reading needs.

Eric was on a pizza tour last month but he kept silent during all of our discussions about cheese. He’s an incredibly smart guy to keep his true identity a secret because I would have assaulted him with questions for the bulk of the tour had I known. Instead, he waited until the conclusion of the tour before he casually mentioned “I had a really great time. Oh, and I just wrote a book about cheese. I’ll have to send it to you.” And send it he did.

I have a few cheese guides and books about cheese history but Immortal Milk falls into an entirely different category. It’s a memoir of personal discovery through cheese. Eric begins the book with a comparison of the words “expert” and “enthusiast.” I was sold from the start because, like Eric, I am lulled to sleep by experts who merely site facts and figures without mention of context or personal involvement. His book chronicles trips to cheese shops around the globe in search of significant cheeses.

The book weaves travel stories with in-depth research about all things cheese - including a terrific chapter about why we call things “cheesy.” Eric’s humor is right up my alley, so I had a lot of fun reading his milky musings. He also brings in the experiences of his travel partner and wife “Chuck,” whose final chapter recommends pairings that compliment particular types of cheese discussed throughout the book.

Two amazing things happened after I read Immortal Milk. First, I found myself in Choice Greene, an incredible specialty food shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. They have a great selection of cured meats and quality cheeses, so I poked around and found a couple cheeses I had never tried before but were mentioned throughout the book. I finally tasted Comte, a French cow’s milk cheese that carries AOC protection (same thing as Italy’s DOP certification). It’s so creamy and mild, I’m surprised I haven’t tasted this on a pizza. Comte has an extremely versatile flavor, although not incredibly exciting on its own. I bet it would be nice on a pie with pear and walnuts! Choice Greene also has Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh mozzarella if you’re looking for standard pizza fare.

The second incredible cheese discovery happened at Pizza A Casa, the Lower East Side’s incredible pizza school. Owner Mark Bello had recently returned from the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center and he was showing me some mozzarella making kits he found at one of the booths. This is exactly what I was looking for, as Eric’s book made my brain-gears spin into motion about how cheeses all start out as milk but end up as any one of thousands of flavors. So I took the mozz kit home and went to work.

The kit has everything you need to make fresh mozzarella except for a gallon of milk and the entire process takes only 45 minutes. I learned a lot by making a batch of cheese but it made me think about how many simple homemade foods have become gourmet rarities. Mozzarella is a cheese intended for home preparation and home consumption, so it only shows how the tables have turned when this simple process becomes a novelty.

Visit Pizza A Casa for your own mozzarella making kit or for classes on home pizza making.