If you asked me about making my own pizza around this time last year, my response would have been something along the lines of “I deal exclusively in O.P.P. or Other People’s Pizza.” To be fair, I knew that pizza making would lead me down a strange and mysterious path that would exponentially grow my pizza obsession, for better or for worse. I had plenty of excuses but the real reason was simple. I was afraid. Dough is so simple to make, yet endlessly challenging because of all the variables associated with its production. But once you get your hands on a good batch of dough, you just never go back.
The point of no return for me came in the form of a pizza making class I took at Pizza a Casa in the Lower East Side. It amazed me by simplifying the entire process into a form that was - both literally and figuratively - digestible. Fast forward ten months and now I’m experimenting with different dough hydration and yeast varieties. I have become exactly what I was afraid of and I couldn’t possibly be any happier.
I’ve made good batches and I’ve made bad batches, constantly in search of the perfect crispy-chewy texture and a salty-smokey flavor. Some batches would have the flavor while others would have the texture. I felt like I didn’t have control of anything and my life was in a tailspin — until my pal Brooks showed up with a batch of dough and an Ischia starter. WHAT THE HECK IS AN ISCHIA STARTER? That’s easy. Yeast is a fungus that floats through the air looking for a nice place to live and sometimes people build little yeast traps and put the little guys to work. The “nice place to live” can be a grape skin or apple peel and the trap is a cup half filled with a mixture of flour and water. Once the yeast start moving into their new watery-floury home, they get “put to work” on the fermentation plantation, where they feed on the natural sugars released by the reaction of water and flour and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol.
See those bubbles in the cup? Those are the product of yeast burps! Anyway, this bubbling goo is your “starter” and the particular one I am using came from an island off the coast of Naples called Ischia. Hence, ISCHIA STARTER. You can make a starter anywhere and name it as you wish. There’s an amazing step-by-step guide to starter cultivation on Slice. DO IT!
So what do these yeasty creeps have to do with pizza? Yeast is necessary for fermentation, which results in the gassy leavening of dough as well as flavor development thanks to bacteria and alcohol. It’s very easy to open a packet of yeast and pour it into your dough, but natural yeast forges an even closer bond between pizzaiolo and pizza. It also gives you a unique flavor that is often more developed than commercial yeast. You use this starter in the same way that you use a packet of yeast, but the measurements are not the same. I experimented with a recipe Brooks gave me and ended up making three batches of dough, each having a different amount of dry yeast. Here’s the winning recipe, which gave us a perfectly airy crust with rick flavor and a good dose of crunch.
595 g flour (I used King Arthur All Purpose)
381 g water (I used cold tap water)
91 g Brooks’s Ischia starter
1.5 g dry yeast
12 g salt
Mix those and let it sit for 40 minutes so the flour can fully hydrate. Then knead the dough for about 4 minutes and let it rest for 5 minutes before one last kneading session of roughly 3 minutes. Separate into four balls and store in sealed containers (just like the first picture above) on the counter for about two hours, then refrigerate until you’re ready to bake.
You can use the dough after letting it sit overnight, but I left mine for just over four full days (about 100 hours). I let it rise at room temperature for about 5 hours prior to baking and they were extremely soft and gooey. My pies didn’t come out all looking picture perfect, but the flavor and texture is by far the best I have ever made. Here are a few selections from last week’s pizza session. I just wish you could bite into your screen.
I’ll be talking about pizza on Discovery Science Channel’s new show BLAIS OFF tonight at 10 PM EST. The show features Top Chef’s Richard Blais, who re-engineers iconic foods with a scientific approach. Tonight’s premier features Patsy’s in Harlem, where Blais learns all about pizza before tinkering with the basics in his kitchen lab.
I made a crazy pizza last night that incorporates lots of ingredients I collected while on a foraging tour of Central Park with "Wildman" Steve Brill.
Here’s a breakdown of the most “local” pizza imaginable. Lamb’s quarters-laced ricotta cheese with field garlic and Jersey crushed tomato (not found in Central Park) topped with sheep sorel and finished with black nightshade-infused olive oil and a light dusting of sassafras root.
And here are some photos of the foraging/assembly of the pizza. First up is sheep sorrel, which has leaves that look like little sheep heads. They taste acidic, a bit like like lemonade.
These berries are in the nightshade family, so they are related to tomatoes. They grow wild in Central Park and have a sweet and tart flavor. It would be a great sauce if you could find enough of them, but it’s the end of the season so I could only grab five. In order to harness their flavor, I crushed them up and infused the flavor in some Coluccio and Sons Extra Virgin olive oil. The oil sat for about 12 hours and was used to dress the pie post oven.
This pie was a fun escape from standard ingredients and it actually tasted pretty damn good. Just be sure to consult a field guide before you go picking wild berries for your pizza!
Check out this stunning artwork by SPT alum Jolyn Parker. My jaw hit the floor when I opened the email containing this image. WOW!
Exactly eight weeks after our crack team of pizzaphiles and tomato enthusiasts congregated in my back yard to dive into the highly-controversial world of canned fruit studies, an even larger and hungrier gang gathered for round two. The weather was colder and the group of tasters was larger, so our venue was shifted into the Lower East Side’s cozy Pizza a Casa, a pizza (and now pasta) training center and supply store. After analyzing the method used for round 1, we tweaked the process a bit.
Here’s how the test went down. I brought unlabeled cans to Pizza a Casa for Mark and Jenny to distribute into identical serving boats. Prior to delivering the goods, I marked each can with a letter (A-O). Each serving boat was marked with the letter from its corresponding can.
Tasters were each given a unique tasting order, so no sample was relegated to the first or last position. We graded sweetness, acidity, texture, color and overall flavor on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. We tasted 15 samples but one tomato appeared twice to act as a control. Any tasting sheets whose findings for these two identical tomatoes were drastically different were ignored in the final tally. Two sheets were disregarded for this reason; one additional sheet was ignored because it didn’t have data for most of the tomatoes. This left eleven data sheets to be included in the final tally.
I have to admit, our roster of tasters has been really exciting for both taste tests but this round was incredible. Here’s the roll call:
Roberto Caporuscio (Keste)
JoAnne Ling (Scott’s Pizza Tours)
Brooks Jones (Me, Myself & Pie; Paulie Gee’s)
Mark + Jenny (Pizza a Casa)
Adam Kuban (Slice)
Rachel Cohn (author; tomato lover)
Louis Colluccio (Coluccio & Sons)
Megan (tomato lover)
Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza)
Michael Glazer (Pullino’s, Paulie Gee’s)
Michael Park (food writer)
Sara Bonisteel (food writer)
Al Santillo (Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth NJ)
I did not participate in the tasting because I already had too much interaction with the cans. The group was stacked with killer taste buds and pizza palates so I was content to let ‘er rip and wait to tally the results. It was funny to watch because everyone was so intense. These people were so focused it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to toss a whoopie cushion under somebody’s chair but I held back. Good thing too, or someone might have blogged that the tomatoes were giving them gas to save face.
The results of the test were super interesting because the two highest rated samples were both products of Canada. Crazy, I know. But it’s also heartwarming. Most probably expected the Italian tomatoes to come out on top, but that was not the case. Next time you’re in the canned tomato aisle of your local grocery store, keep your eyes peeled for Luigi Vitelli and give them a whirl. They scored highest in all five tasting categories and took home the prize for overall flavor. Way to go, Canada!
For the rest of the results of our taste test, check out the full writeup on Slice. It even has a link to the raw data so you can make your own observations. If you missed the results of Round 1, you can check those out on Slice as well.
The results of our first blind taste test of 16 canned tomatoes have been posted on Slice! We tried a variety of tomatoes from local grocery stores, supermarkets, pizzerias and restaurant supply stores. Tasters include Roberto Caporuscio (Keste), Adam Kuban (Slice), Brooks Jones (Me, Myself and Pie), Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza), Nick Sherman (Pizza Rules) and tomato researcher Erica Mole.