Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Bleak Midwinter Pizza Festival (and Sourdough Pizza Crust)

** We linked to this post over at The Healthy Home Economist.  You should be sure to check out Sarah's great blog! **

Every year, in the middle of the winter (or early spring, if we're busy like this year) we hold the Bleak Midwinter Pizza Festival here in Cape Girardeau.  A few families get together, and we make pizza and play games to fight off the chill.  I always try something a little unusual -- this year it was a pizza with a pesto base sauce, spinach, goat cheese, basil, and little dollops of red sauce.  It came out great!  I always make my pizzas on whole wheat sourdough crust, which for me is what turns regular pizza into the sort of transcendental experience that real food demands.

If you've never had a pizza on a sourdough crust, you are missing out on a whole new level of pizza enjoyment. The tang of the crust, the smoothness of the cheese and the slightly sweet, slightly acidic tomato sauce makes a perfect combination of flavors and textures.  Getting the crust to be crispy on the bottom, with a nice puffy border that has a chewy center but crisp outside is an art, but one that is easily mastered with a couple of tricks. I'd welcome any comments from other pizza makers out there if you have a different or better way to do it!

First, the dough:

Sourdough Pizza Crust (makes about 4  12-inch pizzas):
  1. 3.5 C organic whole wheat flour
  2. 1 C sourdough starter (how do I make this?)
  3. 1.5 tsp sea salt
  4. ~1.5 C water (adjust according to feel of dough)
First, mix two cups of the flour with the water and the starter. Do this the night before you want to make the pizza, so that it can ferment overnight and make a nice bubbly sponge. Cover the bowl (I use a lid from one of my pans that happens to fit) and forget about it until the next morning.

The next morning, when it's good and foamy, scoop a cup of it out to replenish your starter and add the rest of the flour and the salt. Mix it together until it is too stiff to stir with a spoon, then knead it for a couple of minutes, until it's smooth and uniform in texture. It will still be pretty sticky, and should be the consistency of a fairly soft bread dough.  Depending on your brand of flour, you will probably have to fiddle with the amount of water to get it just right.  If something goes wrong, just add a little flour or a little water at a time until you get it where you want it.  Cover the bowl again and let it rest for about four hours.

After it's had a chance to rest, give it a couple more minutes of kneading, then divide it into 4 or 5 pizza crust sized balls (each crust takes about 1 cup of flour, give or take) and put it them on the counter, spaced far enough apart to avoid touching when they grow by about half. Cover them with a damp flour sack or other light cloth, and let them rise for two or three hours.  It may also help to add an additional layer of dry cloth above the damp one to curtail evaporation.

Making the Pizza:

Put a layer of unglazed quarry tiles or a pizza stone on a rack in your oven and crank it up as high as it goes (usually 500 or 550 degrees). Give it a good half hour after it has reached temperature before you put the pizzas in to get the tiles hot. This is very important for the texture of the crust.

First, dust your peel with semolina, corn meal, or whatever you like and get it ready to accept the crust. You won't want to set the crust down anywhere but here after you get it shaped.

When it's time to make the pizza, gently take one of the prepared balls and press it into a small circle with a rim for the edge of the crust. I shape the rim first, so that I get what looks like a little sombrero, then I flatten the middle out somewhat before tossing.  Try to avoid smashing the rim, because if you can preserve some of the air bubbles in it your crust will rise much more in the oven. Also, less is more when it comes to handling the dough at this stage -- if it gets too "worked" it'll act like a spring and be impossible to toss properly.  Now it's time to toss it.

note the rim around the edge -- it helps make the "bowl"
Holding the crust on the backs of your hands with fingers bent in a gentle arc, toss the crust straight up with a little spin. Start small until you get the hang of it, then you can get bolder if you like. You'll want the crusts to be about a foot in diameter if your dough balls are about a cup each (so you'd have 4 of them in this case). Adjust the size accordingly, but your desired result is a circle with a very thin bottom (like 1/8") and a thicker rim (maybe 1/4").

easy as pie... pizza pie that is

When you place the crust on the peel to top it, it will shrink and thicken slightly -- don't worry about it. Don't worry about getting a perfect circle, that only happens in restaurants. If you get holes in the crust just pinch them together on the peel. Make sure you seal it, otherwise the sauce will seep through and make it stick to the peel. This generally ends in throwing toppings all over the inside of a 550 degree oven, and subsequently evacuating the house from the resulting smoke apocalypse.

Gently place the crust on the prepared peel, and top with homemade sauce, fresh mozzarella, and all the veggies and meats you like most. I'm particular to zucchini and fresh tomatoes on my pizza, but that's not going to happen in the middle of the winter so I'll probably be doing mushrooms and meats this time.

When you're ready to put it in the oven, give all the toppings a gentle press downward to consolidate them, then tap the side of the peel against your free hand to make sure the pizza is freely sliding. If it's not, you will be making smoke instead of pizza  (we seem to do this at least once for every pizza festival -- it adds to the atmosphere ;-) ).

Cleaning out the oven after the first miss...
The offending toppings
To get the pizza into the oven gracefully, open the door, put the peel in where you want the pizza to be, and give it a series of gentle but quick tugs backward. The pizza will start to slide off, and when it's about halfway you can just pull the peel the rest of the way out without shooting toppings everywhere. Alternatively, you can do the "swipe the tablecloth in one fell swoop" method, but I've never had a mess using the one I just described. Can't say the same for the more dramatic approach...

Try to make this process as quick as possible so as to avoid losing too much heat from the oven. After you've got the pizza on the tiles, close the door and give it 10-12 minutes to cook. When the cheese starts to brown and the crust is nice and toasted, pull it out.

Now's the time for a nice fresh basil chiffonade, some crushed red pepper, and some fresh grated parmesan or similar cheese. Let the pizza rest for a couple of minutes before slicing, both to make it slice better and to save yourself from the seemingly inevitable burned mouth. In my opinion, these are the best pizzas to be had anywhere, and they're easy to make!  I promise the instructions make it sound way harder than it really is.

If you have extra crust dough leftover, just slash the tops and chuck them in the oven for some nice quick sourdough hearth loaves:

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