Thursday, 9 October 2008

Pizza I: Dough

Early this August, I went with my mother to stay with my sister and her family, who live in the Midlands. My sister shares my mother's and my fascination with cookery books, and incidentally is in her final year of training to be a dietician (i.e. a medical nutritionist - not some phoney qualification, but rather a 4-year degree, including hospital placements). She also shares my dream of a rural house, big kitchen, a garden in which to grow as much of our own produce as possible, and a assortment of animals. In fact, although she lives in the suburbs, she has kept chickens on and off for some years, and grows a small range of vegetables and fruits, rather more conscientiously than me. But I digress.

I baked a fair bit while I was there - she was working at the hospital, whereas I stayed home with my mother to look after one or both of the kids (hyperactive youngsters). My sister showed me a new bread book she had acquired, and I worked from it, mostly making rolls, which must have been at least edible, as I baked up to a dozen a day (making dough at 7am on occasion, the resultant virtuous feelings not quite making up for the utter exhaustion later on).

In fact, it was she who started me off on the bread path a good few years ago. My sister discovered a few years ago that she has an intolerance to wheat gluten, and although she enjoys bread very much, she decided to avoid it as much as possible. She had a wonderful book, the World Encyclopedia of Bread and Breadmaking, which belongs to a series of equally good books covering subjects such as coffee, cheese, and potatoes, but gave it to me, since she would henceforth have little use for it. So I took it to university, and started baking, and my life (or at least, my attitude to bread) has never been quite the same since.

What does this have to do with pizza? Ah, well, although we don't tend to think of it as such, pizza is just a special kind of bread. For some reason, even in Italian cookery books, it is often treated separately to those other, similar, breads, such as foccacia - but the line between a foccacia, topped with oil, cheese, olives, and herbs, and a pizza, is slim. (I'm glad to see that the Wikipedia article on foccacia is 'part of a series on pizza', however). Well, my sister decided to make pizza, and as if to highlight its bready nature, made a standard batch of dough. She then simply flattened it out and covered it with appropriate toppings. It was delicious.

When I came home, I decided to replicate this, and since the end of August, I must have made pizza a dozen times or more. The case for pizza is strong: they're very cheap (see the end of the article below), very tasty, fairly quick, and very adaptable (the only case against is that I did get a bit sick of them after three days of pizza in a row one week). Here's how I make them:

First, the dough. The primary recipe for dough I've used is one I brought back from my sister, from her new book. The book is Dough, by Richard Bertinet, and although I don't totally agree with everything he says, I do very much like his simple white bread recipe:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 350g water
  • 10g yeast
  • 10g salt

The first thing that stands out about this recipe is that the water is weighed, rather than measured by volume. This is actually quite revolutionary, and absolutely brilliant. It is, as he states, far more accurate (a standard measuring jug works in maybe 25ml gradients, or even as much as 100ml, and it's very difficult to be accurate even to tens of millilitres), but it is also less messy - you just weigh everything in the same bowl. The previous statement is dependent on the yeast, of course. I must admit, I have never used fresh yeast, although I very much want to, if only from curiosity. I accidentally bought yeast granules a few weeks ago - they look like tiny bobbles. This was a mistake, as they must be dissolved in (warm) water before using, or they won't mix fully into the dough. The best type of yeast, for everyday use, is the fine, 'powdered' type (it looks like tiny cylinders, the shape of hundreds-and-thousands, but much smaller, and remind me of bacilli). This can be mixed straight into the flour, and works straight away. If you use this, you only need the one bowl.

Okay, anyway, so you mix the four ingredients together, work the dough together with your hands, and knead with extra flour, until it forms a smooth ball that won't stick readily to your hands. The more you work the dough, the better, but I am lazy and generally mess around with it for about 5 minutes. Oil the bowl (extra virgin olive oil is my preference), cover either with cling film or a damp towel, and leave somewhere warm until it has doubled in volume. Then, break into pieces, flatten and stretch them on a non-stick or oiled baking sheet, and then add the toppings.

At this point, I should mention a few things. First, strong wholemeal flour can be substituted into the recipe, although I would caution against using 100% wholemeal, as the texture would not be 'pizza-like' enough, but it's a matter of taste, I suppose. The white flour can be '0' or even '00', which is usually reserved for pasta making; it will give a smoother result. Second, the thickness of the pizza base can be varied - another great advantage of making from it scratch. I prefer thin, so when you stretch the dough out, you don't leave it to rise again, and the above amount of dough will make four large, or perhaps six smaller bases. If you want a thicker base, you might only get two large pizzas from this quantity of dough, and you'd do well to leave it to rise a second time, until it reaches the desired thickness. In this case, cover again and place somewhere warm. Finally, if you want to flavour the dough, you could add a little cheese, something like parmesan that is strong but won't alter the texture of the dough too much, or paprika, basil, or maybe even a little pesto. To be honest, though, I don't think it's noticeable, especially if there's plenty of topping.

I have on occasion used a second recipe. This is a bit fussier, and to be honest isn't appreciably better, but it is more authentic, and if I wanted to impress, I'd probably go for this one. It's from Carluccio's Complete Italian Food:

  • 400g '00' flour (superfine, sometimes labelled 'pastry flour')
  • a pinch of salt
  • 35g fresh (he says brewer's) yeast
  • enough lukewarm water to make a soft dough

Now, obviously, I would subsitute in powdered yeast, probably a couple of teaspoons (I don't find you have to measure fast-acting yeast too carefully, once you get the hang of it). As for the water, just add some, and mix, then add more if you need to. The rest of the process is as above.

The biggest difference is the smoothness of the base, and the amount you can stretch it. The finer the flour, the more elastic the dough, and therefore the crispier you can make your bases. However, '0' and '00' flours are a little more expensive than standard strong flour, and you can't really mix in wholemeal as successfully, as the roughness of the latter will stand out more from the white in this case.

So that's the dough made, and shaped into bases. One last thing: I mentioned the cheapness of pizza as an advantage. Just talking about the bases, which are pretty much constant; a 1.5kg bag of flour can be bought for as little as 50-70p. From that, you can make 3 batches of 4 large, thin-based pizzas. One of these will probably satisfy a normal person (I tend to have two), especially served with salad, or as part of a larger meal. So, one large pizza base can cost as little as 6 pence, including the yeast, salt, and a tiny drizzle of oil.

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