At my bridal shower, one of the activities that had been planned was for each woman in attendance was to bring a written copy of a favourite recipe as a gift, to assist in building a repetoire of recipes for daily meal prep. My mother in law, a woman who truly walked to the beat of her own drum, chose not to write me a recipe card. In lieu of the card she wrote in the guest book that Chris had two favourite foods; pizza and lasagne.
My husband, could eat pizza every day. He has no qualms about hiding leftover pizza in the fridge where no one else can find it so he can claim it for breakfast the next day. For Chris, pizza is the perfect food. To date, together we have been on this eighteen year quest to find our perfect pizza dough and topping combinations.
Learning to cook pizza, then smoke pizza on the Joe became the eighth deadly sin in our household and one we can not turn away from. The Kuchciak house pizza was inspired by my favourite meal Cochinita Pibil. In essence Yucatacan pulled pork, wrapped in banana leaves and then smoked on the Joe for a day. The pizza has a marninara sauce which is topped with shredded gruyere cheese, small dollops of pibil, raw red onions and small dollops of Mexican crema. Topping combinations are easy, you are as limited as the leftovers in your fridge.
Pizza dough is another matter. We have tried everything from simple bread doughs, to Jamie Olivers take on pizza to Heston Blumenthal’s twelve page dissertation on making the perfect pizza and everything in between. Yes, toppings are easy, but pizza dough is deceptively temperamental and I personally had yet to find a formula that left me satisfied and one I could stick with.
Something is always missing, something always goes wrong. My personal preference is a dough that is thin, crispy on the exterior but pillowy/marshmallowy on the interior. I want my dough to taste like something not just like bread. I like big burnished brown borderline black bubbles on the surface of my cooked pizzas and I love to see the structure of bubbles on the inside.
Quarantine has had me thinking about how to achieve the perfect pizza dough. I stopped looking at recipes on-line that had thousands of five star votes. I started to think about actual pizzaiolo’s who make their living, making pizza. Would it not be a better idea to learn how the masters make their dough from it’s city of origin Naples, Italy? After a little research I settled upon a book Mastering Pizza written by an Italian American chef, who was classically trained in Italy, Marc Vetri.
The first 57 pages of the book are devoted to quality of ingredients, with an entire chapter on grains alone. I was impressed. I am at the stage in my cooking career where I deeply care about the quality of food I prepare to nourish myself and my family. My daughter Emily and I both have gut issues so quality of products and long fermentation is critical to me…long fermentation means that I am not curled up in the fetal position with a hot water bottle after eating bread. Our world is fast, too fast, I like slow, things that take time usually mean they are made with love and I am all about love. Most of Marc’s formulas are three day preparations…if you are saying uggh! three days to prepare…it is three to four days of maybe ten minutes of your time each day. My first shot at his Naples dough at 60% hydration exceeded all of my expectations. I also know without equivocation that I can stop looking for pizza dough formulas. My search, our search has come to an end.
Chris, my husband cringes when he sees me with a new book. I will be candid, I have a book problem, like some women have a problem with shoes, clothes, lipstick or trips to the beauty parlour. I covertly purchase my books, hide them for a little while and when he asks, “Where did you get that?” I usually say, “I have had it for a while.” or, “My dad bought it for me.” My dad has a book problem too, so he understands…we collude. For my priestly friends reading this, yes I need confession. This time, Chris caught me with my new tome and as I tried hard to hide the spine in my blanket he grinned and did his trademark belly rub in anticipation of good eats to come. He playfully whispered in my ear that I am his “Pizza Angel” and sat beside me interested in the where to begin and most importantly when he might expect to nosh on his favourite food.
May 11, 2020 took five minutes of time to put together the starter. This was left at room temperature for 24 hours.
May 12, 2020. So this is Jean Claude. Jean Claude happily burbled and bubbled away for 24 hours. He smelled great when I took the plastic wrap off the bowl, yeasty, sour and just scrumptious. I named him Jean Claude because after another addition of water, flour, yeast, salt and 14 minutes of mixer time, I finished kneading him by hand. He was cool, very smooth and suave under my palms and a complete gentleman. He reminded me very much of the beginning of a love affair. Jean Claude was a darling because I could knead him successfully with the slap and fold method, which is my favourite method to knead. He had the same feel as brioche does and brioche has the most posh feel under the palm. He was resilient at first but became elastic after much kneading. Jean Claude cooled off in the fridge and slowly ferment for another 24 hours.
May 13, 2020, Jean Claude was divided into 5 equal portions, shaped into taught dough balls, placed on a baking tray covered in parchment paper and dusted with flour. The tray was tightly wrapped in cling film and put in the fridge for another 24 hours of fermentation.
May 14, 2020, baking day. I took Jean Claude out of the fridge at 13:00. I placed on my dining room table two sheets of parchment, liberally dusted with flour. The shaped dough balls were cold so removing them from the sheet pan was easy and they did not degass. My goal was to let the dough balls come to room temperature and rise without touching each other. I loosely covered them with plastic wrap and left them alone until 16:00
May 14, 2020 at 16:00. I prepared my toppings for five, 10-12 inch round pizzas. Chris heated our Joe to 600 degrees. The first two pizzas were for Sarah and Matthew and were just simple pepperoni and cheese. To shape the dough was amazing, so easy. My technique is to try not to degass the dough while gently stretching it over the backs of my hands and fists.
Baking pizzas can be done one person alone, but it is far easier if two work together. Chris heated the Joe to 6oo degrees. Once the Joe was at temperature he added two chunks of soaked pecan wood to gently add a layer of smoke flavour. While the crust does pick up some smoke flavour it is the cheese that is most effected and that effect is delicious. Each time the lid is opened, the Joe loses heat so our pizzas were perfect after 8 minutes of cooking and our temp started around 550 and finished at 600 once the lid was closed.
Once Sarah and Matthew’s pizzas were sorted we baked off two steak, onion and pickled pepperoncini pizzas for Chris. My cheese mix for all our pizzas was a 50/50 combo of caciocavallo (sheep milk,) and parmigiano reggiano (cow milk).
The final pizza was for Emily and I to share. We are both fish heads and fish is amazing on pizza. My soul sister Nika shared a pic of a Casar salad she had made earlier in the week and it looked delicious so I attempted to re-create a Caesar on a pizza and it was amazing. I used extra garlic in my marinara, then topped the pizza with Chico Pico sardines (I was out of anchovies), pickled pepperoncinis, and onions.
Once the pizza was cooked I topped the pizza with a dressed caesar salad and a raw egg yolk. Heaven on earth, yes it was. We all agreed that the search for the perfect pizza dough has come to an end, it ticked all the boxes, crispy, cruchy exterior that shattered when I ran the mandoline through it and pillowy, flavourful interior that took so very little time to prepare. The children and I each had a large slice. When we finished our slice, we simply left my husband to to happily dine in a silent retreat. I will not embarrass him by divulging the number of slices he consumed.
We will have pizza in the week ahead and we will explore Vetri’s Roman dough and freezing portions of doughfor later use. I am especially looking forward to giving calzones a try. I will leave you with the immortal words of Larry the Cucumber from Veggie Tales…”Pizza angel, please come to me, tomato sauce and cheese so goooey. Pizza angel, I’m on my knees and don’t forget to add my fav’rite anchovies!”