Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Search of Pizza Perfection

If you love pizza, chances are, you already own a copy of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza by Peter Reinhart, an incredible single subject volume that not only surveys this master baker's favourite pizzerias from Naples to New York City, but offers a wealth of recipes and useful advice for anyone keen on replicating the quintessential pizza experience at home.

My favourite dough recipe from the book is the "Neo-Neapolitan Pizza Dough", which makes a thin crust that seems to stay crisp for longer than the "Napoletana Pizza Dough", thanks to the use of high gluten or strong bread flour rather than all-purpose. The Napoletana dough, of course, is the purist's choice (see S's meticulously annotated adaptation of this recipe). Both are great (as are the other 9 or so dough recipes in the book); it just boils down to a matter of personal preference. Part of the fun is trying them all so as to figure out what best suits your taste. In terms of equipment, if you don't own a baking stone or HearthKit, Peter Reinhart's nifty trick of using an inverted large, flat-bottomed cast-iron pan as a stand-in thermal mass works very well.

The latest dough recipe I've been tinkering with comes from In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal. If you're a huge fan of Family Food, you already know to expect that in order to follow one of his recipes you'll be jumping through hoops, but the results more often than not make the immense effort required worth the while. 8 classics (from roast chicken to steak) have been reinvented in the quest for perfection. Having tried his pizza dough recipe several times in the past month, I must say while it may not be everybody's idea of perfection, it sure brings you that much closer to understanding what perfection, if there is such a thing, might taste like. If you ask me, I think it tastes if not perfect - a term one hesitates to use given the stridently divergent schools of thought as to what constitutes a perfect pizza - then at least an instance of excellence. As does W, my resident pizza fascist, and just about the fussiest person I know when it comes to pizza (or anything else that counts as dinner, come to think about it).

Aside from good dough, the key to pizza greatness lies with heat - the EU pizza copyright proposal specifies an oven-surface temperature of 485°C and a cooking time of between 60 and 90 seconds! Your average domestic oven peaks at a far lower temperature (so the pizza takes longer to cook, which changes the character of the pizza, and not for the better), thus prompting Chef Blumenthal to amusingly recount the hoops he jumps through to buck his Gaggenau's top temperature, and how he manages to cut his baking time down to 90 seconds by inserting a cast iron pan (preheated over high heat for 20 minutes) into the preheated oven with the grill whacked on full, thus getting the heat above and below the pizza as hot and as even as possible. Which, of course, gives me yet another reason to lust after this top-of-the-line cooker - try as I might, my cantankerous oven peevishly refused to get sufficiently hot; my best baking time (with dutifully preheated cast iron pan in place) never got any speedier than 7 minutes.

Short of buying a new built-in oven - something I don't plan to do until we move from our tiny apartment - I would have to seek alternative recourse. Salvation came in the unassuming form of a large, round and red object - the self-contained pizza oven from G3 Ferrari. While it's unlikely to take pride of place on your countertop like say a beautiful stand mixer or dead sexy espresso machine would, it more than makes up for its utilitarian appearance with standout performance. I would go so far as to say with results this fantastic, I am prepared to relinquish any delusions I may have as to being an adherent of that overused Bauhaus mantra. This clamshell-shaped electric gadget has a built-in refractory firestone bed which not only delivers heat evenly but absorbs moisture from the dough, as well as a top heating element on the underside of the cover/lid to ensure the top of your pizza bakes at a similar rate to the crust - coordination of top and crust being critical to a pizza's success. At the highest heat setting, the temperature purportedly reaches a searing 470°C - I don't own one of those neat digital temperature guns that reads up to 500°C, and so had no way of testing this. What I do know is that once I got the hang of it, it consistently took all of 4 minutes to cook a pizza to magnificent doneness, thus shaving an impressive 3 minutes off my previous record with a conventional oven.

Back to the dough. While I can't vouch that my taste in pizza dovetails with yours, Heston Blumenthal's recipe certainly tasted like I am on the right path to pizza nirvana. The secret to its fantastic flavour is adding a proportion of pre-ferment - a small amount of dough left to ferment in the fridge for at least 12 hours - to a larger quantity of dough. The longer dough is left, the more its flavour develops. But the longer dough is left, the more the gluten relaxes and loses elasticity. The answer? Pre-ferment, prepared for flavour, mixed with dough that still possesses extensibility. Subject to the right heat conditions, the dough bakes into a light and crisp pizza crust with an airy, almost delicate interior structure, so full of creamy, bready, toasty flavour that you'll be eating that puffy, golden brown cornicione right down to the last crumb.

We're going away next week so this is my last post of 2006 - here's wishing everybody A Very Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

PS: If you reside in Singapore, the G3 Ferrari pizza oven can be found in the small but carefully edited selection of products available at the retail shop in Shermay's Cooking School. Also, the shop now carries Mario Batali's The Italian Kitchen range of tools (including this wonderfully-designed set of nesting prep bowls in funky melamine and this generously-sized dough separator/counter scraper, as pictured above).

28 Comments:

Blogger connie said...

i can't believe the 90 second baking time! nor can i believe that there is a pizza copyright proposal.

thank you though for this overview of pizza dough. there are so many varieties from pizza's various incarnations in different regions, but one thing rings true with every pizza no matter what funky stuff goes on top, the need for a good quality base.

8:48 pm, December 21, 2006  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Mmmm, pizza! Thanks for the overview - and a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours, Joycelyn!

12:21 am, December 22, 2006  
Anonymous veron said...

We also like thin crispy crust on our pizza. Our oven already has the pizza stone accessory. In fact one of the selection on the oven knob is "Bakestone". J, are those temperature settings you mentioned really Centigrade? Getting excited as I write this I have visions of the hubby twirling pizza dough in the air :) . Will check out the books you mentioned.Thanks!

3:24 am, December 22, 2006  
Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Happy Holidays!

- Chubbypanda

8:50 am, December 22, 2006  
Anonymous vanessa said...

judging by the look of the pizza dough....yumms!! Shall try it out!

Merry Christmas!

cheers!
Vanessa

11:40 am, December 22, 2006  
Blogger thepassionatecook said...

wow - this looks too good to be true. i also love my pizza thin and crispy and despite not possessing a pizza oven, i might just give this recipe a try... thanks for testing it for us!

5:51 am, December 23, 2006  
Blogger Swee said...

Merry Christmas !

7:57 pm, December 25, 2006  
Blogger shaz said...

merry christmas J!

11:29 pm, December 25, 2006  
Blogger chanit said...

Yummy !
Merry Christmas .

11:59 pm, December 25, 2006  
Blogger Sudipto said...

Where, oh where, can one buy a *reasonably priced* pizza stone in Singapore ?

After ChubbyHubby's amazing pizza with truffles post (http://www.chubbyhubby.net/2006/09/super-sunday-truffle-pizzas.html), I asked the same question and S recommended the Miele shop. I walked in and retreated in haste at the price tag ($390 !!).

So how ?

9:08 pm, December 26, 2006  
Anonymous Ellie said...

Ahhh - so THAT'S why people get pizza ovens! I'd wondered about them and what the difference was in the final product from those made in normal ovens!

9:15 am, December 27, 2006  
Blogger Tokyoastrogirl said...

My mouth is watering. Pizza with an egg is just about my favorite food. I wish I could see more photos....!! As always, perfection.

8:07 am, December 28, 2006  
Anonymous joey said...

Hope your Christmas was merry and wishing you a very happy new year!

Getting very excited reading this post as I got a baking stone this Christmas! :)

3:04 pm, December 29, 2006  
Anonymous peggy said...

Nice post about pizza! Thank you for your foodblog, I come to visit you very very often... It's always a great pleasure to read you.

Tantissimi auguri! bonne année!
ciao

peggy

3:24 am, December 31, 2006  
Anonymous peggy said...

Nice post about pizza! Thank you for your foodblog, I come to visit you very very often... It's always a great pleasure to read you.

Tantissimi auguri! bonne année!
ciao

peggy

3:25 am, December 31, 2006  
Anonymous Rob said...

That's fascinating. Thanks for such an in-depth look into pizza dough. I firmly believe that molecular gastronomy chefs are at their best when they apply the thrust of their knowledge towards conventional dishes. Every dish benefits from the judicious application of a little science. Kudos to Heston, and kudos to you for your efforts. A good pizza is a great thing!

1:48 pm, January 03, 2007  
Anonymous shalimar said...

the Swiss one went to UK and did a gastro tour with out me he went to Blumental resto, Rick Stein place in Cornwall and Manoir Quatre Saisons....

anyway am based here in Italy for the moment... was in Naples few time last summer and indulged in some great pizzas....

once I get home (with my new oven waiting...) might as well experiment blumentals way...

Happy New Year J... I will most likely to coming to your neck of the wood sometime.

8:22 am, January 06, 2007  
Anonymous Melissa said...

Happy New Year, J!

I do like Heston's new book, though I think he got a little carried away on some of the dishes. I would have appreciated it more if he had made them not only do-able but realistic! The pizza, however, definitely caught my eye, and I'm delighted to have your take on it. Not to mention, I am furiously trying to track down one of those Ferrari pizza ovens here - how brilliant!

12:34 am, January 11, 2007  
Blogger Jeanne said...

What a fascinating post - and your pizzas look *amazing*! I am a total sucker for pizza... Very interesting what you say about the temperature - I did post a while back that referred to the same issue, which was inspired by a guy in New York who has made it his life's ambition to create the perfect pizza. This included tampering with his oven to a degree that I though sounded pretty dangerous!! http://cooksister.typepad.com/cook_sister/2006/12/luzzos_and_the_.html

I am totally intrigued by the self-contained pizza oven. What a fantastic idea if (like me!) you aren't in a situation to build your own proper outdoor pizza oven. Now the search is on to find one in London!

11:48 pm, January 15, 2007  
Blogger kitchenangel said...

Sudipto, I don't know if you will see this, but I got a pizza stone 2 weeks ago in Spotlight, Plaza Singapura. Hope this helps.

11:11 am, January 17, 2007  
Blogger Rita said...

What a great piece on cupcakes, they are truly a culinary art! please look at my site at http://www.culinarydegreeonline.info/

11:27 pm, January 17, 2007  
Blogger lion_newbie said...

Hi Kitchenangel,

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you !!!

Got my pizza stone (and pizza paddle to boot !) from Spotlight.

End of a year-long search !!!

Cheers

10:40 pm, January 25, 2007  
Blogger Kong-Kay said...

kitchenangel/lion_newbie,
what's the price you paid 4 the oven?

3:11 pm, January 27, 2007  
Anonymous carne al fuoco - il piacere del barbecue said...

Hey! I like this recipe, it seems so good! congratulations 4 the blog too! greetings from the italian barbecue fans community

carne al fuoco - tutto per il barbecue ricette foto community

7:01 pm, January 31, 2007  
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1:35 am, February 14, 2007  
Blogger Beau said...

any suggestions for the perfect tokyo pizza? there used to be an awesome spot right in roppongi, across gaien higashi dori from the hard rock...

6:34 pm, February 22, 2007  
Blogger Jon D said...

Sadly making the perfect pizza becomes an addiction after you read Hestons book.
Partner & I have spent 3 months playing with them. The flour seems to be far more important than the temperature. Really good flour makes really good pizza on a stone in a conventional oven.

9:24 am, March 22, 2007  
Anonymous CreditCook said...

My nephew came to stay with me for a month and all he wants to eat is pizza! Ok, not a problem with me but the only thing he will eat on his pizza is cheeses and olives!

1:56 pm, July 13, 2007  

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