It's funny how something so simple could captivate the minds and hearts of so many people, in so many different ways and in so many different places. Dough, tomato sauce and cheese. That's a faux-haiku I'd read over and over again. It's an evocative image that transgresses the simplicity of this complex animal. Sure, we've all had the run-of-the-mill perfectly-circular perfectly-browned pie and sure we've had abominations as severe as a Meat Feast Pizza but there's more to this animal than meets the eye. To really understand pizza one must first look at the individual components and then the relationship between those separate parts to understand what a pizza could and should be.
The ingredients of a pizza are important. I know it sounds simple but let me delve further. I'm talking about which ingredients define and characterise pizza. In its simplest form that is: dough, tomato and mozzarella cheese (sometimes others). The ordering of those three ingredients also encapsulates how much importance I place on each one. An excellent dough is probably more important than the other two components...combined. Because, let's face it, that's probably the most tricky part. But that's not to overshadow the salience of a tangy, sweet, salty, meaty tomato sauce or a buttery, rich and indulgent mozzarella cheese. The ingredients should all stand out - sure, there's the odd pizza which excels in transforming standard ingredients into an exceptional pie - but to create the best pizza you can you must use the best ingredients (and the best means you can). This doesn't necessarily mean go out and spend £25 on a ball of mozzarella. You have to discover what makes a perfect pizza for you. What each constituent part must do. For me this took a year or so to figure out and a huge number of mediocre (home-made pizzas). But I whittled down my perfect ingredients through the emotional extremes of trial and error. My essential ingredient list is as follows: a good quality flour (type '00' pizza flour is what I prefer to use), creamy mozzarella di bufala (preferably one with a low water content), really ripe fresh tomatoes, freshly picked basil, good sea salt and a fantastic extra virgin olive oil. That costs me around £30 (~$50) to make around 20 pies plus you'll have the remaining salt and olive oil to use on other things.
Although all these ingredients on their own are great they must also work in harmony to create a memorable pizza. There are two absolutely crucial elements that must deliver: a fantastic dough and a perfect sauce to cheese ratio. I've had many a-pizza where only one of these elements was delivering and that goes to show the challenge of getting both a perfect dough and a perfect sauce to cheese ratio. Not to keep saying this, but it's a really individual thing. This is just my idea of the perfect pizza and maybe only one or two will agree. But that's cuisine. That's pizza. That's its appeal to so many people whether in its mutant Japanese 'ocean catch' form or its historical Neapolitan style.
So what's a perfect dough? For me the most important aspect is texture. It has to be slightly crisp but soft and pillowy on the inside with just a little chew. Think of your perfect bagel and you've got something close. But just a teeny tiny bit behind on the importance scale is taste. A dough must taste of something. Nothing is more exciting (this may be an exaggeration) than eating a beautiful tasting cornicione. A sourdough crust can produce sublime results but in most cases I prefer using a dough that's had just a day to ferment. The dough must be thin in the centre and puffed around the outside. Air bubbles are good and a bit of char is essential.
And what about this sauce to cheese ratio? There's just nothing worse than getting too much tomato or cheese in a bite. You must be able to taste both tomato and cheese separately and the form they take on when melded and melted together. Too much cheese makes a pie too greasy and too much tomato sauce makes it too wet. Salty, sweet, umami-rich tomato must dance around creamy cheese islands. Basil completes this trinity by adding a herby almost floral note to the pizza whilst accentuating the taste of both tomato and mozzarella.
That's the theory, anyway. My journey into making my perfect pie started 14 months ago upon returning from New York City. I was captivated by the level of pure obsession this simple dish could provoke in so many sane people, that I knew I had to discover what pizza could be for me. That's not to say I wasn't obsessed with pizza before. But my level of obsession definitely peaked this past year. I used every recipe I could get my hands on. Most of the time the issue was the dough and it's taken me up until this point to create something I was ecstatic with. Something I was happy to share with all you crazy internet people. This pie was deeply influenced by Heston Blumenthal (the 'Blumenthal Hack' technique especially) and all the lovely pizza of NYC. Here it goes...hope you like it.
150g type '00' flour
1/2 teaspoon golden syrup
85g cold water
3.5g fast-action yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
350g type '00' flour
1/2 teaspoon golden syrup
195g cold water
7g fast-action yeast
pre-fermented dough (above)
10 sizeable and ripe San Marzano tomatoes - deseeded
a large pinch of sea salt
a tomato vine
large handful of basil leaves
one large ball of mozzarella di bufala - patted dry
good quality sea salt
good extra virgin olive oil
shaved grana padano (optional)
Mix the water and golden syrup. Sift the flour into a food mixer bowl. On the first speed (with the dough beating attachment) beat the water into the flour for 3-4 minutes. Leave the dough to rest for an hour. Add the yeast and salt and mix for 6-7 minutes on the second speed. If half-way through the process the dough isn't coming together add 2-3 teaspoons of water and beat for a further 2 minutes. The dough should cleanly come off the sides. Transfer to a sizeable bowl, cover with cling film and leave to ferment in the fridge overnight.
Mix the water and golden syrup. Sift the flour into a food mixer bowl. On the first speed beat the water into the flour for 4 minutes. Leave to rest for an hour. Add the yeast and salt and beat for 4 minutes. Add the pre-fermented dough at this point and beat for 3 minutes on the second speed. Should pull away cleanly from the bowl. Roll into a log and cut into 5 equal pieces and roll with your palms into bowls. Cover each ball in a slightly oiled zip-lock bag and leave to prove for 2-3 hours. The balls should double in size.
Cut in half and de-seed the fresh San Marzano tomatoes. Salt the tomatoes and leave over a colander for half an hour so the salt washes away some water and leaves a concentrated taste. Put the tomatoes in a zip-lock bag along with the tomato vine and let sit at room temperature for an hour or two. Cut the tomatoes into inch-wide chunks and reserve.
Place a dough ball onto a floured work surface and work into a circular shape that is no bigger than the base of the cast iron pan you'll be using. The best way to do this is up to you. I slap the dough with my fists from side to side. But use whatever is comfortable for you. Put some tomatoes on top of the dough, then chunks of mozzarella, a few basil leaves, a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Place on a pizza peel (or paddle) and scoop onto the base of the cast iron pan. It's best to this when the pan is underneath the grill (broiler). Cook for 90 or so seconds and voila. You have made amazing pizza.
I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I took that first bite. This pizza delivered. The Blumenthal Hack is now definitely my technique of choice. The dough was slightly crispy, with air bubbles and a little chew. It was charred just to my liking and held up with the ingredients. The cornicione had a delicate but wonderful taste. The 'sauce' to cheese ratio was to my preference. The pizza was the best I've made in 14 months of trying. It was quite possibly the best I've ever tasted. Why I didn't consult Heston Blumenthal's technique before this week is a mystery. I could make some improvements, though. I should remember to turn the pizza and maybe get the pan just a little hotter. My dough forming skills need a bit of help but I'm on my way to making my perfect pizza. I think the best way to sign off here is simply to say: I love pizza, I hope you do too.