Saturday, April 23, 2016

Homemade Pizza with the Perfect Crust and Pepperoni Cups

The best pizza really can come from your home kitchen, if you can make a good dough and bake it properly. That's the real challenge. How do you make a good dough, and then how do you get the super hot pizza oven that bakes it to a crisp-chewy perfection?  And if you do, how do you cut it like a professional. I've got tips for you in all of these areas that will insure a pizza your Italian relatives would be proud of and your friends will think came from the area's best pizzeria!

In the Oven on the Baking Steel  - Crust Rising Nicely

Julian's Homemade Pizza
A good quality stand mixer with dough hook is ideal. I use my KitchenAid mixer for this. When I'm done it is rather warm, so it gives the mixer a workout. Any lesser product may fail under the stress. I use the mixer to do all of the kneading, as I'm going for a chewy-crisp crust of medium thickness. You can of course knead the dough by hand.

A good quality kitchen scale is also needed for baking. Mine is an Oxo brand electronic scale and can switch between ounces and grams easily. It can also have a bowl placed on it, then you can zero out the weight so you are not weighing the bowl but just its ingredients. Measures in cups and teaspoons aren't very helpful as it depends on the ingredient type. So always try to use weight when possible and specified in the recipe. I've given you other measures in case you don't have a scale.

Pizza Peels, metal and wood. Ideally you want both.
Pizza peels or paddles make moving your pizza around much easier. Invest in both a metal and a wood peel. I make the pizza on the wood peel and move it into the oven this way, with a little help from my metal peel. I use the metal peel to check under the crust during baking, to turn it if necessary and to remove the pizza from the oven placing it on a cutting board or back onto the wooden peel for cutting.

A thick baking steel (shown below) makes all the difference in the crust of your pizza.  This is a solid steel plate that preheats to a very high temperature, and holds considerably more heat than any of the baking stones. I have the Nerd Chef brand. You can't get the same results with a stone or directly on the rack. You need to invest in a steel that is 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick, preheat it for an hour at 500F-525F degrees or under the broiler with the door left slightly ajar.  Let it cool for at least 120 minutes after turning off the oven before attempting to remove it. It holds the heat for a long time. Be careful.

Nerd Chef Baking Steel - I have the 'pro' model, .375" thick.
It's very heavy but works like a charm.
If you are going to make dough frequently, then a cylindrical dough rising bucket is something else you may want to invest in. I just use a bowl and plastic wrap, as my recipe below makes about three large pizzas and that's enough for three weeks for my family. But if you are making more dough, having the air-tight bucket is a good idea and they are inexpensive.

Julian' s rocking pizza knife.
Finally, the pizza cutter. A classic pizza wheel will rip it up and push your ingredients around. A bigger wheel is better than a smaller one if that's what you can get. They work in a pinch, but a classic rocking pizza knife is preferred.

After I oil the edge, I add a layer of sliced cheese before I add the sauce.
There are a lot of people into making really good quality home pizza. Some have invested in wood burning ovens, table top camp pizza ovens, etc. The Serious Eats website has a great article on the topic including recipes for all varieties of pizza, from classic Neapolitan to Chicago style pan pizza.

Crisp Pepperoni Cups
If you love a good pepperoni pizza, you are probably in the group that likes the pepperoni baked on top so it curls into a nice little cup with a crisp brown edge. Not all pepperoni will do this and I had to do some research to figure out how to accomplish this. While Serious Eats also discusses this and tests a wide range of products, the long and short is this. Purchase a whole stick of pepperoni and slice it yourself to a medium thickness. Very thin slices and very wide pieces as typically sold in the store do not crisp and curl. Look for a narrow diameter classic stick of pepperoni and use a knife to slice it as shown below. Some brands brown more than others, but in my experience most hand sliced narrow sticks will curl. For the Smoke and Cure brand I used above, it browns lightly without any need for the broiler. In the photo above, I turned on the broiler for the last minute or so of baking, but I typically do not do this as I find them browned enough from the normal oven.

Medium thickness hand sliced pepperoni.
Pizza Dough
My recipe comes courtesy of a high school friend, Jeff Fox. I've made only minor modifications. The key here is to make it well in advance. I prefer to make it on Tuesday for pizza on Friday. This is important to achieving a pizzeria quality crust. The little bit of sugar in the recipes helps with browning. I use all-purpose flour and get really good results, but for a full understanding of the different flour options you may want to read this. Bread flour also works well.

1 kg all-purpose flour (or 8 cups or 35 ounces)
    plus a bit more for dusting the work surface
5 g yeast (or 1 1/2 teaspoons)
20 g sea salt (4 teaspoons)
10 g sugar (2 teaspoons)
650 g bottled still warm water* (23 ounces)

*Yeast doesn't react as well when mixed with the chemicals commonly found in tap water. Instead use purified bottled drinking water, warmed in a microwave to 100-110F degrees. Warm to this temperature just prior to use.


In your mixer's bowl, blend the dry ingredients on low using the dough hook attachment.

With the mixer running on low, slowly add warm water until the dough begins to come together forming a ball. Run the mixer two minutes more on low, scraping up any pool of dough that forms on the bottom or sides with a rubber spatula to keep the dough combined. If the dough climbs up too high on the hook, scrape it down and then restart the mixer.

Turn the mixer to the second speed setting and mix for five minutes more scraping up any dough from the bottom/sides of the bowl or down from the top of the hook as needed. While the dough is mixing, lightly oil a large bowl or rising bucket.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Turn and kneed the dough for another 2-3 minutes and shape it into a ball. You can also do this in the mixer, on low speed for 1-2 minutes. I like to handle the dough at this stage, but that is not required. Dough temperature is an important variable to control when baking all breads. You should always check your dough temperature when you are done mixing. Ideally, it will be 75-78F (24-26 C) at this stage.

Place the dough ball into an oiled rising bucket or bowl and coat the dough ball lightly with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap or an air-tight lid and let it rest on the counter for 2 hours. The dough should approximately double in size. Punch down the dough and re-cover. Let it sit for another 4-6 hours.

Punch the dough down again and then turn it out onto a floured work surface and knead it a couple more times. Rub lightly with oil and cover with a clean kitchen towel and let it sit for another hour or two on your work surface. It may continue to rise.

Now, punch it down one last time, and turn once or twice giving it a final knead. Cut the dough into 3 pieces about 600 grams each (for thick crust large pizzas) or 6 pieces 300 grams each (for thin crust pizza). Weigh the pieces for consistency. Form each into a round ball shape. Place in separate plastic containers sprayed lightly with olive oil. Ideally these will be round containers. If you don't have plastic containers, wrap each piece loosely in plastic wrap or place each in a plastic bag, noting that it will continue to rise and may double again in size. Don't fold the bag over to restrict rising and do not stack the pieces, so they can still rise unencumbered. You can also store the dough in one large piece in an air tight container in the refrigerator and divide it when ready to bake if you prefer. However you store it make sure it has some room to expand as it will continue to rise in the refrigerator.

Let the dough sit in your refrigerator for 3 days, then bake. The dough holds well in the refrigerator for up to a week, but should not be held there longer.

If you can't use all of the dough fresh after the three-day rest in the refrigerator, you can freeze the dough for up to 3 months.  If you do freeze the raw dough, take it out the day before you wish to use it and place it in the refrigerator to thaw. For even easier pizza, par-bake the crusts, then freeze them. You can top them right from the freezer and bake. This makes for a quick week-night pizza.

When ready to bake, let the dough sit on the counter at room temperature for 1-3 hours before baking. While it's coming to room temperature, pre-heat the pizza steel on the top rack of a 525F degree oven for an hour. I typically use the convect-bake mode but if you don't have that option it isn't a problem.  Make sure the rack is close to the broiling (top) element, but will have at least 3 inches clearance when the pizza is on the steel. In my oven this means the rack is placed at the second to the highest rung.

Place the dough on a very lightly-floured work surface in the center and turn it a couple times, and giving it a light dusting of flour on the top, flattening it out and stretching and shaping with your hands into a round circle. Ideally you will use your hands to stretch the dough to size, by lifting it and moving it from hand to hand letting gravity stretch it into shape. Alternatively you can use a floured rolling pin but this option is not idea. Stretch the dough to about 12-14 inches across, into the classic round pie shape, the size of your pizza peel and steel.

Remember the crust will expand during baking, so don't be concerned if it looks too thin at this stage. If you can toss it on your knuckles instead, as a pro like Tony Gemignani does, go right ahead as that is a better and faster way for a consistent, round and thinner crust pizza. But I find the gravity stretching method from hand to hand works just fine, with less mess.

When properly stretched and shaped, sprinkle your wooden peel generously with corn meal or semolina course ground flour. Fold half the dough over on itself and transfer to the peel. Lightly oil the edge being careful not to get oil on the peel, as it will inhibit sliding the pizza off onto the baking steel. Cover with your favorite sauce, cheeses and other toppings. A pizza can sit in this state for an hour awaiting baking but the sooner you move it to the oven the easier it will be to move off the peel. I always place a few slices of cheese on the crust first and place the sauce on top of that, but this choice is yours and assembly order is not overly important.

Sliced cheese, then sauce, chopped onion, garlic, peppers, sliced mushrooms
pepperoni and shredded cheese. Sprinkled with dried oregano and basil.
Ready for the oven. For crisp pizza cups, place the pepperoni on top.
When ready to bake the pizza slide it onto the hot baking steel. If it doesn't slide off easily (which in my experience it rarely does), use the metal peel to assist you by slipping it under the pizza and sliding it off onto the back of the steel. Remember, that the baking steel is very hot and that you must place the pizza far back near the furthest edge of the steel on the first attempt. Do not try to sit the raw crust on the hot steel from the front and slide it back. This will not work. Slide your wood peel that is holding the pizza all the way to the back of the baking steel and then tip it up so the pizza crust first makes contact near the back of the hot steel. Slip the metal peel under the raw crust and use it to ease the pizza quickly onto the metal steel, leaving the pizza in place centered on the hot steel until it begins to cook. If you need to move it let it bake a minute, and then use the metal peel to re-position.

It should take approximately 8-10 minutes for a large thick crust pizza or 5-7 minutes for a thinner crust pizza to be done. The crust should brown nicely and puff up.

For a thinner crust pizza you may have to use the oven's broiler function to finish the top of the pizza if needed standing at the oven the entire time to ensure it doesn't burn. For the thicker crust, which takes longer to bake, I've not found I need to do this.

Remove from the oven with the metal pizza peel transferring onto a wooden cutting board or back onto the wooden peel for slicing. Use the pizza knife in a rocking motion to cleanly cut the pizza into pieces. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Fresh from the oven, a thick chewy, yet crispy pizzeria-style crust,
in various types from Julian's kitchen!

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