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!

Julian's Thick Crust 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 moderate 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 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 & 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.

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.

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 spring* 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.


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.

Place the dough ball into an oiled rising bucket or bowl and coat 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 recover and let it sit for another 4-6 hours.

Punch down the dough in the bowl 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. It may continue to rise.

Now, punch it down again, and turn once or twice giving it a final knead. You can now 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 in an airtight container or plastic bag. If you use an individual container or bag, make sure it is large enough to accommodate continued rising, which could be nearly double the size. Similarly don't fold the bag over or 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 ideally. The dough holds well in the refrigerator for up to a two weeks. After the three days, you can freeze the dough for up to 3 months, taking it out the day before you wish to use it and placing it in the refrigerator to thaw.

When ready to bake, let the dough sit on the counter at room temperature for about an hour before baking. While it's coming to room temperature, pre-heat the pizza steel on the top rack at 500F - 525F degrees oven for an hour. The higher temperature will make the crust more drown, and the lower 500F temperature will give a more golden brown color. Make sure the rack is close to the broiling (top) element, but not so close that your pizza will touch.

Place the dough on a well-floured work surface in the center and turn it a couple times, adding more flour if necessary, flattening it out.  Using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to about 12 inches across, into the classic round pie shape. Use your fingers to make a slightly thicker crust at the edge to contain the ingredients. 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.

When properly stretched and shaped, sprinkle your wooden peel generously with corn meal. Fold half the dough over on itself and transfer to the wooden peel. Then lightly oil just the thicker crust edge being careful not to get oil on the wooden 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 or more awaiting baking.

Sliced cheese, then sauce, chopped onion, garlic, peppers, sliced mushrooms
pepperoni and shredded cheese. Sprinkled with dried oregano and basil.
Ready for the oven.
When ready to bake the pizza slide it onto the hot baking steel using the wooden peel. If it doesn't slide off easily, us the metal peel to assist you. 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 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, where it will stick. 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 reposition.

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 nicely.

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 the wooden peel for cutting. Use the pizza knife in a rocking motion to cleanly cut the pizza into pieces. Let cool for 10-15 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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