Saving fallen pizza after sticky situation

February 20, 2002|By ROB KASPER

COOKING CAN BE a high-risk, thrilling experience. Take, for instance, what happened to me on a recent Saturday night.

Instead of dealing with a homemade pizza baked in the oven, I ended up struggling with a pizza that was on the oven floor.

The trouble began when I thought the pizza dough was stuck to the pizza stone. A pizza stone is a rectangular device, sold in kitchen stores, that is placed on an oven rack when you are baking bread or pizza. The stone holds the heat and gives the dough a crisp crust.

I have used a stone for several years and am now so stone-dependent that I can't make homemade pizza without it. I make the dough - a simple mixture of flour, water, yeast and salt - in a food processor and after the dough has rested for several hours, some at room temperature, some in the fridge, I form it into shapes roughly resembling pizza.

Sometimes, when I am stretching dough with my hands or tossing it in the air and catching it with my fist, I get cocky. That happened the other night. While trying to stretch the dough to new widths, I punched a hole in my dough.

It had happened before. I knew that I had to patch the pizza, pulling a fat piece of dough from the edge and plugging up the thin opening. This pizza patch looks chintzy, like a patch on an old bicycle tube, but once the patch gets covered up with cheese, sausage and sauce, nobody notices.

There are occasions, such as the other night, when the patch doesn't hold. Then you have a "leaker," a pizza with sauce oozing out of its middle and down onto the hot pizza stone.

Once the heat gets to them, leakers can become "stickers" - pizzas attached by the seared sauce to the hot stone.

The sticker rescue drill is pretty simple. You just grab a big metal spatula and run it under the pizza until the crust slides loose. Most stickers give up without much effort.

But occasionally you come across a sticker with an attitude, one that clings to the stone. With these tenacious types, you have to get rough. You have to hit their undersides with that spatula in a way that means business. The other night I gave that clinger my best spatula thrust. But still it seemed to be holding on to the stone.

I was frustrated. I moved to the next step when dealing with a recalcitrant pizza, namely, pulling the oven rack and stone out of the oven for inspection. Because the oven was very hot, 500 degrees, I had to work quickly and wear thick padded mittens.

Once again, I got carried away. I yanked out the oven rack holding the stone with considerable force, too much muscle. It turned out, unbeknown to me, the pizza had stopped clinging. Now, it was just playing possum and merely sitting on the stone.

So when I yanked out the oven rack, the loose pizza went airborne, and like an Olympic diver, did a full gainer off the back of the stone and plunged headfirst toward the bottom of the oven.

I know from experience that the visage of a homemade pizza bubbling away on your pizza stone is a sight that can make your mouth water.

The other night, I learned that the sight of a fallen pizza, crumpled on the oven floor, is a sight that doesn't whet your appetite.

Fortunately, no one saw the downed pizza except me. Quickly I grabbed it and set in on the kitchen counter for a period of rest and recuperation. Meanwhile, I started the mop-up, or cover-up, work. I turned off the oven and tried to remove the puddles of cheese that had formed on the oven floor. I couldn't reach all of them. The 500-degree heat soon transformed the survivors into smoking geysers, sorta like Old Faithful spewing mozzarella.

If I had been a novice pizza maker, I might have given up and made soup. But I was a veteran. This pizza might have gone down, but it was not out. It was destined for a comeback.

Picking up a block of mozzarella and a cheese grater, I performed mozzarella surgery on the resting pizza. Fresh cheese and a few new pieces of Italian sausage were added. Old, salvageable pieces of sausage were rearranged. I turned the oven on again.

After turning the exhaust fan on high and cracking open the kitchen door to let a little fresh air dissipate the smoke coming from the bottom of the oven, I put the stone back in, and a few minutes later, put the reborn pizza back on the hot stone.

About 15 minutes later it emerged, hot and flavorful, if not pretty as a picture.

Quickly I sliced it up and fed it to members of my family who devoured it, praising its distinct, different flavors.

I told them that is how it goes in the world of cooking - you "create" new dishes on the spur of the moment. This dish, I told them, was something I called "twice-tossed pizza."

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