Perfecting a pizza: tossing around tips in quest for the best

April 13, 2005|By ROB KASPER

A HOMEMADE PIZZA is one of those everyday dishes, like a grilled hamburger, that you seek to perfect. It is a quest, a life's work, something that keeps you going on weeknights.

Recently, I had a couple of breakthrough insights on the perfect-pizza front.

In short, they were: Toast or grill the dough, put the cheese on first and top with some homemade pesto sauce.

These may be regarded as old news by the cheesy cognoscenti, but while we all travel the path to perfection, we move at different speeds. In other words, it was news to me.

It is a given that using homemade dough is better than using store-bought pizza shells. Like homemade bread, homemade pizza dough is fresher and simply tastes better than the commercial stuff.

Making your own dough, however, requires forethought. You've got to give the dough time to rest and rise. Ordinarily, when I am making pizza, I am not thinking ahead. Instead, I am looking around for things I can throw together in half an hour that will taste good.

That is where the store-bought shells come into play. You can grab a shell from the freezer, defrost it in the microwave and in a minute or two you are ready to put together a pizza.

I get my pizza shells at Trinacria, an Italian food shop on North Paca Street, one of the many ethnic markets that give this town its flavor.

In addition to picking up pizza shells, sauce and Italian sausage at Trinacria, I also get a healthy dose of palaver about the fates of the Ravens and the Orioles. Vince Fava, the proprietor, is usually pessimistic; Mike Popoli, his behind-the-counter colleague, is optimistic. They deliver a dose of the sweet and the sour, not unlike the mix of flavors atop a good pizza.

I am not sure exactly how I became a proponent of toasting the pizza shell, but now I am big believer. I brush the naked shell with a little olive oil and put it in a 500-degree oven for a browning session that lasts about two minutes per side. I bake it on a pizza stone, a chunk of stone that sits on an oven rack, but you could substitute a baking sheet for the stone.

Toasting the shell gives it more texture and color. How much you toast is a matter of personal preference. For example, I like a shell that has some "crunch" in it. My wife, however, prefers a kinder, gentler crust. Such are the compromises of a life together.

An alternative to toasting is grilling the dough. Susan Watterson, a chef who teaches a 12-week cooking course that I recently completed at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda (an experience I will be writing more about in the coming weeks), introduced me to this option.

On the day our class made pizza dough, we grilled the dough for a few minutes per side on an indoor, restaurant-quality grill. It gave the dough a little more flavor as well as cool-looking grill marks. You could get the same result using a backyard grill, but firing it up for just a few minutes of work might give you pause.

Watterson also passed along the tip of putting the cheese on first. Usually the first thing I put on the toasted dough is pizza sauce. For the first layer of sauce I prefer the traditional tomato-flavored variety.

But the teacher said (and Mama Mia! she turned out to be right) that putting the cheese on first seals the dough and prevents the sauce from soaking in. It also gives you the option of adding more cheese later, after you have put on meat and sauces.

Finally, putting a little pesto sauce on top of the tomato sauce gives the pizza a distinctive, tangy bite.

The best pesto, a mixture of basil, garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese, is made with basil grown in your own garden. The other night when I looked in our freezer, I noticed we were down to the last package of pesto made from last year's basil crop.

This meant it was time to plant some more basil. In time, it will be turned into more pesto sauce. The pursuit of perfect pizza is never-ending.

Pizza Dough Recipe

Serves 4

1 package ( 1/4 ounce) dry yeast

3/4 cup warm (90 to 110 degrees) water

pinch of sugar

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

Proof yeast by placing yeast and water in the bowl of a mixer equipped with a paddle. Add a pinch of sugar. Let rest 5 minutes or until frothy. (If yeast drops to bottom of bowl, it is dead. Toss it out and start with another package of yeast.)

Add olive oil and 1 cup of the flour to yeast mixture. Combine until very soft dough is formed. Add the salt and enough additional flour to form workable dough.

Turn dough out onto clean, lightly floured work surface and knead until elastic, 5 minutes to 10 minutes, adding only enough flour to keep dough from sticking.

Let dough rest in a greased bowl in a warm place (the oven with the oven light on is a good one) until it has doubled in size. This usually takes about 1 hour.

Punch dough down and roll out into a square or circle, using additional flour as needed. Place pizza on a cornmeal-dusted peel (wood pizza-carrying device) or the dusted back of a baking pan.

Preheat a grill, either stove-top or backyard variety. Scoot the pizza dough onto it and cook until the bottom is marked (with stripes) and the pizza is easily lifted from the grill. Turn and cook the other side.

Place the dough on a sheet pan and top with cheese, etc., and favorite precooked toppings. Finish in a 400-degree oven until the cheese is melted and dough is cooked though.

- Chef Susan Watterson

Per serving: 263 calories; 7 grams protein; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 48 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 584 milligrams sodium

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