Graham Elliot drilled me with a stare as Joe Bastianich lounged nearby, sneering. I stood at the bare kitchen counter, coiled for action.
“One stunning pizza!” barked Gordon Ramsay, forefinger stabbing the sky. “You have 60 minutes. Go!”
Well, not exactly. But that’s what it felt like last week when I decided to make a pizza from scratch without glancing at a recipe, like the MasterChef contestants do. I had just watched Luca win the whole shebang with a 60-minute three-course meal of pan-seared duck liver on brioche with caramelized peaches; tamarind-balsamic glazed short ribs with chanterelle mushrooms and sunchoke-truffle puree; and basil panna cotta with tomato jam and mascarpone honey cream. Surely I could make one stinkin’ pizza.
I cook without recipes all the time, and create new recipes weekly for this column. But I rely on techniques, not specific recipes. When I want to make Béarnaise sauce I still have to look it up. I know I’ll use eggs, butter and tarragon, but who keeps proportions for something like that in their memory?
Excuse me for harping on this issue (I know I wrote about it at least once before), but I’m equal parts amazed and skeptical when I watch the MasterChef contestants dive into a pile of ingredients and produce a soufflé, say, without consulting Julia. A buerre blanc, yes. Braised short ribs, sure. But a panna cotta, for crying out loud?
I’ve made pizza enough times to know the techniques but not enough to memorize a recipe. I began tossing ingredients into the bowl of my mixer – four cups of bread flour, a teaspoon of yeast, a teaspoon salt. Then while the motor ran, I added water in a slow stream until a dough formed around the beater. I pinched it. Dough isn’t supposed to feel like modeling clay, so I added more water until it was soft but springy.
After kneading the dough for five minutes with the mixer, I let it rise in a bowl on the stove for about 45 minutes. I preheated the oven to 450 degrees while I shaped and topped the dough.
My pizza turned out pretty good. Joe Bastianich probably wouldn’t have been impressed, but is he ever, by anything?
Truthfully, I screwed up a couple of times. I used just one teaspoon of salt, when recipes call for two teaspoons for that amount of flour. The biggest screw-up was with my new pizza stone. I couldn’t figure out how to get the floppy uncooked pizza onto it. I floured my pizza paddle and shaped the pizza directly on top. The pizza would not slide off the paddle into the oven even with the help of a spatula. I learned later I should have coated the paddle with cornmeal instead of flour. I doubt even that would have worked.
Plan B was pushing and squishing the pizza onto a baking sheet and reshaping it into some semblance of a circle. I removed the stone from the oven and used just the baking sheet. The pizza turned out great, but I bet Gordon would have sent me home anyway for being such a dunce.
Before I began shaping the second hunk of dough I called Tony at the restaurant to tell him there was homemade pizza for dinner. “I’m excited!” he shouted without a trace of irony. That made my day. Before he even tasted the pizza, I scored with the only judge who counts.
HOMEMADE PIZZA DOUGH
- 4 cups bread flour
- 1 tsp. active dry yeast
- 2 tsp. salt
- 3/4 to 1 cup water
Place flour, yeast and salt in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. With the paddle blade, mix briefly. With mixer running at medium-low speed, add water a little at a time until a dough forms and gathers around the paddle. Stop the mixer and feel the dough. If it feels like clay, add more water with the motor running until dough is soft but not sticky. Change to the dough hook and continue mixing on medium-low speed for 5 minutes (this kneads the dough).
Remove dough from mixer and, with floured hands, knead until smooth and elastic. This should just take three or four turns. Place in a greased bowl, turn dough to grease top, and cover with plastic wrap. Put in a warm place for 1 hour or refrigerate to rise overnight.
Divide dough in half and place one portion in a freezer bag. Freeze for later use. Stretch the remaining dough into a 15- to 16-inch circle. Place on a pizza pan or baking sheet.
FRESH TOMATO PIZZA
- 1 pizza dough shell
- Olive oil
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 4 large ripe tomatoes
Make pizza shell according to previous recipe. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons olive oil over unbaked pizza shell and spread evenly over dough. Sprinkle lightly with salt and half of the Parmesan and mozzarella. Scatter all of basil over the cheeses. With a serrated knife, cut tomatoes into ¼-inch-thick slices. Arrange in a single layer over pizza. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes, until dough is brown. Cut into wedges to serve.
HELP U COOK
To get a crisp crust on pizza, you need a pizza stone or unglazed terra cotta tiles. The tiles can be found at a tile store. Take your oven rack and have the tiles cut to fit. The tiles may be left in the oven. They will held spread the oven heat more evenly.
Wiki-How can tell you everything you need to know about using a pizza stone (http://www.wikihow.com/Use-a-Pizza-Stone). The most important point are:
• Dust the pizza peel with corn meal to help the uncooked pizza slide onto the stone or tiles.
• Never put a pizza stone into a hot oven or it may crack. Place it in the oven before preheating.
• Don’t put a frozen pizza onto the hot pizza stone for the same reason.
• Don’t soak a pizza stone in water or wash it with soap. Use plain running water only.
• Don’t try to remove oil that has soaked into the stone during cooking. The oil helps season the stone.
I cook with round steak a few times a month in the winter months. I cut the round steak in serving-size pieces, brown in butter then add one sliced onion and salt and pepper and barbecue sauce ( how much sauce will depend on your taste and how much round steak you are cooking). Then I add water to cover meat, cover the pan and cook over medium heat until the meat is tender and the water is almost gone. This leaves a gravy. My family just loves it and we use the gravy over mashed potatoes.
It’s a great idea for round steak and Sunday dinner.
Dear Becky: That sounds really good, but again, I can’t bring myself to pay $5 or $6 a pound for round steak when cuts from the loin are on sale for $6 to $7 a pound.
From Jodie Grasgreen DeLamatre:
My brother is an excellent baker and is in the Pillsbury Bake-Off for the second time. This year, he needs people to vote for him. See information below. He truly is an excellent baker. Ok, my Brown Sugar Topped Chocolate Swirl Coffee Cake is a semi-finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. For the next two weeks, people need to register at http://www.bakeoff.com and vote for my recipe to be in the finals. If I make it to the finals, the Bake-Off is the second week in November in Las Vegas. You can see a picture of my coffee cake and click to get the recipe if you want to make it.
Dear Jodie: I voted for your brother, who lives in Houston, Tex., and also for a couple of local contestants. Janet Gill of Canton entered a Mocha Cappuccino Pull Apart Coffee Cake that looks amazing, and Dennis Deel of Wooster entered a Cheesy Chorizo Breakfast Pizza.
The public is choosing 33 finalists from the 60 recipes in the Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts category. Voting in two other categories in this year’s contest – Amazing Doable Dinners and Simple Sweets and Starters – already has closed. In all, 100 finalists in the three categories will be chosen by the public to cook at the finals in November.
Is there any way to find or buy morel mushrooms beside traipsing through the woods in the spring and stepping on a snake? Yikes!
Dear T.K.: I like a person who begins thinking about spring in mid-September. Yes, there’s a way to get your hands on morels other than hunting them, but it’s not painless. West Point Market in Akron buys from local foragers in the spring and sells the fresh mushrooms at the going rate, which is upwards of $40 a pound.
Please tell your friends about my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/See-Jane-Cook/485076374882661. A link to this newsletter is posted weekly on the site.
And don’t forget about my new blog site (https://janesnowtoday.wordpress.com/), where you can find not only each week’s newsletter but archives of past newsletters and more and bigger photos.