Friday, 5 June 2009

Eating New York: Pizza

Arriving in a new city, at night, can be an unpleasant experience.

Body clocks askew, deprived of sleep and crippled with the sort of grumpiness that can only ever be the result of being folded into an economy class seat on a long haul flight can test the mettle of even the most Zen individual.

The tiniest frustrations can cause eruptions of Pompeii-esque proportions and anger threatens to be vented on those who neither expect nor deserve it. Total strangers usually.

Even if that wicked combination doesn’t result in explosion, hunger can prove a willing and fiery catalyst.

As such, it is a good idea to find sustenance at the earliest possible opportunity. Sustenance of a homely and hearty nature. Pizza with its winning combination of dough and cheese is an excellent option.

So it was that we found ourselves on 8th Avenue close to 46th Street munching on large slices of, what at the time, tasted like, the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.

There is a persistent rumour that New York pizza is so good because of the water. Indeed, I have heard stories of West Coast Italian restaurants having water shipped over from the city in a vain attempt to re-create the characteristic dough.

With good reason. Somehow managing to tread that fine line between cracker thin Neapolitan style pizza and the thick, claggy, doughy deep crust nastiness that characterises so many bastardized versions of this classic dish, New York pizza has a light base that holds up against its own weight.

The tomato sauce has a vague sweetness that cuts through the classic garlic/oregano flavour combination. And the cheese comes in an artery-furring layer of stringy decadence that sits heavily in the stomach in the best possible way.

A dream filled sleep came quickly.

Having made pizza before, I was looking forward to the task of attempting to make this particular slice of NYC in my own kitchen.

Not only was recreating the firm, chewy texture of the base going to present difficulties, the lack of an oven that goes beyond 250 degrees C was also going to prevent me from attaining those searing temperatures required to cook the pizza in only a few minutes.

Enter a new piece of kitchen kit:

Ah, masonry – the saviour of all aspiring Italian cooks. The theory being that the scorching hot stone cooks the pizza from below as well as drying out the base – essential if you don’t want to experience the frustrating phenomenon known as ‘cheesy floppy end’. If you’ll pardon the expression.

I acquired mine from a reclamation yard for a mere seven pounds, about a third of the price of a dedicated ‘pizza stone.’

I felt quite manly asking for ‘an unglazed quarry tile’ – a phrase I’d repeated to myself for at least ten minutes before feeling confident enough to utter it out loud to a tradesman.

‘What size?’ he asked. Uh oh, rumbled. Quick say something that sounds about right. How big is a pizza?

‘Erm, twelve by twelve, if you have any.’ Phew. Situation recovered.

‘The only thing we have is (insert unintelligible building phrase here). That going to be OK.’

‘Uh-huh,’ I replied, veneer of confidence diminishing by the nano-second.

‘What colour you after?’

Oh god, I don’t know. It’s not like I’m going to be paving any driveways with it. ‘Terracotta?’

‘Think you might be out of luck. I’ll show you what we got and see if they’re OK.’

I duly followed. ‘There you go, how’s that?’

‘Perfect,’ I said confidently, not anticipating the next question.

‘How many do you need?’

Shit. Rumbled. ‘Just one,’ I said, rather pathetically going on to explain that rather than being a skilled manual labourer, I was, in fact a fraud: an amateur chef keen to replicate the tasty morsels of pizza I’d eaten too many of on a recent fact-finding trip.

‘Oh you’re a chef? I used to be a chef. In fact my sister was the pastry chef at La Gavroche.’

Halle-freaking-lujah. No more words mumbled in a voice slightly deeper than my natural one – we had something in common. Enter a little bit of banter about food and off I went on my merry way, new toy in hand (or two – it was quite heavy).

The Dough

Step one done, it was time to tackle the dough. Here I am indebted to Jeff Varasano’s rather excellent (and comprehensive) website detailing his efforts to recreate that elusive NY slice.

Taking inspiration from this I bought some high gluten flour and started by making a poolish – a mini starter dough before making a full batch.

Add a teaspoon of dried yeast, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of sugar to 70g of warm water (I used bottled) and stir in 70g of flour. Cover it with a tea towel and leave to bubble away over night.

The following morning add this to 500g of high-gluten flour and 300g of water (again, I used bottled). If you have the wrists, knead it enthusiastically for about 20 minutes or use a food mixer complete with dough hook attachment.

What should emerge is a highly elastic, quite wet, dough that should be stretchy enough to read print through (the ‘windowpane’ test). This is due to the elasticity of the gluten.

Let it rest for 15 minutes then turn out onto a floured surface and knead into a large ball. Divide it into three or four smaller balls of equal size (depending on how big you want your pizzas and how thick you like your base) and place each one into a lightly oiled container with a loosely fitting lid.

These can be kept in the fridge for anything up to a week and will improve in flavour as time goes on.

The sauce

The fresh dampness of an uncooked tomato sauce on pizza is not something I like. As such this one is cooked for about 20 minutes before making its way onto the pizza.

Drain and sieve two tins of plum tomatoes and add them to a saucepan along with a little olive oil, two cloves of garlic (finely chopped), salt, pepper and a small handful of oregano. I also added a scant teaspoon of sugar to help develop the sweetness that seemed to be so characteristic of a genuine New York Slice.

Let it simmer away and then break up the tomatoes using a wooden spoon or hand held blender if you require a smoother finish.

To cook

Crank your oven up as high as it will go. Put the slab of tile onto the rack close to the top of the oven, remembering to leave room for a rising pizza crust.

It needs to heat up for at least half an hour although I’d leave it an hour before you even think of cooking on it.

In the mean time, start to work that little ball of elastic dough into something resembling a pizza base.

This is harder than it looks as it can frustratingly spring back into shape when you least expect it. Just keep going. Avoid the temptation to use a rolling pin and don’t forget to form a slightly thicker lip around the outside of the circle.

Once the oven – and stone – is hot enough spread a generous smear of tomato sauce over the base, add a few basil leaves and sprinkle over a disgusting amount of cheese (I used a mozzarella/cheddar/parmesan combination). A few turns of the pepper mill and it’s ready to go.

Hmmm. How does one get it from its current location to the screaming hot stone without a pizza paddle? Improvise, of course.

Just make sure your pizza isn’t too big to fit on a foil-covered spade (cue ten expletive filled minutes and a comment from the GF: 'Why not just make it smaller?')

In a regular oven the pizza should take no more than six or seven minutes. About twice as long as it would in a commercial furnace but, eh, whatchoo gonna do?

And neither should you care.

Because the final result is so good.

A solid base with firm, chewy texture. A slightly sweet, garlicky sauce. And a guilty slick of salty cheese. Exactly how an authentic slice should be.

And as proof? Well, here’s the money shot.

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saltychickenfiend said...

YEAH! Brilliant! The part where you were very manly at the trade yard had me in stitches, and then the photographs of the finished article had my mouth watering so badly...

Seriously impressed, can't wait for the next one in the series!

ps - your spade was hilarious as well, good improv...

Anonymous said...

That looks great! We've been experimenting with using our barbecue as a pizza oven lately because our normal oven just doesn't get hot enough. I've not tried the sourdough yet though, that's next on the list.

Oliver said...

Great piece, Alex. Very interesting indeed about the water in NYC; and I loved your improvisation on the pizza paddle.

Sylvie said...

Cooking that involves a trip to a reclamation yard and a gardening spade just has to be good! The pizza looks fabulous, just as it should be and definitely not like the usual homemade attempts (which of course are good but shouldn't really be called pizza).

Just Cook It said...

SCF - Thank yoo for the kind words, glad you enjoyed it.

Ginger - I had a scoot over to read about your experiments, excellent work. Let project sourdough commence!

Oliver - Thank you. It's amazing what you can come up with in a crisis. I'm not sure how much credence the water theory has but it seems to make sense. With water being 40% of the finished dough, it make sense to make it decent.

rich (them apples) said...

I've just built a shed, patio and a fence. Of course, I know nothing about the practicalities of such matters, save what I've gleaned from a 1978 edition of the Reader's Digest DIY Companion. My adventures involved more than a few trips to builder's merchants and the like.

I understand your pizza stone buying nervousness.

My tip is to always wear suitably filthy clothes, and a pencil stuck behind the ear sometimes helps, as does speaking quickly and saying 'mils' instead of 'millimetres'.

Lifehacker had an article the other day on really tricking out your oven to make the perfect pizza:

I remember reading a while ago about some bloke who was obsessed with making the perfect pizza, but his oven wasn't hot enough. his solution? He triple insulated the oven and 'adjusted' (i.e. removed) the thermostat so that there was no top limit on the heat. Crazy, crazy stuff, but his pizza did look awesome.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Oh well done! That looks lovely.

Of course, the key is to get your girlfriend to deal with the tradies - even if she is a master mason they will still treat her like an idiot and sell her a single tile without batting an eyelash. Although she'll almost certainly hate herself for doing it.

dp said...

I've made decent pizza in the past, but the NY style crust has always been elusive. I must try with your mini-starter. Is the high gluten flour English for bread flour? Or is there something with even more gluten, I wonder? Maybe adding vital wheat gluten (or some such) would do the trick.

And luckily, I won't have to foil my shovel. I found a still-wrapped pizza peel at the local thrift store just this week for $4! Yay!

Merchant said...

Loving the improvised spade. Just shows necessity or "hunger" is the mother of all invention.