There is no such thing as a perfect food. But pizza comes pretty close. I know, you've got your superfoods: acai this week, chia seeds the next.
So what? Imagine this: A sluice of warm, crushed tomato, steaming under a scatter of melted, bubbling mozzarella, all resting in the toasty embrace of perfectly baked dough. Man cannot live by bread alone; that's why he invented pizza.
Nobody understands this better than Jim Lahey. The founder of New York City's Sullivan Street Bakery, renowned for his no-knead method for making home-baked bread, Lahey likes nothing better than a hot fresh slice of pizza. In fact, he eats pizza nearly every day.
Lahey, who takes an almost spiritual approach to bread, began throwing huge pizza parties for friends and acquaintances post-9/11, when he felt pizza would "cheer people up." He expanded into a pizza restaurant, Co., and earlier this year a pizza cookbook, "My Pizza" (Clarkson Potter, $27.50).
"Pizza deserves respect and admiration," he says in his book, "for everything about it, but especially the bread, the crust. … I see a pizza crust as a canvas, an invitation to paint and sculpt with food." Which is why it's natural to want to make this practically perfect food yourself.
Like a lot of cooks, I was taken with the idea of making my own pizza. Everyone seemed to be doing it, and it sounded simple.
Not exactly. Approximately 27 ruined pizzas later, as I picked at ripped dough, cleaned up spilled toppings burned on the bottom of my oven and wondered why my latest project wouldn't pan out, I discovered Lahey's pizza book. A fan of his bread, I suspected he might have the solution to my pizza-baking troubles. And, working with his recipes, my pizza did improve dramatically.
Still, my dough was tougher than it should be. And I ripped holes in crusts. I might have given up. Instead, I decided to up the ante.
In his book, Lahey invites readers to get in touch with him with their pizza questions. I decided to take him up on that. I wasn't the first, but I was lucky: He agreed to meet with me during a trip to New York and give me a lesson in pizza baking. Here are the five lessons I learned from the pizza guru.
• Adjust your expectations. "The first thing we start with is our expectation of what we want pizza to be," says Lahey. "For a lot of us, that is based on an idea that we get from pizza we've had. And 99 percent of the pizza made in the U.S. is crap."
Pizza that you make at home, he says, should not attempt to reproduce anything you've had in a pizza parlor or from a takeout driver. Instead, it should be about fresh, top-notch ingredients and a rustic shape that speaks of the two hands that made it. Perfection doesn't mean a commercially produced ideal.
• Hands off. "Don't overhandle the dough," he says. "If you want to molest something, destroy the tomatoes. With the dough, less is more. Try to break yourself of all this touching."
Lahey's beginner's version of opening the dough is to put it on a well-floured work surface, stretch it gently with your hands and spin it, touching very lightly as you make it into a flat, roundish shape. He calls it the Hurricane, named after the motion shown on television weather maps as a storm spins across an open ocean. No need to fixate on making a true circle. And no need to make a ridge around the edge. Go for roughly round, completely flat. Don't smash all the air out either. Air will create beautiful bubbles in the crust, adding texture to the finished product. And no rolling pin. Ever.
• Just add water. The tough dough problem? It's the most common question Jim Lahey gets. And the solution is, well, obvious. "If it's too dry, use a little more water."
• Dress and go. "Like with anything that's a creative product," Lahey says, "you need to just go with it, just do it." That's why, once you start to shape the dough, you should have all of your ingredients ready to go. Put them on the crust sparingly, so as not to overload it, and quickly transfer the pizza to the oven. Lahey moves so quickly, he doesn't even flour his pizza peel, something you shouldn't try at first. Add just enough flour to the peel so that your pizza will slide onto the pizza stone. And skip the cornmeal, which burns even more easily than excess flour.
• Try, try again. Don't worry about the experiments that don't quite turn out, Lahey says. Use the most delicious ingredients, and eat those messy pies. "If you get a hole in the dough or you ruin it," he says, "it'll taste good anyway because the cheese is so good, the tomatoes are so good." And remember your goal: "Practicing," he says, "is a culture. And like anything, with pizza, practice makes adequate."
Which is his way of reminding you to keep going, not because you'll eventually be able to churn out pizza like a Neapolitan pizzaiola, but because you'll find your own way to a gloriously imperfect yet completely delicious pizza of your own. When that happens, you just might find yourself, as I did, standing in your kitchen in your bare feet, a hot slice in your hands, risking burning the roof of your mouth to eat what might be the best food - ever. One that you made exactly as you want it to be.
"Pizza," says Lahey, "is a crazy great food."
No-knead pizza dough
Makes: 4 dough balls; enough for 4 individual pizzas.
• 3 3/4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping dough
• 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
• 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
• 1 1/2 cups water
1. Blend the flour, yeast and salt in a medium bowl. Add the water; mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon or your hands.
2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Allow to rise at room temperature 18 hours, or until it has more than doubled.
3. Scrape the dough onto a floured work surface. Divide into 4 equal parts and shape them: For each portion, start with the right side of the dough and pull it toward the center; then do the same with the left, then the top, then the bottom. (The order doesn't matter; what you want is 4 folds.) Shape each portion into a round; turn seam-side down. Mold dough balls into neat circular mounds. If the mounds are sticky, dust with more flour.
Do ahead: The dough can be made 3 days ahead. Wrap each dough ball separately in plastic wrap; chill. Before shaping disks, unwrap dough balls; let rest at room temperature on a lightly floured surface, covered with plastic wrap, 2-3 hours.
Shape the disk
Take 1 ball of dough; dust dough, work surface and your hands with flour. Press dough down and gently stretch it out to 6-8 inches. Gently continue, massaging it into a roundish disk of 10 to 12 inches, stroking and shaping with your palms and fingers (or use Lahey's Hurricane method).
1. If using a pizza stone, place it on a rack about 8 inches from the broiler. Heat oven on bake to hottest setting, 500-550 degrees, 30 minutes. (If using a baking sheet, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven; heat to its hottest setting. Do not preheat the baking sheet.) Then switch to broil for 10 minutes.
2. Sprinkle a pizza peel (or inverted rimmed baking sheet) lightly with flour. Place dough disk on peel (or inverted baking sheet); top with desired toppings. With quick, jerking motions, slide pizza onto the stone. Broil until the top is bubbling and the crust is nicely charred but not burnt, 3 minutes. If using a baking sheet, bake pizza on baking sheet until bottom of crust is crisp and top is blistered, about 10 minutes.
3. Transfer to a work surface to slice. Repeat with remaining pizzas, allowing pizza stone to reheat under broiler for 5 minutes between pizzas
MARGHERITA PIE: Spoon 1/4 cup basic tomato sauce over a prepared dough disk, spreading evenly and leaving an inch of the rim untouched. Distribute 2 1/2 ounces fresh mozzarella, pulled into 5 clumps, evenly over the pie. Slide the pie onto a heated pizza stone. Broil 3 to 4 minutes, until the top is bubbling and the crust is nicely charred but not burned. Transfer the pizza to a tray or serving platter. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano and a pinch fine sea salt evenly over the pizza. Scatter 6 basil leaves on top.
BASIC TOMATO SAUCE: Drain 1 can (28 ounces) peeled Italian plum tomatoes. Run tomatoes through a food mill over a bowl to create a pulp (not a fine puree; you want to retain some texture). If you don't have a food mill, just squish them with your hands. Stir in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. (Sauce does not cook before going on pizza.)
From "My Pizza," by Jim Lahey.