Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
What’s cooking? Pizza!

Pizzaiolo Neil (center), with helpers Mike (L) and Max (R)

I once read that if you want to share a great experience with your child, you should make it be one in which neither of you is an expert. That way, you are on equal footing and can enjoy the learning process together. Which is the argument I used to convince my husband to take a pizza-making class with me.

I can’t remember how I found the class. Must have been some late-night web-wandering. And while I will confess to a tiny case of nerves, I figured I probably wouldn’t do worse than my hubby. Or would I?

We walked into Pizza a Casa at 11:45 on Saturday. It’s a tiny shop, holding sinks and shelves stacked with containers of olive oil and canned tomatoes and various spices on one wall, and photos of satisfied customers on the other. Definitely a New York pizza shop vibe. But instead of a walk-up counter and a handful of small formica-topped tables, down the center of the room sat a wide table with a raised shelf in the middle and six stations with stools along each side. Our classroom.

Ever the Teacher’s Pet personality, I gravitated to a station near the ovens, where the teacher would stand. “Always sit at the front of the room,” I used to tell my children. “It never hurts for the teacher to know you were in class.” Of course, we weren’t getting graded, but some habits die hard. And these days, my brain needs not to miss what’s said, or be distracted by the other students. It was also the best way to get good photos.

As I surveyed my station, I noticed with dismay the small packet of Fleishmann’s yeast. The dreaded yeast. Regular readers of this blog will already know of my yeast phobia, which has much to do with my training as a mathematician.

Math is precise. There’s always one right answer. The area of a triangle is always ½ bh (base times height). Parallel lines never intersect. But a blob of dough should rise “until it has doubled in size.” With no way to measure the blob, that instruction has always confounded me.

Pizza a Casa has now saved me. We started by mixing the yeast with warm water and sugar, both of which would speed the proofing process. At the same time, our teacher, Pizzaiolo Neil, explained that we’d be making a blob of dough that would weigh about 32 ounces (2 pounds). We’d cut the blob into quarters (8 ounces each), which, by chance, are about the size of an 8-ounce cup. In that case, if we put each quarter into a 16-ounce plastic covered container, the dough will have doubled in size once it fills the container. A miracle! How simple and precise is that? I could breathe deeply, relax my shoulders, and smile.

Step 1: Mix the dough into a large ball and knead it.
Mixing the dough was easy, especially when we used a metric scale to weigh the ingredients exactly. Oh, how I was loving this process. Then came the kneading part – not as exact, and not a skill I’ve ever worked on. I noticed that the love of my life was struggling a bit to get the dough off his fingers, so I reached over to help. He glared at me. I had to remind myself that I was not the Kitchen Goddess here, so back off. While we waited for our balls of dough to rise – about 45 minutes in the heat of the shop – Pizzaiolo Neil walked us through the rest of the process and fed us yummy samples of pizza possibilities.

Step 2: Cut the large ball into 4 small balls.

Step 3: Let the dough rise.
 It turns out that kneading is pretty simple compared to stretching the dough. (Once again, I thought it looked like my darling husband needed a bit more flour on his dough... oops! You know, for a moment there, I thought he was going to slap my hand.)

Step 4: Stretch the dough and add toppings. Here, pears and gorgonzola, to be followed with balsamic vinegar. Yum!

We learned several techniques helpful in turning the dough from a blob into a nice, flat 12-inch circle, starting with “soft bongo” pats to reach a 6-8-inch mound, then the “gravity drop” for stretching the dough, and finally the “DJ” stretch, to extend the shape to a circle or what passes for a circle in pizza class. (Neil was adamant that circle-ness is less important than not overhandling the dough.)

Swoon time: This one is thinly sliced potato (steeped in olive oil and herbs), pecorino, rosemary, and olive oil.
Bottom line? It was the most fun I’ve had in ages. Even my hubby said he enjoyed himself – in a masochistic sort of way. And it turns out that after you’ve made four of those pizzas, you really do feel like a bit of a pro.

The folks at Pizza a Casa were kind enough to allow me to include their recipe for dough here. But if you’re ever in Manhattan on a Saturday or Sunday with time on your hands – it’s a 4-hour class – get thee to the lower East Side and learn to make pizza. (You’ll actually need to reserve a spot, which is easy at their website, www.pizzaschool.com.) Or you can get their iPad app, DIYPizzaPie, which apparently covers most of what goes on in the class – except, of course, for the tastings. But for all these techniques – the mixing, the kneading, the stretching, and that ever-important move where you slip it into the oven – there’s really nothing like watching it happen to help you make a great pizza. Mangia!

Salad pizza: mozzarella, ricotta (with added butter), pignoli nuts, and arugula (added after baking).
Pizza a Casa’s Best Pizza Dough

Makes enough for four 12-inch pies.

20 ounces (3½ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting/stretching)
12 ounces water, warm (110º) – not hot
1 packet active dry yeast (or 2¼ teaspoons, if from a jar)
⅛ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt (fine grind, as in finishing salt)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (cooking oil quality – not the expensive stuff)
semolina flour (not corn meal)

Preheat oven to its maximum setting (usually 500-550º). Preheat for 1 hour if you’ll be using a baking stone, 30 minutes if you’re using a pizza screen, pizza pan, or baking sheet.

Stir the yeast into the warm water along with the sugar. Set aside. (Yeast should “proof” for 10-15 minutes.)

In the meantime, in a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt and oil. Add the proofed yeast and stir until the dough is “shaggy,” which means well mixed and not overly sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, sprinkle a bit of flour on top, and knead 4-5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Kitchen Goddess note: Kneading, pizza-style, means lean into the dough with your palm, press it down, press it forward, fold it over, and repeat. Or you can use a mixer with a dough hook, also for 4-5 minutes. When you’re done, the dough should be just slightly tacky – if its still sticky, dust it with flour and knead that in.

Divide your dough into four smooth balls, pinching together and smoothing any gaps in the surface. Set the dough aside in your 16-ounce containers and let it rest at least 45 minutes in an area whose temperature is 75-80º. (Or you can do a “cold rise” in the fridge for 1-2 days.)

To stretch the dough, lay it out on a surface dusted with flour, and begin by patting the dough – like playing bongos, moving from the center out – until it’s at least 8 inches wide. At that point,
you can pick it up by the edge (about the last two inches) and rotate the disk while letting the weight of the dough help to stretch itself. Don’t panic if your dough develops a hole – just pinch it together and flatten the spot.

Before adding toppings, move your crust to a pizza peel (that thin paddle used by pizzaiolos everywhere to slip the pie onto the stone) that’s been dusted with semolina. Add toppings and cook 6-10 minutes (depending on your oven), but you should begin checking after 5 minutes. We were cautioned not to overload our pizzas, as having too many ingredients – wet ones, especially – will change the way the crust bakes.

Amazing dessert pizza:  sliced banana, chopped peanuts, and Nutella (applied after the baking).
Kitchen Goddess note: It will not surprise you to learn that, in your quest to make perfect pizza, you can buy any of the equipment you might need at either the Pizza a Casa store or online.


  1. Most delightful blog ever! I'm so pleased to see that 'blob measuring' is off of your list of concerns! And now, I'm off to search for a pizza making class here in the city.

    Eileen in Atlanta

  2. I hope you can find a class in Atlanta -- it really was a great time, especially when there's someone right at hand who can say, "Yes, a little more flour" or "You want to knead it a bit more vigorously." Have fun!

  3. This sounds like so much fun! I love thinking of you and Jim taking this class together. I'll check it out when we get back to NYC.

  4. Love this, Lee! I'm going to check it out when we get back to NYC

    1. Definitely -- you and Dennis would have a great time.