The other night we ordered pizza from the place up the street. It fit the dictionary definition of pizza – “a dish of Italian origin consisting of a flat, round base of dough baked with a topping of tomato sauce and cheese” – but it wasn’t good and didn’t serve to do anything other than fill us up quickly and make me miss Nicli Pizzeria in Vancouver and other good quality pizza all the more. Luckily we have another solution: The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani, 11-Time World Pizza Champ.
When the book arrived at my house, I opened it with glee and flipped through the various recipes, but my delight turned slightly to trepidation as I noted the 38 page “Master Class” that kicks off Gemignani’s signature process, and then the long list of recommended tools and ingredients, and then the three day process from activation to eating. This pizza is serious business. Gemignani writes,
“Anyone can hand you a pizza recipe, and if that recipe is halfway decent, chances are that you can make yourself a perfectly good pizza for dinner tonight in your own kitchen with no special equipment and not much preparation. But that’s not where I want to take you. I want to get you all the way to five-star, killer-pizzeria-quality pizza.”
I wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to make five-star, killer-pizzeria-quality pizza. I’ve made pizza at home quite a few times in the past, and been pretty pleased with the results but that was before Matt recognized that he was celiac and I started watching my weight. Now he regularly orders a gluten-free pizza and I roast some broccoli and we have become ok with that plan on nights when I don’t feel like cooking. If I was going to spend 3 days making pizza then I was going to have to eat ALL of it and if it was good (chances of this seemed high), then I was going to have to make it again and again. This is not a problem that delivery pizza has. In the end I decided that the possibility of amazing pizza and the opportunity to learn how it’s done were worth more than a couple of extra visits to the gym. I have had my mind blown by re-examining the way I made both coffee and hummus and I was excited to see what we could do with pizza.
Master Class – Day 0 (Prep)
Gemignani requests that you read through the whole master class section before getting started and not only do I think that that’s usually a good idea, in this case I don’t know how you could possibly get started without at least a rudimentary understanding of what’s involved. He talks at length about flours, yeast, salt, oil, malt, sauce and cheese and why it’s important to take the time to do it right. He also includes lots of “pro tips” that speak to years of experience and understanding of the science behind the craft. For example, some bakers like to pre-soak their flour in water to give the flour a head start on hydrating. I am sticking to the basics on this round but it’s good to know what’s possible.
The key to Gemignani’s process is to go slow. He writes,
“Moisture, warmth and sugar are what get yeast going. What I do is all about controlling those factors to make the process as slow as possible. I activate the yeast with some lukewarm water, then I usually mix flour with some malt (to add a slight amount of sweetness and help with browning) and add ice water, which will calm the yeast down when it’s incorporated. I mix that very slowly and relatively briefly in a stand mixer…The yeast mixer goes in next and is mixed slowly, again relatively briefly, and then the salt is added, which slows the yeast down even more. Finally, a small amount of oil is mixed in. Then I let the dough rest at room temperature for up to an hour before I refrigerate it for 24 hours or longer.”
I remember reading Delancey and being in absolute awe at the amount of care and handling that had to happen to get the right recipe, temperature and process down and The Pizza Bible explains how it all works.
Once you’ve done your homework, you’ll need to go to the store. The equipment list is LONG, even for someone with as many kitchen gadgets as I have. It suggests a digital scale, a pocket scale, a stand mixer, immersion blender, instant-read thermometer, not one but two pizza steels (or stones), a pizza peel, a pizza cutter and platters. But the ingredient list is even longer. I made a trip to both Whole Foods and the restaurant supply store in Seattle and I made fairly sizeable dry goods order (for high-gluten flour, diastatic malt and fresh yeast) before I got started.
Master Class – Day 1 (Making the Dough)
The “things you’ll need” list includes 2 days and enough equipment to cover your countertop; a scale, 5 prep bowls, an instant-read thermometer, a stand mixer, a rubber spatula, a bowl scraper, a dough cutter, a large mixing bowl and plastic wrap. First you weigh all the ingredients in separate bowls – I assume so that everything is prepped and ready but making this in the future I would double up the malt and the flour (since they are mixed together right away) and do the ice water after the lukewarm water (to avoid grabbing the wrong one).
Because pizza doesn’t have a lot of ingredients, it’s important to get the right ones in the right quantities. Everything is measured, even temperature. Flour is the heart and soul of the pizza and in traditional pizza the gluten forms a “a ‘gluten network’ – a web of protein strands – when you knead and work dough. The higher the gluten in the flour, the stronger that network will be, and the more elasticity it will have.” Yeast comes next. It’s is a living organism so it’s important not to use water hotter than 85 F or you’ll risk killing the cells. Quick-rise yeast may make it possible to make pizza dough in one evening, but it defeats the purpose of keeping the process as slow as possible. Then salt. “Salt adds more than flavor to pizza dough. It strengthens the gluten network, making dough stronger and more elastic” also acts as a preservative to keep the dough from oxidizing and discolouring. And slows the fermentation down because it causes yeast cells to release some of their moisture, which makes them less active.” Oil and malt are also added – to help emulsify the ingredients and break down the starches in the flour – and then you have your dough.
When your ingredients are ready, make the dough by combining them in the stand mixer) and kneading the dough for 2 or 3 minutes until it is soft. Cover it with a tea towel and let it rest on the counter for 1 hour before covering it in cling wrap and refrigerating it for 24 hours (bulk fermenting). Be sure it’s well-wrapped or you’ll get hard spots on your dough.
Master Class – Day 2
I forgot to mention that this ball of dough is going to make TWO pizzas and for the purposes of pizza mastery, you learn how to make both Classic Pepperoni pizza and a Proscuitto and Arugula “blanca” pizza (without tomato sauce). At this point in the process the dough is undergoing bulk fermentation – called such because the dough hasn’t been separated yet. After 24 hours in the fridge the dough will have risen and the first step is to de-gas it by pushing the gas bubbles out of the dough in order to give the dough a stronger rise. To de-gas the dough, put it in the bowl of a stand mixer and run the mixer on low speed for about 30 seconds. Then turn it out onto a floured countertop and gather it into a ball.
Next you’re going to separate the dough into the individual pizza balls, weighing each to make sure they’re even and stretch the dough into a ball with a smooth surface. Gemignani explains that this is “a way to stretch a nice, tight gluten network across the surface, which will trap air and help your pizza to rise and crisp.” Sounds good to me! Then the dough goes back into the fridge (for another 24 hours) and you make the tomato sauce and garlic oil for drizzling. The pizza sauce is uncooked so it benefits from being made a day ahead for the flavours to settle but if you’re not ready to eat your pizza the next day, the dough can be frozen at this point (for up to two months) and the sauce can also be kept either for a few days in the fridge or up to a month in the freezer.
Master Class – Day 3
Finally the day of being able to actually eat your pizza has dawned and it will be worth it, let me tell you but not without just a little more time and effort. The dough needs to sit on the counter for an hour or two until it reachers 60-65 F. While the dough is warming, you can get the oven heated. Set one rack in the upper third of the oven and the other one on the bottom rung. The Pizza Bible insists (it’s one of the Commandments – see below) that you should put one pizza steel on each rack but I will come clean and admit that I didn’t buy a second pizza steel and my pies turned out ok. The reason for having two stones is a good one – so that the pizza cooks evenly and then has a hot place to go for the finish, making it extra hot and crispy on the bottom – but my kitchen is already overflowing. If this becomes a regular habit around here (seems likely) I’ll definitely invest in a second one.
While the oven, dough and sauce are warming, set up your stations for sauce, cheese and toppings. He suggests doing one complete pizza at a time and that suited my limited amount of kitchen counter space. For the pepperoni pizza that means a line of ingredients for “making” the pizza – tomato sauce you made the day before, whole-milk mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni, of course – and a second one for “finishing” the pizza – garlic oil, grated Pecorino Romano cheese and dried oregano. Again, your pizza is only going to be as good as your ingredients so if you’re taking all this time to make it amazing, don’t skimp. The Pizza Bible says that “whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella cheese is the ‘anchor’ topping for most American pizzas so getting your hands on a good one is important.” As part of your prep, you’ll also need to prep your cutting board and peel by making a semolina and flour dusting mixture that prevents the dough from sticking.
So the second thing I need to tell you – and maybe I should have come clean about this earlier – is that you don’t get to toss the pizza in the air. I was hoping it was going to happen but instead the technique is to gently move the dough from the sheet pans and then carefully stretch the dough into shape. You’re trying to preserve that gluten network and also give the pizza a bit of a lip (that will end up being the crust) and it seems that pizza dough is much more delicate than the movies would have you believe. So no tossing. There is an entire page in the Pizza Bible dedicated to the correct technique (and no videos online that I can find) so if you want the full run-down you’re just going to have to buy the book. The trick is – like elsewhere in this process – to go slow.
When the pizza is stretched to 13 inches with a nice lip on it, you’re ready to add sauce – only a little – and cheese, then pepperoni all the way out to the lip but not on it. Then you need to transfer the pizza onto the peel and then from the peel onto the hot stone in the oven. Easier said then done, friend. Gemignani describes the process as akin to “the old trick where the magician whisks the tablecloth away, leaving all the dishes in place,”
“You’re touching a bit of dough to the stone and then whisking away the peel, and the flatter you hold it, the less you’ll disrupt the dough and the ingredients on top of it. What you’re *not* doing is throwing or sliding the pizza off the peel, through the air, and onto the stone. That’s an important distinction because you want to keep your pizza as round and uniform as possible. So think, ‘Put it where you want it, and then take the peel away.”
This is the moment when you will find out if you’ve stretched your dough too thinly, or not applied the dusting mixture liberally enough. My pepperoni pizza stuck and smushed a bit in the centre because of one or both of those reasons (and probably having a second pizza stone would have helped as well). It doesn’t take very long to bake your pizza but you have to be alert. After 2 or 3 minutes check to see if there are any bubbles in the dough, then after 3 more minutes you should notice that the cheese is melted and the crust is browning. Move the pizza onto the peel and quickly rotate it 180 degrees before putting it back on the second stone or steel (or back on the first one if you’re me). 5 minutes later the pizza should be done. Slide the peel underneath and move it to the cutting board.
To finish, cut the pizza into slices, drizzle with garlic oil and sprinkle with the Pecorino Romano. Delicious!
The white pizza gets the same treatment (except without the sauce). I was overly careful about stretching this one so it was a bit thicker than it should have been, but it also didn’t stick to the peel, so yay! When it’s finished baking, cut it first and then add the fresh toppings so that they’re not smushed into the pizza.
The rest of the book is full of the near-infinite variations on pizza (the subtitle of the book is: Neapolitan, Deep-Dish, Wood-Fired, Sicilian, Calzones and Focaccia to New York, New Haven, Detroit and more) but I haven’t even eaten most of them in my lifetime so it’s pretty unlikely that I will work my way through to making them. Instead I am going to practice this method until I get it down, then branch out to trying one with gluten-free flour and all of my favourite toppings. I’m excited.
I will end with The Pizza Bible’s 10 Commandments of Pizza:
Thou shalt use a scale to weigh ingredients.
Thou shalt not rush the rise.
Thou shalt use two pizza stones or steels rather than one.
Thou shalt not put cold sauce on pizza dough.
Thou shalt not put cold dough in a hot oven.
Thou shalt not overtop thy pizza.
Thou shalt not make a pizza larger than thy pizza peel or stone.
Thou shalt return thy pizza to the same spot after rotating it.
Thou shalt slice thy pizza before adding finishing ingredients.
Thou shalt brush thy stones to clean them after each pizza.
The Pizza Bible
The World’s Favourite Pizza Styles, from Neapolitan, Deep-Dish, Wood-Fired, Sicilian, Calzones and Focaccia to New York, New Haven, Detroit and more
by Tony Gemignani, 11-Time World Pizza Champ
From Ten Speed Press