In preparing for the second challenge of Project Food Blog, I came across a line in the prompt that says “We’re bypassing the French and Italian standards in favor of more challenging cuisines.”. The problem is, I’m Japanese, so cooking an “exotic” Asian dish felt like it was cheating. That’s why I decided to make a dish that’s ubiquitous and utterly simple, and yet it’s something that is made wrong ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Yep, that’s right, I’m making a classic pizza.
Not Chicago deep-dish, or even a New York-style fold-in-half thin crust, and most certainly not some new-fangled California-style pizza with, ohh… say some blasphemous combo like kimchi and pork belly on it. Since I’ve never set foot in Naples, this meant hitting stacks of bound fiber inscribed with contrasting pigment. Yes my friends, this food blogger, walked over to a bookshelf and used a table of contents to research the history of a true Neapolitan pizza.
As it turns out, none of the ingredients in pizza comes from Italy. Tomatoes are from Peru by way of Spain, Basil from Southeast Asia by way of India, and flour is a product of Jarmo cultivation in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). This might be reaching a bit too far back in time, but I thought it illustrates an interesting point: that “fusion” cuisine is nothing new.
Back to the present, my goal was to make a proper Pizza Margherita. The type of pizza that Queen Consort, Margherita of Savoy may have had during her visit to Naples in 1889. That’s right; no canned tomato sauce, no boboli, and certainly no fancy kitchen gadgets like a stand mixer or food processor. I wanted to roll old-school, you know, cooking using your head, hands and heat.
If you’ve ever wondered why Pita and Pizza sound similar, wonder no more. Both flatbreads share a common history with the Greek word for pitch: πίσσα (písa). It’s no surprise that people in port cities near the Mediterranean figured out that you could put stuff on this flat bread. This included Naples, which is traditionally credited with the creation of the modern day pizza.
To get the characteristic snap on the exterior, with a soft pillowy interior, pizza needs to be cooked quickly at a very high temperature. Traditionally, wood-fired brick ovens are used, achieving temperatures as high as 900 degres F. In addition to cooking with radient heat, the bricks under the pizza are extremely hot, cooking the pizza from both above and below. The rapidly vaporizing steam creates big bubbles in the dough giving the pizza loft, and its characteristic ring of puffy crust.
Since I don’t have a brick pizza oven in my 550 square foot apartment, I knew I’d have to tap my right brain for ideas. This challenge reminded me of my dilema while making naan. I don’t have a clay tandoor in my kitchen, and yet I’m able to make lightly charred, soft, puffy naan at home using a very hot cast iron skillet. It seemed reasonable that I could achieve a similar result for my Pizza Margherita using the skillet. The problem is that unlike naan, pizza has toppings and cannot be flipped over to cook the other side. That’s where the broiler comes in. A minute or two spent a few inches from the broiler is enough to puff the crust like a blimp while melting the cheese into a hot bubbly mess.
I’ve adapted Jim Lahey’s no-knead dough using a little extra salt, and weight measures, which work better for this pizza. For the tomatoes, I wanted the fresh taste of raw tomatoes, but I didn’t want to puree it in a blender, so I steamed them first to make them easier to get through a strainer. Just make sure you use summer sweet vine ripened tomatoes, or the sauce will be a bland watery mess.
As with most pizzas of the time, Margherita pizzas are simple. Like tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, olive oil and salt simple. Yep, that’s all I put on it, and it was delicious.
- To make the dough, dissolve the yeast and salt in a large bowl with the water. Add the flour and use some long chopsticks to stir together (okay they probably didn't use chopsticks in Italy during the 19th century, but they work so well because they don't have much surface area for the dough to stick to). Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit for at least 12 hours, or overnight in the fridge.
- Cut a cross hatch on the bottom of the tomatoes (opposite of where the stem connected) to keep them from popping. Put some water in a pot and place a steamer rack in the pot. Place the tomatoes cut-side-up on the rack. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then cover and steam the tomatoes until they are soft to the touch (about 10 minutes). Remove the lid and let them cool off enough to handle.
- Remove the skins, then place them in a stainer and use a pestle or the bottom of the spoon to press the tomato through. It would be faster to use a blender first before straining, but Queen Margherita's chef in Naples didn't have a blender. Plus using a blender would break up the seeds which would add a slightly bitter taste to the sauce.
- When you're ready to start making the pizzas, move your oven rack to the top position and turn the boiler on high. Put a cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Flour your hands and flat surface to roll the dough out on and cut off a ball of dough about the size of a large orange. Shape it into a ball, then roll it in flour to keep it from sticking. Use your hands or a rolling pin to flatten the ball into a round flat circle about the same diameter of your cast iron pan. Since it will be difficult getting the dough into the pan once the toppings are on, I recommend having your toppings at the ready, and putting the dough straight into the pan at this point.
- Once the dough is in the pan, drizzle some olive oil on top, use a spoon to spread a few spoonfuls of tomato puree on top of the pizza. You want enough to make a very thin layer, but don't add too much or your pizza will be watery. Lay a few slices of mozzarella on top, then sprinkle with salt.
- By the time you have all the toppings on the pizza the dough should have puffed up slightly and a peak under the pizza should reveal a crust that's just starting to brown. Transfer the pan to the broiler (directly under the heat source), and broil for one to two minutes, or until the edges of the crust are just starting to char and the center of the pizza is bubbly and caramelized. You may need to turn the pan part of the way through cooking to get even browing on the crust.
- When it's done, use a spatula to transfer the pizza to a plate and sprinkle with basil. Personally I love lots of basil, so I like covering it with a mound of basil, but we're being traditional here, remember? There should be enough dough to make four pizzas and you can turn the leftover tomato puree into a pasta sauce with any leftover basil.