What Matters More: Ingredients or Technique?
In the field of continuous improvement/total quality, Wikipedia tells us that Six Sigma is "a set of tools and strategies for process improvement." What are the tools for improvement of homemade pizza? Training and technique? Or better ingredients?
|English muffin pizza.. Click any pic to enlarge|
Over a lifetime of pizza eating, I've made my share of pizzas at home. Some were truly wretched -- the thin, limp, wet "crusts" of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee home pizza kits in the 1970s, covered in watery pink ketchup labeled as sauce with the sparsest sprinkle of cheese. Some were simple yet consistently fun to eat -- English muffins, toasted then spread with Ragu and topped with some grated mozzarella.
Some were outright delicious, if you count "take and bake" pies from places like Mom's Bake-at-Home (Newtown, PA). One thing I learned for certain is that no matter what the ingredients, an overloaded pie is going to soak and ruin the crust.
|Mom's Bake-At-Home, Newtown, on the set of "Signs"|
Recent attempts have been largely successful, even using a bagged pizza crust mix from Betty Crocker. Even better are the pies crafted with a wonderful ball of pizza dough bought frozen from Franca Bakery in the Trenton Farmers' Market. Technique matters; but is there a way to move closer to crafting "destination pizza" when using a conventional oven at home?
|Franca's Base Trenton Store|
A recent holiday gathering offered the chance to test. Our group of eight included three pizzaoli who contributed both ingredients and technique. I was the apprentice chef; joining me were SoQ (Sister of Quixote) and EBIC (Epicurean Bronx Italian Chef).
|EBIC, PQ, and SoQ|
SoQ brought a pizza stone, two perforated pizza pans, a rolling pin and a rolling surface, and the dough. For her home-made pies (and ours), she mixes one third Italian 00 flour, one third whole wheat flour, and one third conventional white flour. At home, she would use a bread machine. Here, we let my undersized Cuisinart do the kneading, then we set the dough aside in covered bowls on top of the oven.
|Dough mixer, and prep work|
EBIC had made a stop on Arthur Avenue at the beginning of his journey from the Bronx, and he arrived with a cornucopia of Italian specialties selected for pizza making. He had two large fresh mozzarellas -- one ball of regular, one ball of smoked. Two fat sticks of soppressata -- one sweet, one hot.
|Browning the sausage|
There was a package of sliced Parma prosciutto, a stubby rope of sweet Italian sausage, a glorious bunch of fresh basil (so ubiquitous in summer, so treasured in winter) and a jar of anchovies. Perhaps most importantly, EBIC brought two large cans of Italian San Marzano tomatoes.
|EBIC preps the San Marzano under watchful eyes of EBIC Jr.|
I've had San Marzano tomatoes before, and they were good but not spectacular. SoQ swears by canned Jersey tomatoes (yes, New Jersey tomatoes -- you can get them at the Trenton Farmers' Market), but since we had none, who can complain about San Marzano?
When I make pizza, I rarely use fresh tomatoes (too wet) or tomato sauce (too cooked). My technique is to get a can of diced or stewed tomatoes and drain the juice. They have a brilliant red color and a lively "real tomato" taste when used on a pizza. The San Marzano tomatoes were whole, so we extracted them from the juice to hand-dice them. The tomatoes alone were insufficient to sauce the pie; we needed the remaining juice but it was too thin. EBIC wisely suggested a reduction, so we put it in a large pan and simmered until it was properly thickened.
|Ruining appetites with lovely junk food|
Ideally, you might think, home pizza is baked directly on an oven rack or on a baking stone in order to crisp/char the bottom. However, we did neither. We had two pizza stones, but they are small and we used them simply to provide even heat to the pans resting on them. We had the two full-size perforated pans provided by SoQ. I've used such pans primarily to reheat pie, but they serve pretty well for baking, too. Three of our four pies were baked at 500 degrees on those pans; the fourth pie I chose to do Dom DeMarco style, in a rectangle pan greased with olive oil.
|Pie One - Prebake|
All four pies were assembled in a similar fashion, but with varied toppings. First, a smear of the reduced tomato sauce. We had discussed "sauce on top" but I'm really keen on getting the cheese browned; fresh mozz is wetter than conventional mozz, so burying the cheese would have been problematic.
|Pie Three - Prebake|
Each pie was then dappled with San Marzano chunks, cubes of mozzarella, and the selected toppings. Pie One - under the direction of SoQ - had the simple pre-bake addition of sweet pepper slivers that we had pan-roasted. When it came out, it got a topping of prosciutto slivers and fresh basil.
|Slice of Pie One|
|Slice of Pie Two|
Pie Two - created by EBIC - was the sausage pie. We had squeezed the sausage from the casing to pan-brown it before adding those luscious chunks, DeLorenzo-style, to our pie. It got the same sauce and cheese treatment as Pie One. Pie
|Pie Three - Cooked|
|Pie Three - Under the Hood|
Three - my responsibility - was crafted in the rectangle baking pan. One half of the pie had anchovies and the sweet roasted peppers; the other half had diced soppressata. Out of the oven, Pie Three got a generous dusting of grated Grana Padano and a shower of fresh basil (again, tip of the hat to Dom DeMarco at DiFara; no shame in following the Master).
|Brussels sprouts appetizer|
Pie Four was a group assignment. We had thoroughly enjoyed an appetizer of Brussels sprouts, quartered and oven-roasted (450 degrees for 20 minutes) with salt, olive oil, and more of that creamy prosciutto. Having read so much about great NY pizza with roasted Brussels sprout toppings, we decided it was time to make our own. The leftovers went on the pie, and I think we tossed in some soppressata, too.
|PQ says "No Tip Sag!"|
|Appears to enjoy the pie|
Let's assess the results. PQ believes that the crust is always the most important aspect of any pie, and this crust came out lovely. Crisp, golden, flavorful. It did lack the char seen on the best pies; that is likely due to the fact that we were more or less capped at 500 degrees and we used baking pans. (This week, I ordered the $72 "Baking Steel" that I hope can produce a more robustly textured crust on my future pies). Absolutely no tip sag! So we crafted a great crust and didn't ruin it by overloading it with toppings (and it was tempting with all those Arthur Avenue specialties).
Our soft conclusion is that technique is key to getting a proper crust that is crisp yet chewy, and stiff enough to support the toppings with tip sag nor tasting dry and cracker-like. But to go from a good pizza to a great one, ingredients make the difference.
|EBIC puts finishing touches on Pie Four|
Previous home-baked pizzas at Casa Quixote used toppings like Contadina diced tomatoes and whatever cheese was on hand. Did the custom dough mix and the premium toppings make a meaningful difference? Absolutely. Each bite was not just a satisfying crunch and chew of a well-made crust, but was also packed with the intense and rich flavors of the tomatoes, cured meats, and cheeses. I love anchovies, but I probably applied them a bit too generously, even though I diced them. But the cheeses and meats were in harmony with the crust and sauce, and the flavors blended perfectly.
|SoQ, pizza dough expert|
Dom DeMarco sometimes makes a sloppy pie, wet cheese sliding off, but the flavor of his pizza is largely without equal, and it's due (I think) to both his technique and his high quality ingredients. Five bucks a slice? Still a bargain. We were pretty unanimous at our small gathering that, even with top-shelf crust, meats, and cheese, the star of these pies was the San Marzano plum tomatoes. I can't say for certain, but I suspect that our reduction of the juices also concentrated the flavors. I can get a pie with better texture than these four, but rarely one with equal flavor.
|3 Happy Cooks|