pizza. full stop.
Preamble: This is a draft post. It is 11:06pm. Laptop battery down to 9%. Laptop charger too far to reach. Author very tired, too tired to edit. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not. Probably tomorrow I’ll write another draft of another post. Hey, thanks for stopping by.
One of my earliest memories in the kitchen is of my mother teaching me how to knead dough. Actually, before I could knead dough, I learned to decorate mom’s Christmas shortbread cookies; red sprinkles for the bell, green sprinkles for the tree, granulated sugar for Santa’s beard, hot red cinnamon candy for Rudolph’s nose and, my personal favourite, those shiny silver balls, the ones that came in a spice jar and could split molars in half, but were perfect for the eyes of the angel cookie.
We never had much money when I was growing up, which meant that while my friends ate McCain pizza pockets after school, my mom was busy making bread from scratch. And while their lunch boxes were like treasure chests filled with Oreo cookies and those packs of crackers with the red stick and orange processed cheese, my little brown back contained an apple and homemade zucchini bread. In my 7-year-old mind, this was a sign of hardship, proof of poverty. Such perplexing thoughts our young minds think. Now, of course, I realise that homemade food is a tremendous blessing and how lucky was I to have a mom who baked such treats for me?
And so it is that I learned to knead dough. In the yellow house. Up the hill from the small village. I remember the smell of yeast bubbling in water as it fed on sugar in the Corelle bowl with the gold cornflowers around the rim. I remember the flour on my mom’s hands and cheeks as she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. I remember how soft the dough was, like velvet, and her teaching me how to gather it into a ball, dip my small fingers into the flour pouch, push the dough away from me with the heel of my hands, fold the dough over, turn a quarter of a turn and repeat. Over and over again, like a mantra.
We set the balls of dough on top of the refrigerator (the warmest place in the house) for an hour and mom always let me punch it down (the best part), knead it again and cover it with the checkered towel for a second rising.
Rolling it out was my mother’s job but I remember watching her and hearing the tiny air bubbles pop, like bubble wrap, as she pressed the dough into the counter with the heavy wooden rolling-pin (years later, when I moved into my first apartment, a fledgling, the first thing she bought for me was my very own rolling-pin) and then we generously (and quite messily) spooned tomato sauce and sprinkled toppings over the dough before popping it into the oven. Like a cartoon, you could almost see the scent trail wafting from the stove and snaking its way through the entire house, teasing us and beckoning us all to the table.
I imagine, as the perfectionist that I have become, that my five-year-old assistance was anything but perfect. I imagine I poked holes in the dough and the toppings were unevenly spread, but the point was not perfection. The point was learning to help and having fun in the kitchen.
Ever since, pizza has become my absolute favourite meal. I could eat pizza five days a week and never tire of it. Though my taste has evolved over the years and though I am inching my way towards a healthier alternative (having even briefly explored raw buckwheat pizza with cashew cheese), my love of pizza has never diminished. It is, for me, the ultimate comfort food.
Pizza was with me by the 99-cent slice during my university years. In Montreal, the pizza shops make a killing after 3am when everyone piles out of the bars and dance clubs and ends up at the nearest pizza joint for a cheap slice. Often times, the half hour spent at the pizza parlour with friends, reminiscing about the evening’s events, was the best part of my night.
Pizza was with me every time I moved to a new town; from Montreal to booming Calgary to industrial Hamilton to wild British Columbia to quaint Nova Scotia and back to Montreal again. With every move, there was pizza. After unpacking an entire truck load, piling all of the boxes into one room and cracking open a beer, came the late night call to the nearest pizza place. “Yes, hello, I’d like to order take-out to (new address) please.” Pizza was always the first thing to ever arrive on my new doorstep. A new address, a new life, a new pizza to celebrate a fresh start.
In Montreal, we have a moving-day phenomenon. Every year, thousands of people pack up and move on July 1st because most leases end on June 30th. The streets are lined with moving trucks and couches and boxes and broken lamps. It is complete chaos in the city and pizza companies make record-breaking sales as exhausted movers, their kitchen still packed away, order pizza and have themselves a picnic in their new apartment, on the floor of an empty room.
Pizza also featured prominently when I lived in Nova Scotia. My brother-in-law at the time built a wood-burning pizza oven made with clay gathered from the Minas Basin. The clay dome on Whiterock Road was fired up many times throughout the summer and fall of 2005 before collapsing under the weight of a particularly heavy snowfall. But before the collapse, we held extravagant pizza parties. We made dozens of balls of dough early in the day and our friends from the valley helped to dress the pizzas with homemade pesto and tomatoes fresh off the vine and vegetables from the garden and cheese from the local farmer’s market. The boys then ceremoniously lit the fire and placed the pizzas on a paddle built from wood scraps and slid them into the oven’s cavernous mouth. When removed, the bottom crust kept a slight layer of ash. I remember standing around the warm oven with all my friends, under an August moon, with our slices and our drinks and thinking, “This. This right here is a perfect moment.”
And then, of course, pizza was there during each of my travels. On long road trips when everything was grey and wet and we couldn’t possibly bear the thought of setting up camp and putting up our tent, we splurged on a cheap motel room and a bottle of wine and a pizza and a night of bad television. Pizza nights were our respite from the storm.
Pizza reminds me of Pembridge Road, where I walked around at sunset with a slice from Arancina Pizzeria and thought my taste buds might explode, right there, on the streets of London.
It also brings back memories of a conversation I had with an Italian man about the smell of pizza. We were walking in downtown Salerno at 9pm when Giuseppe told me to stop at a very specific spot on the sidewalk. I had walked ahead a couple of feet and he said enthusiastically, “Come back to this spot, right here, and smell the pizza. The smell is the best part of the pizza,” he said.
Or the girl in Barcelona who let me sleep on her couch for the night. We strolled through the city’s streets in search of the best slice and took it back to her place. We dipped the pizza dough in her homemade chilli oil and talked for hours. I remember getting up to do the dishes after the meal but she insisted that I wait a while longer because “It’s not good for digestion to wash dishes right after a meal,” she said.
And then there was the time I stumbled on what felt like a secret gem in a dark alleyway. Crazy amazing pizza by the slice for 1 euro 70. Pizza Raval’s walls were painted dark red and tacky gold garland hung from the ceiling. It looked like a dive, but the pizza was perfect. I had a slice of tomato and fresh mozzarella but couldn’t stop there. I simply had to go back for seconds (my taste buds insisted upon it) and so I did. The wine was served in plastic cups and still seemed to taste better than most wines back home. Give me velour red chairs and a place where they play 80s music and the Spanish dude behind the counter is singing “What’s love got to do with it?” any day of the week.
A month later, in Lucca, with a girl named Kate from Australia we strolled into Bella M Briana, a wood-fired pizzeria, where the happiest staff on earth work. The big biker guy pushing and pulling pizzas out of the blazing oven had a wide Cheshire cat grin on his face. It was contagious and truly impossible not to smile back. The place smelled like camp fire and the bread my mom used to bake and sweet tomato sauce. I ordered a bean, sausage, garlic and mozzarella pizza. Kate went for the marinara. Years later, I would return to this pizzeria with my husband and mother. But that’s a story for another day.
And of course, I will never forget sharing pizza with my lover in Rome, by the Fontana del Moro in the Piazza Navona. And again later that evening, at Est! Est! Est!, one of Rome’s oldest and most traditional family-owned pizzerias. The place wasn’t fancy but the line-up was long and though we’d had better pizza, it was authentic Italian and the experience made the pizza memorable. We played “the five things you would bring on a desert island”. He answered whiskey, bacon sandwiches, iPhone, frisbee, pen and paper (I let him have a bonus item because I fancied him). I answered camera, music, notepad, pizza and espresso (all in unlimited supply, naturally, batteries included and water being available goes without saying and I would borrow his pen for my notebook).
Europe took my pizza addiction to a whole new level. My whole life I thought I’d been eating pizza when it turned out I was eating bread with a bunch of crap on top of it. Italy sorted that out for me.
So it stands to reason that I should share a pizza recipe with you today, though it is difficult to share a specific recipe because the beauty of pizza is that it is so versatile.
Recently, I have taken a liking to simply spreading pesto on a brown rice tortilla shell (in lieu of pizza dough), then topping it with whatever I have on hand in my refrigerator and baking it for 12 minutes (a wonderful alternative when time is of the essence and I’ve got that pizza craving).
But I do still knead dough when I have company to knead dough for and though I generally use spelt, I occasionally use white flour because, let’s face it, it’s perfect for a light, chewy dough. And if you’re gonna hav’a pizza, ya might as well hav’a pizza.
Here is my favourite basic pizza dough recipe (I wrote the recipe down by hand in an old notebook a thousand years ago and I’m afraid I failed to cite the source)
Basic Pizza Dough Recipe
3 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 package yeast
1/2 tsp sugar or honey
1-1/4 warm water approximately 85-90 degrees
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil.
Place yeast and sugar in a bowl add 1/4 cup warm water. Let it rest for about ten minutes until the yeast is activated. Put flour and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Make a well in the centre. Add the water/yeast mixture and the olive oil. Stir with a large spoon incorporating the flour as you stir. Add the additional water slowly. Once all the water has been added begin to knead with your hands. You want to knead it for about 8-10 minutes until the dough is smooth.
Brush the dough with olive oil and put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise about an hour until it has doubled in size.
Punch the dough down and lay it on a cutting board. Fold the left side of the dough toward the centre and then fold the right side toward the centre overlapping the portion from the left. Flip it over and let it rise again for at least another hour. Take it from the bowl and divide into 3 equal parts. Itʼs best to use a dough cutter for this. Form these into three balls and let rise again for another 45 minutes to an hour. At this point, your dough is ready for pizza.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone. Trust me, a pizza stone makes all the difference in a conventional oven. Best if you heat it for at least an hour but I often only heat it the length of time it takes for me to roll out the dough and chop and spread the toppings.
Roll out dough to desired thickness. I prefer thin crust pizza, so I roll it out very thin using a rolling-pin. If you would like a more substantial crust, roll it out by hand using your fingers to spread out the dough and crust.
Slide onto the stone using a pizza peel and bake for about 1 and 1/2 minutes. Take out and flip it over and set it on a baking rack. Spread your pizza sauce on top. Add the cheese and other ingredients.
Slide back in the oven for about 6 more minutes until the cheese is golden brown.
Remove and let rest on the rack. This is critical because if you slide it directly onto a cutting board, your crust will get soggy from the steam generated from the hot crust.
Let it rest for about 30-45 seconds. Slice and enjoy.
As for toppings, lately I’ve been enjoying pesto, wild mushroom and onion (shitake, portobello, cremini and chanterelles seared in a skillet with a little thyme), garlic, fresh ground pepper and mozzarella. I am also quite fond of tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and arugula (which I sprinkle on top of the pizza when it comes out of the oven). Give the arugula a couple of minutes to stick to the cheese, cut with scissors and voilà. Tastebud explosion.
And one last favourite is potato pizza. I know. Sounds strange, right? Put your preconceived notions aside people, because potato pizza is the shiznit.
adapted from http://helengraves.co.uk/
3 large potatoes, very thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tbs chopped rosemary leaves
4 onions, sliced
1/4 cup grated parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
Begin by caramelising the onions over low heat for an hour, or until they become very soft and caramelised.
For the potatoes, you want them as thin as possible otherwise they wonʼt cook properly in the oven. Mix them with the crushed garlic, herbs and a tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and pepper and leave until your onions are ready.
When ready to assemble the pizza, brush the base with olive oil, then spread a thick layer of the onions on top. Add the potato slices so that theyʼre slightly overlapping and there are no gaps. Add a little extra sea salt on top of the pizza. Sprinkle with parmesan and bake (following instructions above) for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown.
Enjoy with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and a sharp green salad.
The beauty of pizza is that there are no rules. It’s pretty hard to screw up the toppings. Chop it all up, spread it any which way, go crazy. And if the thought of making your own dough sends you into a spiral of fear and anxiety, you can sometimes find fresh dough in the bakery section of your supermarket. I even once asked my local pizzeria for dough; they chopped off a chunk and charged me a few bucks. But I highly recommend you at least give it a try. Even if only once. You can always learn to knead dough with your kid, turning a chore into fun times in the kitchen (and you can blame the kid if it doesn’t work out). I assure you that your child will someday look back on the memory with fondness.