Pizza Crust Perfected

Posted: under Baking bread, Cooking with children, Family favorites, Hiking, Italy, Large family.
Tags: , , ,

 

ohiotrip-1-7

 

 

I am not a pizza professional, but you could certainly say I am well-seasoned!  My family enjoys making and eating pizza, and even my children have high standards about the quality of the ingredients they want to eat.

A few years ago when my husband approached his fortieth birthday, he told me that he expected me to “go all out” for his birthday.   I knew exactly what I wanted to do–  build a wood-fired pizza oven.

 

 

The year before we had gone hiking in Crete.  We hiked through terrain that felt entirely remote and deserted, then would come around a rock and find a taverna, a family-owned restaurant.  More often than not, these tavernas would have a wood-fired oven, producing some of the most delicious food and flat bread I have even eaten.

Taverna in Crete- they could not speak English; we could not speak Greek.  They brought my husband into the  kitchen and had him point to what we'd like to eat.

Taverna in Crete- they could not speak English; we could not speak Greek. They brought my husband into the kitchen and had him point to what we desired to eat. See oven door on left?

 

Constructing a wood-fired pizza oven is certainly a Do-It-Yourself project, but I didn’t do it myself.  I had neither the time nor inclination to muck about with cinderblocks and mortar, so I hired someone to build it for me using plans that are available for free from a site called “Forno Bravo” :  http://www.fornobravo.com/pompeii_oven/pompeii_oven.html

Pompeii Oven under construction.

Pompeii Oven under construction.

 

The finished product was a resounding success!

Silk Road Catering used the oven when preparing the meal for my husband's birthday celebration.

Silk Road Catering used the oven when preparing the meal for my husband’s birthday celebration.

The following year we confirmed that the construction of our oven was authentic when we went hiking in Italy (notice a pattern here?) and visited the ruins of the city of Pompei.

Wood-fired oven in Pompei, buried under the ashed of Vesuvius.  When unearthed, there were actually loaves of bread entombed inside.

Wood-fired oven in Pompei, buried under the ashes of Vesuvius. When unearthed, there were actually loaves of bread entombed inside.

The inside construction of the oven was identical to mine, only much larger.

Domed bricks and thick walls enable oven to reach a high temperature for ideal pizza and bread making.

Domed bricks and thick walls enable oven to reach a high temperature for ideal pizza and bread making.

Here is a basic description of how a wood-fired pizza oven works:

1.  Build a very hot fire in the oven and wait until all the bricks on the ceiling are white.  That means the oven is between 750 – 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Push the remaining logs to the back of the oven, then brush the baking surface clean with a brass wire brush.

3.  Using a pizza peal (it looks like a giant spatula), gently transfer uncooked pizza into the oven.

4.  About 90 seconds later, rotate the pizza for even cooking.

5.  A couple minutes later, remove finished pizza.  That’s right – the whole process takes less than five minutes, and your pizza with be hot, bubbling, with a perfectly carmelized crust.

NOW THE REAL CHALLENGE was finding a pizza dough recipe that didn’t take all day and was able to withstand the high heat of the pizza oven.  The authentic recipe from Italy  not only requires Tipo 00 flour, which is great if you can find it, but also 4 – 5 hours of preparation.  Not ideal for spontaneous “honey, let’s make pizza tonight” occasions.  Which brings me to a story:

It was a Saturday and my husband worked in his office while I was cleaning the garage.  Around 4 PM he announced that he wanted to “fire up the pizza oven” and make pizza that night.  I did not have the time or energy to “throw together” pizza dough, so  he went off to the grocery store to purchase refrigerated pizza dough – you know- the kind that comes in a tube.  We had never bought it before.  As stated earlier, the pizza oven cooks at a very high temperature, which is what makes it so wonderful.  Well, we unrolled the pizza dough and added the toppings.  My husband shoveled it into the pizza oven and it went “BOOF!”  The pizza crust instantly incinerated!  There was nothing left but the now-charred mushrooms and cheese that my husband had to scrape out of the oven.  I am not saying that he burned the pizza crust.  There was no pizza crust – only ash.  What kind of volatile ingredients did they put in that dough?

At last, after much experimenting, I  discovered a “quick”  pizza dough recipe that yields thin-crusted pizza and is able to withstand the high heat of a wood-fired pizza oven.  I did not invent it; it comes from Alton Brown from the Food Network and is found here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/grilled-pizza-three-ways-recipe/index.html    So when my husband says, “Let’s fire up the pizza oven tonight!”, it takes me only two hours and fifteen minutes to go from “idea” to “ready for the oven”.  Most recently we  baked pizza after biking 30 miles with the children at St. Simons Island.  It was a great way to celebrate the end of a full day! (It also explains my husband’s outfit in the photos.)

The oven is heated unti the bricks on the inside turn white-hot.  Because it is so well insulated, the outside is cool to the touch!

The oven is heated until the bricks on the inside turn white-hot. Because it is so well insulated, the outside is cool to the touch!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pizza is ready for the oven.

The pizza is ready for the oven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only minutes later the crust is brown and bubbly.

Only minutes later the crust is brown and bubbly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband typically bakes the pizza while I assemble the next one.  I usually make 6 - 8.

My husband typically bakes the pizza while I assemble the next one. I usually make 6 – 8.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perfectly baked homemade pizza.  Perfect!

Perfectly baked homemade pizza. Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone has a pizza oven, but doesn’t everyone love homemade pizza?  I am sharing a recipe I have used for years that makes delicious “baked in the oven” pizza.   I call it “Presbyterian Pizza Dough” because it includes beer.    I am not a beer drinker, so I just buy whatever is cheapest.  However, I would only recommend King Arthur Flour brand of All Purpose Flour.

Presbyterian Pizza Dough

12 oz. can of beer

3 3/4 c. all-purpose flour

3 Tsp. sugar

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 Tsp. butter

1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast OR 2 tsp. rapid rise yeast

 

Mix these ingredients in a large bowl, then turn them onto lightly floured counter and knead about 8 minutes.

 To make 4 thin-crust pizzas:

Divide into four parts.

Shape each into 12 inch round.

Place on pizza pan and brush with olive oil and let rest about 15 minutes.

Put on your toppings.

Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

 

To make 2 thick-crust pizzas:

Follow same instructions except shape into two pizzas instead of four.

Baptists may omit beer, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Comments (0) Feb 10 2013

Italy: Advice to the Traveler

Posted: under Hiking, Italy, Photography, Travel.
Tags: , , , ,

Ligurian Marina

 

 

I have just returned from a trip to Italy and a friend will be traveling there soon.  This was my fourth trip to southern Europe in five years.  While I recognize there are many variations from region to region, I offer this advice to someone who is traveling to Italy for the first time.  These are things that I have observed, read, and learned.  While most of my time is Italy has been spent on hiking and photography, I hope this advice will help the casual traveler.

 

 

 

 

EUROS (€)

  • How many Euros will you need?  Try to calculate, before you leave, whether or not you would need to spend a large sum of cash.  My husband and I prefer to stay in Bed and Breakfast Inns, and many require us to pay in cash.  If you know that you need several hundred Euros in cash, order it before you leave.  We found the best rate from Wells Fargo.  You order it online; they deliver it to your door.  If you just need a few hundred Euros for incidentals, try getting them from your bank.  They may not have it on hand, but they can order it for you.  AVOID exchanging money at the airport!  On my most recent trip, we rented a car and knew we needed small change for the toll road.  My husband exchanged some money at the airport.  The rate was terrible!  They pile on so many fees.  On that day, the exchange rate for €1 was $1.32.  Once all the service fees were added, it cost us closer to $1.76.
  • In Europe, the use of decimal points and commas in numbers is different.  $1.76 would be written $1,76.
  • When using a credit card, select a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.  Those fees can add 2 – 3 % to the cost of each transaction, which adds up quickly!  I have an American Express that charges no foreign transaction fees, but it is not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard.
  • It is always worth asking the waiter if they accept your credit card when you arrive.  In Greece, time and time again restaurants had “credit cards accepted” signs in their windows, but then would claim that “the machine is broken”.  It happened SOOO OFTEN, that we concluded that they were lying.  They wanted cash.

 

The road a car must take to exit Montepulciano

CARS AND DRIVING

  • When renting a car, we always purchase the extra insurance.  I can not imagine a faster way to ruin a vacation than to get into a car accident and have to navigate a foreign insurance claim.   When we returned our rental car, I overheard two other couples saying that they were returning their cars fairly dinged up. They were shrugging their shoulders and hoping everything would be okay.
  • Speaking of cars, mind that speed limit!  If you are caught speeding, Italian police can fine you on the spot!
  • Driving in Italy is not for the faint-hearted.  In Naples, it is “everyman for himself”.  There were lots of traffic lights, but none of them appeared to be working.  My husband finds driving in Italy to be exhilarating!
  • You are not going to believe how tiny some of those roads are!  What we might believe to be a mere pedestrian pathway may actually be a two-lane road.  Well, maybe not “two-lane”, but “two-way”, and you pray and pray that you don’t meet a truck.

LANGUAGE

  • I took a year of Italian in college, which enables me to decipher most signs.  Many menus will also be written in English, but mind you, it will be British English.  I marvel how many Americans don’t know the British equivalents!  Here a few that are often encountered:  melanzane – aubergine – eggplant, zucchine – courgettes – zucchini, zucca – marrow – squash, patatine – crisps – potato chips
  • I recommend taking an Italian phrase book.
  • If you get lost, ask a German.  They usually speak flawless English, and always seem to know where they are going.

 

A perfect lunch

DINING

  • When seated at a restaurant, the water will ask you about what kind of water you want every time. The first thing he may say to you upon seating you is, “With gas?” and you may be startled by this inquiry.  He wants to know whether or not you want your water carbonated.  If  you don’t want it carbonated, say “no gas”, or “sensa gas”,  “still”, or “flat”.  Amusing, but you get used to sitting down and immediately saying, “No gas!”
  • Most restaurants will charge you a cover charge (coperto).  I have seen these range from € 1,50 to as much as  € 6, and that is charged per person!  A service charge (from 10 – 18%) may also be charged and included in the bill.  If there is a service charge, you don’t need to tip.  Otherwise, tipping 10% is customary.
  • In many towns, restaurant hours are short.  In Montepulciano, restaurants did not open until 7 or 7:30 PM and only seated until 9:30.  Ask your innkeeper about local hours, because if you are starving, you may want to grab a panini before the snack shops close.
  • A “bar” is not the same thing as it is in America.  A bar is more like a “snack bar”, where you may purchase all sorts of coffee drinks, sandwiches, and train tickets.  They will also serve alcohol, but if you are looking for an aperitif before dinner, look for an enoteca, which is a wine bar.
  • Bibite are soft drinks, and Italians never, ever, ever drink them directly from the can.  They will offer you a glass or a straw.
  • The menu will start with antipasto, which is an appetizer. Primo, the first course, is pasta, soup, or risotto. Secondo, the main course, is meat or fish.  Salad follows the main course and is served before dessert.  However, waiters will recognize that you are American, and will ask if you want your salad “before”.  That is fine.  They do not seem to be the least bothered by serving the salad “before” the main course.  You do not have to order all of the courses!  Any combination is fine!
  • The waiters do not care if you plan to share a dish.  Some will bring two plates and split it for you.  Others may bring one plate and two forks!
  • If you like wine, educate yourself on the local offerings  of the region you are visiting before you arrive.  If you try to sample every wine that the sommelier recommends to you, they will have to cart you home in a wheelbarrow.  One night we had the undivided attention of a waiter for 45 minutes.  He explained everything you ever wanted to know about the wine grapes of Tuscany, and summed it up with the explanation that in Tuscany, wine is the first religion, beef is the second, and Catholicism is third.
  • You will have to ask the waiter to bring you the bill.  He will never bring it to you unless you ask for it, and he will not do anything at all to hurry you on your way.
  • Italian bread is unsalted, so it tastes stale immediately after it is cut.  Skip the bread and save the calories for gelato!
  • Salad is always served with olive oil and vinegar (usually balsamic).  On the airplane I watched a movie which mocked an American couple (from Texas, supposedly) in Provence ordering “fat-free Ranch” for their salad Niçoise.  No one would really do that, would they? (Don’t remember name of movie.  It was forgettable.)
  • Liguria, where Cinque Terre is, is known for its focaccia.  Best focaccia I have ever tasted!
  • Tuscany is the land of wine, beef, and truffles.
  • Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, offers great pizza, seafood, and limoncello.
  • If you drink a lot of coffee in America, you will not find anything like drip coffee, but Italian coffee drinks are worth sampling.  Caffe Americano is a delicious coffee drink.  It is a serving of espresso which you thin with hot water.  It is so smooth, I find that it does not require milk at all.  A serving of coffee in Europe is 4 ounces, not 8 – 12 ounces.

Portovenere

WHAT TO PACK

  • Always pack a jacket or sweater! Hot days may still have cool evenings.
  • If you intend to do site-seeing in cities, do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts if you intend to visit any churches.  I have seen women turned away from church doors for bare arms.
  • Weigh your suitcases and pack carefully! Air Dolomiti seems to delight is requiring passengers to repack their luggage right there at the check in line. I think every single person in line was asked to step aside and lighten their carryon.  They wanted to charge me €60 because my carryon bag was overweight.  So all I had to do was unpack my camera so that my bag was the right weight, put my camera in my handbag to carry it through security, then put it back in my carryon before I boarded the plane. Go figure. Made for a nightmarish line at 5 a.m.

Tuscany

Italy really is all those wonderful things you have ever heard.  The climate is terrific, the landscapes are breathtaking, the towns are charming, the food is delicious, and the people are warm-hearted. Lord willing, I will be back!

 

 

Comments (1) May 24 2012