Posted by: Rae | March 30, 2008

Pizza

It seems simple. Most people just order it to go or delivered, scarf it down, maybe eat some cold in the morning. If you make your own, though, you start to notice things — starting with the crust. The pizza you order from your local pizza place has crust with all of the flavor of cardboard. So they add salt and cheese (inside the crust, ugh!) But the crust itself has no taste at all.

We make our own crust. We start with an Italian flour, low-moisture, no additives. Add yeast, water, olive oil, and yes, salt. Simple recipe. Like all bread-making, the process is time-consuming, and a little hard on the arms. Sometimes we do the mixing with our trusty Kitchen Aid mixer, but today we mixed by hand. I had to divide the dough into three large balls and knead each of them for about 10 minutes. You have to knead bread to understand — it’s a form of mediation.

Then we let it rise, punch it down, and cut the dough ball into 15 pieces (5 ounces of dough per pizza). We form each pizza by hand — a total of 45 oval-shaped pizzas. We par-bake them on parchment-lined baking sheets, for just a few minutes and refrigerate or freeze them. When someone orders a pizza, we build it and bake at 450 degrees F. We used to have a pizza stone, but one of the chefs dropped it, threw it, lost it, stole it — not sure because no one would admit to knowing where it went. So we bake them right on the oven rack.

We never build a pizza ahead of time. When the order comes in to the kitchen, we quickly cook anything that needs to be cooked or warmed up (chorizo sausage, for example, or grilled onions), assemble & chop all of the toppings, and then we build the pizza like this:

1. Wearing gloves, spread a tiny bit of olive oil on the par-baked crust. If the pizza has marinara sauce, squirt a small amount on the pizza, and spread that around. Ditto pesto. Add any chopped fresh herbs.

2. Scatter the meats and vegetables (fresh, always!) on. We do roast our Roma tomatoes ahead of time — 20 pounds at a time, 60 pounds a week in the summer! Many of our pizzas use these rather than tomato sauce, so we grab them, usually with a fork, and scatter them on the pizza. We roast our butternut squash slices ahead of time so they’ll be completely cooked on the butternut squash pizza, so we grab those from a container as well.

3. Top with the cheeses. This takes longer than at your typical pizza joint, because with very few exceptions, we don’t use grated cheeses. If mozzarella goes on the pizza, we grab a fresh mozzarella ball, slice it, and then tear the slices into small pieces. This is necessary because fresh mozzarella is very wet and will cause the pizza to be soggy unless used sparingly. We buy Fontina in big wheels, so we dice it in 3/8″ pieces and put it into baggies, enough for the day. If you need to put Fontina on the pizza, you have to grab the baggie and dump out 6 or 8 chunks and scatter those on the pizza. We keep Gornonzola in big wedges, so you have to cut a slice off and crumble it on the pizza.

I tried quite a few pizzas when I was in Italy last fall. All were light on toppings — it’s a good idea to use a small amount of wonderful ingredients. My favorite was the squash blossom-anchovy, and I don’t like anchovies.

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Our staff likes to make up new pizzas. One of my favorites is the smoked salmon-red onion-caper-Gorgonzola. The Michigan tart cherry with Gorgonzola cheese was popular last summer.  “Emily’s” is my daughter’s variation on the margherita, with basil pesto, roasted garlic, and lots of Parmesan cheese.  It’s the one at the top of this website.

The guys in the kitchen had fun making shrimp pizzas until I realized we were going through $100 worth of shrimp in a day, just for these staff-only pizzas.

Last week a customer asked for a chorizo-green olive-chef’s choice cheese pizza. (I chose a combination of goat cheese and Fontina.) And a customer last summer asked for a smoked whitefish-pine nut-Fontina pizza. So it’s not only staff, but customers as well, who love to make up their own combinations.

Today Lisa made herself a pizza. She started with basil pesto, added chopped scallions, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and fresh mushrooms, and then topped it with Parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella, and Gorgonzola. She likes her pizzas with crispy crust, and that’s how I baked it. It was terrific.

Bottom line: forget that stuff that sticks to the bottom of the cardboard box, the stuff with the mass-produced crusts, the rubber cheese. Make yourself some pizza crusts and put whatever you want on them. Is it art? Is it food? Who cares? It’s perfect!

Or come to the Alcove Cafe and let us do the work for you.

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