Perfect Pizza Crust (no recipe)

I am deep in the final hurricane of grading at present and as such, though I have been cooking and eating (oh, so much eating. And drinking. But mostly eating), I have not been photographing or taking note of quantities. No recipe then, today, but I do have words to offer. That’s the main difference, I think, between food blogging and food writing: the blog has become dependent on artful photography, clever lighting, cunning props and ingredients arranged just so… and a recipe that is easy to follow, doesn’t take too long, and is introduced but not overshadowed by story.

Food writing, though, is about the words. The images, the measurements, the ability to remake the dish in question: that’s not the goal. The aim is to submerge oneself in the language of food. This is, then, a roundabout way of saying there won’t be any pictures on this post. Instead, let me at least plunge you into the shallow end.

We are, it transpires, fond of pizza. Over the years I’ve worked up a dough recipe that offers a flavorful crust with cracker-crisp base and puffy top edges golden with cheese. It rises overnight with the help of just a smidgeon of active dry yeast, and it collects some of its deep flavor and texture from heaping helpings of semolina flour and cornmeal. This is not it.

See, here’s the thing: it’s a good recipe. Really good. Everyone who has tried it has cooed over it. But it’s not the pizza dough of my dreams. It’s too… bready. My dream dough is perfectly crisp outside but chewy and yeasty with a perfect, pulling tear. It’s artisanal pizza dough that bakes up fast and chars perfectly as it faces off against an 800 or 900 degree wood burning oven. It can’t, I must concede, be made at home.

But oh how I’ve tried. I’ve played with Italian double zero flour. I’ve increased kneading time. I’ve added and deleted quantities of olive oil. I’ve played with more and less semolina, bread flour, honey vs. sugar to rouse the yeast; I’ve even tried cautiously tossing the dough (this did not go well). Results (once I cleaned up a bit) were good, but in every case, they weren’t what I wanted.

Until this weekend. In addition to all of the above, as you might expect, I’ve asked the internet. I’ve found all kinds of advice, most of it not useful, but in my most recent explorations two ideas stood out. One was, as I’ve read before, that the oven just has to be hotter. Commercial pizza ovens burn hundreds of degrees above what a standard household gas oven can manage, even if, as Molly Wizenberg describes in her first book, your boyfriend somehow manages to bypass limitations and crank your old machine up to near-restaurant degrees. The other was using sourdough to make the crust. Think about it: breads that use a starter of some kind, whether that’s a sour burbler that gets fed every few days or a biga for ciabatta, tend to produce lovely, chewy interiors with big holes and irregular structures – perhaps just what I was after.

Lucky for me, I was making my regular sourdough loaves this weekend, and determined to feed up a little extra to use in a pizza experiment. Unlucky for all of us, I tinkered and tossed and measured nothing, so my ability to recreate the revelation that happened remains in question. There are too many variables to know for sure what caused it, but this weekend’s pizza was as close to my dream dough as I’ve ever gotten. And it was close. Made with a generous glob of my fed sourdough starter, it rose very little in the refrigerator overnight, but after a few hours to warm up at room temperature, it was puffy and pliable and full of bubbles, and just a little bit sticky. Baked, it had gorgeous oven spring, and though it crisped well and retained crunch on the bottom of the pie, the inside – oh the inside – was everything. Swollen and soft and full of air, and chewy! And because I heeded the other suggestion as well, holding my breath and setting my oven at 500F and consequently cooking the loaded crust for less time than I usually would, I can’t say for sure which variable was most necessary for the miracle that was the pizzas we had Saturday night, easily the best homemade crust I’ve ever made.

So this winds up being a big tease of a post, then, since not only are there no pictures and no recipe, but no way of exactly recreating what I’ve done – even for me! But I can pass along the suggestion that if your homemade pizza dough isn’t doing what you want, and what you want is a chewy interior, use bread flour (or another flour with high protein content), consider raising the baking temperature and consequently cooking for less time, and consider also using some kind of starter and an overnight ferment for both chewier texture and more flavorful crust. And then call me, because I want to come over and help you eat it.

Okay, enough of this words business. There’s leftover pizza sitting made with this amazing crust in my refrigerator, and I’m going to say we’re within safe striking distance of lunch time.

The Rachel: lamb sausage and spinach pesto pizza

2016 Food Blog June-0945A few weeks ago, N. opened the fridge, snooped through the shelves, looked at me. “What’s for pizza? Wait. I mean, what’s for dinner?” Sometimes you don’t have to ask them what they’re craving.

2016 Food Blog June-0915Clearly, the following week I made pizza. We each have a favorite variety – though lately my favorite is becoming N’s favorite as well – and we’ve lent our names to them; whenever I write “The Chelsea” on the weekly meal plan, N. gets quite excited. This got me thinking about what toppings would constitute other members of my family. “The Dad” would certainly have red pepper flakes in some quantity, and my mom informed me on Sunday that hers would have plenty of vegetables.

2016 Food Blog June-0917But I decided to go first with my sister, and that meant lamb. I’m not sure whether it outweighs her affection for seafood, but lamb is certainly her red meat of choice. She stalks the meat counter to find it on sale; she buys the toughest cuts (often the cheapest) and grinds them up herself to make lamb burgers; she manufactures ways to integrate it into even traditionally vegetarian dishes. R’s pizza, then, would feature lamb sausage.

2016 Food Blog June-0918Once lamb sausage was on the menu, and some crumblings of feta had joined it in my imagination, I realized there was no way of avoiding a very Mediterranean flavor profile. Neither R. nor I are particularly interested in tomato-based sauces for pizza – “The Chelsea” has only a brush of garlic infused olive oil over its surface – so there would need to be an alternative. I gravitated toward pesto, and despite R’s declaration that she is “devoted to basil,” she’s also a rather non-traditional person in an interesting and glorious way. Given that, a pesto on her pizza couldn’t very well be the standard, and since this pizza was already leaning in such a Greek direction, I had to reach for the spinach, and added some parsley, some sundried tomatoes, some lemon zest, in addition to the standard garlic and pine nuts.

2016 Food Blog June-0925Considering other personality features, I decided to add some heat. R. is a spicy person: she’s quick, she’s feisty, she’s fun; she speaks her mind. Thinly sliced pepperoncini joined my collection of toppings, though some near-transparent wafers of jalapeno would also do the job.

2016 Food Blog June-0933When you construct “The Rachel,” you have some choices, and those choices depend on how much char you like on various ingredients. Obviously the pesto goes on first, in a generous layer. If you want your peppers and green onions to stay soft, they should be next, so they can hide out under the protective coating of mozzarella. If you prefer a bit of color on these greens, let them ride out the quarter hour in the oven right on top. I like to put the sausage underneath the mozzarella; since it’s already cooked, the cheese bubbling over it seems to prevent the meat from drying out.

2016 Food Blog June-0936Blistering hot from the oven, this was glorious. The lamb sausage I used was a merguez, which carries some heat of its own, so between that and the pepper slices the pizza was perfectly spicy. The spinach pesto is a solid base – not too aggressive in flavor on its own, just pleasant support for the well-spiced lamb and the briny feta. But interestingly (delightfully), the pizza came into its own as leftovers. When I unwrapped the remaining slices today in my office, door closed and light off as though I were getting away with something, the pizza had been out of the refrigerator long enough to come to room temperature, and though the cheese was no longer stretching into long strings and the crust had lost a bit of crispness, the flavors had come together so compellingly that I’d suggest doing one bit of advance planning: if you can, make the pesto a day in advance. Then, when you spread it thickly over the crust, it will already have had a day to slow dance in your refrigerator.

2016 Food Blog June-0943

The Rachel: lamb sausage and spinach pesto pizza
Makes one 12-14 inch pizza
16 ounces pizza dough of your choice
8 ounces lamb sausage (I used a nice, spicy merguez)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
zest of one lemon
¼ cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained
6 green onions
6 ounces baby spinach leaves
½ cup parsley leaves and stems
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
8-12 ounces whole milk mozzarella cheese, grated
3 ounces crumbled feta cheese
3-4 pepperoncini or other pickled peppers
*Note: if possible, I recommend making your pesto a day ahead so the flavors have time to meld. Otherwise, proceed as below.


  • About 45 minutes before you are ready to cook the pizza, preheat your oven to 500F, or as high as it will go. If you are using a pizza stone (highly recommended), be sure to put it in the oven at this point to preheat as well. If your pizza dough is refrigerated or needs time to rise and relax, this is a good time to set it out as well.
  • Cook the lamb sausage in a medium skillet over medium heat. Use the flat edge of a wooden spatula to coerce the lamb into small pieces. Stir and flip frequently until cooked through and lightly browned, then set aside to cool.
  • For the pesto, add the pine nuts and garlic to a food processor along with the sundried tomatoes, lemon zest, and the white and light green portions of the green onions, reserving the green stalks until later. Process for 4-5 seconds to break down the big chunks of vegetables. Pack in the spinach and parsley and process again, agitating the machine a bit to try and coax the leaves down into the blade. When it is simply not making any progress, add the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with the machine running. If that’s not enough liquid, add the remaining tablespoons of olive oil one at a time, pausing between each. You are looking for a very thick, paste-like “sauce” – the less moisture we add to the top of the pizza, the better. If things still aren’t coming together after all 3 tablespoons of oil, add a splash of water, but try to keep this to an absolute minimum.
  • Once the pesto is a thick but spreadable texture, taste and season with salt and pepper accordingly. I suggest under-seasoning a bit with the salt, since the feta cheese is quite salty.
  • Slice the greens of the green onions and the pepperoncinis into thin slices.
  • To assemble your pizza, stretch out the dough to your desired size (I put it carefully right onto the hot pizza stone), then spread generously with the spinach and parsley pesto. Add the remaining ingredients above or below the mozzarella cheese depending upon how browned you want them to get. I suggest lamb sausage underneath, to keep it moist, then the two types of cheese, then green onion and pepperoncini slices.
  • Carefully maneuver the loaded pizza back into the roaring hot oven, and bake for 15 minutes until the crust is crisp and the cheese is nicely studded with golden blisters. Remove from oven and let sit 4-5 minutes. Then sprinkle with additional parsley leaves if desired, slice, and serve.

Rain check

If all goes as planned, I’ll have a recipe for you tomorrow morning.

This is more a pizza-crust promise than a pie-crust promise, but I’ll leave you to knead your way through the details, and this teaser place-holder, while I try to carve out a few minutes for a post…

See you then!

2016 Food Blog June-0945

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone

Food Blog March 2015-0498It would seem that I’m developed a bit of an obsession with well-oiled, aggressively seasoned mushrooms, patiently pan-roasted until deeply, deeply browned and edging toward crisp. Still bouncy on the inside, these golden crusted, meaty little nuggets are finding their way into my cooking more and more frequently. This would be, I think, an entirely good thing in terms of health and waistlines, except I keep drowning them in small mountains of cheese. Last week it was the quintessential quesadilla (which, if you’re wondering, is also stellar in taco format with the addition of tempeh, per my friend S.). This week, a calzone filled with deeply caramelized mushroom quarters, a chunky adaptation of my favorite puttanesca sauce, and of course, the requisite cheese all folded up and pinched inside a swollen half moon of dough.

Food Blog March 2015-0464Food Blog March 2015-0479I love a good calzone, but N. is a little resistant for the same reason he is resistant to lasagna: the not-smooth-enough texture of ricotta cheese. Its strange milky loyalty to both savory and sweet applications is not quite cheese-flavored enough, and the slight graininess of the tiny, tiny residual curds lingering in there weirds him out. Fortunately, in this case as with most cheese-related conflicts, the answer is more. Mashing a healthy dose of grated mozzarella in with the ricotta adds a stronger cheese flavor and ups the salt content, which I think ricotta often needs. Here, I’ve bumped up the flavor and interest even more by folding in a small pile of chopped herbs and some lemon zest. This provided welcomed brightness against the deep earthy mushrooms and puttanesca.

Food Blog March 2015-0471Food Blog March 2015-0476The trick with calzones, as you might expect, is moisture. Because you are sealing up this lovely little packet, it should be baked at a lower temperature than a pizza – the dough tends to be a bit thicker, and because half of it is on the inside, it needs more time to cook all the way through without burning the outside. But what you’ve stacked up inside also has more time to release its own juices, which can result in a bottom crust which is a bit, well, mushy is such an ugly word. Let’s call it soft. Ours certainly was. Calzone dough should be chewy and slightly pillowy but still, there’s a reason it’s called crust.

Food Blog March 2015-0481Food Blog March 2015-0482My thoughts on preventing this are as follows: ensure you are using only the chunky vegetable bits from the puttanesca sauce for the inside. Save the sauce component to spread over the top of the calzone. Additionally, if you have the time, drain the ricotta lump in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Even an hour would allow some of that moisture to escape, which means it would end up in the sink rather than the bottom crust of your dinner.

Food Blog March 2015-0484Food Blog March 2015-0485Food Blog March 2015-0488But even if you do end up with a bottom crust that isn’t as, well, crusty as you might like, you won’t be hurting for flavor. Mushrooms and ricotta – particularly a ricotta jazzed up with mozzarella and aromatics – play incredibly well together, and somehow both hold up to the briny strength of the sauce.
Food Blog March 2015-0492It’s a good dish, then, with which to bid March farewell: still those dark, warm notes of winter, but a lovely springy freshness too, all wrapped up in a chewy, melty package, and just as delicious the next day.

Food Blog March 2015-0499

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone
Serves 6-8
16 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought
8 ounces crimini or button mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of pepper
sprig of thyme (optional)
4 ounces ricotta cheese, drained if desired
8 ounces (1 cup) low moisture mozzarella cheese, grated and divided
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
For sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers, minced
¼ cup coarsely chopped kalamata olives
2 anchovy fillets
pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ cup dry red wine
8-10 ounces diced canned tomatoes, with their juice
  • On an oiled pizza pan, spread out the pizza dough in a rough circle 12 inches in diameter. If it springs back, no worries; let it rest for ten minutes and then stretch it out again. At least half an hour before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F with a rack in the middle position.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, the pinch of pepper, and the thyme sprig if desired and cook until the mushrooms are well-browned. This should take 8-10 minutes with occasional stirring, during which time the mushrooms will suck up the oil, release their liquid, and then accept some of that liquid back again.
  • While the mushrooms cook, combine the ricotta and ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese in a small bowl with the fresh parsley, fresh basil, lemon zest, and pinch of salt to taste. I find a rubber spatula works well for this. Reserve the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella for the top of the calzone.
  • When the mushrooms are done, set them aside in a small bowl and discard the thyme sprig, then put the skillet back over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the minced garlic. Saute for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is soft and aromatic and edging toward golden. Add the anchovy fillets and mash them around with a wooden spoon to break down. Scrape in the capers and olives and saute for an additional 1 minute.
  • Toss in the red pepper flakes, the basil, and the ½ cup of red wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomatoes with their juice and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit and the flavors are well combined. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
  • To assemble, spread the cheese mixture over half of the stretched dough, leaving a healthy inch margin around the edge. Pile the mushrooms on top of the cheese, and then use a slotted spoon to add the chunky portions of the sauce – the tomato and olive and caper bits – on top of the mushrooms (again, keep and respect that inch margin).
  • With slightly moistened or lightly oiled hands (especially if your dough is sticky), grab the edge opposite the area you’ve been filling and pull up, folding over to meet the half-circle edge along your margin. You’ll form a half-moon shape with the dough. Crimp the edge by pulling the bottom layer of dough up slightly over the top layer in a series of small segments. Press and pinch each one tightly into the top layer of dough about a half inch from the edge. This will form a seal to prohibit the top from opening up during baking. It also looks pretty. Because we care about that.
  • With the calzone fully sealed along the circular edge, brush the top with some of the remaining puttanesca sauce, then sprinkle on the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella cheese. Carefully place into the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cheese on top is melted and crusty, and the dough is golden and cooked through. After removing from the oven, wait 5-10 minutes before slicing, then serve hot with any remaining puttanesca sauce, if desired.

Fig and Brie Flatbread #TwelveLoaves September

When I was a kid, my parents made me cassette tapes from several Disney albums to listen to in the car.  I mean real albums: records.  45s and 78s, that spun, some wobbly and warping, on a turntable at a speed that, when I was much smaller, seemed unreal.  But the cassette tapes were for long car trips, and we all learned every word in every song (this wasn’t so bad, according to my parents, with the Disney songs.  One of the other tapes – a John Denver greatest hits album – wasn’t so lucky.  I requested it so many times that the tenuous black strip of tape got tangled in the player, and even after attempts to repair it by winding it manually back into the plastic casing, one day it mysteriously disappeared.  I’m still convinced that my dad, sick to death of hearing the plaintive desire for country roads to take us home, chucked it out the window).

Interestingly, one of my favorite songs from that collection was from a movie I’ve never seen: Disney’s The Happiest MillionaireThe song, “Fortuosity,” was a happy ditty about luck and opportunity, and “fortuitious little happy happenstances,” and I loved it.  It’s an idea that I like, and the song itself comes back to me every once in a while at random moments, most often when I think about the word “fortuitous,” with which the song obviously plays, and when I remember road trips with my family.

Food Blog September 2013-2570This is a long-winded way of introducing the idea that this week’s post, and this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge, aligned entirely by fortuitous coincidence.  Last week I asked N. to grill up some leftover pizza dough, which I smeared with double cream brie, nestled in some halved figs straight from the farmers’ market, and drizzled with barley malt syrup and sprigs of fresh thyme.  Then I checked the Twelve Loaves challenge only to see that September’s theme is Farmers’ Market food.  Fortuosity indeed.

Food Blog September 2013-2566The idea for this combination – creamy cheese, soft, sweet figs, and a hit of herby freshness, came from a party N. and I attended recently.  Our hostess, who works with N. (we should have them over soon, N., if you’re reading this…), had quartered some black mission figs, settled them in around a wedge of brie, and dosed both liberally with honey and thyme.  My spin was based on the desire to use more of the barley malt syrup I bought for last month’s bagel experiment, and the obsessive love we have for homemade pizza, which means there is frequently a ball of dough either in the fridge or in the freezer, hoping to be put to tasty use.

Summer 2013-2503

Visitor to our thyme bush. I named him Algernon, because he looked like he might be impersonating someone.

We loved this combination.  The barley malt syrup is a roastier contestant than, say, maple syrup, and was therefore a welcome balance.  It is sweet, but there is an almost bitter edge to its flavor – no doubt the malt part.  It is, in fact, just a lower grade extract than what brewers use for beer, so the darker component makes good sense.  Drizzled judiciously across the blistered surface of our cheese and fruit studded flatbread, it enhanced both main players.  Though Los Angeles played some mind games with me last week, cooling off just as I published a post asserting that autumn hadn’t arrived yet, it has warmed up again.  Since this flatbread cooks on the grill, it’s perfect for a warm evening when you can’t bear the idea of firing up the oven.  But if you don’t have a grill, and you’re willing to risk the house-heating power of indoor cooking, I’ve also included directions for the oven.  Food Blog September 2013-2574

Food Blog September 2013-2569
Fig and Brie Flatbread
Serves 3-4 as an appetizer; 2 as a main course
Directions for grilling adapted from Elizabeth Karmel and Bob Blumer’s Pizza on the Grill
12 oz. ball of pizza dough, purchased or homemade (I’m still working on perfecting my recipe; once it’s foolproof, I’ll post it for you)
Olive oil for stretching dough
6-8 fresh black mission figs, halved from stem to blossom end
8 ounces brie cheese, cut into thick slices
2 tablespoons barley malt syrup or your favorite honey
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (in small sprigs is fine – the stems are tender enough to eat near the end of the sprig)
  • If your dough is in the refrigerator, remove it about half an hour before you intend to cook it and let it rest, unwrapped, on a lightly floured or oiled surface.
  • While the dough rests, preheat your oven or grill.  For a gas grill, this will take about 10-15 minutes with the burners set on high.  Once the grill has preheated, turn down the burners to medium.  For a charcoal grill, this will take a little longer – perhaps up to 30 minutes for the coals to begin turning gray.  For an oven, preheat to 500F (or as close to this as your oven will go!).
  • Once you’ve got your heat source preheating, prep your toppings.  Halve the figs, slice the cheese, pinch the thyme into individual leaves or small clumps.  This is all going to go pretty quickly once we start cooking, so you’ll want to be ready.
  • When the dough has rested, set a 9×13 inch glass baking dish bottom side up on your counter.  Rub the bottom (now facing upwards) with olive oil, then push and stretch your pizza dough out on the bottom of the dish so it hangs over all edges, creating a rustic but relatively even rectangle.  If it springs back or threatens to tear as you stretch it toward the edges of the dish, let it rest a bit longer and then try again.
  • Bring your dough, still on the bottom of the baking dish, out to the grill.  If the dough is sturdy enough to lift without tearing, pick it up by two ends and lay it across the grill grates, flopping the sides drooping below your hands toward the back edge of the grill, in the same motion you would use to swing a tablecloth over a table.  If the dough is not so sturdy, put some gloves on, and carefully invert the baking dish only an inch or so above the surface of the grill. The dough will slowly disengage and drop gracelessly onto the grill grates.  Once dough and grates are in contact, close the lid of the grill and leave it closed for about 3 minutes, or until the bottom side of the dough is well browned with nice grill marks.
  • Use a pair of long-handled tongs to transfer the flatbread to a pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet.  Use the peel or baking sheet to help you flip the rectangle of dough over and slide it back onto the grill, unmarked side down.  Close the lid of the grill and leave it closed for another 3-5 minutes, or until the whole thing is browned, marked, and nicely puffed.  I like the look of a few big airy blisters on the surface.
  • If you are using an oven, flop your dough onto a preheated pizza stone or the bottom of an oiled cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes.
  • Once your flatbread crust is browned and blistered to your liking, transfer it from the grill or oven to your cutting surface.  Smear the whole top of the dough with the slices of brie cheese (I used the back of a spoon.  You could also use a spatula).  Nestle the figs in, spacing them evenly over the surface.
  • Drizzle the barley malt syrup over the top of the flatbread in a thin stream.  Don’t overdo it – the stuff is sweet.  You might not need the full 2 tablespoons.  You just want a light zigzag of caramel over figs and cheese alike.
  • Sprinkle on the thyme leaves, slice, and consume.

* You could, I suppose, top the dough either before cooking, if you are using the oven method, or immediately after flipping, if you are using the grill, and cook the toppings.  I didn’t do this, because I wanted the freshness of the figs, and knew the heat of the bread itself would be enough to melt the cheese.  If you choose to cook the toppings and you are using a grill, add the toppings after flipping, but turn off the burners on one side of the grill to create indirect heat, and cook your topped flatbread over the unlit burners for 7-10 minutes. This will allow the toppings to cook and the cheese to melt without burning the dough.