Mon 26 Feb 2007
There it was, emblazoned on the cover of the Food & Wine magazine for March: “Perfecting Homemade Pizza.”
Well, that’s something I’m interested in. As readers of http://www.koeppelonwine.com know, I make pizza regularly, as many as, oh, 35 to 40 a year, because our ritual is two movies and a pizza on Saturday night or, if duty calls us elsewhere that night — “What, the president wants to see us again?” — on Sunday. We’ve been engaging in this ritual for 12 years or more, so, Buddy, that’s a lot of pizza, and I have worked incessantly to perfect the method myself.
The one-page article by Grace Parisi includes a box of specific products that the magazine recommends for making pizza: The wooden peel from Williams-Sonoma ($27); Bufalus Buffalo Mozzarella from Whole Foods ($NA); a Fibrament cement baking stone ($53); La Valle San Marzano canned tomatoes ($NA); Tutto Calabria oregano on a branch ($4); and a Typhoon “mezzaluna-style” pizza cutter ($18). None of which has anything to do with perfecting your pizza, but Food & Wine always wants to appear to be on top of things when it comes to food prep. I’m still using my ceramic stone and rotary wheel-type pizza cutter from years ago, and you know what? They work just fine. And I always use fresh tomatoes.
Anyway, the secret to great pizza, as anyone knows who wasn’t raised on a diet of Pizza Hut or Domino’s, is a slightly chewy, crisp but not cracker-like crust, and the real secret of the crust is water. Now Parisi, whose grandfather had a pizzeria in Brooklyn, achieves the crust she wants — “a chewy crust with a slight tang” — by leaving the pizza dough in the refrigerator overnight or for up to three days. That’s a pretty radical step, but I’ll try it sometime (maybe not this weekend).
The trick for me is not using a standard amount of water to make the dough, as in “pour four cups of water in the bowl,” but adjusting the amount carefully so that the dough remains moist, even a bit sticky. It can’t be too sticky; that makes kneading impossible and messy to boot, but if the dough is too dry the pizza crust will end up stiff and chewy at the expense of crispness. Keep the dough as moist as you can, flour the board and the dough sparingly and knead it until you have a ball of dough that’s smooth and silky.
While we’re on the subject of pizza, my new favorite meat to us as a topping is guanciale (“gwant-chi-AH-lay”), a dry cured pork jowl that’s a specialty of Latium, the province around Rome, and an essential ingredient in the pasta sauce called amatriciana. Now we know something about pork jowl in the South, a region in which all parts of the pig are consumed. Smoked hog jowl is an essential ingredient in the New Year’s Day blackeyed pea-hog jowl-turnip green soup; simmer a pot of that stuff on the stove for three or four hours and the jowl turns to luscious velvet.
As you can see from the photograph of guanciale here, the jowl is mainly fat, so basically, after frying it at low heat for 10 minutes or so, you have a plateful of pork cracklings. Yeah, they’re not “good” for you, but you can’t always be “good,” can you? I mean, lordy, what fat this is! Anyway, we use pizza night to make up for all the fish we eat.
We ordered this guanciale from Niman Ranch online. The jowl is cured in salt, maple syrup, pepper, rosemary, coriander and bay. Niman Ranch, located in Marin County, California, employs humane and sustainable practices. The pigs run free, eat natural feed and are given no antibiotics. That certainly makes me feel better about eating pure fat.
Now we couldn’t eat pizza without wine to go with it, preferably a bold, flavorful but not too complicated red wine. Here are two we’ve had with pizza recently:
*Vertex Just Red Blend No. 609, California. This nonvintage blend of cabernet sauvignon from Lake County, syrah and petite sirah from Lodi, cabernet franc from Napa Valley and merlot and malbec from Sonoma County is a product of The Gabrielle Collection of Wines. Robert Pepi and Jeff Booth are the winemakers for Vertex, a robust and full-bodied red wine bursting with hearty, spicy black currant, blackberry and black cherry flavors nestled in a cushion of dusty, chewy tannins. Great with pizza, red meat pastas and burgers. Very good. About $11.
*Artezin Zinfandel 2005, Mendocino County 39%, Amador County 36%, Sonoma County 25%. Artezin is a label of The Hess Collection. This is a super-attractive, almost sophisticated zinfandel, solid and firm, very spicy and flavorful, with no ashy edges or over-ripe exaggerations. Notes of clean earth and leather bolster currant, cherry and plum fruit permeated by licorice and lavender, grainy tannins and polished oak; the finish is a bit austere and could use a year or two to flesh out, but this is primarily a terrific zinfandel that went perfectly with pizza. Excellent. About $18.