Have I told you guys what a crappy pizza maker I am? No? Well, let me tell you, it is a sad, sad state of affairs when it comes to homemade pizza around here. Puffy crusts. Underbaked bottoms. Flabby, floppy slices. I'm a disgrace to my people.
I love Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizza. That's what I strive for when I make pizza at home. But it has taken years of off-and-on practice before I've made any real progress toward those coveted crispy crusts. And that progress has come in the form of cheating by buying Russo's already-made pizza dough. You see, I wasn't sure if my problem was my dough-making technique, or my stretching technique, or both, so I decided to limit one of the variables. A bag of good-quality Russo's dough, which is practically homemade, costs 98 cents. That's a price I'm willing to pay for good pizza! But what I found was that my pizzas kept coming out the same as when I made my own dough: Too puffy and not crispy enough.
I decided to cut the ball of pre-made dough in half and make two smaller pizzas. The size of my pizzas is limited by the size of my pizza stone, which isn't terribly big. With half the amount of dough, I figured I could stretch it to near transparency and still have it fit on the stone. And maybe, just maybe, the crust would be thin enough.
Did it work? Last Friday's pizzas were the best I've ever made. Now maybe I can attend my family reunions without shame. Some things that also seemed to help: Preheat the oven as high as it can possibly go (mine stops around 500°F). Let the pizza stone heat up in there for at least an hour beforehand. Press out the dough as thinly as you possibly can. Then really stretch it in whatever clumsy manner works for you. I don't fling it up in the air or anything—that would surely end in disaster—but I do try to use gravity to my advantage. Any holes that develop can be pressed back together.
To transfer the pizza to the oven, here's what I do. I set the dough on a sheet of parchment paper (not waxed paper) on top of a cookie sheet, and assemble the pie. Then I slide the pizza and parchment paper from the cookie sheet onto the hot stone in the oven. The parchment definitely gets toasty in there, but it's never caught fire on my watch. I know exactly where my fire extinguisher is, just in case, as well as all emergency exits.
[I actually bought myself a pizza peel for my birthday last year to cut down on the potential number of trips the local fire department has to make to my house, but let me tell you how that all worked out. When I slid the pizza onto the stone in one quick motion, all of the toppings—the meat, veggies, cheese, sauce—flew into the oven right on cue...but the dough remained on the peel. This despite the fact that I liberally sprinkled the peel with cornmeal beforehand. The dough just sat there mocking me as the cheese melted all over the racks and everything else burned in the bottom of the oven. (Cue fire truck sirens.) That peel and I still aren't on speaking terms.]
Anyhoo, my pizza-making technique is a work in progress, but I'm optimistic that I'll soon be able to graduate to making my very own pizza dough (though at 98 cents a bag for two good-sized pizzas, why bother). I do make my own tomato sauce. For cheese, I use regular store-bought shredded mozzarella sometimes with a little shredded local Cheddar mixed in, and a sprinkling of good Parmesan cheese on top. I don't use balls of fresh mozzarella on my pizzas because I've never liked the way it melts. It looks like spackle or bird poop. I'm a shitty Italian.
In case you're interested, here are some of our favorite homemade pizza flavors:
Hamburger, pepper, and onion: Ground beef, bison, or Italian sausage browned in a little bacon fat with garlic powder and whatever seasonings you like. Scatter on top of the sauce and cheese along with thinly sliced raw green peppers and onions.
Barbecue chicken: Use barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce (I like Stubb's), toss some leftover shredded chicken with some of that barbecue sauce before scattering it over the cheese, and sprinkle liberally with sliced scallions.
Caramelized onion and goat cheese: My favorite (pictured above). No sauce, just a little olive oil brushed on the crust before topping with mozzarella. Cook the sliced onions for 30 to 45 minutes in a little olive oil and salt until soft, browned, and sweet. Arrange the onions in clumps on the pizza along with crumbles of goat cheese and chopped fresh rosemary. I usually sprinkle some Parmesan on there, too.
Radicchio: A Waltham Fields Special, sauté up some radicchio in a little olive oil for a few minutes until wilted (you can add a little balsamic vinegar if you wish). Proceed as in the previous pizza, subbing the radicchio for the onions and using plenty of goat cheese. It is delicious.
Do tell me your favorites!