Lets face it, most people have tried pizza. It’s a food that transcends age, culture and class. Originating in Italy it was rumoured to have been created out of left over pasta dough which had started to ferment with natural yeasts……….. or at least that’s what I remember from a Latin field trip in year 8.
I have lost count of the number of pizzas I have eaten or made throughout the years. They have become part of my go-to food when tired and needing emotional comfort. Indeed they have very happy memories linked to them, including creating a heart shaped pizza for the first Valentines day with my girlfriend Zena. As it turns out Rufus from Gossip Girl was right, Dom and double pepperoni do work well together.
Making pizza is relatively simple, its just a dough made of flour, salt, yeast and water, sauce and some toppings………. but because of it’s simplicity, each component has a big impact, from the yeast you use to the mineral content of the water. In fact they think the main reason NYC pizza has its iconic taste is the city’s water. Another big factor is how it is cooked, proper Italian pizza ovens are akin to nuclear reactors, heated by burning fuel they range in temp from 300-500C.
Of course most people don’t have a wood fired pizza oven, in fact I didn’t till about 2 months ago. However as well as being a doctor and running a tea room I was part of a group called the MMDS at school and we did a bit of engineering. Now, with a few other projects winding down and a point to prove to a couple of idiots I was once friends with, I decided to build one out of the contents of a local skip……………..
In its most basic term a pizza oven is a structure, usually brick or clay, which contains a fire. It absorbs heat and then radiates it back to cook whatever you put inside. The best are fired to about 300-500C using wood. So to make one should be simple, a base, a few bricks and some wood………………
But where to get that all from? Well luckily a house in the village is currently being redecorated and extended which means a skip full of material. Lots of bricks and also some clay ties and a pair of rusty barn door hinges. To make the oven is simple, just pretend you are 5 again playing with building blocks (bricks) and stack them up to make a box with an entrance. Use the iron hinges to support the roof and the entrance and the tiles to make the base……….
Then all you need is some wood to fire it with.
I’m not going to lie, you can just buy this. Times have moved on since I was young, amazing tomato sauces are out there; you can easily get your hands on sun dried or slow roasted tomato puree……………. But where’s the fun in that. If you’ve gone to the effort to make dough and a pizza oven then you should really make the sauce.
I decided to make a simple roasted tomato puree. But seeing as you can now get so many wonderful varieties of tomatoes in the supermarket I went a bit over the top.
- Lots of tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
Cooking is relatively simple. Place all the tomatoes on a large roasting tray with whole cloves of garlic. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, lemon zest and roughly torn thyme and oregano.
Slowly bake in a low oven (approx 80C) till the tomatoes have started to dry out. This slow roasting partly caramelises the natural sugars and also helps to intensify the tomato flavour. It takes a while though………. I left mine overnight 😉
When you’ve got bored and the tomatoes start to look like the ones you can buy in jars or at the deli counter then it’s time to take them out. Transfer the oven roasted tomatoes into a blender (saving a few to top the pizza later) and reduce down to form a puree……….. If you are feeling adventurous you can add in the garlic too, but remember to remove the husk.
You can either use it like this, or pass it through a sieve to remove the bits……… I did.
So, as I eluded to earlier ,pizza dough is relatively simple. It’s basically a bread dough which is proofed once and then stretched thin, covered in toppings and cooked. If you’ve been following my blogs you’ll know I have a massive block of yeast (bought from Sainsburys) but I’ve also been experimenting with brewing and this has its own yeast types…….. So lets play.
- 1lb Strong bread flour (Allisons again to the rescue)
- 2oz Semolina
- 2tbsp Olive oil
- Yeast (approx 1oz)
- 100mlBeer (Yes, I brewed that!!!)
- 1tbsp Salt
- 200ml Water
As you can tell I really do like my Kitchenaid. Combine all the ingredience and knead with a dough hook at medium speed for about 10mins.You can make the dough by hand in exactly the same way. What you are looking for at the end is a smooth elastic dough.
It’s then a case of letting time escape for a while. The cooler the dough the longer it will require to proof. However if you leave it just a bit cooler than room temperature (a crafty doorway perhaps) for about 2-3hrs then you get a fantastically flavourful base but without having to wait forever.
Lets make Pizza
About 1.5hrs before decide you want to eat its time to light the oven. Start by building up a small fire using sticks and small cuts of dry wood. This allows you to get a rapid fire started. After this its a case of stoking the oven every 10-15mins with more wood. The idea is that as the wood rapidly burns it releases its heat into the bricks which absorbs it. The only problem is it is a bit like feeding a donkey strawberries……………
Just a quick word of warning – if the wind changes direction then fire tends to lick out the front of the oven and can burn you, or in my case your hair.
*For legal reasons I should warn you that playing with fire and heating bricks up is dangerous and you do so at your own risk*
When the pizza oven feels about as hot as the sun and your guests are starting to moan about you being a child and playing with fire……..it is time.
On a well floured board divide the dough into 4 equally sized pieces. Roll these out to approx 5mm thin and then gently stretch till you have halved this thickness again.
Transfer the base on to a pizza paddle (mines from Aga) which has been dusted with semolina and add the tomato puree base we prepared earlier.
Working fast spread the puree out thin and add toppings of your choice. I made 4 different pizzas this time – 3 red and 1 white..
- Mozzarella and serano ham on a tomato base
- Mozzarella, roasted pepper, chorizo, olives, Italian fennel pork (blog to follow) and red onion on a tomato base
- Serrano ham, fennel pork, red onion and mozzarella on a white base using fresh ricotta
- The Works – Everything above all on one base
Now you have to be brave. Working as fast as a surgeon trying to find a lost swab, move the hot embers to the side of the oven. This is best done using a garden hoe or small spade. Then sweep the base of the oven using a straw brush or bunch of rosemary.
Now it’s time to cook. In one swift motion slide the pizza off the paddle onto the floor of the oven and watch the magic happen. Initially it will appear as though its all failed and then, just as you are about to cry it starts……….
The outer crust starts to rise and bubble first, then the cheese starts to melt and turn brown. After about 30seconds one side will start to look likes its almost done with the crust turning golden.
As you can tell I got rather excited at this point…….. Boys and toys etc. But you have to remember to turn the pizza through 180 to brown the other side. If you want to be really professional you can hold it up to the roof of the oven for about 10 seconds to brown the cheese some more too.
And all too quickly its over, about 1-2mins if she’s hot enough………………….
All that remains is to cook the remaining pizzas and serve to your guests. Perhaps with a light salad and some wine.
P.S – You can make the pizzas in a standard oven, just cook on an oven tray scattered with Semolina at 230-250C for approx. 10-15mins or until the base is golden brown and the cheese is melted and bubbling……..
OK, so perhaps you won’t be able to do this one at home…….. but their are lots of skips about…….. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this one, I did. Soon I’ll show you how to make beer x