A few years ago, I took a handmade pasta cooking class in New York City with Chef Gerri Sarnataro. She has since relocated to Italy where she opened Cucina Della Terra which offers cooking classes in a pastoral area of Umbria near Lake Trasimeno. I’ve stayed in the loop about all of the exciting classes through a monthly e-mail she sends out and February’s edition featured some helpful information about making pizza (and recipies!). I thought I’d share some tips from Gerri with you below:
Having taught dozens of pizza classes, I’ve accumulated various questions from my students; the answers to which I hope will help improve the outcome of your efforts.
How do you get a great tasting crisp thin crust?
First, great dough has to begin with great flour. Personally, I am dedicated to 00 flour. It’s got just the right extensible (stretchable) quality and great flavor. Once mixed, the dough should feel tacky. When you are adding flour to the yeast and water, hold back some flour. Start working your dough until the gluten is developed. This may take up to 10 minutes by hand. Resist the impulse to add more flour. Wetter, tackier dough will produce beautiful, irregularly shaped air pockets in the final crust.
Next, let your dough relax for a few hours; overnight in the refrigerator is even better. You’ve given it a work out and it needs to relax and develop flavor.
Then, whenever you’re up to it, divide the dough into 9 to 12 oz pieces. The exact size is purely a matter of preference. Round them into tight smooth balls and place them on a floured pan. Cover with oiled plastic and hold at room temperature for an hour or more.
Can you stretch cold dough?
Absolutely not. The dough needs to be at a comfortable room temperature. Plan ahead.
This may be a matter of personal preference, but please leave the wasabi for sushi and the pineapple for your ham. Roasted vegetables such as cauliflower, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, raw zucchini flowers, grated parmigiano or pecorino, tomato sauce, prosciutto, sautéed spinach, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, cooked fresh sausages, hot & sweet, fried artichoke wedges, gorgonzola, arugula, ricotta or mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, minced fresh thyme and oregano make fine toppings. Of course,a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is a must.
How do you stretch the dough to get the thin center and thick outer crust?
Generally, you should be able to stretch your dough to a diameter equal to the numerical weight of the dough, eg. 9 oz of dough should be stretched to about 9 inches.
Remove a ball of dough from the pan. Gently flatten the dough. Place the backs of your hands under the center of the dough and let gravity stretch the dough. Turn the dough under your hands until you can see the center thinning out. Move your hands out a little widening the area. Place the circle of dough onto a heavily dusted surface, either semolina or cornmeal work best. Begin to stretch the dough outwards until you have the desired size. The thinner your dough, the thinner the final crust. Starting about 1 inch from the edge, press outwards with your index & middle fingers to thicken the edge.
Do you need specialized equipment?
A pizza stone helps retain the heat of the oven and generate a crisper crust. A peel (that long wooden stick with the large flat paddle) is helpful but not necessary. A baking sheet turned upside down can do the job.
What temperature should I turn the oven thermostat to?
As high as it will go… 500 degrees if possible.
How much of my selected ingredients can I put on top of the dough?
Don’t over do it. Less is more because heavy toppings will weigh on the dough and prevent it from sliding off the peel or baking sheet.
How long will it take before it’s done?
This depends on the heat of your oven and how many times you open and close the door. Remember, the higher the heat, the quicker the crust will form. Every time you open your oven door you are losing 50 degrees.
Fried Artichoke & Caramelized Onion Pizza Recipe
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees or higher
1 cup ricotta, seasoned with salt & pepper
½ cup caramelized onion slices
½ cup diced buffalo mozzarella cheese
1 whole artichoke, prepared & cut into ½ inch wedges, fried
1 teaspoon minced thyme
Extra virgin olive oil
9 oz of your favorite pizza dough
1. Shape the dough into a 9 inch circle.
2. Brush the top of the dough lightly with olive oil.
3. Drop teaspoons of ricotta cheese on the top of the pizza
4. Sprinkle the caramelized onion all over the top of the pizza
5. Sprinkle the diced mozzarella all over the top
6. Follow with freshly fried artichoke slices and a sprinkle of thyme.
7. Finish with a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
8. Slide the pizza into your oven, preferably onto a preheated pizza stone.