Cary & Lillian's First Homemade Pizza!

We finally dive in and make our own homemade pizza - and it's pretty good!

We had wanted to do it for some time. We had the desire, but time and fear and circumstance held us back. Cary had asked for two things for his last birthday: a sword and a pizza stone. He got both. The All-Clad Pizza Baker Stone remained untouched for many months. The sword? That's another story for another time...

hanging pizza peel

We read the books, did the research, bought a Sassafras Pizza Peel, talked to home pizza bakers, and procrastinated. Finally, we knew the time had come.

Assembling the ingredients

Lillian's grandmother was the expert, the pro, the Guru of homemade pizza, and we had her recipe. We wanted more. We spoke to Lillian's Uncle Lou (Dr. Louis Cutolo, Sr., a respected retired surgeon and a great home-pizzaiolo), who echoed many of grandma's suggestions and added one of his own - "Use King Arthur Bread Flour," he said. When it comes to pizza, Uncle Lou knows what he's talking about.

We knew from our research that high-gluten flour, especially bread flour was the way to go, at least for our first attempt. "King Arthur," said Uncle Lou, so we started searching for it. We found it online, but the shipping was expensive. Trader Joe's doesn't carry it anymore. We called Fairway, a local market (kinda like Whole Foods without the attitude), the guy who answered the phone didn't know, but when we visited, there it was! They also had all the cheeses we were looking for, and several brands of San Marzano tomatoes (but not the brand we'd seen Domenico DeMarco of DiFara's using - alas).

Ingredients in hand (except the fresh basil - we'd get that on baking day), the next question was - which recipe? Lil's grandmother's of course, and tips from Peter Reinhart's excellent American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. Topping it off, we referred to the basic dough recipe of Albert Grande, webmaster of pizzatherapy.com and author of The PizzaTherapy Pizza Book. Albert is all about homemade pizza.

Cary's grandmother used to say, "shop in three stores and you'll never be cheated." We figured getting advice from three pizza masters would give us a good start.

Warning: The following is a chronicle of our Pizzadventure. Kids - don't try this at home without a real recipe!

Proofing the Yeast

We had no idea what to do with yeast. We knew that we were supposed to mix a teaspoon or two with some sugar in some lukewarm water and something would happen, then we'd mix it in the flour. It got kinda foamy in the 1/2 cup of water. We wondered if that was it. We tried it again in another cup. That got kinda foamy, so we figured it was good. We are so lucky...

Making the Dough

The books said to use a bowl, but Lil remembered, and Uncle Lou... uh, Dr. Cutolo... confirmed, that homemade pizza dough was made on a bread board, using a 'well' of flour. The well (which looks rather like a volcano), would serve as supply and container. Cary was eager to get started and almost caused an avalanche by breaking through the well as the water was being poured in. Quick thinking and quick hands saved the day.

Mix and knead, mix and knead. Lillian had touched pizza dough before -- Cary had only eaten it after it was baked. That gave Lillian a certain rank, and Cary deferred to her judgment. Still, a funny thing happened - both of us just seemed to know when the dough felt right. Reinhart talks of a 'windowpane test' in his book, and after a while, our dough passed the test.

our first dough ball

There sat the magnificent lump, ready to grow. We put it in an aluminum bowl, covered it with a dishtowel and a wool sweater (Grandma Antoinette's method -- we went with it) and waited for it to rise, or "proof." We went out to buy basil, came back to make sauce, and the dough had grown!

We know that the bakers, especially those of you who make homemade pizza, are giggling, but at least one of us (Cary) had absolutely no experience seeing this sort of thing, and a childlike wonderment came into play. "This is so cool," said Cary, "we're making pizza!"

Sauce

stirring the sauce

Reinhart's suggestions ruled the day here. Not a cooked sauce, but a blend of canned San Marzano tomatoes, pepper, basil, garlic and salt. Reinhart explains in American Pie that the tomatoes were cooked once in the canning process and that they'd be cooked again in the pizza baking. Cooking them again would only take away from their flavor. We agreed, and we'd agree again after tasting our homemade pizza.

Taking out our aggressions on a poor defenseless doughball

Punching down the dough was much fun. At first, Cary was being too gentle with it, until Lillian pointed out that it was called "punching" for a reason! We took turns beating up the little ball of dough, but it was resilient. We knew (and somehow the dough did too), that it would rise again. So we put it back in the bowl to do just that. Meanwhile, Cary placed the Pizza Stone into the oven for an hour to heat up properly.

Soon after grating and cutting cheeses we had the second rise of the dough, punched that down, and then we just couldn't wait any more. We'd make most of the pizza later on, but we just had to make a pizza!

Cary took a large handful of dough off the main ball, rolled that into a ball, and started stretching it and working it. Tossing it was not going to happen, although the temptation was great. Working it into a flat (but not thin) round, he placed in on the peel, poured a little sauce on with a spoon, poured a little more, placed some regular mozzarella, some mozzarella di bufala and some grana padano (an aged cheese used at DiFara's in Brooklyn) on top of the sauce, and tore up some fresh basil leaves and spread them over the pie.

He carried the peel to the oven while Lillian opened the oven door (we are one heckuva team!) and Cary slid the pizza onto the stone.

Success

our first pizza!

Not the best pizza we'd ever seen or eaten, but not too bad! It was too puffy and underbaked. It tasted pretty good. With relief and pleasure we ate that first pizza, hoping that the ones to follow would be better.

working the dough

In fact, we made an amazing discovery - that if we followed instructions (Reinhart again) and refrigerated the dough for awhile, then took it out and let it go to room temperature again, it would be more supple, easier to work with, and even tastier!

The pizzas that followed were very good. Even the one that got kinda burnt. Our daughter Jessica was effusive in her praise: "Good job, Dad," she enthused.

The Message?

Homemade pizza is not that hard. It's fun. Even if they had turned out poorly (as we expected for our first attempt), who cares? Make a pizza!

a fine pizza



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