Respect the pizza

A hands-on lesson with a no-knead dough guru
Pizza is about as close to a perfect food as can be found and is easily made at home where you can personalize with your favorite toppings.MCT

There is no such thing as a perfect food.

But pizza comes pretty close.

I know, you've got your superfoods: acai this week, chia seeds the next.

So what? Imagine this: A sluice of warm, crushed tomato, steaming under a scatter of melted, bubbling mozzarella, all resting in the toasty embrace of perfectly baked dough. Man cannot live by bread alone; that's why he invented pizza.

Nobody understands this better than Jim Lahey. The founder of New York City's Sullivan St Bakery, renowned for his no-knead method for making home-baked bread, Lahey likes nothing better than a hot, fresh slice of pizza. In fact, he eats pizza nearly every day. Lahey, who takes an almost spiritual approach to bread, began throwing huge pizza parties for friends and acquaintances post-9/11, when he felt pizza would "cheer people up." He expanded into a pizza restaurant, Co., and earlier this year a pizza cookbook, "My Pizza" (Clarkson Potter, $27.50).

"Pizza deserves respect and admiration," he says in his book, "for everything about it, but especially the bread, the crust. "… I see a pizza crust as a canvas, an invitation to paint and sculpt with food." Which is why it's natural to want to make this practically perfect food yourself.

Like a lot of cooks, I was taken with the idea of making my own pizza. Everyone seemed to be doing it, and it sounded simple.

Not exactly. Approximately 27 ruined pizzas later, as I picked at ripped dough, cleaned up spilled toppings burned on the bottom of my oven and wondered why my latest project wouldn't pan out, I discovered Lahey's pizza book. A fan of his bread, I suspected he might have the solution to my pizza-baking troubles. And, working with his recipes, my pizza did improve dramatically.

Still, my dough was tougher than it should be. And I ripped holes in crusts. I might have given up. Instead, I decided to up the ante.

In his book, Lahey invites readers to get in touch with him with their pizza questions. I decided to take him up on that. I wasn't the first, but I was lucky: He agreed to meet with me during a trip to New York and give me a lesson in pizza baking. Here are the five lessons I learned from the pizza guru.

Adjust your expectations: "The first thing we start with is our expectation of what we want pizza to be," says Lahey. "For a lot of us, that is based on an idea that we get from pizza we've had. And 99 percent of the pizza made in the U.S. is crap."

Pizza that you make at home, he says, should not attempt to reproduce anything you've had in a pizza parlor or from a takeout driver. Instead, it should be about fresh, top-notch ingredients and a rustic shape that speaks of the two hands that made it. Perfection doesn't mean a commercially produced ideal.

Hands off: "Don't overhandle the dough," he says. "If you want to molest something, destroy the tomatoes. With the dough, less is more. Try to break yourself of all this touching."

Lahey's beginner's version of opening the dough is to put it on a well-floured work surface, stretch it gently with your hands and spin it, touching very lightly as you make it into a flat, roundish shape.

He calls it the Hurricane, named after the motion shown on television weather maps as a storm spins across an open ocean. No need to fixate on making a true circle. And no need to make a ridge around the edge. Go for roughly round, completely flat. Don't smash all the air out either.

Air will create beautiful bubbles in the crust, adding texture to the finished product. And no rolling pin. Ever.

Just add water: The tough dough problem? It's the most common question Jim Lahey gets. And the solution is, well, obvious. "If it's too dry, use a little more water."

Dress and go: "Like with anything that's a creative product," Lahey says, "you need to just go with it, just do it." That's why, once you start to shape the dough, you should have all of your ingredients ready to go. Put them on the crust sparingly, so as not to overload it, and quickly transfer the pizza to the oven.

Lahey moves so quickly, he doesn't even flour his pizza peel, something you shouldn't try at first. Add just enough flour to the peel so that your pizza will slide onto the pizza stone. And skip the cornmeal, which burns even more easily than excess flour.

Try, try again. Don't worry about the experiments that don't quite turn out, Lahey says. Use the most delicious ingredients, and eat those messy pies. "If you get a hole in the dough or you ruin it," he says, "it'll taste good anyway because the cheese is so good, the tomatoes are so good." And remember your goal: "Practicing," he says, "is a culture. And like anything, with pizza, practice makes adequate."

Which is his way of reminding you to keep going, not because you'll eventually be able to churn out pizza like a Neapolitan pizzaiola, but because you'll find your own way to a gloriously imperfect yet completely delicious pizza of your own. When that happens, you just might find yourself, as I did, standing in your kitchen in your bare feet, a hot slice in your hands, risking burning the roof of your mouth to eat what might be the best food — ever. One that you made exactly as you want it to be.

"Pizza," says Lahey, "is a crazy-great food."


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