Yeah, yeast farts. That’s how I hooked ‘em.
It will come as no surprise to most parents reading this post, that when I asked my kids for a volunteer to assist me in our first cooking lesson, you would have thought that I had asked one of them to join me in the kitchen to get an arm amputated. I must say that I found their general lack of enthusiasm for what I had hoped to be a pretty fun and easy launch to our "Oui, Chef" experience, a little disheartening. It seemed that I needed a hook to capture their imaginations and get them engaged. I'm not ashamed to tell you that dishing some potty-talk and extolling the virtues of yeast farts as a means of leavening dough seemed to work quite nicely, thank you. Just these two words got my kids so enthralled with the idea of making their own homemade pizza dough, that any hesitation they felt about their first cooking lesson with dad, fairly quickly dissipated.
To be honest, the boys seemed a tad more intrigued than the girls by the idea of the little yeasts consuming sugars from the dough and “farting” out carbon dioxide gas, thus causing the dough to rise. I could see their slightly twisted minds picturing the whole scene, the yeasts all rolling around inside the dough, turning toward each other, slapping high-fives, dropping their shorts and letting ‘em rip.
FART…… “oh that was sweet man, ball’s in your court”
FART……”gasp….. your killing me dude. Hey can anyone find a window in this place, I’m dying in here!”
I am just a bigger version of them….I totally get this line of thinking.
The girl’s take on the topic was a bit more questioning, and was accompanied by a look of mock horror. “You’re kidding right…. that’s just plain gross.”
I couldn’t think of a more appropriate first cooking exercise with which to launch this crusade, than to teach the kids how to make their own pizzas. I mean really, ask any American kid on practically any day of the week what it is they want for dinner, and the answer invariably will be PIZZA! There is no better way to get your kids psyched to be working with you in the kitchen, than to teach them how to cook something they REALLY love to eat. Plus, pizza is one of those meals that for most of the year, and in most parts of the country, can be made with delicious, sustainably and locally grown ingredients, and unless you overload it with cheese and fatty meats, it can be a pretty healthy meal as well. For our pizzas we used toppings that included homemade basil pesto, some locally cured pepperoni, homegrown herbs, and fresh local ricotta cheese from the Narragansett Creamery .
We have, for some time, used store bought pizza crusts and bottled sauces to manufacture our own pies at home, but our goal on this day was to make delicious individual pizzas from scratch using the freshest toppings we could find. With a little advance planning, making your own za is really quite easy, great fun, and provides everyone their very own delicious reward for their labors.
Homemade pizzas are all the rage in the food press as of late, so inspiration was everywhere. Starting with Sam Sifton’s article in the NY Times Magazine a few weeks back (followed by a fun how-to video from my old friend Jill Santopietro in her Kitchen 4B blog webisode), to Michael Rhulman’s bacon and egg pizza, which I am dying to try, every where I looked I found deliciously creative homemade pizzas.
My twelve year old, Boris, got the call for kitchen slave of the day because he is my artisanal pizza fiend. One weekend a year, he and I venture to VT. for some hiking on The Long Trail, and reward ourselves after each day’s adventure with dinner at American Flatbread in Waitsfield, purveyors of some of the finest pizzas on the planet. They source all of their ingredients from a network of local farms and produce stunningly good pizzas in their handmade wood-fired oven. The founder of Flatbread, George Schenk is a hero of mine.
We started our work a few days ago, and turned to Peter Reinhart’s cookbook, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza to choose which dough we would make. We chose the “Neo-Neopolitan” as the one that we thought would most please the crowd. It makes a medium thickness, crispy crust, and would therefor present a nice compromise for both the thin crust (me and my wife) and thick crust lovers (all the ankle-biters) in the group. No need to ruin a perfectly good pizza party with a Sharks vs. Jets kinda melee over dough thickness. It also promised to be a relatively easy dough to work with, which is really important if you are trying to engage your kids in the process, and don’t want the whole exercise to devolve into a tear stained episode with broken dough stuck to the counter-top or their rolling pins.
“THIS WHOLE PIZZA MAKING THING REALLY SUCKS….WHOSE IDEA WAS IT ANYWAY?” “CAN’T WE JUST CALL DOMINO’S?”
Sorry, but no.
We found Reinhart’s recipe bullet-proof, and after only about 15 minutes of work (including a brief interlude to let the dough rest about half-way through mixing), we were rewarded with a lovely, slightly tacky, but beautifully smooth and elastic dough. We rolled each of our 4 balls of dough in olive oil, popped them into separate zip-lock bags and tossed them in the fridge to rest. Resting the dough to retard fermentation is KEY. In fact, Reinhart strongly recommends (and now, so do I), that you rest the dough balls in the fridge at least overnight, and goes on to say that you can keep them there for a number of days before using them. At his point, you can also freeze individual bags of dough for use later. As summer approaches, I’ll be sure to keep a half dozen of the lovelies in my freezer so that fresh tomatoes and herbs from my garden never have far to look to find a home.
Next up was to make a simple, but delicious tomato sauce for our pies. We again turned to Reinhart’s terrific “American Pie” and adapted his no-cook “Crushed Tomato Sauce” recipe to our liking. We made a double batch so that we could have some extra to freeze, and used canned whole organic tomatoes rather than crushed that were called for. Given that my kids gag like you would not believe when presented with chunky sauce on a pizza, we decided to briefly process the tomatoes until most of the large chunks were gone. At this point, the tomatoes looked like they were swimming in way too much liquid, so we broke from the recipe and poured the tomato pulp into a fine mesh strainer to drain off a good deal of the tomato juice. After letting the tomatoes drain for about 20 minutes, we added the rest of the ingredients (sautéing the minced garlic first), et voila, we had a fresh, bright, and delicious sauce to please the whole family.
The moment of truth finally came last night as we readied ourselves to make the pizzas. 2 hours prior to baking I removed the dough from the fridge to allow it to come to room temp and to rise just a bit more before forming. At 1 hour prior to baking I set the oven to 500 degrees and placed our 2 pizza stones in to pre-heat (Old Stone Oven 14-Inch by 16-Inch Baking Stone ). As a family of seven, we thought it most prudent to invest in a second stone because at 10-12 minutes per pizza cooking time, if everyone is making an individual pie and having to share one stone, those at the end of the queue end up growling and banging their spears on the ground like a hoard of agitated Orcs ready to raid Minis Tirith in search of man flesh. SCARY, and a situation best avoided, if at all possible. Those of you with more moderately sized families can probably get by with one stone.
I took the first ball of dough, tossed it onto a lightly floured counter-top, and proceeded to show the kids how to roll it out. The dough was perfectly relaxed and silky smooth, a real dream to work with. In fact, it inspired so much confidence, that I felt half compelled to toss it spinning in the air like a real pizza jerk in order to stretch it thin.
Yeah….maybe next time.
Each of us rolled our own dough and placed each round onto a pizza peel that had been sprinkled with cornmeal to facilitate slipping the finished pies into the oven. We topped each to our liking and baked them off to thunderous applause. Kitchen stars were born that day!
Peter Reinhart goes into great detail in his book “American Pie” as to the hows and whys of dough making, in addition, the book contains recipes for almost a dozen different pizza doughs. If you are really serious about the homemade pizza thing, I strongly recommend you buy his book. The recipes below are my abbreviated adaptations of Peter’s work.
Peter Reinhart’s “Neo-Neopolitan” Pizza Dough (Adapted)
(makes four – 10 ounce dough balls)
5 cups – unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
1 tablespoon – sugar or honey
3 1/2 teaspoons – kosher salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
2 tablespoons – olive oil
1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon – room temperature water
If using a standing mixer, place all ingredients into mixing bowl, fit the mixer with the dough hook, and mix on low speed for about 4 minutes, or until a coarse ball of dough is formed. Turn off the machine and let the dough rest in the bowl for 5 minutes. Mix again on medium – low speed for 2 minutes, or until the dough has formed a nice smooth, slightly sticky mass. If the dough is too sloppy to hold it’s shape, add more flour by the tablespoon full until it firms up. If the dough is too dry and crumbly, add more water by the tablespoon full until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. If mixing by hand, prepare the recipe the same as above, but substitute your hand for the motion of the dough hook. Work with a wet hand to keep you from sticking to the dough. When properly mixed, the dough should be able to pass the windowpane test. Perform the test by cutting a piece of dough from the large ball, and while turning it gently tug at its corners until it forms a thin, translucent membrane at its center. If the dough doesn’t form this “windowpane” continue mixing for another 2 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and cut it into 4 equal parts. Form each piece of dough into a ball, coat it lightly with olive oil, and place it into its own quart sized zippered freezer bag. Let the bags sit on the counter for 15 minutes before putting them in the fridge to rest over night. If you must use the dough that same day, let the balls rest in the bags for 1 hour on the counter, take them from the bags, punch them down, re-bag them, and put them in the fridge for at least two hours to rest.
Prior to using them, take the balls from the fridge and let them rest in their bags at room temperature for two hours before rolling them out. Unused balls can remain refrigerated for 3-4 days, or popped into the freezer and kept for up to 3 months.
Peter Reinhart’s “Crushed Tomato Sauce” (Adapted)
Makes 4 cups
1 – 28 oz. can organic whole or crushed tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
5 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced (raw or sauteed, as you wish)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
If using whole canned tomatoes, pulse them with their juices in a processor until they reach the desired consistency. Depending on the brand purchased, you will likely need to strain your crushed tomatoes in a fine meshed strainer to drain off some of the liquid before using.
Place all ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine, adding more salt if necessary. Tightly cover and refrigerate for up to a week.
nd Baking your Pizzas:
Pre-heat your oven to 450-550 degrees and place a pizza stone inside to heat for about an hour prior to cooking.
There are a few different way to form your pizza. You can either stretch it by hand on the countertop, toss it spinning in the air like a real pro, or roll it with a rolling pin. I think the best way to go when working with kids is to roll it, as this method offers the least risk of tearing the dough.
Lightly flour your work surface, your hands and your rolling pin. Working slowly, and rotating the dough a quarter turn now and again, roll the dough to the thickness you desire. Brush off any excess flour, and lift the dough onto a pizza peel that has been dusted with cornmeal (to facilitate slipping it onto the stone).
Once the dough is on the peel you are on your own, top as you wish, but try not to overdo it (really gotta watch the kids here), because too much sauce and cheese will make it very difficult to slip from the peel. Plus, you don’t want to totally overwhelm the delicate flavor of the homemade crust you’ve made, do you?
Gently jiggle the peel at the back of the stone to coax the pie to slide off, and slowly remove it from beneath your pizza. Depending on your oven temperature, and the thickness of your dough, your pizza should be cooked in 6-12 minutes.
Not sure yet where our culinary adventure will take us next week, but please check back soon to see what we’re up to.
Buono Apetito! – Steve