On Pizza

Anyone who knows me well probably knows that along with photography, cats and bikes, another of my great loves is pizza. And I had the occasion recently to write up an ‘origin' story’ for my relationship with pizza, so I thought I’d share it here too, along with a look at how I make it at home.

Forno Vivo, Tring

I first fell in love with pizza in 2001, at the age of 12, when an amazing restaurant named Forno Vivo opened in the small town where I grew up. It had a Neapolitan-style wood burning oven, and they put a Margherita pizza (made with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil) on their menu that changed my relationship with pizza overnight. Until my mid-twenties, this love existed simply as an out of home activity, but inspired by a close friend with supple ankles and a flair for baking, I begun experimenting with making my own dough at home, and various cooking methods using standard ovens (sadly, none of the various rental properties I’ve lived in over the years have had wood burning ovens). Now, homemade pizza, using fresh ingredients and cooked in the moment, is a weekly staple in my home - it’s the first thing on the menu every week, before we do our food shop.

Pizza dough made using the recipe below

Pizza dough made using the recipe below

I’m always tinkering with my recipe, or looking for tips, but at the moment I’m somewhat settled on something like this:

Dough (makes four 10” pizzas)

  • 500g strong white bread flour - I rarely use 00 flour, because it’s expensive and it isn’t available everywhere. Strong white bread flour works great for me.

  • 340ml water - slightly cold is better than warm, as you want a slow rise (because it tastes better). Combined with the olive oil below, this makes for a pretty wet dough - it’s around 70% - which does make it quite difficult to handle, but if you get yourself a cheap dough cutter it’s fine.

  • 15ml extra virgin olive oil - not traditionally included in a Neapolitan pizza recipe, as far as i’m aware, but when cooking at home, with a conventional oven, a little oil in the dough helps stop the dough drying out over the inevitably extended cooking time, and olive oil has the right flavour.

  • 7g dried instant yeast - I’ve not yet progressed to using a sourdough starter, because it seems like a bit of a hassle to make/maintain one, and I’m worried it would just die the first time I went on away for a few days. But I’m open to trying at some point.

  • 15g sea salt - fine ground.

Toppings (Margherita)

  • Tinned plum tomatoes - I usually just use cheap ones (also perfect for pasta sauce as well; soften diced garlic in olive oil, add tinned tomatoes, fresh basil, salt and pepper, and simmer until your pasta is cooked - glorious), as I think these generally taste fine, but if you’ve got the cash/you want to be fancy, you can get San Marzano tomatoes. ‘Crushed’ using a food processor (just a few quick pulses - you don’t want it too smooth) or by hand, and used sparingly (see note below).

  • Parmesan cheese - Grate a little on to the top of the tomatoes before adding your mozzarella - adds a nice saltiness.

  • Fresh mozzarella - You want about 60g per pizza. Buffalo mozzarella is best, but expensive, so I just use standard fresh mozzarella most of the time. If you’ve never had buffalo mozzarella though, it’s worth trying - it’s just so good. If you’re making a lot of pizzas, you can cube your mozzarella in advance, to speed up your cooking process, but if I’m just making one or two, I’ll just tear it up as I go.

  • Basil - I put it on after cooking, because I like the taste of fresh basil, but that’s personal preference. Dried oregano makes a nice, cheaper, alternative (it also goes especially nicely with meaty toppings), but I wouldn’t bother with dried basil.

  • Good quality extra virgin olive oil - it’s important that this is a nice olive oil, as this is just for drizzling. Get yourself a cheaper olive oil for cooking, and a nice one just for drizzling (it doesn’t have to be super expensive - we just buy the best one Aldi has - it’s about £3 a bottle, but it lasts for a while) - you won’t regret it. Drizzle a small amount over your pizza before it goes under the grill.

*NOTE* - be sparing with all of your toppings, if you put too much of anything on, they won’t cook quickly enough and you’ll end up with a wet pizza, which is very bad.

Method

  • Once all the ingredients have been combined and kneaded properly (you’ll know it’s ok when it becomes springy to touch - we’ve got a stand mixer, so I use that because it’s easier), i let the dough rise once for a few hours, then knock it back and make individual dough balls. Dough balls I want to use that day, I put on to an oiled baking tray, cover with clingfilm, and let rest in the fridge for as long as possible, up to a couple of days, before taking out to warm up a couple of hours before cooking.

  • Any extra dough balls can be frozen, wrapped individually in airtight sandwich bags (I should probably get some Tupperware for this - would that be more environmentally friendly?). The night before I want to use frozen dough, I place it in the fridge, on a covered baking tray, to defrost and rise, then get them out a couple of hours before cooking to warm up.

  • To cook pizza I use an old frying pan and my grill. I’ve used pizza stones in the past, but I’ve had better results with a frying pan, so that’s what I do now. Get both your pan and grill preheated as hot as they’ll go, sprinkle some flour on your rolling surface, and press/stretch out your dough by hand (don’t use a rolling pin - you want to keep air in the dough, so be gentle). Once stretched, put the bare base straight into the hot pan, and then add your toppings - have everything prepped in advance so you can work quickly. When you’ve got all your toppings on (and the base is cooked - this should only take a minute or so, if your pan’s hot enough), get your pan under the grill to finish it off.

That might seem a little daunting if you’ve never made it before, but it really isn’t too hard. Just give the dough enough time to rise/rest slowly, and get your pan/grill nice and hot before you start cooking, and you’ll be fine. It can be difficult to get it looking pretty at first, as hand stretching the dough is tricky until you’ve had a bit of practice, but if you use good ingredients it should taste great regardless of how it looks. On top of that, It’s so much better than buying crap supermarket pizza, and it’s wildly cheaper (and better, in my opinion) than dominoes/papa johns/etc., so if you love pizza, just give it a go.

Any pizza lovers out there have any tips for me? Leave a comment below if you think i’m doing something wrong!