If I were on death row, and the warden, keys jangling, walked up to my cell to ask me, “Dalman, what do you want for your last meal?,” I wouldn’t pause for a second.
“Pizza,” I’d say. “A really good pizza.”
I’ll never forget tasting my first pizza in the mid-1950s. A place called Sammy’s opened in St. Cloud, and my oldest brother would order this yucky-looking horror he called pizza. It resembled squashed road kill. One night, though, I dared to take a nibble. It was love at first bite.
I never managed to make a really good pizza. Three years ago, I was determined to master pizza-making. I came somewhat close, but it was hit-and-miss – mostly miss.
But now, dear readers, I am happy to report I can finally make pizzas that are as good as any I’ve ever tasted, including one I ate in Naples, Italy – the birthplace of the pizza. I can’t take any credit for my success. That honor goes to a book entitled “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” by Dr. Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe François. That book proved to be a revelation.
Thanks to its good tips, I now make pizza fit for a king. The secrets are these: that book’s recipe for pizza dough, anise seeds, a super-hot oven, a baking stone, a pizza peel and corn meal. A baking stone is a non-glazed tile on which to bake the pizza. A pizza peel is shaped like a large wooden paddle from which you gently slide the pizza onto the stone.
I would like to share the keys to my success with my pizza-loving readers:
First, the dough. This recipe can easily be halved.
2-3/4 cups warm water (100 degrees or less).
1 Tbsp. dry yeast.
1 to 1-1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt.
1 Tbsp. sugar.
1/4 cup olive oil.
6-1/2 cups all-purpose flour.
In a 6-quart bowl or food container, mix all ingredients except the flour. Then add flour gradually while stirring constantly. Do not knead the dough. Cover with a towel and let sit at room temperature for two hours, then place in the fridge. It can sit, covered, in the fridge for up to 12 days, and thus you can use as much or as little of it whenever you like.
Preparing the pizza
Place the stone on the very lowest oven shelf. Turn the oven to 500 degrees to heat the stone for at least 20 minutes.
Meantime, take a glob of dough about the size of an orange and press it out on a floured surface into a thin circle. Sprinkle with flour now and then as you press it out.
Get all ingredients handy-ready: pizza sauce (I use Contadina squeeze-bottle sauce), shredded mozzarella, about 1/8th tsp. of anise seeds, red-pepper flakes (if you like them; I do), a pinch of salt, a bit of fresh-ground black pepper and any toppings you like (my favorite happens to be fresh mushrooms sautéd briefly in a bit of olive oil, butter, a dash of salt and a pinch of dried thyme). Don’t overdo the toppings. Remember, you are making a pizza, not a deep-dish casserole.
Put about a teaspoon of corn meal on the pizza wheel and spread it all over. You can use a rimless cookie sheet or stiff piece of cardboard if you don’t have a peel. The corn meal acts like tiny “ball bearings” so the pizza slides right off. (Note: You will have to clean the scorched corn meal off the stone and the oven bottom after every pizza, but it takes only a minute.)
Rub a thin layer of flour on both sides of the dough circle. Then transfer the circle onto the peel. That is when you’ll put on the ingredients. Open the oven and holding the peel at a 15-degree angle above the baking stone, gently wiggle the peel, then while pulling it back, let the pizza slide gently onto the very hot stone. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
Your happy nose will tell you when it’s ready. Open the oven, slide the pizza onto a large plate and – Mama mia! – you’ll die of joy and go to heaven every time.