Friday, October 29, 2010

The World's Greatest Pie

Pizza has metamorphosed from a simple fast food into a dish of true culinary distinction in a very short time. Now California's innovative cuisine and eclectic chefs have given birth to one of America's favorite foods-designer pizza. What began as a modest meal of rustic Italian flatbread topped with tomato sauce and cheese has now been elevated to a signature dish of the New American Cuisine.

Each year, more than 11 billion slices of pizza are eaten in the United States. The average American consumes almost 25 pounds per year with the best-selling topping, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, being pepperoni. Nonetheless, at the famous California Pizza Kitchen, home of designer pizzas, where upwards of 50 million pizzas have been consumed, the clear favorite is barbecued chicken.

California-style pizzas pull together strands from Southwestern and Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, French, Italian and other cuisines that have taken root in the West. Often you will find a number of different cuisines intermingled on the same pizza.

Gourmet pizza exhibits many of the characteristics of the cuisine we have come to prefer: It's light--based on a thin crust.It's fresh--using the incomparable produce that is available to cooks today. It's elegant--often topped with exotic delights such as duck sausage, wild mushrooms, smoked salmon, marinated goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. It's healthful--taking advantage of the fresh vegetables, chicken and seafood available. And it's quick--requiring just 15 minutes to bake once the dough is ready.

At restaurants that use the best ingredients, pizza is becoming increasingly expensive. The solution, obviously, is to make your own. The dough and sauce can be made several days in advance, the cheese can be pre-grated and the other toppings prepared so that very little time and effort are required for actual assembly and baking. My favorite pizza dough recipe comes from Evan Kleiman's book, Angeli Caffe Pizza Pasta and Panini.

History

Italian pizza evolved from the basic concepts initiated by two different cultures: the Etruscans in the north and the Greeks in the south. The older style of the two was brought to northern Italy by the Etruscans, from the Levant area of Asian Minor. The first form of pizza was a crude bread that was baked beneath the stones of the fire. Once cooked, it was seasoned with a variety of different toppings and used instead of plates and utensils to sop up broth or gravies. This notion of a flavored bread as a side dish evolved into what is now known as focaccia in Italy.

Several hundred years later, when the Greeks colonized the southern part of Italy, the second concept was introduced. The Greeks took the idea of bread as an edible serving dish one step further than the Etruscans. They didn't flavor or top the bread after it baked; they baked the topping directly on the bread itself, and the topped bread took the place of the main course. This idea paved the way for the pizza as a meal.

In the end, the Romans embraced both the Etruscan and the Greek concepts, and they went on to create an entire repertoire of dishes based on these early prototypes. As a result, all over Italy today there are literally hundreds of styles and variations of pizza, which vary from region to region, and from town to town. As far as most people are concerned, pizza was "invented" by the Italians.

The Neapolitans, who have historically been impoverished, were also most ingenious at living well, eating well, and making the most out of very little. Neapolitan pizza made the most of the cheese, herbs, vegetables, fish and poor meat supply that was available. The one new element that the Neapolitans introduced to pizza in the eighteenth century, and which would forever change the face of this venerable dish, was, of course, the tomato.

It took nearly two centuries for the Italians to build up enough nerve to eat the pomidoro (golden apple). The original variety, brought back from the New World in the mid-sixteenth century from Peru and Mexico by way of Spain, was thought to be poisonous and was grown in gardens as an ornamental fruit. But the Neapolitans eventually discovered that this lovely golden fruit tasted as good as it looked. After the first bite of the forbidden fruit, Italy fell head over heels in love with the tomato, and tomato-based varieties of pizza began to make their debut in the Neapolitan repertoire. The tomato swiftly took over as the main component for pizza filling.

Although it is hard to imagine, cheese was not added to pizza until 1889, when baker Raffaele Esposito of Pietro il Pizzaiolo pizzeria was issued a royal summons to prepare pizza for Queen Margherita. To salute the colors of the Italian flag, Esposito added a new ingredient, white mozzarella, to the traditional Naples pairing of red tomato and green basil. The monarch was so pleased with this dish that it is still titled in her honor to this day.

But Neapolitan pizza is much, much more than the national dish; it's an institution. Throughout Italy, most pizza is either bought in bakeries or made at home. In Naples, though, pizza is rarely made at home; for pizza, one goes to a pizzeria. It is a place where young and old, rich and poor alike come to partake in the ritual of pizza. In the daytime, a pizzeria is where you get a quick and satisfying lunch; at night, it is an inexpensive eating house where family and friends can gather together to eat and drink their fill. Late in the evening, it is a spot where wealthy and fashionable revelers end their night out on the town.

The traditional Neapolitan pizzeria was a no-frills kind of place. Pizza was made in wood-burning ovens and customers sat at plain marble-topped tables. When the pizza was ready, it was eaten with the hands. The idea was to eat the pie as hot as your mouth could stand it and to wash it down with plenty of sturdy local wine. The art of the pizzaiolo was much admired, and each pizzeria had a loyal following.

Modern-day pizzerias, with their neon lights, tiled walls and cloth-covered tables no longer resemble their nineteenth-century precursors, but they still serve the same function. They are first and foremost a place of the people, where you can get a good but inexpensive meal and enjoy a lively atmosphere. Where Neapolitans have migrated, throughout Italy and the rest of the world, they have kept alive the institution of the pizzeria.

Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi opened the first American pizzeria at 53 ½ Spring Street in New York City in 1905, where he served a variation of the Neapolitan pie. Pizza remained restricted to the Italian neighborhoods of American cities until the end of World War II, when great waves of soldiers returning from duty in Italy were intent upon introducing it to their friends and families, and pizza skyrocketed to national fame.

In the early 1920s, pizzerias began to proliferate in the northeast. They were family-run institutions where the secret recipe was passed down from father to son. The period from the early 1920s to the early 1950s was the "golden age" of pizza in America. Before pizza reached large-scale popularity and became doomed to mass production, it was still made just as it always had been in Naples. Pizza came with fresh tomatoes, garlic, with or without mozzarella, with anchovies, olives, or mushrooms and sometimes with fresh sausage. That was it.

In the 1940s another interesting phenomenon took place-the birth of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. The brainchild of Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, this special pizza was developed to suit American taste, and sold at Pizzeria Uno. This regional pizza was just the first of many pizza offshoots based on Italian recipes and reinterpreted through American eyes with American ingredients.

Calzone

One of the most delightful members of the pizza family comes in the form of a savory turnover, a folded-over pizza that can be filled with any of the more common pizza toppings. Usually calledcalzone, this baked or deep-fried turnover is a thoroughly Neapolitan tradition. The word calzone means "pants leg" in Italian. The pizza was so named because it resembled a leg of the baggy trousers worn by Neapolitan men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Bonata

The most unusual-looking and obscure members of the entire pizza genre are those filled buns or loaves from Sicily known as bonata,better known in the United States as Stromboli rolls or pizza rolls. In this form of pizza, the dough can be rolled like a jelly roll around a thick, savory filling. In other cases, they can be wrapped around a thick stuffing. The pies look like long, crusty loaves, but when they are sliced, they reveal a beautiful spiral or solid slice of filling enclosed in a crust.

Equipment

The two most important pieces of equipment for baking pizza are the baking stone and the pizza peel.

Baking Stones

There are several types of baking stones to choose from. Some people find the round pizza stones extremely limiting, preferring the 14- by 16-inch rectangular stones. The stones are made of sturdy, thick, heat-proof ceramic and should be preheated in a 500°F oven for one hour in order to be hot enough to cook the pizza on. Pizza cooked directly on hot stones takes the least time (5 to 10 minutes) of all methods to bake.

If you plan to bake deep-dish pizzas you should invest in deep-dish pans made of heavy-gauge black steel, as they retain more heat than those of shiny aluminum, and result in a crispier crust.

Pizza Peel

This long-handled instrument with a flat, paddle-shaped foot is used by professional pizza bakers to transport the pizza to and from the baking surface. Wooden peels are best. Select a peel that will easily fit inside your oven and has a broad end only slightly larger than the size of the pizzas you plan to make.

To cut the pizza once it is baked, select a rolling wheel cutterwith a sturdy handle and protective blade guards. If the pie is thin, start from the center of the pie and cut outward into the thicker edges of the crust. For thick pies, wait about five minutes or so before cutting.

Baking

1. Preheat the pizza stone in a 500°F oven for 1 hour.

2. Flour the pizza peel, carefully lay the stretched pizza dough over it and assemble the pizza as quickly as possible. Don't leave the filled pie on the peel for long, as it tends to form moisture beneath the dough and causes the pie to stick. Put a layer of cheese over the dough before adding the sauce; the cheese seals the crust and prevents it from getting soggy which is often the case when the sauce is in direct contact with the dough. Don't pile too many toppings on the pie or you will never get it off the peel.

3. Give the peel a jerk to make sure the pie is not sticking.

4. Slide the peel all the way into the oven. Holding it right over the pizza stone, give it a short forward jerk, to start the pie sliding, and quickly pull the peel straight back in one sweep. The pie should come to rest on the pizza stone.

5. To remove the pie from the oven, lift one edge with a spatula and slide the peel beneath it. Transfer the pizza to a cutting board, let cool slightly, cut into wedges and serve hot.

Originally Published by WWWiz Magazine

1 comment:

  1. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!
    Pizza Equipment

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