Because that’s what pizza is, really all about: the crust and a balance of flavors. Flour, yeast, salt, and water, and a dash of olive oil.
The magic of the yeast—the way it inflates the ball of dough, the subtle tang in the crust—is from gyrations of living organisms, and when you make your pizza dough, or rather when you assemble the ingredients and mix them properly to present to the yeast, you will know that you are working with a living thing that reacts to its environment, changes over time, and stays alive through the entire process of mixing, rising, kneading, shaping, rising again, and stretching, right up until the time it meets the heat of the oven as it slips onto the 500 degree stone and the shock of the heat gives a final puff to all the little gas bubbles before the yeast, heating quickly past its limit of 120 degrees, dies at last.
* * *
I remember the two large men in their white tee shirts, aprons stretched tight across their bellies. Holding Mom’s hand as we walked in and sat at one of the wooden booths while Dad went over to order. They always called it “pie” at Johnnie’s, never pizza. In a storefront on the south end of Mt. Vernon, it was where I first watched the cook work the dough, watched his meaty fingers punching at the ball on the counter, little puffs of flour rising like clouds, pushing it into a plump disk then stretching it, talking sotto voce all the while to the other guy next to him. Then the best part, the dough now the size of a plate, he flicks it absently and it flies, spinning, into the air, two, three, four feet above his head, coming down onto the back of his fists. Again he flicks the circle of dough, again it saucers into the air, each time bigger and bigger, until he slides in onto one of the old aluminum trays and slides it down the counter to his partner for finishing.
* * *
Even the assembling of the dough seems almost trivial compared to the glory of the final product. I drag the old Cuisinart out of its spot on a high shelf in the cupboard. I throw two cups of King Arthur in with two cups of bread flour, add a half teaspoon of salt and whiz the whole thing for a few seconds to mix it together.
There’s a certain comfort in perfectionism, don’t you think? I love the sets of stainless measuring cups and spoons, the calibrated beakers, thermometers, my digital scale that converts to grams. I feel secure when I carefully sweep my cup into the flour, give it a little ritualistic tap to settle it, and run the blade of my spatula across the rim, because I do it the same way each time, and it is a way to banish uncertainty from the little univers of my kitchen.
Just so—that’s exactly a cup, no more, no less. Water at exactly 105 degrees joins the yeast to “wake up” for a few minutes, then a scant tablespoon of olive oil and down the feed tube it goes, pulsing until it’s all combined, then running for 30 seconds and pow! a mass of dough hits the cold granite of the counter, shaggy clumps spilling out in a jumble. I smile as I scrape the sticky bits off the blade and push it all together, kneading and turning for a minute, until the dough is a plump ball, pale but full of life on the flecked counter top, warm to the touch and pretty much in every way exactly like a baby’s beautiful bottom.
I gently ease it into the oiled bowl, set the timer above the stove and gentle the bowl down, turning on a dim light on the range hood. I’ve measured the ambient temperature in this spot with the lights on low and it’s a steady 85 degrees, perfect for the life that is about to explode in activity inside the dough.
* * *
Half an hour later I walk in and the dough has flattened out and risen halfway up the sides of the bowl. If I pinch the sticky stuff in my fingers and pull a piece slightly I can see the whole texture is riddled with tiny holes, the gasses given off by yeast that’s been brought to life and given a huge beautiful meal to heat. The gas is their byproduct.
There’s a yeasty rich smell too, and I move the bowl to another spot so I can fire up the oven. I push the “up” button until it won’t go any farther, and the oven begins to hiss with gas as it starts building heat to 550 degrees. A large stone sits on one of the racks, heating also.
The dough will rise for another hour, the kitchen growing warmer as the oven pours it on, straining to get to maximum. The magic of pizza is about to take place again. It’s another Thursday night in the kitchen.
It still amazes me that so much goodness, such satisfying and basic fulfillment can emerge from such a simple formula. I’ll deal with the sauce, the toppings later. The essence of the art of the pizzaioli—one who makes pizza—is expressed in the dough. Maybe because it is so simple—yeast, flour, salt, water and a dash of olive oil—and yet yields such complexity, such contrast between the crackling, shattery crust and the chewy toothsome interior, it’s in the crust, the bread, where you’ll find the very soul of pizza, and of the pizzaioli.
* * *
You’ve got to cook your pizza on a stone of some kind, there’s just no other way to get the crispy crust that makes the pizza sing. I’m going to be baking on a huge Hearthkit semi-permanently installed in my oven, a large stone that covers the entire oven rack and has sides made of the same porous rock as the two-inch-thick thick bottom. After an hour at 550 degrees, the stone will have absorbed as much heat as possible and will keep that heat as I start to bake and the oven door is repeatedly opened and closed, the pies shuttling in and out.
I walk over to look at the dough, which has now risen in a spongy mass to entirely fill the big stainless steel bowl. All my handling of the dough from here on will be gentle, trying to maintain as much of the gassy volume as possible. I gently tip it out of the bowl and let it lazily fall to the floured counter, where the underside shows itself riddled with the yeast’s work. A dough scraper gently portions it into six ounce pieces, which I gently stretch and twirl into balls, lining them up on the counter. A flour-sack towel gently covers them, misted with a spritz of water to keep them from drying out. The yeast is still alive and doing its magic, and the balls will continue to rise as I prepare the rest of the cast for this comestible sonata that is approaching its crescendo.
Out of the fridge comes the cheese, olives, a big bold leek, and from the pantry a big can of tomatoes, oregano, the big wooden pizza peel. It’s like assembling your forces before going into battle, checking your equipment, imagining the tasks ahead to make sure you’re prepared and face no last-minute crises—at least none that are avoidable—when the timing is crucial and dinner hangs in the balance.
The counter fills up with foods and equipment. Giant spatula, check. Immersion blender, check. Big tomato sauce spoon, check. Flour shaker, olive oil, extra dish towels, big-wheel pizza cutter, plates, check, check, check.
I pull off the towel and the dough balls are fat and happy, bulging with activity. I pull one out and gently press it into a little disk with just the ends of my fingers, feeling the soft suppleness of the dough. With gentle pulls the disk is stretched out a bit, then back under the towel to rest and rise a little more. The final act is fast approaching as I cover the peel with flour and a bit of cornmeal. I’m ready.
* * *
In the beginning was the word, and the word was, what exactly? The word was pizzaoili, because in writing about pizza and the miracle of bread, one must be precise. I had to find the correct way to spell this word and sat there stabbing at my keyboard in vain, knowing the word was out there. After a bit of nudging it appeared, thankfully. You know, it’s actually challenging to look up a word you don’t know, but there it was, in an article somewhere, pizzaoili, the baker of pizza. Another nudge and a restaurant in Chico popped up, named Pizzaoli, and I thought that was delightful until I noticed there was no pizza mentioned on their home page at all. Strange.
Inspiration told me to call them, as the cheery woman I imagined answering the phone would say the name, giving me a free lesson in pronunciation. On the impulse I grabbed the phone and, as I dialed, I thought who clever I am. Even if the woman is away from the desk, or they are closed for renovation, or they are all gathered for an impromptu employee lunch, gaily dining on pastas, bruschettas, condimenti, and toasting each other gaily with overfull glasses of the leftover chianti, her voice will be on the answering machine, yes? And that will be almost as good, I’ll get the pronunciation anyway.
And so I hang there, enraptured with my little fantasy, as the phone in Chico rang, and rang, and rang, on and on, no woman, no gay party, no answering machine, nothing at all.
* * *
Baking (making pizza) is about repetition, doing it over and over the same way. A man preparing for a baking competition bakes thousands of loaves in his search for perfection. There’s a little of this in the weekly pizza bake.
And the pizza gets better as my intent, my method becomes less verbal, more interior. They pizza bake moves out of my kitchen, into my guts somewhere, and as the crust gradually improves over the months, it becomes less and less possible to describe what I am doing in words.
A friend wants to get the recipe, but now, after all these months of baking pizzas on Thursday nights, I no longer think it’s so easy to pass it along. I suggest he just come over next week, and he can watch, feel the yeast for himself, smell the changes in the air as the evening multiplies in our imagination as the yeast multiplies in the dough. He says he’ll think about it and hangs up.
The Zen monk is asked, what did you do before you were enlightened, to which he replies, “I ate my rice, and I washed my bowl.”
And after enlightenment, after realizing the truth behind the illusion of reality? What did he do then with this great and transformative knowledge?
“I ate my rice, and I washed my bowl.”
Yes. Let’s eat!