We’ve written in past columns about how rice, salt, mathematics and poetry journeyed from the Levant and North Africa to the heart of medieval Europe, and how, on trading ships and camel convoys, the enlightened Arabs brought the wonders of the East to the West, which was still in the Dark Ages.
The Arabs flattened dough and baked it in tabouns to make pita, ancestor of pizza, and taught the technique to the people of Sicily and Venice. This is the same pita whose name comes from an ancient Greek word meaning a “round cake” or “casserole,” which later evolved into the famed pizza. Tomatoes, however, did not come on the scene until a few centuries later, thanks to those who discovered America. Tomatoes were at first thought to be poisonous, but the poor people of Naples and Rome decided in their hunger to try the tomato anyway, and discovered just what a marvelous food it is, especially when combined with Arab pita and baked into a bubbling pizza.
Apparently, Italians excel, more than any other people, in finding time. Time to warm the curds and stretch the mozzarella until it is just soft enough. Time to simmer a tomato sauce overnight until it thickens to just the right consistency. Time for wine to ferment in the barrel, let the vinegar sweeten and allow the oven stones to heat. The Arabs brought the pita, the Spanish brought the tomatoes, but it took carefree Italians to create the fantastic pizza we know.
Excellent pizza dough
Great pizza dough is very easy to make. All you need is flour, salt, sugar, yeast, olive oil and water. The quality of the flour and the water, as well as the oven, have the greatest effect on the outcome. Regarding flour, the kind Italians use is a bit harder than what we are used to around here, so I like to use 1/3 durum flour and 2/3 white flour. This way you get a dough that is pliant and a tad crispier, and doesn’t become wet or tear when covered with the toppings. To make pizza dough, and generally when baking, I prefer to use soft water – either filtered or mineral – that doesn’t have a high stone content like tap water in Jerusalem, for instance. As far as the oven goes, since heating terracotta stones in a wood-burning taboun every time we want to make pizza isn’t all that realistic these days, I make do with one terracotta stone that can always be found at the bottom of my oven. I bake the pizza dough on a tray with holes in it made just for this purpose and available at any kitchen supply store. Place the stone on the oven rack and then put the pizza tray directly onto the stone, so it will absorb the heat and bake evenly.
For the dough:
1 tbsp (12 grams) salt
1 kilo sifted white flour (plus a little more for kneading)
2 tbsp (25 grams) sugar
1 tbsp (12 grams) dry yeast, or one packet fresh yeast
2-2 1/2 cups (480-600 ml) warm water
1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil
To make the dough:
Place a tablespoon of salt in a food processor and sift the flour over it. Sprinkle the sugar and yeast over the flour and then pour one cup of warm water over everything. Using a dough hook, start blending at low speed. Add the olive oil and continue processing. Add another cup of water and allow it to be absorbed by the dough. Process for five minutes until the dough is soft and pliant. Add more water if needed.
Shape the dough into a ball, put it into a wide bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel. Place in a warm spot to let the dough rise for about 45 minutes, until it doubles in volume. Punch the dough down with your fingers and divide into five balls. Place each ball of dough on a floured work surface, cover with a damp towel and let sit for another half hour.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Celsius. Flour a work surface and roll out a ball of dough into a circle until it is just 1/2-cm thick. Roll the dough up on the rolling pin and then unroll it onto the baking pan or pizza stone. Brush the edges of the dough with olive oil and add the topping. Place in a preheated oven for about 10 minutes, until the edges are golden brown and the topping is ready.
Repeat the process with the other balls of dough, and serve the pizza on a wide paper tablecloth, with a green salad and a glass of cold beer.
What to put on top?
The most popular version of the pizza story holds that the massive wave of Italian immigrants to America in the early 20th century brought pizza with them, turning it into a quintessential American food. They topped the pizza with tomato sauce and sprinkled on mozzarella cheese of varying quality. But in Italy, other toppings are used, often depending on the season or the geographic region. My favorite is Pizza Bianca (“White Pizza”). It has no tomato sauce, but is topped with real buffalo-milk mozzarella and a hard goat cheese, like pecorino. A little olive oil, a few oregano leaves, and that’s it. The melted cheese atop the crisp dough is the most delicious combination ever.
A spicier version: Add a few salt-cured anchovies and slices of hot green pepper, and crumble some gorgonzola or other blue cheese on top.
The leftovers version: Sprinkle the remains of yesterday’s roast and potatoes on top of the dough, add some pitted olives, tomato slices, and some mozzarella.
The green version: As soon as you take the pizza out of the oven, top it with some arugula (rocket) leaves and slices of red onion, fold and eat like a sandwich.
A really tasty version: Fry a few slices of artichoke heart and chopped artichoke stems in olive oil and a little lemon juice until slightly golden but not too soft. Season with oregano, salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Arrange on top of the dough and then sprinkle on mozzarella and a little bit of Parmesan cheese.