Homemade Margherita Pizza

by thomandaimee

As I write this now, I realised we can never end Project Italia. It will be something that would be revisited many times in the future because there is simply so much to explore and discover. We have only scraped the surface of a bottomless pit. This only reenforces how varied and colourful Italian cuisine is. That saying, this applies to all types of cuisines. Just using Chinese food as an example would suffice.

Okay, I digress.

Pizza is one of the most common and familiar dishes in the world. Immortalised by fast food chains, almost anyone living within the vicinity of a pizza delivery would have tasted this bread concoction. However, as with globalisation, the face of pizza has changed so much from its humble beginnings. We can simply look at our local offerings to know that the traditional pizza has transformed with its cheesy stuffed crust, spicy rendang sauce and the all-too familiar pineapple topping.

However, pizza is so old that no one really knows where it originated from. Flavoured flatbreads has long been part of history since the neolithic age. I could bore you with a lecture of how pizza became this easily recognisable dish, but I shall spare you the details. Just know that with the introduction of tomatoes in Europe, in the case of Naples, the fruit was used as a sauce base and the modern pizza was born. In fact, pizza is so much a symbol of Naples, Neapolitans are trying to get the dish listed by the UN. We should get all our local food listed then.

According to Associasione Verace Pizza Napoletana (they even have an authority!), only two possible combinations of toppings are considered “true” pizzas – the Marinara and Margherita. The Marinara is topped with tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. For the Margherita, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil is used. Strict rules applies to ensure the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza. It must be baked in a wood-fired oven, the dough must be hand-kneaded and the ingredients are very much regulated.

But really, I don’t think everyone should be so anal to confine the creativity pizza encourages. Ideally, pizza should feature fresh ingredients of the best quality. I remember reading Gin no Saji, a Japanese manga about agriculture, and I couldn’t stop salivating. It featured a group of teens attempting to bake pizzas using food they have grown and made. Be it the flour they milled from homegrown wheat, locally-made cheese (with milk from their own cows!), bacon from pigs they reared, vegetables they grew, and right down to the wood used to the heat up the oven. (It’s one of my favourite manga – truly inspiring.) And this didn’t help in aiding my hunger.

Our version of the Margherita might not be supposedly authentic, but nothing beats feasting on freshly-baked pizza that you’ve baked on your own. (Interesting tidbit: our pizza stone is actually this massive granite piece that was cut according to our specifications. We have an awesome Dad who did the sourcing.) So we had Ned going into her Italian nonna persona in the kitchen as she rolled out pizza after pizza. The homemade tomato sauce is such a glorious paste that we have used it for our pasta. Thank goodness we have jars of it left! Topped with good quality mozzarella and our own basil, I’m proud to say that this blasphemously: it was as good as any pizza in Naples.

Pizza Dough
by Cirl Hitz, Handmade Breads: Simple Techniques for Baking Better Bread

Makes six 10-inch (25cm) pizzas

For the Poolish
220g bread flour
220g (240ml) water
0.25g instant yeast

For the Final Dough
1000g bread flour
500g (535ml) water
4g (1 1/4 tsp) instant yeast
26g (4 tsp) salt
10g (2 tsp) cornmeal
35g (2 tablespoons) olive oil
Poolish, all of it

Directions

Day 1

Prepare the poolish the night before baking. Combine the bread flour, water and instant yeast and mix with a spoon or spatula until smooth. It will be very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap to prevent any draught and let stand at room temperature (24C to 26C) overnight, 12 to 16 hours.

If your room temperature is higher, do note that your poolish will be ready in less than 12 hours. The same goes if your room temperature if lower, do note that the poolish will take longer to be ready.

The poolish will be ready when it has expanded to twice its size and has a good balance of large air bubbles and smaller impressions on the top surface. A poolish should not be kept for more than 24 hours. If a “high water mark” is visible on the side of the container, it indicates that the poolish has over-fermented and can no longer contribute properly to the fermentation process.

Day 2

Mise en Place

To make the final dough, prepare and scale all ingredients for dough.

Mixing

Using a 5-quart or larger stand mixer with a dough attachment, place the bread flour, water, instant yeast, salt, cornmeal and poolish in the bowl and mix on low speed for 4 1/2 minutes.

After the ingredients have been incorporated, increase the mixing speed to medium and mix for 2-3 minutes, slowly adding the oil to the dough.

(Mixing is the stage at which the ingredients are combined and married into a common mass. The first mixing speed is done in low speed to combine all of the ingredients in a uniform manner. The initial mix does not take long thus very little gluten is developed during this time. The consistency of the dough is paste-like with little strength but it it critical that the ingredients are mixed slowly at first to ensure their complete incorporation with each other. The second mix increases the mixing speed and encourages the formation of more gluten strands. Strength is built and oxygen is incorporated into the dough through the action of mixing.)

Fermentation

Coat a proofing container with olive oil and place the dough in the container.

(With regard to taste, this is one of the most important steps in the process of baking, as 75 percent of the flavour of the bread is developed during this time. The dough has taken quite a beating in the mixer and it is time to let it recover, rest and ferment.)

Stretch and Folds/Degassing

With the dough in the proofing container, cover and let it rest for 45 minutes and then give it one stretch fold sequence.

To perform a proper stretch and fold sequence, place the dough on the table in front of you. Take the right end of the dough, gently stretch it out and then gold it back one-third over itself. Do the same with the left side. Now take the edge closest to you and repeat the process, pulling the dough gently toward you and then folding it away from you and back onto itself. Continues this motion a little further, lifting up the corners of the fold and bringing the folded edge to meet the back edge. Pick up the dough and gently place, seam side down, into the proofing container.

Cover and let rest for another 45 minutes.

(A stretch and fold performs three key functions. First, it degasses the dough and expels the old carbon dioxide, making room for the yeastʼs continuous production of new carbon dioxide. Second, it creates strength by aligning the gluten strands in a controlled formation. And third, it equalizes the temperature of the dough by folding and redistributing the cooler sections of the dough into the warmer ones)

Dividing

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and use a dough divider and a scale to divide the dough into 6 pieces (220g each). Do note that the dough should be cut cleanly, not torn or ripped.

Pre-shaping

Pre-shape the units into rounds. Coat the rounds with olive oil and place 6 rounds on a sheet pan. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent the dough from forming a skin, and set in the refrigerator to rest.

(Pre-shaping the dough is how the baker starts to coax the dough into a certain shape. Care should be taken not to add too much flour during this pre-shaping process, and the action should be kept loose.)

Final Proof

The final proofing occurs slowly at a lower temperature in the refrigerator. The optimum proofing time is between 4 to 6 hours, but the timing on this stage for this dough is a bit more flexible than for most others, and you can easily hold this dough until the next day. You can also place the dough rounds carefully into individual freezer bags and freeze for up to 2 weeks. To use, remove from freezer and let thaw in the refrigerator.

(This stage gives the dough its final rise. The dough is still fermenting, yet at a slower rate than during the first fermentation stage. A good test to judge if the dough is ready: make an impression in the dough with a finger; the dough should slowly push back, but it does not completely recover its original shape.)

Scoring

About 90 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 250C with the baking stone in place.

Pizzas are not scored but they are formed into thin disks and covered with a variety of toppings. To form the pizzas, remove the rounds from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes.

With floured hands and working on a floured surface, place the dough on the floured surface and dust it with flour. Press the dough round 1/2 inch from the edge to create a rim. Lift up the dough and place the center onto the back of one of your hands. Stretch the dough using the back of your other hand so that it spreads from the middle. Rotate the dough around on your hand and let gravity help stretch it evenly. When the dough is sufficiently stretched, lay it on baking paper or on a peel dusted with corn meal.

If the dough ripped while you were shaping it, press the tear back together. The diameter of your pizza should be smaller than the baking stone, but can vary depending on how thick or think you want your pizza to be.

Apply a generous spoonful of tomato sauce over the dough and arrange torn pieces of fresh mozzarella on top.

Baking

Transfer the pizza into the oven by shaking the peel to loosen the dough and make sure it slides easily. Pizzas are baked at a higher oven temperature than most breads and the bottom of the pizza should quickly bake and seal from the radiant heat of the stone.

Bake each pizza until the desired crust texture is achieved, between 7 to 15 minutes, depending on the oven and personal preference.

When the pizza is done, slide the peel under it and remove from the oven. Place the pizza on a cutting board, top the bubbling pizza with freshly picked basil, and cut into wedges to serve.

Tomato Sauce
By Russel Norman, Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)

Makes 1 1/2 litres

100ml extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of chilli flakes
750g fresh tomatoes, quartered
3 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 small handful of oregano, chopped
Caster sugar, if necessary

Directions

Heat halt the oil in a saucepan on medium low heat and sweat the onion, garlic, salt, pepper and chilli for 15 minutes.

When the onions are glossy and translucent, add the fresh tomatoes and the rest of the oil and cook gently for a further 15 minutes.

Add the tinned tomatoes, bring to a gently bubble and then simmer on a very low heat for 1 hour.

Take the pan off the heat and add the chopped oregano. You can season the sauce with a little sugar, to taste – it will depend on how sweet your tomatoes are. Transfer to a food blender to blitz for a few minutes. If you like, pass through a fine sieve though I find that unnecessary.

TIPS

You can use tinned plum tomatoes – I feel they add so much more flavour to the sauce. It is also very important to use ripe tomatoes as if the flavours they impart to the sauce is essential. If the tomatoes you have chosen are not those beautiful sweet ones (like the malaysian tomatoes we have here), you can always add sugar to liven up the taste.

This sauce can be used for anything: pasta, pizza or serve it with meatballs. Make a big batch of this sauce and keep it in sterilised jars. It will keep for a few months. (In Italy, it keeps longer – you simply scrape the mould off the top before using)

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