Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The perfect slice

The best homemade pizza?

Pizza is one of those foodstuffs that elicit obsessive behaviour. Fanatics will  go to painstaking lengths to recreate the 'perfect' slice. Heston Blumenthal devoted an entire programme to it for his 'In Search of Perfection' series; and I have been guilty of indulging in such fanaticism! Having already put many recipes on trial, it was time to have a stab at the recipe from 'Modernist Cuisine at Home'.

The resting dough
I'd like to say by way of preamble that I won’t advocate trying to mimic a wood-burning pizza oven chez vous. The result might be rewarding but the expense and time detract from what should be a very simple, cheap meal. Buying a thin sheet of metal cut to fit your oven doesn't prove to be that expensive (and might be an investment if you often eat pizza) but what if you've not had the foresight to order one and want pizza pronto? What if you don’t fancy preheating your oven for an hour in this age of astronomical energy costs?  Above all, I felt compelled to master pizza cookery at home purely because the mark-up in restaurants is so high – a Margherita at Pizza Express costs £7.90 and I can imagine it costs well under £1 to make.

Pizza dough formed into balls

I find that placing a baking tray upside down in an oven preheated to its highest temperature will suffice. No, your pizza won’t cook in under 2 minutes per the ridiculous criteria set for authentic Naples pizza but, frankly, do you care? If you really want an authentic pizza you’re probably going to have to bite the bullet and pay for one. The high heat of a wood-burning clay oven will cook the base evenly and give it colour (undoubtedly the biggest challenge) and give you those lovely charred bubbles of dough. I often find that the slightly thicker crust is underdone by the time the topping has cooked.

The rolled and topped pizza

Rolling the pizza base very thinly is the best way to ensure a speedy cooking time and toppings that aren't cremated. The best way to learn how to hand-make a pizza is to watch a video then practice; it's deceptively hard work and tearing the dough while stretching it out is easy to do. Use a rolling pin if you're having trouble and try to ignore the sound of the purists jeering. The making of the dough itself will be that much easier if you own a mixer with a dough hook; though the dough can be easily kneaded by hand as it is not particularly wet.

Purified gluten

Now comes the time to admit that I've been a little disingenuous. The Modernist Cuisine recipe for Neapolitan pizza dough does require a specialist ingredient: Vital Wheat Gluten (Bob's Red Mill brand available on Amazon). Yeast-leavened doughs - like pizza dough - benefit from the addition of extra gluten in its purified form. It gives, in my mind, the right amount of chewiness to the crust and yields a dough that requires less kneading. A brief rest during the kneading process and then a 1 hour period at room temperature and you're ready to go. I'm sure you can forego this ingredient (given it costs £8/500g) as a decent kneading will develop the gluten networks sufficiently.

So, introduction over, now to the recipe:



500g '00' Flour (or '0' Pasta Flour)
310g  Water (cold)
10g     Honey or Agave syrup
10g     Salt
2.5g    Vital Wheat Gluten
2.5g     Active dry yeast

  1. Mix the flour, water, salt, gluten and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached until the dough comes together.
  2. Mix on medium speed for 5 minutes.
  3. Let the dough rest for 10 mins (still in the bowl and attached to the dough hook) and them mix for another 5 minutes.
  4. Transfer the dough to a floured surface, divide into four chunks of roughly 200g each.
  5. Stretch and roll the dough into smooth balls to develop a network of gluten.
  6. Rub the balls with olive oil, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise at room temperature for 1 hour before using.
To make your pizza, preheat your oven to its highest setting (ours reaches 250 degrees) with an upturned metal baking sheet in it. Roll out your dough on a well-floured smooth board - I use the cheap, flexible plastic chopping boards as a makeshift pizza peel. As you can see from my attempt, there's no need to worry too much about getting a uniform circle! Make sure you add enough flour to the board so the dough will slide off easily onto your preheated tray. Cover with store-bought or homemade tomato sauce and your favourite toppings. At the given temperature, they tend to take 6-7 minutes to cook. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Modernist Cuisine At Home

Modernist Cuisine at Home Cover  [Photo Credit:Melissa Lehuta/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]Author Nathan Myhrvold [Photo Credit:Melissa Lehuta/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]

For those foodies who haven't heard of the Modernist Cuisine cookbook, I will venture to say that it is without equivocation the most detailed, interesting and downright beautiful book ever published on the subject of cooking. It is 'Le Guide Culinaire' of our times, detailing modernist cooking methods as well as classical techniques, and the science behind it all. With stunning photography, elaborate recipes, and hundreds of interesting facts and tips, it is truly a book to get lost in (if food floats your proverbial boat). Incidentally, it is on display at Waterstones on Deansgate and I recommend flicking through it if you've got an hour or two to spare.
Egg Variation  [Photo Credit:Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]
However, it retails at a prohibitively expensive £308.10. Thus, I was delighted to hear that the Modernist Cuisine team were releasing a new book aimed squarely at the home-cook, without so many recipes involving sous-vide machines, rotovaps, dehydrators, liquid nitrogen, colloid mills, pacojets, and generally the kind of stuff even the most die-hard foodies wouldn't have in their kitchen. Not to mention the lengthy list of modified starches and hydrocolloids which are not available or are hard to source in the UK.

Anyone who has perused the 6-volume opus will have seen the necessity for a condensed, home-cook-friendly version. Behold, Modernist Cuisine At Home. If you do happen to own Modernist Cuisine, or have downloaded one of the illegal pdf copies floating around the web, this book is more than a stripped down version of its bigger brother. It features 400 new recipes, brand new photography, and tips such as how to recreate the 'sous-vide' effect on a tight budget.

Anyone looking for a gift for the foodie in their life could do far worse than purchase this. I'm going to pre-order it on Amazon and it'll probably stay eternally on my bedside table. Much to Anna's chagrin, I'm guessing.

PS: I am not on the payroll for Modernist Cuisine; however, if on the slightest chance anyone working there reads this, I would like to be :)

Salad Cutaway  [Photo Credit:Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]