My sister used to own a pizza restaurant. She also worked in a hospital as a dietitian and later for a private practice, counseling patients on health and diet. Now she lives in Ecuador, enjoying beautiful landscapes, farm fresh food for incredibly low cost, and occasionally hears mariachi bands late at night hired by suitors to attract their prospective mates and impress their families. I am looking forward to my first visit and to experiencing a new culture and sinking my teeth into a new cuisine.
This year the family got together for a visit over the holidays at my brother’s place in Chicago and my sister made her restaurant style pizza. Honestly, for me, the dough is always a crap shoot. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes mediocre. In her restaurant, they had a giant dough mixer. I remember watching the hook twisting around the yeasty mass until it looked like a blob of wobbling, squishy flesh. It was a comical sight, but that’s how you knew it was time to stop the mixer and let the dough rest.
In our case this holiday season, we made a starter the night before, but you can just as easily do it in the morning.
Take a pinch of instant yeast from a packet and add it to 1 cup of flour in a large bowl. Add very warm water. Start with a half a cup and add more as needed to make a paste. Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap and let it sit for the rest of the day. It will bubble and fizz like any science experiment should.
When the time has come and you have made your sauce and toppings, you can prepare the final dough. Add the rest of the yeast, an additional 3 cups of flour, a spoon of salt and an additional cup of warm water. Mix together and knead the dough for a good five minutes. Break into 3 equal pieces for large pieces or smaller ones if you want to make more pies. Let the dough balls rest on a floured counter surface under plastic wrap for about a half an hour. This lets the gluten relax and gives you a pliable dough to work with.
Also, while that relaxes, heat your oven up to 400º F. If you have pizza stones, now is the time to heat them up. Never put the dough on a cold stone or it will stick. Don’t submerge those stones in water either. What I am saying is, read the directions first. We often get so excited with our new equipment we make a mess out of things the first time by skipping the directions in our initial fervor.
A source of sibling envy, my sister can toss pizza dough like a pro. I must practice in secret.
When the dough has rested, begin to push down the center with your fingers repeatedly, leaving a thicker band around the circumference. When you have flattened the ball to 6-8 inches across, toss it back and forth between your hands. It will begin to widen and stretch.. This would be the moment to attempt a toss, if you dare. This will stretch it into that perfect disc and get it on the stone or pizza pan.
Another little trick she taught me if you are using a standard pan. Put your sauce and toppings on the pie first. Then, if you have to stretch it further, pull the crust out a bit. The weight of your toppings will help ensure the dough doesn’t snap back.
Bake those pies for about 15 minutes and you will find you have a delicious, airy and crispy crust, perfect as is or brushed with a spiced oil.