La Dolce Vita: Time does all the work

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Should anything this easy taste this good? I wondered as I bit into the pizza I had just pulled from the oven.

The story actually starts near six years ago, when I read a New York Times article about a simple way to make bakery-quality bread in a home kitchen. I’m talking about bread that has a crunchy crust and chewy interior, like a good baguette or Italian loaf.

I enjoy making bread, so the article really got me thinking. Chewiness results from the formation of gluten in the dough, so a combination of kneading and resting it can approximate the chewiness one expects from an artisanal loaf. But the crisp crust is elusive for the home breadmaker — it comes from a combination of high heat and moisture that a regular oven just can’t provide.

The Times article was about Jim Lahey, a New York City baker who had come up with a way to overcome these challenges at home. Somehow I managed to forget about the article, not trying his technique. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw his name on the cover of Bon Appetit while I was browsing my grocery store’s magazine selection. “Make pizza like a pro…pie master Jim Lahey shares his secrets”, the cover said. Snaking around the edges of a rustic and very attractive pizza was another sentence: “It all starts with a no-knead dough as easy as pie.”

So, I dutifully started out on the odyssey to replicate that scrumptious-looking pie. I halved the recipe so that I could make three small pizzas the following night. Just under four cups of flour, four teaspoons of sea salt and a quarter-teaspoon of yeast (yes, a quarter-teaspoon) were mixed in a bowl, to which three cups of water were added. Clean hands mixed the ingredients into a sticky and very rough dough, which was then covered with plastic wrap and left to sit until the following afternoon.

A few hours before dinner time, I turned the gloppy mixture out of the bowl and onto a floured board and shaped it into three soft balls, which then sat to rest and rise. An hour before it was time to eat, I put a pizza stone into 500-degree oven.

Toppings prepared, I began to shape the first pie. The dough was so loose and stretchy that all I had to do was flatten it a bit, then work it with my hands, holding it up so that its weight would allow it to stretch downward. I held the dough by its edge and rotated it like a steering wheel. Soon it was about a foot in diameter and maybe a quarter-inch thick. I placed it on parchment paper atop an aluminum pizza peel.

I spread some spaghetti sauce on the dough, then laid thin slices of salami on top. Then I scattered caramelized onions and fried mushroom slices and covered the works with shredded pecorino Romano, one of my favourite cheeses. Slices of fresh mozzarella were arranged on that, then a final sprinkling of grated parmigiano reggiano completed the toppings. I slid the pizza onto the hot stone and turned the oven setting from bake to broil, and began to prepare the next pie. Five or six minutes later, the first one, blistered, bubbly and smelling like heaven, was ready to pull out. The hot stone baked the dough beautifully and the broiler melted the toppings and browned the cheeses and dough edges.

We sat down to slices of this very chewy pizza and toasted the recipe’s success with glasses of 2006 Setta Coppa, Sal d’Angelo’s great Bordeaux-style blend that he makes on the Naramata bench. D’Angelo Estate Winery has been one of our favourites since it opened, and we have happy memories of our stays at the winery’s bed and breakfast.

The pizza, I am convinced, was the best I have every made. And since, I have been experimenting with Jim Lahey’s bread-making recipe, having found it in the New York Times archives. The results will have to wait for a future column.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.