The Sunday post: Harry Potter pizza

Doing good stuff properly requires time and dedication. That’s the case for pizza: other than being a bit about chemistry and alchemy (as all things baked), it entails quite a bit of time for proper processing. Twenty hours, to be more precise, which is by the way the time it took me to read the latest Harry Potter novel.

Let me start by admitting that homemade pizza is sort of a lost cause: very few home stoves are able to reach the 350°C required to cook the dough without burning the mozzarella on top, not to mention that a proper wood oven makes all the difference in flavour. This said, there are a few tricks that make homemade pizza a great experience altogether: you won’t beat some of the best pizza restaurants in Naples, but you will still be able to impress your friends and have a great meal.

The first ingredient you need, and the hardest to find, it’s time. Pizza is all about dough, and that’s a time consuming job that knows no shortcuts. The good news is that there’s no need for a lot of effort: you will be all set with little more than an hour of overall work, but you will need to spread that time over nearly a full day. Which is why having a weekend with a good book to read makes the perfect match. You might wonder why it takes so much to just mix some flour and water, especially now that we have industrial yeast and self-raising stuff: just know that the difference between your home made bread and the fragrance of a professional bakery is all in the process. The not so hidden secret of proper baking is called pre-fermentation, which (roughly speaking) can translate to providing the smallest possible quantity of yeast with a suitable environment to perform as its best. Roughly speaking again, yeast and time are reciprocal: the more time you have, the less quantity of yeast you will need. And you really want to have the least possible yeast in your mixture, as that will buy you better flavour, richer texture, and easier digestion. Just give it a try: I’m sure you will see the difference.

Back to our dough, now. There are many ways to achieve pre-fermentation: what I prefer is the Poolish method, that is a liquid mixture of equal quantities of flour and water, with some yeast added on top. For my pizza dough I started yesterday at 10PM by melting between 1 and 3g of fresh yeast (use 2/3 of that if all you’ve got is the dried variant) with 0.5l of water. Yes, that’s an impressive low quantity of yeast, and no, I didn’t miss a zero: you really don’t need much raising powder for this magic to happen, that’s what the Poolish method is all about. Once I was dead sure that all the yeast had melted, I threw 500g of sifted strong bread flour (we call it “Manitoba” over here) and started mixing. It took me just a few minutes to obtain a very sticky and fluid mixture, which needs to be covered with a towel or anything that allows the mixture to “breathe”, avoid tin foil and film. I called it a night and start wandering in Harry Potter land.

Today being Sunday, I was in for a late start, given also that my book got me hooked until very late at night. That was OK anyway, since it roughly takes from 12 to 16 hours for the mix to grow (it mainly depends on the temperature, just know that the whole thing is ready when it looks like not so inviting bubbly mess, roughly 2-3 times in size from the initial mixture): in my case, pre-fermentation was over around noon, and it was time for some late morning exercise, that is preparation of 300g of white durum wheat flour, 100g of semolina (both sifted), 25g of extra virgin olive oil and 25g of salt. It’s important to sieve the flour carefully, and add it to the mixture two-three spoonfuls at a time, mixing it in before adding more, adding olive oil and salt before getting on to serious kneading. Kneading isn’t about sparing efforts: it usually takes me 30 to 40 minutes to end up with an elastic silky paste that leaves me proud and satisfied, even though a bit tired. Shaping the dough into a ball and covering it with a wet towel was the last bit of action before getting on to some well deserved lunch treat (a great fresh mozzarella, some green salad and bresaola, in case you were curious).

After an hour, lunch was over, the dough had risen quite a bit, and I wanted to get back to my book. I spent 10 minutes in splitting the paste in four smaller balls, whacking them in the refrigerator for another two-three hours of rising in a cold temperature. Roughly 2.5 hours before dinner, I took a very short break from Hogwarts tales, taking the dough out from the fridge for the final two hours of maturation (summing it up, that is 12-16 hours of pre-fermentation, one hour of initial rising, three hours in the fridge and the final two back to the kneading board: makes 18 to 22 hours overall, which is quite a bit but still much less than it takes for a proper Polijuice potion). The final two hours were all I needed to finish reading the book and finding out what Harry Potter was to be about: the oven was pre-heated to maximum temp, and it was time to shape the balls of dough into pizzas. This is incredibly easy if the paste has been done properly: a couple of slaps, a bit of cool-looking juggling, absolutely no rolling pin (that’s a Unforgivable Curse in pizza land), and the dish-shaped paste is ready to land in a proper pan which needs nothing else than a sprinkle of flour on the bottom to avoid sticking. Filling is next: my personal choice for home-made pizza is very very simple, just a bit of tomato sauce (lightly seasoned with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and origano) and enough mozzarella cheese to coarsely blanket the surface. A drizzle of olive oil, a couple of basil leaves, and it’s time to whack everything in the oven. 15 minutes will be more than enough in my not so powerful oven to end up with a nice thin pizza with a thick crust (as it should be), which makes for a rewarding sunday dinner. I just wish I had Butterbeer to go with it.

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