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Cooking for One

My Own Weekly Slice of the Jersey Shore

Melissa McCart's Three-Cheese Pie with red sauce, made in her small apartment oven.
Melissa McCart's Three-Cheese Pie with red sauce, made in her small apartment oven. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When it comes to making pizzas at home, I take the Wolfgang Puck approach: Focus on good ingredients. Although I may not love Puck's favorite smoked salmon, dill cream and caviar creation, I view a home-cooked crust as "a vehicle for unique toppings and striking flavor combinations," as Adam Kuban describes California-style pizza on his blog, SliceNY.com.

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Why make pizza at home when there are now so many good pies to choose from in Washington? I started because of my friend Dave Gallo, whom I had grown up with on the Jersey Shore and who has lived here since 1995.

In response to the District's slim pizza pickings in the days before 2 Amys and more recent restaurants that have stoked residents' cravings, Gallo started playing with dough recipes to make what he remembered as Jersey pizza. He consulted Cook's Illustrated and Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking." After hundreds of tries over several months, he reported that his pizzas were a close approximation.

Boy, did I need it. When I moved here from New York a couple of years ago, I missed the pizza more than any other food in that city. New York restaurants were super-expensive; I was living on a teacher's salary, so I scraped by. Pizza has long been the Big Apple's bite for the masses. And if you know where to go, it's damn good.

In Brooklyn's Cobble Hill, my favorite by-the-slice place was My Little Pizzeria, where I would request an accompanying lime wedge for a tart and salty juxtaposition. At Grimaldi's Pizzeria in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, I admired the old-school, perfect-char crust produced by its coal oven. At Franny's on Flatbush Avenue, I savored the best clam pizza around.

The same year I moved, my parents retired to Pawley's Island, S.C., after decades in New Jersey, where the pizza holds its own next to New Haven-style and New York pies.

That meant no more easy access to the loudest pizza place ever: Pete & Elda's in Neptune. There, an extra-large pie was as thin and crisp as a Saltine, served with a choice of anchovies or cherry and jalapeño peppers, unless you were a wimp and asked for it plain. It was a foot and a half wide, which sounds big, but it was so thin that it wasn't as filling as one might think.

I was skeptical that my friend Dave could make a pie that even came close to what we used to get in Jersey. But he did. And what he taught me has fueled my obsession.

During the first lesson, he told me to forget about the char and texture of crust from a brick oven; a home oven can't replicate it, though using pizza stones on the top and middle shelves helps. Besides, there are variables to make the crust great. Use more yeast than you think is needed; use honey to let the yeast bloom. Play with the amount or type of salt (I have about a half-dozen kinds) and flavored oils. And above all, keep it simple.

Making pizza at home is rarely boring, which means it's a nice option when cooking for one. It provides a canvas to show off the cook's craving, be it for greens, shellfish, pork, veggies -- or cheese, of course. And among the people I know, 10- to 12-inch pies that claim to be more than a single serving are never quite enough to feed two hungry eaters.

I usually make pizza in my small apartment oven once a week, often on the weekend, so I'll have more time to prep ingredients and let the dough rise. The Sunday farmers market at Dupont Circle inspires me, too, since pizza is the perfect means for showcasing what's in season.

After combining dough ingredients in the food processor, I love the 10 minutes or so of kneading on a floured surface, during which I will muse over my week's to-do list, play out a conversation I've been meaning to make time for or blow off steam from the day, all the while feeling for the spring and give under the heel of my hand.


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