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Cooking for one: Hot on the trail of the perfect pizza

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pizza taunts me. Even when it's bad, I have little self-control; the size of the pie I order is the size I try to consume, dinner companions be damned. And when the quality is sublime (a rare occurrence), true gluttony ensues.

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That's why I haven't gotten into the habit of making it at home: A 12-inch pizza is not something I should eat all on my own. At least in a restaurant, my tablemates will fight me for the slices.

The solution is obvious, isn't it? Make smaller pizzas. But the other obstacle is my stove. At my sister's house in southern Maine, a wood-fired brick oven provides the perfect excuse for pizza parties every summer; at 800 or 900 degrees, it cooks the pies in a couple of minutes, just what you want for a crisp-but-chewy crust. At my condo in Washington, the gas range seems to top out at 500 degrees or so.

Countless home cooks have come up with their own solutions. A pizza stone in the oven helps; two stones, above and below, might help even more. One company makes inserts that are meant to replicate the brick oven, with side walls as well. The idea is to radiate the heat, intensifying it.

I've played around with the stones and have gotten semi-decent results. But nothing was impressive enough to get me to keep experimenting until I ran across Heston Blumenthal's method. The chef at the Fat Duck outside London is nothing if not obsessive, as he proves in his book "In Search of Perfection" (Bloomsbury, 2006). The shtick goes like this: Blumenthal breaks down the elements of an iconic dish, traveling near and far and wielding scientific instruments to come up with what he terms the perfect recipe. He's equal parts Harold McGee, Christopher Kimball and Anthony Bourdain.

When it came to pizza, he wandered the Italian tomato fields of San Marzano, took the pH of water in Naples, tested the conductivity of pizza ovens, and so on. Back in Britain he had a faux breakthrough when he realized that by turning his oven to its self-cleaning cycle, it would crank up to almost 900 degrees. But the door automatically locked during cleaning. "Technology isn't always your best friend," he wrote.

His real breakthrough was to cook the pizza on a preheated, inverted cast-iron skillet (something Peter Reinhart suggested in his 2003 book "American Pie"), and to do so under the broiler. It makes sense -- blazing heat from above, blazing heat from below -- and it works. I've made gorgeous pies this way in about three minutes: a little longer than Blumenthal's promise, but quicker than anything else I've tried.

That's the only piece of Blumenthal's four-part, three-page recipe I adopted. I'm after something much simpler than baking tomatoes for hours, pressure-cooking them, then steeping them with their vine. In fact, toppings aren't an issue; I have a refrigerator full of such pizza makings as 12-Hour Tomatoes, which I slow-bake every August, pack into jars with olive oil and use all winter.

What I really wanted was a simple dough. My Maine sister's choice is Reinhart's basic Neapolitan one: a supple, easy dough that puffed up beautifully when I tried the skillet-broiler method. But I was also tempted by a no-knead dough by Jim Lahey of Co. pizzeria and Sullivan Street Bakery in New York; that one is even simpler than the pan-pizza dough in his book, "My Bread" (W.W. Norton, 2009). Sure enough, when I tested a raft of topping combinations on his and Reinhart's doughs, my tasters all voted for the Lahey version.

"Everybody thinks there's just one pizza dough," Lahey said when I called him about it. "There are as many doughs as there are pizzamakers. Even more."

I divide the dough into six balls and freeze five of them, then I make one pizza immediately. It's an eight-inch round, perfectly appropriate for a reasonable rather than a gluttonous dinner. When I want to make pizza on another night, I pull one of the balls out of the freezer that morning and leave it at room temperature in an opened plastic baggie all day, letting it defrost and then rise. And then I try to remember Lahey's admonitions. When I had asked him what he considers the most important aspects of pizzamaking, he was quick to say, "Respect for ingredients, and restraint." In other words, use good stuff, and not too much of it.

As I have tested, I've adjusted the broiler method further. Because mine is a drawer-style broiler at the bottom of the oven, room to maneuver is at a premium. Rather than use the back of a cast-iron skillet, which would position the pizza too close to the flame, I put the pie on a preheated cast-iron grill pan, pulling out the broiler-pan assembly beforehand to make room. That works with a pizza stone, too, although preheating takes longer. Best of all, when I crank up my broiler, the thermometer in the upper part of the oven goes way off the scale, meaning the temperature might be approaching 700 degrees.


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