So says Ernie Murphy in The Pizza Essay, which first appeared here in mid-2005.
So…Television does reruns.
Movies have re-releases.
So why shouldn’t we enjoy the “Best of…” from prior years?
Ernie Murphy’s Pizza Essay is one of my favorites. I don’t know what’s happened to Ernie, who used to work at the Honolulu Advertiser and later served as Newspaper Guild interim administrator.
Okay, the pizzas we made last night didn’t follow Murphy’s minimalist philosophy, as you can see in the accompanying photo. We ended up with sort of the “everything” variety, from fresh basil and low-fat Italian sausage to olives and anchovies. And I used fresh pizza crusts from Whole Foods, rather than making my own dough.
But it was still a successful meal, washed down with good wine. And the Pizza Essay may encourage you to bypass the frozen pizza in the store and assemble your own.
So read on. And get hungry.
Date: Tue, 7 Jun 2005 11:40:13 -1000
Yo, Ian –
Been working on the homemade pizza concept since about 1988, right after I settled out here and realized that there was no decent pizza and no decent bread (outside of the highly stylized franco-japanese products of a few Japanese bakeries) to be had. Luckily for us all, there is decent pizza, at least decent American-style pizza, and decent bread here now. I no longer bake bread, and I make pizza only very occasionally, mostly because I gotta cut the carbs. I distribute my pizza essay, the result of years of research and many trials and errors, freely. Copy follows.
The Pizza Essay, v.2005
My general conclusion: Americans see pizza as a kind of hefty flat pie with what amounts to a filling piled on thickly, usually swimming in tons of melted cheese. Italians see it as a thin bread garnished with relatively small amounts of flavorful goodies. The American notion of a really good pizza tends to be one with a zillion toppings. Not so in southern Italy. Oddly, although Americans tend to slice and pick up any pizza, even if an inch thick with goo, people in Naples eat their much thinner pizzas off a plate, unsliced, with a knife and fork unless it’s walkaround pizza bought at a street stand. Go figgah. I was really lucky in that the first pizza I ever ate was in Italy when I was a little kid.
Key revelation: It is not necessary, or even desirable, that every bite have a taste of every ingredient in the topping. Americans in general don’t get this. One reason why most American pizzas are monstrous glop burgers.
I won’t use low-fat cheeses. They all suck, some worse than others. I use the richest and tastiest toppings I can get, but in much smaller quantities than in the average pizzeria. Much as I love Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas, I almost never make them because they aren’t any good unless loaded with fatty toppings. I love them with a cup of cornmeal in the dough recipe, though. Forget low-fat sausages. For pizza, you should saute sausage in advance. Drain well on paper towels. Voila: low-fat sausage that tastes good. Turkey sausage? I don’t put dead bird on pizza, but that’s just me.
I’ve narrowed it down to just a few pizzas that I consider worth the trouble of making. I’ve minimized the trouble through use of heavy-duty mixer, freezer and refrigerator. Why bother? Because you can make a pizza that’s better than anything you can buy. In general, I make them thin-crusted because that’s how I like them and that’s how pizza started out. And in my geezerhood, because the quacks told me to cut the carbo consumption. If you’re not making a monster glop burger oozing with pounds of melted cheese, you don’t need an inch-thick crust. If you LIKE an inch-thick crust, learn to make focaccia, a closely related and wonderful food. I like it and I make that, too. But traditionally, pizza is thin and focaccia is thick. Those guys knew something.
No. 1 in my kitchen is the classic Pizza Margherita, the pizza I make most often because it is so easy and so good and because I can actually get the right ingredients without taking out a loan. Tomato sauce (unless really good ripe fresh tomatoes are available), whole-milk fresh water-buffalo mozzarella, now made in California (available for reasonable bucks at Costco) and fresh basil (haole basil preferred, although it’s equally great with Thai basil if that’s what’s handy). Fresh-grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese, real imported kine, also from Costco for way cheaper than it is even in Italy. Romano is saltier and cheaper but just as good if you’re careful not to make a too-salty pizza. The grating cheese is an optional ingredient in any case, according to the organization in Naples that decrees what and what is not a classic Pizza Margherita.
True Pizza Margherita is rare. The ingredients usually are too expensive or too hard to find. We’re very lucky here in Hawaii. There is no god but Costco, and basil is practically a year-round weed here.
Everybody knows that freezing any cheese ruins it. Few know that this is irrelevant for a cheese that will be cooked. I use newly bought mozzarella, but I always keep some in the freezer for emergencies. Freezing’s damage to cheese, especially one like fresh mozz, is entirely textural. Melting a cheese makes that damage irrelevant. You won’t want to eat a defrosted cheese in, say, a Salade Caprese or a sandwich or by itself. But if you’re going to use the cheese on pizza or lasagna, no problem. Ordinary American mozzarella actually is a provolone, which is what Italians call it when fresh mozzarella is allowed to age into a harder cheese. A perfectly good product, but it ain’t really mozzarella anymore.
No. 2 is the original diet pizza, Pizza Marinara. A no-cheese pizza. Only tomato sauce, garlic, anchovies, capers, oregano. With or without sliced olives of whatever type you fancy. Although I generally prefer pizzas with cheese. Italians, who have a mystifying hangup about putting seafood and cheese in the same dish, often add bits of fresh seafood to this one.
No. 3 is any Margherita variation that suits your craving of the moment or what you have handy. Add prosciutto (Costco now sells micro-thin sliced real-deal Parma prosciutto, something that the FDA kept out of this country until the EU jerked Italy out of the Third World, kicking and screaming.) Or add any Italian sausage, hot or mild. For this one I crumble the raw sausage and saute it in a pan first. If you have ground pork, make your own Italian sausage: just add fennel, garlic, oregano. For a southern Italian variation, you can also add cumin seeds (Arab influence) and hot pepper flakes. Mix ingredients into the ground pork before cooking. I try to use the beef Italian sausage, made on the Big Island from island cattle and sold at Foodland. I forget the brand name. Excellent stuff. Hawaii cattle farmers need all the help they can get.
No. 4 is a pizza recipe published some years ago in Gourmet magazine: Pizza Nissa Socca. Inspired by soca, a chickpea-flour flatbread snack of Arab origin eaten in Nice, in the south of France. I don’t make this one very often because it requires having so many toppings, but it gets as many raves as the Margherita does. Nothing classical, traditional or Italian about this one. Judging by people’s reaction, it’s the one truly memorable pizza I make because it’s so different in flavor from what most of us are used to. This is the closest thing I make to an American-style pizza with tons of stuff on it. Except the toppings are used very sparingly because they all are so intensely flavored or salty. it’s a pizza with tomato sauce or fresh sliced tomatoes, thin slices of marinated artichoke hearts, sliced fresh mushrooms or reconstiituted dried mushrooms of whatever kind, capers, Fontina (or other mild) cheese, sliced Kalamata olives and prosciutto or anchovies, thin-sliced garlic and/or onion, and oregano. Sometimes I add thin-sliced Italian or Greek bottled peppers, peperoncini. Anchovies, if used, and capers get desalted in advance: soak the anchovy fillets in milk or water for an hour and drain on paper towels; soak the capers in water or wash them well in a tea strainer under a running tap, also draining on paper towels. Press the excess liquid out of both anchovies and capers before using. Sometimes I use bits of pre-cooked sausage instead of prosciutto, or bits of Tennessee country ham a friend smuggles in. I’ve also made it with thin-sliced raw small squid, a few raw shrimps or clams. It’s all good. The original recipe calls for Fontina cheese, I think because it is one of the less-salted cheeses. Feta sounds like a good idea but usually isn’t because it pushes the salt quotient over the edge. Notice that many of the toppings are very salty. I’ve tried adding cubes of fresh ahi or billfish, but that’s a waste. Neither their texture nor their flavor can compete with the intensity of the other toppings. Another fun variation: finely diced cured Spanish sausage sold in Hawaii, which is paprika-intensive and similar to the Italian-style sausage called pepperoni only dry-cured. No need to pre-saute that.
Gotta re-emphasize that in all these pizzas, topping-wise, less is, like, more. Spread a little tomato sauce around the pizza with the back of a tablespoon or use the spoon to deposit small plops of sauce here and there, not covering the entire surface. In any event, don’t try to coat every inch of surface with sauce thick enough that you can’t see any dough underneath. In all these pizzas, I first of all roll or pat out the dough and paint the entire surface, right to the edge, with olive oil before anything else goes on. The oil is essential to the flavor, color and texture of the crust and also keeps wet ingredients from soaking it. I apply oil with a brush or the back of a tablespoon. I bake mostly on a screen placed directly on a ceramic pizza stone that has been pre-heated low in the oven at maximum heat for a half hour to an hour. I almost always bake with the oven set on its hottest setting, an alleged 500 degrees. Every oven varies, but for mine, 8 to 10 minutes is long enough for a thin pizza, longer for a thicker crust. It helps to have an oven with a window, so you can check the pizza’s rapid progress without opening the door and letting all the heat out.
Tomato sauce — Jarred pasta sauce in a pinch. Quality of these varies wildly. Most are loaded with sugar. Or I buy canned tomato puree or sauce that has no other ingredients, especially not sugar. Then I doctor it: pour a couple tablespoons olive oil into a sauce pan. Saute a little chopped garlic, throw in one anchovy fillet and saute until it disintegrates. Let cool, then pour in the sauce, throw in dried oregano and simmer briefly. Taste and correct the seasoning to your liking with salt, sugar or wine vinegar as needed. (But classic Pizza Margherita has no garlic in it.) I use fresh tomatoes only when they’re really good fresh tomatoes. Even in Naples where pizza was invented, most pizzas are made with tomato sauce, not fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes, too, vary tremendously. Some are meaty, some watery. Some are sweet, some are acid. We all have our own preferences.
Local-style pizza toppings I’ve thought about but haven’t yet tried (please, no pineapple or Canadian bacon, ever): kalua pig, well drained of fat, or pipikaula (dried beef) or the dried ahi or marlin that you get at Tamashiro Fish Market and a few other spots. The dried stuff is all a bit chewy and would need to be finely sliced, chopped or diced. Had a kalua pig, luau leaf and cheese quiche once on the Big Island that was truly memorable. That’s what got me to thinking along this line.
Dough: Dunno why you can look online and find eighty zillion different pizza dough recipes. The world needs only one basic one. You want the equivalent of a French or Italian wheat-flour bread dough: flour, yeast, water, salt, maybe with a pinch of sugar added to feed the yeast but not enough to sweeten the dough. With or without a glug of olive oil as you see fit. Variations can involve adding herbs, adding whole-grain flour or adding cornmeal. Italian bread and pizza doughs are mostly made soft, with more water than many bread doughs. I use a Kitchen-Aide heavy-duty mixer with a dough hook. Nobody in a tropical climate should have to knead dough by hand. Dough freezes very well if tightly wrapped. I always make more than I need and freeze some in one-serving balls. If you’re very careful, you can defrost it fast in a microwave oven. Or by putting the frozen ball of dough in a plastic bag and immersing it in a bowl of warm water for half an hour or so. I like to make the dough, let it rise once, knock it down and put it in the fridge overnight for a slow second rise. The slow, low-temperature second fermentation cause complex chemical thangs to happen, much improving the flavor, which is more important if you’re making a loaf and less so for pizza. Easy way to let dough rise unwatched without making a mess: inside a plastic bag that you’ve sprayed with nonstick food spray such as Pam to prevent sticking. Squeeze most of the air out of the bag and knot the opening loosely so the carbon dioxide generated by rising can escape. For a thin crust, a softball-sized ball of dough makes a big pizza with a thick rim or two small ones. A baseball-sized ball of dough makes a big pizza thin from center to edge. (Some folks like a thick rim, some like the whole pizza thin. Even a pizza rolled thin all over will end up with a slightly thicker rim because it rises more during baking, not being weighed down with toppings.) Crust softness or crunchiness depends on baking time. If you mix a soft dough, dust very liberally with flour, top and bottom, when rolling or patting into a pizza round.