“OK, college boys, you listen up good. Two things you do Uncle Louie fire your ass right away. First, you stretcha the dough, and second you wear dirty apron out in front. No second chance, first time gone.”
We knew Uncle Louie was serious because this was a “family” restaurant and that don’t mean mom, dad, and the kids.
Anyway, my friend and I were eighteen and had a job in this huge pizza restaurant while living in a dank, seedy motel room with no windows. It was 1966 and the pay was $1.25 an hour and the day was usually sixteen hours long. Mentioning overtime pay was another way to get fired instantly.
We were the “bench boys” who pounded out over a thousand pizzas a day in 9-inch pans. We didn’t make the dough or the sauce or bake the pies, we just pounded—not stretched them out—about 250 at a time.
This was on Cape Cod. In Massachusetts, the bars closed Saturday at midnight. We sold 1,500 pizzas between midnight and 1:00am. Believe it.
Hard to imagine that such a nightmare place would inspire me to a lifetime pizza making and research. But almost sixty years later I am still at it.
Here’s my current dough recipe. The autolyze and the three-day cold fermentation are essential. If you want to be a real pizzaiolo you cannot be lazy.
Makes two 12-inch pies
440g (14.0 ounces) King Arthur bread flour or Caputo 00
275g (10 ounces) very warm water (120°-130°), dough hydration ideally 65%
1 teaspoon rapid rise yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoon salt
Put the flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix thoroughly with the paddle attachment.
Weigh out the water and add the yeast, honey and olive oil to it.
With the mixer running, pour the liquid into the bowl and mix until the dough comes together.
Set timer for 20 minutes. This is the autolyze, which is a rest that allows the flour to properly absorb the water.
Change to the dough hook and knead on second speed for four minutes.
Put the dough in a large bowl, cover and let rise at room temperature until doubled, then refrigerate for three days, punching down when necessary. Two days is OK, overnight is the minimum for good crust flavor.
At our house the first pie is always the Pamela special. You can guess who Pamela is. This pie features raclette cheese and caramelized onion. The second pie is often the classic Margarita—just fresh sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with basil leaves sprinkled on after it comes out of the oven.
Take your dough out of the refrigerator three or four hours before you intend to bake. Divide in half and lay on a floured bench pushing down into flat circles. After a couple of hours, the dough will warm up and be easier to work.
This is also the time when Uncle Louie will be watching to be sure that you are pounding and not stretching. Using the tips of your fingers gradually and gently pound the dough out into a circle, turning as you pound; this is a high gluten flour so when it starts to spring back, cover with a damp cloth and let rest for fifteen minutes. Take your time, enjoy the silkiness of the dough and how it expands without stretching.
Everyone thinks you need a terrifying hot oven to make good pizza. Not true! If you can get your oven to 500℉ or above, you can make great pizza. A stone or even better, a pizza steel, will help a lot but is not mandatory.
At this point, spread a nice layer of semolina flour on your peel but you can also make your pie on a cookie sheet, pounding the dough out gradually to the right shape.
The best sauce is the simplest sauce. A can of good San Marzano tomatoes without the juice, puréed in the blender and you are good to go. You can gussy it up with some garlic and oregano but it’s not necessary. Spread a thin layer on your pie, add some protein—bacon (cooked but not crisp) never seems like a bad idea—then the onions and, finally, the grated raclette.
Slide into the oven. Should take about eight minutes. When it’s done it is very important to take it out of the oven and place it on a wire rack for five minutes. This gets rid of a lot of moisture and crisps the crust.
That’s it. Don’t expect perfect pizza every time—too many variables.
As Uncle Louie said when we left to go back to school: “You college boys thought this was all fun and games and pretty girls, then you find out, pizza is hard work. But you did good.”
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NOTE: If you are new to pizza dough and have questions, George is available to help you. Please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org