Ode to Pizza
Pizza. It is a thing beloved by millions of people across the globe, if not billions. It is something that inspires joy, lust, loathe, litigation, and fisticuffs. We all have our own personal journey with pizza; mine started at age five at Keystone Pizza in Mountain Home, Idaho.
Back then (in the olden days) the Chuck E Cheese craze had yet to sweep the nation and kids’ birthday parties were still hosted in backyards in the summer and independent pizza parlors in the winter. Since my parents so fortuitously conceived me in early spring, I have the great pleasure of sharing a birth week with Jesus. There should be a three-month moratorium on sex during spring just so no one will have a chance of being born around the same time as the dude in the leather sandals. I mean, he gets a party that people all over the planet celebrate, so how great can a Podunk pizza hoedown in a postage stamp-sized town be in comparison?
Nevertheless, I made do with what I had, and so found myself and ten of my closest Montessori friends wreaking havoc on pizza and piñatas on December 22, 1982. By then I was vegetarian, so I stuck with cheese and managed passable five-year-old pretension at the pepperoni-lovers of the bunch. Thinking back, I developed my eccentricities a young age, as I also remember secreting red velvet pants into my backpack to put on under my dresses once I got to school.
Paul Duncan was among the revelers at that first pizza party of my young life. We were in love. It’s fitting that pizza was the backdrop for our first candlelit (those red, bulbous candle jars you always see on checkered tablecloths) meal together; it’s like the cheese and sauce-woven tapestry behind so many of life’s great moments. He had the pepperoni, I had the cheese, then I snuck a peak from behind the blindfold and “accidentally” pinned the tail on him instead of the donkey just so I could cop a five-year-old feel.
Years later, at the ripe (as in puberty- ew!) old age of 13, I ate pineapple mushroom pizza from Little Caesars while sitting on the edge of the Snake River Canyon (half a mile from where Evel Knievel attempted his failed jump) with my first junior high crush. My crush was as futile as Knievel’s jump since the object of my amour wound up batting for the other team. It explains why he was so easy to talk to!
My obsession with pineapple mushroom pizza stayed with me from junior high until last year, although I had brief affairs with various hipper toppings along the way. I went through a sun-dried tomato and artichoke heart phase, though in truth I prefer those in a calzone with pesto sauce. Potato and apple pizza saw me through several Grateful Dead concerts one high school summer before Jerry died. I can’t bring myself to revisit that pizza now since it was made with vegan soy cheese and let’s face it- I was not cut out for veganism.
If I were feeling particularly free, I might allow a pizzaiolo to add black olives to my precious pineapples and mushrooms, but never kalamatas or nicoises, only the ghetto sliced black kind that come in a can. The mushrooms and pineapples were also of the canned variety- this is one of those inexplicable throwbacks to the convenience generation that I’ve only recently been able to (sort of) overcome.
I have never been much of a pizza sharer, nor will I eat a slice containing something besides my chosen toppings (or plain cheese). I realize this is a fault in my own personality and I accept full responsibility for being an insular bitch. It may be partially-attributed to the fact that I am largely an only child, having spent very little time with my significantly-older half-siblings.
When I first visited Napoli just after high school, I was thrilled to discover that everyone orders a personal pizza. Based on that fact alone, I knew I needed to live in Italy, however it took a few more years to sort out how. My two-week-long sojourn in Napoli consisted of two pizzas and three-two scoop gelatos every day (as well as a good deal of wine for balance since it’s part of the “fruit” food group). I could only eat Pizza Margherita there since for the life of me I couldn’t convince them to put pineapple on pizza, but no matter. Margherita will forever hold a special place in my heart as the litmus test pizza by which to judge new-to-me pizza joints.
Between my first visit and eventual relocation to Italy, I lapsed back into my pineapple mushroom pie, so much so that when I finally moved to Italy I brought with me a Costco-sized pack of canned pineapple. Every time I’d go for pizza in Torino, I wielded the can and pleaded with the cameriere to convince the pizzaiolo to add my ananas to a funghi pizza. About 50% of the time, my beseeching worked. If it didn’t work, no matter, I’d just plop on my contraband pineapple once the pizza reached the table.
One thing I emphatically do not like about pizza in Italy is that you are meant to eat it with a knife and fork. I think this is a travesty because, as one of life’s perfect foods, I firmly believe we must cradle slices in our hands in order to get the full experience. Someone recently told me there are taste receptors in our fingertips. I don’t doubt it, as pizza ALWAYS tastes better when it’s eaten a mano. I would go so far as to say that if you removed cultural mores and placed pizzas in front of a hundred people, those who picked it up with their hands would be passionate types who extract the marrow from life, whereas the fork-and-knifers would be the folks who largely let life happen to them without much engagement.
Even though I started eating meat again about ten years ago, I refused to put it on pizza until this year. I didn’t believe it had a place on something so naturally complete. I still maintain that any pizza bearing the weight of chicken, sausage, or ground beef is not pizza at all, and don’t get me started on barbecue sauce or ranch dressing. Pizza is sacred, something to be revered, honored and preserved in its original form, whatever that means to the person eating it. I guess that’s why when I finally relented and allowed meat to mingle with cheese and sauce, I did so with pepperoni. Pepperoni was at least something I remembered from early pizza experiences, even if I’d never actually eaten it myself.
The first few times I tasted pepperoni on pizza, my verdict was out. I enjoyed it in my soul, but my mind wouldn’t let me get past the idea that I was eating something so fundamentally-opposed to my staid beliefs. Eventually, however- as with my life’s trajectory- my soul won. Now my go-to pizza is pepperoni and I can very nearly say that without guilt. It’s gradually supplanting Margherita as my litmus pizza, though really one needs to order both to gauge accurately. As a big proponent of fancy charcuterie, I realize just how provincial my simple pepperoni seems. I mean, the word isn’t even authentically-Italian, for god sakes. Nevertheless, I am not one to argue with the matters of my heart, and so pepperoni it is during this stage of life.
The good thing about relenting to pepperoni is that it’s forced me to open my mind to other salty pig products on pizza. To my mind, the reason pig and pizza go hand in hand is an issue of complementary fats. Not just any meat will lie down on a bed of mozzarella and curl up for a snuggle. Cured pork has enough salty, fatty succulence to easily slide into the cheese while still maintaining its own flavor. Texturally-speaking , it doesn’t dominate like chunkier meats do, which, as we’ve covered, DO NOT BELONG ON PIZZA.
There’s only one other food on the planet that has that ability to shape-shift and complement cheese so well, and that is the humble egg- another of life’s perfect foods. I saw many eggs on pizza in Italy and it has recently become a trend in the United States as well. The problem I’ve always noticed is that the egg pools in the center of the pizza, making it somewhat soggy, and seeps onto the plate since it’s tricky to slather up that oozing yolk.
I came upon a solution for this problem, but had no way to test it for the longest time, since, along with my already long list of pizza taboos, I also believe one cannot make pizza in a home oven. Despite finally devising the BEST pizza crust recipe ever (after much tweaking), I still don’t view a residential crust as having quite enough wood-fired bite to it. The only solution that works enough for me to finally be able to post my results here without hanging my head like a hack comes in the form of my Himalayan salt block. I feel it conducts heat better than a pizza stone, plus it imparts a little natural saltiness to the crust, which never hurt nobody.
Fast forward to this pizza pie I’m presenting you, the one I’ve been dying to show you but never quite felt I could until I’d really completed exhaustive weeks of research and development (read- eating a shit-ton of pizza). My solution to the egg problem is simple: use quail eggs. They’re smaller, and that way every slice can have an egg. Because you can’t just toss an egg on top of pepperoni, and because this pie is elevated, deistic, if you will, I decided to use speck. Speck is made like prosciutto except that it gets lightly cold-smoked after a slightly-shorter hang time. It’s not as smoky as bacon, but the fact that it is lightly-affumicato helps complete the pizza.
Low-moisture whole milk mozzarella makes a great cheese base, though mixing it with Robiola couldn’t hurt if you have the time or the inclination. More delicate mozzarella isn’t worth using on a home pie (imho) because the higher moisture content will literally drown any chance you have at achieving a near-wood-fired crust.
Finally, a word on sauce. The ideal pizza sauce is thick and robust, made by reducing whole tomatoes with garlic in a medium temperature oven over the course of several hours. Two pounds of roma tomatoes will eventually evaporate to practically nothing, but I stop them when they’re at about ¾ cup, which is just enough to cover four 8” pizzas. The reason I make my sauce this way is because it sucks all the moisture out of the tomatoes enabling a nice, dry crust, as well as condenses the flavor into a very tight, concentrated sauce. I suppose if you were pressed for time you could buy some substitute sauce, but if you cut corners in the kitchen because you are pressed for time you are probably not either a. reading this blog or b. ever going to make this in the first place.
So there you have it- my diatribe on pizza. I write one about every five years, and I’ll continue to do so over the course of my life. If you grew up with it, I’m sure you will agree that it has touched your life in ways most other foods could only dream of. This recipe represents me extending the olive branch to everyone I’ve ever annoyed with my ridiculous demands at the pizza table. I hope you can see that I’ve really gone out on a limb here, in fact I’d go so far as to say that I’ve matured both in palate and in mind.
Speck and Quail Egg Pizza
Makes 4-8” pizzas
For the crust:
- 2 tsp active dry yeast
- 1 cup water (110-115°F)
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp salt
- ¼ c lard
- 1 c cake flour
- 2-2.5 c all purpose flour
- Olive oil to grease rising bowl
- Semolina or cornmeal to dust bottom of crust
For the sauce:
- 2 lb tomatoes
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
- 1 tsp salt
For the toppings:
- ¾ lb grated whole milk mozzarella cheese, grated
- 16 quail eggs
- ¼ lb thinly-sliced speck cut into 2” pieces
- Heat oven to 400°. Halve the tomatoes and place them in an oven-safe dish. Sprinkle with salt and add the garlic. Bake for several hours, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes are reduced to roughly ¾ c and all liquid has evaporated. Puree with an immersion blender and let cool.
- In bowl of a standing mixer combine the yeast, water, sugar, salt and lard and mix until a slurry is formed with whisk attachment.
- Switch to the dough hook and add 1 c cake flour and 1 c regular flour. Knead to combine, then add an additional cup of flour. Continue mixing until flour is completely incorporated and dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. If it is still rather sticky, add an additional ½ c flour. Place dough in a warm place in a greased bowl to double in size- about 1.5 hours.
- On a floured surface, divide the dough into 4 balls. Cover with a tea towel and let rise an additional 20 minutes to 1 hour. The dough is now ready for the sauce and toppings.
- Place a salt-baking slab or pizza stone inside the oven on middle rack and preheat the oven to 500°.
- Form one ball of dough into an 8” round using a rolling pin or your hands. Top with a thin layer of tomato sauce and some grated mozzarella.
- When oven is hot, bake pizza on salt slab for 10 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned. Working quickly, open the oven door and sprinkle speck on the pizza. With the back of a teaspoon, make four equal impressions on the pizza (one per slice). Drop a quail egg into each impression. Close the oven door and watch the pizza carefully. When the whites of the quail eggs are cooked, remove from the oven. Repeat with remaining pizzas.