All I wanted was a really good homemade pizza.
Short of remodeling your kitchen or constructing a wood-fired brick oven in your backyard (that's assuming you have a backyard, and the necessary permits), great homemade pizza is just not going to happen at home. You're better off keeping your favorite takeout number on speed-dial when you're craving a great pie in the sweet comfort of your living room.
At least that's what I'd always thought. Boy, was I wrong.
For about $15 worth of brick and a few ceramic tiles or a pizza stone, even great pizza is possible at home. That and a bit of an odyssey -- well, for me at least.
It all started when I was lamenting my pizza pipe dream to my friend David, a passionate bread baker, and he mentioned his HearthKit, a ceramic insert he purchased several years ago for baking at home. A large rectangle similar to a pizza stone, the insert sits on a rack, or the floor, of a standard home oven with two curved ceramic walls that come up either side about six inches. The insert absorbs the intense heat from the oven, and then radiates it back onto whatever is baking, mimicking the effects of the ovens used by professionals. Unfortunately, the company's website is being retooled, and a call to a company representative confirmed that HearthKits are currently unavailable.
Then David brought up firebricks as a possibility. See, David is one of those guys who actually has plans to build a brick oven in his backyard (if I'm obsessed, he's more so), and he's done a lot of research on both ovens and bricks. We discussed firebricks, and they sounded promising. Excited, I told David I would investigate and report back.
Which brings me back to Sunday afternoon. I spent half the weekend casually looking for firebrick, mistakenly thinking it would be readily available at any major hardware store. It's not. And you can't substitute just any brick -- you need brick that's been fired at an extremely high temperature to withstand the consistent heat of an oven. Firebrick, made to line fireplaces and chimneys, fits the bill.
By Sunday, I'd had the sense to contact a fireplace store, which referred me to a masonry supply yard. Only one yard was open that day, way across town, but one 45-minute drive later, I was happily loading firebrick into my car.
Firebricks in hand, I began constructing an insert in my oven. The first attempts were horrendous, even potentially catastrophic. On my first try, I used thick, 7 1/2 -pound bricks, and the assembled insert weighed more than 90 pounds. I quickly removed them, worried that I might permanently damage the oven (I swear I could hear it groaning under all the weight).
Split firebricks worked better. They are the same length and height, but thinner and half the weight. But the sides were precariously balanced, and I was afraid the thinner bricks might slip through the oven rack.
So I contacted Clark Staub, chef and owner of Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, Calif. A professional baker with a background in artisanal breads, he has created different oven configurations to manipulate different types of heat, including the one in the center of his restaurant. I e-mailed him pictures of some of my attempts and we talked.
Staub liked what he saw but suggested tweaking a few things. We decided to use a regular pizza stone as the base of the insert; it's lighter than a base made of firebrick but will still absorb and radiate the heat necessary to set the crust. I then placed two thick firebricks on either side of the pizza stone to act as walls; they would absorb and radiate heat as a pie baked.
Finally, I built a low "ceiling" out of split firebrick on the upper rack in the oven to create a small, enclosed chamber that would allow the heat to radiate downward over the entire pizza for intense, even baking.
Fingers crossed, I cranked the oven to its highest setting (550 degrees) and waited. It took a good hour, but the oven and bricks became scorching hot. This looked promising.
Now, the foundation to any great pizza is the crust, so the next step was developing the dough. A good crust has to set up and bake quickly in a hot oven, it should be crisp on the outside but tender and slightly chewy on the inside. And it has to carry good flavor without drawing too much attention to itself. The best pizza crusts are the ones you notice only after you're done eating.