California Sets Nation's Pizza Style : Simple Italian Dish Becomes Latest Cutting-Edge Cuisine

Kolpas is author of "Pizza California Style" and several other cookbooks

California has set the style for the modern pizza.

The state's most creative chefs have taken the rustic Italian flat bread topped with tomatoes and cheese and elevated it to a signature dish of the new American cooking.

California-style pizza exhibits many of the characteristics of cutting-edge cuisine. It's light-based on a thin crust and baked in individual portions. It's fresh, topped with the Golden State's incomparable produce. It's elegant and refined. And it's healthy, reflecting the trend toward meals based on vegetables, poultry and seafood.

The pizzas of California are also eclectic and innovative, pulling together strands from Southwestern, Mexican, Asian, French, Italian and other cuisines. Along with the traditional tomato sauce, they may also be made with pesto, pepper purees, creme fraiche, extra-virgin olive oil or even no sauce at all.

Easy, Quick to Make

And, like so much of contemporary cuisine, California-style pizzas are easy to prepare. Even the dough, made from scratch, takes little more than an hour (you can even substitute ready-to-bake bread dough from a supermarket's freezer case). Quickly sauced and topped, the pizzas bake in just 8 to 10 minutes.

Virtually any good supermarket will stock most of the ingredients you'll need for a California-style pizza.

All-purpose flour is the foundation for the dough. There's no need for special bread or cake flours.

It's also a good idea to seek out a small package of coarse semolina flour to sprinkle on the work surface before rolling out the dough; it makes the pizzas slide more easily on and off the paddle and contributes a pleasant texture. If you can't find semolina, dust with regular flour.

Ordinary commercial active dry yeast gives the dough its life.

If you don't have the time to make dough from scratch, substitute a ready-to-bake bread dough from the freezer case of the supermarket. You'll get four crusts from 24 ounces of dough.

Just Say Cheese

For many people, pizza and cheese are synonymous. California-style pizzas expand the range of cheese toppings far beyond the traditional mozzarella-Romano-Parmesan combinations. Seek out a supermarket or deli that offers a good selection of cheeses and let your taste buds and imagination be your guides.

And don't let a low-cholesterol diet prevent you from enjoying California-style pizza. Today, a number of cheese manufacturers around the country are making special "filled" cheeses from which the butterfat has been removed and replaced with cholesterol-free vegetable fat. You can find filled mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, Swiss, Cheddar, or virtually any cheese you can name.

The equipment you'll need to prepare pizzas at home can be found in most well-stocked kitchenware stores.

To re-create the intense, dry, radiant heat of a traditional pizza oven, look for a pizza brick, made of compacted clay that has been pressed thin and flat and then fired to a temperature of more than 2,200 degrees. Put the brick in the oven before preheating and when it's hot, slide the pizza directly onto it for baking. Be sure to let the brick cool completely before handling it again. If you can't find a pizza brick, bake pizzas on ceramic baking tiles or on the heaviest baking sheet you can find.

Cooking Pizza

To transfer the pizzas from work surface to oven and then from oven to cutting board or serving plate, the best tool is a large, wooden paddle--called a peel in bakers' terminology. Its tapered edge and smooth surface lets you easily slip it under a pizza, and the pizza slides off of it with a gentle push and shake of your forearm. If you can't find a peel, substitute a pair of large metal spatulas or a flat, rimless baking sheet.

To cut pizza, use a traditional Italian pizza wheel--the rolling cutter we've all seen in every pizzeria. Start cutting at the center, rolling back and forth to opposite edges to leave the ingredients as you arranged them.

A large, French-style chef's knife, a Chinese cleaver or another, similar long, heavy, slightly curved blade works well also. Just place the edge across the pizza, carefully press down and rock the blade back and forth. Be sure to take all precautions you should when handling such a sharp, heavy tool.

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