You can top this

Times Staff Writer

Had Marie Antoinette been American, she would have said, "Let them eat pizza." So much better than brioche. When you think about it, pizza's so much better than most things. Slice after slice, time after time, it's our most reliable pleasure. No matter the thickness of the slice, everyone understands the basic architecture: the toasty notes from the outside of the crust, then the layer of sweet, elastic dough, with its teasing tug against the teeth. Pit this against the acidic topping of tomato sauce and caramelized mozzarella, and you have the national dish.

But there's something odd about our love affair. While most of us eat pizza, few of us cook it. Pizza comes from pizzerias, which guard their monopoly with tales of secret ingredients and high exertions. Real pizza must contain flour from Italy, or water from New York, and be cooked in ovens fired only by timber felled along the Appian Way.

It makes a $1.25 slice taste even better, until the realization sets in that it has to be gastro-hooey. There can't be pizzerias on every corner because making pizza is difficult. The ingredients aren't rare, but common, and, it merits stressing in these hard times, they're dead cheap too. It's not even like pizzerias spare us drudgery. Making pizza at home is easy. The biggest surprise is that, for good clean fun, it's genuinely fun.

Until recently, I was typical: a pizza eater, never maker. What prompted a conversion, I can't say. Maybe a bump on the head. As I set out to learn how to do it, this much I knew: commercial pizzerias use flour that is unusually high in protein, as much as 14% or 15%. This accounts for the remarkably elastic doughs. But working with high-protein flour is hard. So I phoned Sue Gray, director of product development at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., to see if I needed to go to the gym before kneading. She assured me that a good all-purpose flour was fine and working it would not be difficult. Her use of "good" merits stressing here. Most flour packages don't list protein ratios, so go for flour from a reputable producer. King Arthur all-purpose has one of the highest standards, with 12.7% protein.

My second question concerned flour age. When overtaken by the impulse to bake, I tend to forget that I already have flour, and buy more, meaning I have cupboards full of flour of indeterminate age. What about that sack that might go back to last Thanksgiving? Gray assured me that if it hadn't attracted pests, or absorbed funky smells, it was probably fine.

White flour is produced only from the milled endosperm of wheat grain, she explained, and not the seed coating, so there are no oily constituents to become rancid. But whole-wheat flour, which contains the milled seed coating and its protective oils, goes rancid within three months, she warned. She quickly added that whole-wheat flour wasn't right for pizza anyway. It's too bitter and the bran interferes with the elasticity of the dough. If you see whole-wheat pizza on a pizzeria menu, it's pandering to whole food masochists. Just say no.

It's all about the five basics

And so to the recipes. Pizza recipes, like most formulas in baking books, tell us what to do, but rarely why, so I went to Danielle Forestier, a Bay Area baking instructor recommended by a wheat physiologist at UC Davis. Forestier was only too happy to explain how pizza dough works, starting with the roles played by each of the basic ingredients -- flour, yeast, water, oil and salt.

The flour, yeast and water start fermentation, she said. Flour consists mainly of starch (along with that 12% to 15% protein). When you add water and yeast, the yeast will begin to ferment the starch, forming gas bubbles, which make the dough rise. It will also convert a certain amount of the starch to sugar, transforming a dull, starchy taste into the sweet, wheaten notes that we associate with good bread.

As the yeast works on the starch, it's the pizza-maker's job to go to work on the protein, she said. We do this by kneading. The water converts the protein into an elastic, gelatinous state. As we knead, these protein gels, or glutens, will form the bonds that make the dough elastic, and then extensible into pizza shapes. When it comes to kneading, it is just like bread. We should not knead by pinning dough with one hand and pulling with the other. This will tear the glutens. Instead, we should fold it to trap air, then press and roll -- fold, press and roll.

The water and added olive oil also serve to keep the dough supple. The best way to understand what water does is to picture what happens as it evaporates during baking, when the crust becomes firm, and then what happens as bread becomes stale: Those proteins are heading back to their original grainy state.

The salt will act as seasoning, but it will also slow the fermentation so the dough doesn't rise too fast, and the yeast has time to convert more starch to sugar. A touch of this sweetness is desirable in pizza crust, she explained. Unlike sourdough, it stands up to the acidity of tomato sauce.

Forestier doesn't like using food processors to mix dough because they overheat it. Heat, more than yeast quantity, she says, will dictate how fast the dough ferments and rises. The hotter the faster, the cooler the slower.

Most recipes call for dried yeast. The recipe we give here is for a fast-rising, same-day pizza dough. However, once you master it, try reducing the yeast slightly (by a third is about right), then allowing the dough to ferment slowly in the refrigerator for a day, or up to three days.

"If you let the fermentation go a long time, you begin to develop organic acid byproducts, and they contribute a lot to flavor," explained Forestier. "The bakers who are doing no-time doughs, it comes out looking nice and has nice air bubbles, but it gets stale very quickly and has a flat one-note taste."

With pizza, which is eaten right away, a fast dough is no crime, she added. But allowing it to rise overnight, and making the sauce in advance, makes it perfect for parties. On the big night, all you have to do is heat up the oven, roll the dough and assemble the pizzas.

Once you make the dough, there is the little matter of twirling it. Next stop: Angeli Caffe on Melrose, where Agustin Garcia, for eight years the pizza chef there, kindly agreed to demonstrate his pizza-tossing technique. After flattening a fermented, aged ball of dough, he deftly began tugging the dough, then tossing it in circles and using centrifugal force to stretch the center to an even thinness. The center needs to be thinner than the outside edge, he explained, because once you apply sauce, it will cook more slowly.

This brought to mind Forestier's remark that the most common flaw she sees in homemade pizza is undercooked dough.

Garcia gave me a dough ball. I stretched too tentatively. After he tugged it out for me, he showed me how to toss it. I tried, it fell. He showed me again. I fumbled it again. We left it with me tugging and him tossing.

It was time to make pizza on my own. I invited a group of neighbors over for a Sunday night dinner, then mixed the dough in advance. The flour was easy to work just like Gray said it would be. And it blended just like Forestier said it would. I must have been putting on pizza expert airs as my guests assembled, because as I flattened 8-ounce balls for tugging and tossing, Garcia-style, one of my neighbors called her daughter over for a tutorial, as if I were a master. But as the child tugged at the dough with her little hands, it kept popping back into a tight ball. I took it from her, as if to demonstrate how to do it right. It popped back at me too. It was tempting to call animal control. Instead, I had to confess to my guests that I hadn't done this before.

Then I remembered Forestier's warning that the protein in dough, the thing that makes it elastic, can also give it an "inherent nervousness." The trick then, she said, is to let it rest, after which it will become extensible. After doing this, it did indeed submit gracefully to handling. By now, everyone was hungry. It was approaching the child's bedtime, and there was no time for more tugging and tossing. I used a rolling pin. It worked just fine.

Let a stone give you the edge

As we got into the final stage of production, it became clear that although you don't need special equipment to make pizza, it helps. There is no crime in baking pizza on a greased and floured cookie sheet. The American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas, recommends this. But it won't help you overcome the home baker's single greatest pizza-making obstacle. Oven heat.

A commercial pizza oven will easily sit at 600 degrees. A restaurant's wood-burning oven will be even hotter, 800 degrees. Meanwhile, even if we preheat home ovens to 500 degrees, they lose at least 100 degrees the minute we open the door. The result can be a thick, doughy, undercooked crust.

The trick, then, if using a cookie sheet, is to be sure the crust is thin in the center. Or use a pizza stone. Set one of these in your oven and it will help trap the heat that is so easily lost in small domestic ovens when the door is opened. To bake on a stone, you'll also need a bread peel (the flat paddle-like pizza-slider), either wood or metal, to slip the dough onto it.

My first ever pizza was not the occasion to try some fancy topping. I went for a basic Margherita, albeit with my special sauce with caramelized onions and wine. As I ladled out tomato sauce, dotted around mozzarella on my first pizza pie, and peeled it into the oven, all five guests gathered around the stove. Relief was palpable. As the crust turned yellow, then gold, and the toasty smell filled the kitchen while the mozzarella began to bubble, there was a sort of collective euphoria.

But as I slid it out of the oven using a spatula and oven mitt, a dilemma. How to cut it? I did not possess one of those wheelie thingamajigs, those rolling pizza-cutters. A knife simply wasn't right. Besides tossing skills, the main thing pizzerias have on us home pizza-makers is all the gear. Then one neighbor remembered owning a cutter and bolted to fetch it. When he returned with it, the trade now had nothing on us, except a big oven.

Home pizza-making is a pie-at-a-time business. As the first was sliced, a second was rolled out, topped and put in the oven. Corks popped. Salad was tossed. And, lo, it was good. We baked and ate and baked and ate the national dish until we ran out of fixings.

*

Pizza Margherita

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Recommended special equipment: pizza stone, wooden baking peel and rotating pizza cutter.

Dough for 4 pizzas

Tomato sauce for 4 pizzas

3 1/2 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/4-inch thick

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1. Place a pizza stone in the oven and heat the oven to 500 degrees, or as high as your oven goes, for at least 30 minutes. If you have refrigerated the dough, remove it from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 5 to 10 minutes.

2. Place the first ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface or a floured peel. Sprinkle a little more flour on top of the ball. Using your fingertips, press the dough ball evenly into a large, flat disk about half an inch thick. Now either use a rolling pin or stretch the dough out by hand, pizza-parlor style. There is no shame in rolling out pizza dough. But before you begin rolling, make sure you've pressed a little extra dough toward the outside edge to ensure a thicker rim, which will offer a satisfying chew, and a thinner center.

3. If working with your hands, flatten the ball with your hand, then press from the center out until it is about 6 inches in diameter. Now, from the outside in, working around the rim in concentric circles, gently tug the dough, using the same gesture you would to snap a wrinkle out of jeans while hanging them on a laundry line, except delicately. If the dough tears, knead it back together, set it at the end of the assembly line to relax, and work the next ball of dough more gently. If the dough is twitchy and keeps snapping back, cover it with a slightly damp towel and let it rest for 5 minutes. The glutens will relax.

4. After stretching the dough evenly all around, lift it and lay it over the back of the fist of one hand. It should be flopping. Place your other fist underneath the dough so your fists are almost touching. Now gently stretch the dough by moving your fists away from each other; each time you perform this stretching move, rotate the dough. Continue stretching and rotating until the round of dough is about 1/4 inch thick and measures about 10 inches across.

5. Lay the extended dough on a floured peel. (The flour will keep it from sticking as it goes into the oven.) Spread about 1/2 cup of sauce over the dough, then dot the surface evenly with slices of mozzarella. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese on top.

6. Opening the oven door quickly, put the peel at the outside edge of the pizza stone and, with a short jerk, slide the dough off the peel and onto the stone. Don't overdo it or the dough will end up in a curled mess at the back of the oven.

7. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. The pizza is done when the crust is toasty-smelling and is a deep golden brown with dark spots.

8. Remove the pizza from the oven with the peel or a spatula. Slice and serve the first pizza, take requests for special toppings on the next one and begin production again. Note that the longer the oven is on, the hotter the pizza stone gets. The third and fourth pizzas may cook faster than the first one.

Each serving: 640 calories; 19 grams protein; 86 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 20 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 23 mg. cholesterol; 1,988 mg. sodium.

*

Pizza dough

Total time: 45 minutes, plus 2 hours rising time

Servings: 8 (makes 4 [10-inch]

pizzas)

Note: Adapted from "Angeli Caffe Pizza Pasta Panini" by Evan Kleiman (William Morrow, $15).

1 ( 1/4 ounce) packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1/4 cup lukewarm water

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons extra-virgin

olive oil

1 cup cold water

1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and stir to completely dissolve. Let it fizz for about 15 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, 2 1/2 cups of the flour and the salt, olive oil and water. Mix with a wooden spoon until you have a batter.

2. Sprinkle a work surface generously with flour. Transfer the batter to the floured surface. Knead in the remaining 1 cup flour a little at a time, kneading for 8 to 10 minutes in all. The dough should be soft and elastic but not sticky; add a little bit more flour if needed. Shape the dough into a ball.

3. Line a large bowl with a clean linen dish towel. Dust the towel generously with flour. Set the dough in it, fold the towel over the top and mist lightly with water, leaving it just damp enough so the dough doesn't dry out. (Alternatively, use olive oil to lightly coat the inside of the bowl; turn the dough to coat the surface.) Making sure there is room for the dough to at least double in size, cover the bowl with a plate. Let the dough rest in a warm place for 1 hour.

4. Sprinkle flour on a work surface. Divide the dough into quarters and form each piece into a tight, smooth ball, kneading it to push the air out. Place the dough balls on a lightly floured surface, cover them and let rise for 1 hour. Or rub olive oil on the surface of the balls to coat, place them on a cookie sheet, cover with a towel and let them rise in the refrigerator overnight.

Each serving: 222 calories; 6 grams protein; 37 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 436 mg. sodium.

*

Tomato sauce for pizza

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 8 (about 2 cups)

Note: Many pizza recipes use raw tomato sauce. The result is tart and one-dimensional. This sauce, the author's own, is lightly cooked and made with caramelized onions. It calls for fresh herbs, but dried work too. If using dried herbs, skip the sage and rosemary, and use only a pinch of combined dried oregano, parsley and basil.

1 medium onion

2-3 cloves garlic

Leaves from 2 (3-inch) sprigs of basil (about 20 leaves)

Leaves from 2 (4-inch) sprigs of oregano

Leaves from 1 (2-inch) sprig of thyme

2 small sage leaves

(optional)

2 rosemary needles

(optional)

Leaves from 4 sprigs of

parsley

1 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 cup red wine

1 tablespoon sugar

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juice

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Pepper

1. Peel and chop the onion and set aside. Peel the garlic; chop roughly. Wash and stem the herbs. Combine the herbs with the garlic and mince to a reasonably fine paste.

2. If you have a heat diffuser, use it for this step. In a heavy-bottomed enamel or stainless steel pot with a fitted lid, heat the oil over medium to high heat until it smokes. Reduce the heat to low, tilt the pan to distribute the oil, add the onion and stir until onion is coated with oil. Cook until the onion is just starting to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Add the chopped herbs and garlic and continue to stir for another 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Making sure that the onion is not sticking and that the heat is at the lowest setting, cover the pot and allow the onion to sweat for about 10 minutes. Check, stir, cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Check and stir again; the onion will probably need to sweat another 5 minutes. It is done when translucent and sweet, about 25 minutes total.

4. Add the wine and sugar and increase the heat to medium-high. Bring to a gentle boil and reduce until the onion is coated with a thick wine syrup and the liquid is gone.This will takes about 8 to 10 minutes.

5. Still on medium-high heat, add the can of chopped tomatoes with juice. Stir until the onion and herbs are well combined.

6. Add the salt, pinch by pinch, stirring as you go. Add the pepper afterward: 8 turns of a small grinder should do it.

7. Cook and stir over medium-high heat just long enough for the flavors to come together, about 5 minutes, so the tomato flavor is still relatively bright, most of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is still loose, like a good pasta sauce.

Each serving: 55 calories; 1 gram protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 502 mg. sodium.

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