Pizza & Calzone Dough

April 14, 2009

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.
~Yogi Berra

Pizza has a lengthy and storied career despite its lack of a precise birthplace or fixed home of origin…an eternal, jiving gypsy of foods.

Tracing the history of pizza can prove tortuous. Any number of cultures or peoples who mastered the art of heating a mixture of flour and water on a stone could rightly stake claim to inventing these sumptuous edible tables. I will offer an abbreviated, anecdotal (far from academic) version. Chronologically precise? Doubtfully.

Evidence of flat breads have been found at prehistoric archeological digs. Breads we now call focaccia may date back as far as the ancient Etruscans. Focaccia literally means “flat bread,” from the Latin root focacius, meaning hearth.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Pharaoh’s birthday with a flat bread seasoned with herbs; and early historians such as Herodotus, described centuries old Babylonian recipes that bear resemblances to contemporary pizza crust. The ancient Greeks baked round flat breads annointed with oil, herbs, spices and dates which they called plankous or plankuntos. During lengthy marches, soldiers of the Persian king Darius the Great were known to bake a form of flat bread covered with cheese and dates upon their shields. In the epic Aeneid, the classical Roman poet Virgil alluded to the practice of using bread as an edible platter for other foods: “…we devour the plates on which we fed.”

So, a loose thread has developed that pizza gradually evolved from the ancient flatbreads relished by varying cultures in the Mediterranean rim. However, little debate exists that Italy took pizza to today’s level.

Pizza adopted its more current form in pre-Renaissance Naples, where impoverished peasants used limited ingredients (wheat flour, olive oil, lard, cheese and natural herbs) to make a seasoned, garnished flat bread. Later, tomatoes were brought to Europe from Peru and Mexico of the New World. Tomatoes were originally believed to be toxic; fortunately, the poorer denizens of Naples mustered the courage to add this once strictly ornamental pomidori to the crusty dough, creating the first basic tomato pizza.

In the late 18th century, Naples bustled and street vendors bought pizzas from small stands and sold them in slices from lidded metal boxes or narrow boards. A pizza delivered to King Ferninando I and Queen Maria Carolina was said to be so well received that the king had a red tiled pizza oven built at the royal palace.

In 1889, King Umberto I of Italy, and his wife, Queen Margherita were touring Naples. They asked to sample the fare of the most celebrated of the current pizzaiolis, Raffaele Esposito, even though partaking of such peasant fare was thought unseemly for royalty. Not wishing to disappoint, he prepared several pizzas, one of which was patriotically dressed with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes (the tricolors of the Italian flag)…dedicated to the Queen and coined “Pizza Margherita.”

Pizza migrated to America with Italians in the latter half of the 19th century, but did not achieve broad notoriety until after World War II, when servicemen stationed overseas returned to the states craving these newly discovered exotic pies.

The actual word “pizza” may be a derivative of the Latin word picea, a word which Romans used to describe the blackening of bread in an oven. Others assert that the word pizza is rooted in an Old Italian word meaning “a point,” which in turn became the Italian word pizzicare, which means “to pinch or pluck.”

Do not be deluded into thinking that pizza is some complicated dish unworthy of your efforts or too banal for your guests. You can make divine homemade pizzas with little outlay of time or capital.  All that is needed is to craft dough (flour, water, yeast, salt and honey) watch the ball rise, lightly scatter (even underload) with toppings, slide into a very hot oven with a paddle onto an already well-heated stone or steel and cook briefly.  You can riff on classics far and wide too.

Pizza is not only sublimely delicious — strewn with a small bevy of fresh ingredients, it is a visual feast.


Extra virgin olive oil to coat bowl

1 C warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast packet
1 T organic honey

3+ C all purpose flour
1 t sea salt
3 T extra virgin olive oil

Pour warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast and honey until it dissolves. Let stand until yeast activates and forms foam or bubbles on the surface, about 5 minutes.

Rub large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix flour and salt in stand up, heavy duty mixer equipped with flat paddle. Add yeast mixture, flour, salt and olive oil; mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Refit mixer with dough hook and process at medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic—or transfer to lightly floured surface and knead dough by hand until smooth. Kneading helps develop strength and elasticity in the dough. During this step, add more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is too sticky. Work dough with hands into a smooth ball.

Transfer to large oiled bowl, turning dough until fully coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then a dishtowel and let dough rise in warm draft free area until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes for quick rising yeast and 1 1/2 hours for regular yeast. Punch down dough and work with hands into a smooth ball. Cut and divide into two rounded equal balls and let rest, sometimes overnight.

Place dough on well floured board or large work surface and roll out, starting in center and working outward toward edges but not rolling over them. Roll the dough to roughly 12 inches in diameter, but always feel free to create any shape to your liking or whim. Transfer to a pizza paddle which is either covered in cornmeal or heavily floured so it can slide off easily into the oven. Lightly brush with olive oil. Then add the toppings, which were chopped, cut, prepared and/or cooked in advance.

A word to the wise—do not overburden pizzas with toppings; rather, try to maintain balance and integrity, always allowing the crust to play a central role in the tasting theater. Too often pizzas are heavily laden with a plethora of ingredients that bury the crust and offer little to the savory character of these rustic delights. So, please use a light hand and err on the side of less vs. more.

With calzone, follow the dough procedure described above; but, once rolled out add toppings only to half of the dough circle, leaving a 1″ border around the half circle. Moisten the edge with water and fold the uncovered side over the filled half. Press the edges of the dough together to seal. Calzones usually take a couple minutes longer to cook. Lightly brush the top with olive oil right after the calzone is removed from the oven.

On cooking pizza: The ideal environment is directly on the tile floor of an intensely hot wood fired or stone oven. As most home kitchens are accoutered with a simple gas or electric oven, we have to accomodate. So, either use a thick, heavy pizza stone or place a layer of unglazed ceramic tiles in the bottom rack of the oven. Crank up the dial to 500 F for a sufficient time to assure that both the stone and oven are fiercely hot.

Gently shake the paddle attired with the already topped dough to make sure the pizza is loose enough to slide onto the hot stone. With a flip of the wrist, slowly slide the pizza from the paddle onto the stone and cook until slightly browned and crisp, about 10-12 minutes. Once removed, immediately grate fresh parmiggiano-reggiano on top. Slice and serve.

No need to worry, readers. Pizzas are a revered food at this table, so topping recipes will follow on the next post and later throughout the blog.

Pourboire: Some fine pizza crafters suggest that once the early kneading is complete, and the dough is divided, you should turn out each piece on a floured surface, folding and kneading each about four times until it forms a smooth ball. Then, set each ball in a lidded glass or plastic bin large enough to allow it to double in size. Settle a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough, then cover with the lid. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours before shaping and baking. This prolonged fermentation not only develops the dough’s structure, it also enables starches to transform into sapid sugars—resulting in a svelte, airier crust.