Albert Burneko is off. Your guest Foodspin columnist today is longtime Deadspinner David Hume.
Look you gotta face it: You just can't get a legit slice anywhere except Gino's on 57th between Park and Broad. Mayyybe I can consider Siciliana over by the Parkway. Maybe. For real though: That pizza you eat in your city is total garbage. I mean, everyone knows this—it's almost not even pizza, and straight up: You're basically a huge herb for not pizza-ing the correct way. Your whole existence is suspect.
Right? Of course! Everyone knows that the pizza in his or her big city is the real thing, invented there, perfected there, properly appreciated there and only there. I mean, hell, it's on the city charter: "In 1871 Giuseppe Pizza immigrated here from Pizza, Italy, on the S.S. Pizza, with one goal in mind: to ensure that the residents of this fair city would be able to enjoy a proper slice, and not be total herbs."
Today, we are going to make pizza, but first we are going to talk about regional-food exceptionalists—people who in the past would have had the common decency to die of dysentery at a young age but who now take to the internet to defensively howl about their local culinary mutation and attempt to bask their pasty faces in the reflected glory of being on the right food team. To them, there are few things more important than using their brand affiliations—insofar as the local pizza style is a brand—to demonstrate their general correctness and, when not arguing about pizza underneath a Yahoo article about the new Prius, are unironically smiling at a "Got Rings?" Yankees poster on their wall.
This subspecies (Homo Sapiens Insufferabilis) is the natural, regrettable offshoot of our population's long-standing and otherwise charming fascination with quirky local foods and of local residents' understandable affinity for local tastes. We are a big country, after all, and we will get tribal about anything. We celebrate and defend dishes like Buffalo wings: chicken wings deep-fried in biodiesel, tossed in melted butter and self-defense spray and served with bleu cheese dressing. Look at the Philly cheesesteak: thinly sliced boiled work boots topped with onions and slapped into a folded piece of cardboard, and frequently slathered in warmed, salted orange play doh. Even here, we have Saratoga burgers: a thick patty of ground-up thoroughbred cooked over a pile of crisp $100 bills, garnished with hay and manure and served between two silly hats, available only in August.
The list goes on: Chicago-style hot dogs, Cincinnati chili, Coneys, Boston Baked Beans, Kentucky Fried Chicken, all of which can be washed down with a Cape Cod (vodka, cranberry, pink chino shorts, and the frustration of going five MPH on a two-lane road while you can freaking smell the goddamn beach, and what is holding up this traffic!)
But nothing, save perhaps barbecue*, will turn their defenders' spirits from enthusiastic and appreciative to shirt-grabbingly preachy the way pizza can. Which is why, today, we are making what these people—face empurpled, little flecks of saliva crusting the corners of their mouths—would surely consider bad pizza made the wrong way. Today's recipe goes out to these folks. This is cooking as diss track.
A terrific regional delight, Berkshire-style pizza is a delicacy originally served from, let's say, (looks at map) Otis, Mass., north through Bennington, Vt., and west to Greater Kinderhook. A minimal thin crust that is well-browned on the bottom complements a softer, slightly chewier top and edges. Cracker-crisp from the edges to the center, this pizza accepts and accentuates scandalous and inappropriate toppings. It doesn't have huge air pockets at the edges of the crust. It doesn't need to rise twice or ferment overnight. It may not appeal to artisanal pizza crafters in Brooklyn. Its ingredients disqualify it from Denominazione Origine Controllata status. You may indeed think it sucks, but I like it. Plus, if you have your act together, it can be on the table one hour from starting.
Note: Please see cooking method in the section below before starting.
First, get out your mixer.**
Pour one cup of hot tap water into the bowl.
Add one packet of fast-rising yeast (or two-and-one-quarter teaspoons of jarred bread-machine yeast).
Mix the yeast and water together.
Add approximately one-and-one-half tablespoons of oil.
Add some salt. Some people love to be able to actually taste the salt in the dough. I don't. I use about one teaspoon. If you're a salty dog, try using one tablespoon.
Throw in some oregano and basil. Maybe a tablespoon of each. Want to sprinkle some garlic powder in, too? Go for it.
Mix all this around with a fork or other utensil to get rid of any yeast clumps.
Add two-and-a-quarter cups of bread flour to the wet ingredients, and with the dough hook in your mixer, mix/knead on medium-low for two or three minutes, or until a cohesive ball is formed.
Yes, the ratio of flour to water is very low. The dough will want to climb the hook and it will likely not form a classic "ball." In order to facilitate further kneading, you might want to thoroughly wet your hands and (with the mixer off) pull the dough off the hook and the sides.
Continue kneading it for three more minutes.
Wet your hands again, pull off any dough sticking to the bowl, re-form into a ball if necessary, and pull it out of the mixer bowl. Place it on a floured or well-oiled surface.
Drizzle the inside of the bowl with oil, place the dough ball back into the bowl and swirl the bowl around in circles, making the dough ball roll around inside, distributing the oil.
Cover the bowl with a plate or a cutting board or a towel, place in warm area, and get to work on the toppings.
Finely dice one medium onion.
Dice up a load of pitted Kalamata olives or some pitted Spanish Manzanilla olives, or maybe some pickled jalapenos (or the Kalamatas and jalapenos together if you have my taste for salty, piquant, and spicy flavors on pizza).
Thinly slice two cooked Italian sausages (or two handfuls of raw, thawed, peeled shrimp; or a reasonable amount of thawed, halved bay scallops; or carve off and dice up the meat of a couple of cooked chicken thighs; etc.).
Grate one-third to one-half of a 16-ounce block of whole milk mozzarella, a half (or more) of a 6-ounce block of feta, and mix the cheeses together.
Check the dough. Has it risen at all? (Has it gotten slightly puffy or inflated?) If not, crack a beer and relax for 15 minutes.
How about now? Has it risen some, grown maybe 10 percent in volume? Yes? Good! No? Eh, fuck it. We're barreling ahead. For this recipe, we're not going to have it rise all the way and punch it down multiple times.
Get out your cast-iron griddle.*** Oil it lightly.
Pull the maybe-risen dough ball out of the bowl and plop it into the middle of the griddle.
Wet your hands again and press the dough ball down and smoosh it evenly across the griddle. It may spring back. Fight it. Keep working it into the corners.
Dump some pesto, perhaps three tablespoons' worth, on the now spread-out dough, and with the back of a spoon, spread it around evenly.
Evenly distribute the diced onions and the meats and the salty spicy things.
Evenly place a layer of spinach over the pizza.
Top with the cheese mixture.
Place in the cooking device of your choice. There are two ways of doing this:
1.) Originally, this recipe was cooked on a gas grill. Just before you start laying the toppings on the pizza, turn your gas grill on to high. Let it preheat. Place the pizza-to-be on the preheated gas grill, close the lid and turn it to just one click above low and don't fiddle with it. Seriously—if you get impatient and turn the heat up, the bottom will turn to charcoal and the top will not be cooked and you'll eat it anyways and turn your tongue black and children will run screaming from your horrible visage and you'll blame and we can't have that. Let it cook on low-ish for 20-25 minutes. The oiled cast iron will ensure that the pizza doesn't even dream of sticking; the bottom will be golden and crispy, the toppings cooked, and the cheese melty and delicious.
2.) Place the pizza on the middle rack of a preheated 485-degree oven. Cook for 20 minutes (or more, if you like). The pizza will be cooked similarly as above, but the top will be a little more brown and bubbly. If that is your thing, you can even turn the broiler on at the end for three-four minutes and get the top real crisp. That's kind of fun, too. Just remember that the cast-iron griddle will retain the cooking heat and in my experience calls for double-bagging the oven mitt. Pull it out, let it sit a minute or two and with a mezzaluna or a pizza cutter, carve it up, and let it annihilate the roof of your mouth.
There you have it: a pizza that is fast, crispy, tasty, rectangular, and, according to that one guy who knows a little hole-in-the-wall place in the North End where they don't even speak English, total freakin' garbage.
* Upstate New York is the barbecue-trolling capital of the world. We knowingly, intentionally, gleefully refer to grilled cut-up chicken parts smeared with sugary, garlicky brown sauce as "barbecue"—in fact, that is our regional style, celebrated, promoted, and enjoyed from Rochester to Albany. No, we're not doing it wrong. Suck it, Kansas City, Texas, and North Carolina.
** "Wait," you say. "I don't have a mixer! You've already needlessly antagonized me, and the very first step disqualifies me?" Well, please keep reading: This is an entertainment column as much as an actual cooking column. Who knows, maybe if you're good, and Santa's back holds out, you might just get one under your tree. Also, you can mix the dough by hand. Quit bitching.
*** "Dude," you say. "Are you kidding me with this? A mixer AND a cast-iron griddle? What's next—'get out an oxy-acetylene torch'?" You can use a regular old round, metal pizza pan, or a stone. The griddle fits inside a grill perfectly, and is money for a ton of other cooking tasks. For $29.95 it is really a great addition to your kitchen. Trust me on this.
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The pseudonymous David Hume lives in upstate New York, where he dislikes eggplant, tequila, and unraked bunkers.
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