pizza is a gateway bread...
Many people, even accomplished cooks, approach yeasted bread with more than a bit of trepidation. While the vision of a beautifully risen loaf of bread with a glossy, caramelized crust lures many a would-be baker, the reality all too often remains sadly out of reach.
I think the fact that there are so few ingredients-flour, water, yeast, and salt are essential, all else is embellishment-is intimidating. It seems to put so much responsibility on the baker. Daunting.
Depending on how you go about learning to bake bread, the process can be daunting. Bread baking has its own terminology (some in French), techniques that look simple can be anything but, and who knew there were so many kinds of flour? It is little wonder that many people don't even know where to start. If only they had someone to tell them...
Seriously, that's where you start: Pizza.
I see pizza is the perfect starter bread for a number of reasons:
- Tolerance is good. Pizza dough tolerates a lot of mistakes and abuse. As long as you don't do something truly dreadful-like forget the yeast or let the dough sit on the counter for two days-you will turn out a decent pizza. The first few may not be great, but with extremely rare exceptions, the worst homemade pizza is better than the best frozen pizza (and quite a few that you can have delivered).
- Size matters. As bread goes, pizzas are small so, unlike a loaf of bread, they aren't much of a commitment. Seriously, the time it takes to use up a loaf of bread you really don't like, yet feel obliged to eat, can seem endless. Pizza, on the other hand, is usually gone the day it is made.
- Take your time. There are a number of discrete processes involved in making a pizza: mixing dough, preparing toppings, shaping crust, assembling, and so on. The entire process can be done more or less at once or spread out over the course of a couple of days (making the dough the first day and baking the pizza the second or third)
- It takes a village. One of my favorite simple foods to cook with other people is pizza. It's a perennial favorite, infinitely adaptable, simple to make once you get the hang of it, and best of all, most people will gleefully jump in and cook with you. Nothing livens up a party like gathering around a kitchen island to decorate pizza.
- Teach your children well... Pizza is a marvelous teaching opportunity because anyone who is old enough to eat pizza is old enough to help make it, even if only a tiny bit. A toddler can stand on a chair and help you put on chunky (thus easy to grab) toppings. As children get older, and gain skills and confidence, they can take on more of the work.
- To each her (or his) own. Individual pizzas are the best. Most people love the control of building their own food, exactly the way they want it. Sometimes this encourages people, particularly small folk, to stretch their own boundaries a bit-I have watched kids who normally eschew vegetables pile onions, peppers, and olives on their pizzas and eat them with gusto.
- Money, money, money, money! According to Pizza Marketing Quarterly, US sales of pizza edged over 31 Billion dollars in 2005. At 10-15 bucks a pie, that's a lot of dough! Compare that to the cost of making your own pizza-under a dollar for the dough, another buck or two on toppings-and the cost argument is simple.
- Bend me, shape me, any way you want to. Once you have basic pizza down, you can move on to any number of variations. Calzones are one of my favorite uses for leftover dough, but you can use the dough for anything from breadsticks to foccacia. Just change how the dough is shaped and filled/topped and you have a whole new creation.
- I can fix that pizza in two notes! Most problems with pizza come down to two things: insufficient heat and too many toppings. The cure for the first is simple, buy a baking stone, preheat it in a 500° (or hotter) oven for an hour and bake the pizza as hot as you dare. The issue of too many toppings is between you and your self control.
The first step in your pizza quest is trying out some crust recipes. I have three suggestions: Kevin Weeks, Farmgirl Susan, and mine. They each offer a different take on pizza crust, both in process and results. Susan's dough is quick and particularly easy to work with, although Kevin's is seriously good too and worth waiting the extra hours for. Mine is...different. Check them out. Then come back and show us what you made.