October 28, 2009

The Perfect Pizza (part two) – The Day of the D’oh

Read “The Perfect Pizza (part one) – D’oh!” here.

The next morning, my husband (rather grumpily) inquired as to what I was bleating about in the wee hours of the morning, when normal people were sleeping.  So I shared my genius with him, along with the welcome news (to me, at least) that he was taking me out for lunch.  He was even less thrilled than I had anticipated!

See, I figured that while I might not be able to find my coveted double zero pizza flour in the average Dubai grocery store, I surely must be able to find it at one of the Italian restaurants in town, many of whom claim to source their ingredients from Italy.  Happily, I was right!

While I was tossing and turning the night before, I had also figured out  that I had done bad math when I was calculating the amount of different flours that I needed for the Pizza Dough Test Lab.  We headed back to Organic Foods and Cafe (this time at their location in the Greens) for some more of the organic strong white bread and pasta flour that I was experimenting with.  On the way there, we stopped at Stefano’s Italian Restaurant, near the Mall of the Emirates.  Unfortunately, Stefano’s doesn’t seem too have a website up and running, else I would link to it, but fortunately, they do have double zero pizza flour.  They also have very good pizzas and calzones, deliver to our house, and have a porcini ravioli that makes me zone out and hum to myself while I’m eating it.  It makes my mouth Happpeeeeee!  If you’re in Dubai, have a visit there, or call them for delivery!

While we were at Stefano’s, I ordered their margherita pizza (for research purposes).  Here are some pictures.  Admittedly, I should probably have taken the shots before I attacked the pizza, but I was hungry, and it was calling out to me.  But I stopped halfway through the feeding frenzy to get some shots of the top and the bottom (cooked in a pizza oven brought in from Italy for the purpose of making pizza happiness right here in Dubai).



As you can see, the pizza was quite uniform, with a smooth tomato basil sauce over the entire pizza, and fully covered with cheese.  This is different to the way that Heston’s perfect pizza is constructed, but, as my Mom would say,  just because it was different doesn’t mean that it was inferior or incorrect.  It was awfully tasty.  There was also some basil leaves on the pizza, but they were consumed before the picture was taken.

After the pizza was devoured, we made inquiries about purchasing some of the flour that they used to make it.  The waiters (who were excellently attentive), were  puzzled,  but confirmed that it was double zero flour, sold us a couple of kilos of it, and were kind enough to head into the kitchen to snap a picture of the bag.  Google language tools gave this helpful translation of Farina del Mio Sacco:  “Flour in My Bag”.  Quite the catchy brand name!

stefanos flour

With my precious pizza flour in hand, we picked up the rest of the flour that was required, and I headed home for more dough experimentation.  Because I now had a new type of flour, my plan was to make doughs with the three types of water that I used for the other nine dough batches, and include the three new doughs in the flavour test.  This meant that I was now testing twelve different doughs.  It also meant that the pre-ferments that I had made the day before would get an additional day of aging and (alleged) flavour gathering in the fridge while I waited for the Stefano’s pre-ferment to ripen, but that was a risk I was willing to take.

I got to work with the flour, water, malt syrup, salt, and yeast, and about two hours (ish) later, had three new pre-ferments to tuck into my fridge (which was getting awfully full at this point):


The next day was D’oh-day.  It was also two days before the official perfect pizza testing party was to occur.  My plan was to finish the dough making, then start testing out the pizza cooking method that Heston describes in his book, so that come Perfect Pizza Day, I could reliably turn out pizzas without burned pizza, tears, and swearing.  In addition, I would taste test the twelve different doughs that I had made in order to determine which flour and water combination would be used on the day of reckoning.

Funnily enough, as easy as it sounds to make twelve different types of dough, divide them into pizza rounds, let them rise, and then cook them; by the end of the dough making I was a wee bit fraught (and there was flour and dough pretty much all over the lower floor of Villa GoodEnough).  I was also abandoned.  At about the halfway point, while the KitchenAid was working overtime, and I was weighing out dough balls, forming them into circles, and delegating other tasks as they were discovered, my husband told me that as the dough-insanity was of my own making, he would take no more part in it, and headed out to the driving range.  In his defense, he did walk the dog before doing a runner (although he informed our regular group of dog walkers that I had completely lost my mind).

Anyway, the dough making process was similar to the pre-ferment process, just with bigger quantities of flour, water, salt, malt syrup, and yeast.  First, I mixed together the flour, water, and malt syrup then let that mixture rest for around an hour (or for how long it took to mix up the other eleven batches of flour, water, and malt syrup).  After that, I added salt and yeast to the flour/water/malt syrup mixture, mixed for awhile, then threw in the pre-ferment and mixed some more. 

At this point it became very apparent that the use of different flour and water combinations did make quite a difference in the texture of the dough.  Anything made with Evian resulted in an incredibly sticky flour and pre-ferment.  While the pre-ferments made with the Strong White Bread flour and the pizza flour were lovely and bubbly, the pre-ferments made with the Home Pride All Purpose Flour were sullen, heavy lumps.  And the combination of Pasta Flour and Evian resulted in a pre-ferment and dough that could have rivalled crazy glue for bonding power.  (I know many things about the ability of flour and water to make a powerful glue, mostly because I was an idiot one Hallowe’en and decided to dress up as “The Crow”.  I didn’t have anything other than flour to use to whiten my hair with (or didn’t think to use anything other than flour), so after the party was over, I straggled into the tub to wash it out, then fell asleep while it dried.  I ended up with little lumps of floury glue finely dispersed throughout my hair.  It was, more or less, hair couscous.  To this day, I thank the stars that my very good buddy Wingle was on hand to talk out of shaving my head and instead painstakingly combed and picked all of the dried lumps of hair couscous out of my very thick, shoulder length hair.  It took hours.  Let this be a lesson to you all – don’t be like me this Hallowe’en!)

Here’s what the pre-ferment looked like after it’s sojourn in the fridge.  I’m not sure which one this is, but it’s one of the pre-ferments that had a two day rest rather than the 24 hours that Heston calls for:


Once the dough had been incorporated with the pre-ferment, it was ready to be shaped into balls and allowed to rise.  Each batch of dough makes enough for five balls, weighing approximately 150g.  My process was to roll the dough into a log:


Then I divided it into five equal-weight pieces, and rolled them into balls:


I figured out at this point that I would have enough dough for seventy pizzas, and also determined that I was not willing to either cook all seventy pizzas that night, or throw the excess dough into the garbage.  I decided that I would need two representatives of each dough variety for taste-testing, and for perfecting my cooking methodology (temperatures, timings, and what not), and (after a quick Google on freezing pizza dough) decided to freeze the other three balls out of each group before they had risen.  Up until he went on strike and escaped to the golf course, my husband was put in charge of wrapping three out of five pieces of dough in cling-film and putting them in freezer bags. 

As the number of bags piled up, I realised two things:

  1. I did not have the freezer space for 46 pizza dough balls.
  2. The pizza dough needed to be used up in about three months for ideal freshness, and neither my husband or I wanted to be eating pizza every three days (though we probably would have looked upon that prospect as something next to heaven when we were students).

So I texted everyone I knew who lived nearby and asked them if they wanted pizza dough.  Thankfully, many of them said yes, else I would have been accosting innocents walking along outside of Villa GoodEnough, thrusting bags of pizza dough into their hands, then running off, cackling, into the night.

Even with 46 out of 70 balls of pizza tucked away in freezer bags, there was still dough-a-plenty left out to rise:


The dough takes around two hours to rise, at which point it is ready to achieve its promise and become a pizza crust.  Heston has very specific instructions, not only on how to cook the pizza crust itself (which I’ll detail further down), but about how to form it into the perfectly round pizza crust that we all know and love:

 “To shape the pizza base, put a ball of dough on the floured surface, then place you fingertips 1.5cm in from the edge and push down as you move the ball around in a clockwise direction.  Continue pushing and turning until a rim (the cornicione) forms that will ensure the sauce collects in the centre of the pizza.”  (In Search of Total Perfection, Heston Blumenthal, page 330)

This method does  not work:


I tried many, many, many times to get a perfectly round pizza, with perfect thickness, and a lovely cornicione and failed miserably.  There was swearing.  There was growling.  There was more swearing.  I strayed from the directions, going counter-clockwise.  I stretched with my hands, and ripped holes in the crust.  I swore some more.  I threw the dough up in the air and twirled it, trying to get it to form the perfectly lovely circle that we’ve all see in the movies.  Luckily, I managed to catch the dough before it hit the floor.  I said more words that I shall not type here, lest my mother-in-law read this blog one day.  Then I gave up and grabbed the rolling pin.

Now for the cooking instructions.  Heston wants you to turn the grill in your oven (which us Canucks call a “broiler”) up to eleven, while also heating a cast iron frying pan over high heat for 20 minutes.  Once your pizza base is shaped, and your pizza toppings have been applied, you flip over the smoking hot cast iron frying pan, put it in the oven as close to the broiler as possible, and slide your pizza onto the frying pan using a pizza peel.  The pizza should take 90 seconds to cook using this method.

Much as the thought of burning my hands on a smoking hot cast iron frying pan, and picking off burned bits of pizza from the back of my oven (where they’d be thrown by injudicious use of a pizza peel, which I could not find in Dubai) appealed to me, I had a better way (I thought).

I know.  It’s not following the Rules.  I should be using Heston’s method, and Heston’s methods only, but in this case, Heston was working under the assumption that most home cooks don’t have the “Shrine to Overspending” that I have:


This is the Weber Summit S-670, and it’s more BBQ than I really need.  I used to have a Weber Silver Genesis back in Canada, but we decided that it was a bit too grotty to be shipped over to Dubai.  So, the plan was to sell it, and replace it with a new BBQ here.  However, I let my husband know that unless the grill said “Weber” on it, it wasn’t going to be in our home.  Weber makes excellent, bulletproof grills that last a lifetime, don’t flare up, and cook things  – that less exquisitely made grills would burn to a crisp – perfectly.  The timings and grill settings in a Weber cook book are exact; you will not fail at grilling anything using a Weber.  Weber makes awesome grills, and they’re the only kind of grill a person should have.  There I said it.

My husband didn’t understand my Weber-evangelism at the time, but seeing as he was in the shit for leaving for Dubai three months ahead of me, and leaving me to pack up the house, sell the vehicles, and do the other moving arrangements, all while working full-time; decided to buy me a Weber for my birthday, and buy big.  (This could have been prompted by some of the phone conversations that we had together as the move approached.)  Unfortunately, at the time, Webers weren’t available in Dubai, so he bought one to be delivered to our house in Canada, then shipped with the rest of the belongings we were bringing along.  Worse for him, it arrived just as my parents and I had finished cleaning out the garage and setting it up for a garage sale.  The thing was a complete behemoth.  The delivery guys refused to help us move it once it was out of the truck, and we ended up having to move everything in the sale (all of the contents of a three level townhouse belonging to a packrat) out of the way to get it to the back of the garage.  I have to confess that my poor darling sweet man, who called immediately on delivery expecting rapturous thanks and words of sweet love from his awestruck wife got a bit of an earful instead.  I’ve since completely forgiven him, and love me my new BBQ.

I knew, since my Weber has six main burners, a searing burner, and a burner for the built in smoker, that I could get it to a temperature that was much, much, much higher than my oven broiler and cast iron frying pan could get to.  Heston had measured temperatures exceeding 500 Celsius in the ovens of the  Neapolitan pizza restaurants that he’d visited, and I had high hopes of getting up there as well.  To assist, I bought a flat cast iron griddle to put my pizzas on.  So, I went outside, turned all of the burners on the BBQ up to full blast, slapped on the griddle pan, and waited for the inferno to reach peak temperature.  Meanwhile – back inside – I mangeled my dough using Heston’s methodology in an attempt to make the fabled perfectly round crust. 

Once the BBQ had reached eleven and the paving stones were starting to melt, I ran outside with my dough and flipped it on the grilled.  Because we couldn’t find the short-handled pizza slice that Heston recommends, we substituted metal cake cutters.  These presented their own problems… the dough would certainly slide onto a cake cutter, but wouldn’t come off unless I flipped it upside down.   Since I was just testing crust cooking times, this didn’t concenr me, but unless a solution was found, there would be obvious difficulties when it was pizza cooking time.  But first, I had to time the cooking for 90 seconds and see if I got the perfectly cooked pizza crust that I wanted.

Here’s how some of the attempts worked out:




By this point, I had spent about six hours making dough, bagging dough, rolling dough, and now burning dough.  I had been called a madwoman and abandoned in favour of the driving range.  I had begged friends to take pizza dough off my hands, and had spent twenty minutes rearranging my freezer to fit the mounds of pizza dough into it.  I was heartily, heartily, fed up with dough.  I was tired of it.  I had dough stuck to my fingers, dough in my hair, and flour and dough all over my kitchen and dining room.  All I wanted was unburnt dough so I could taste test the bloody stuff, then put everything away and go to bed with a sense of accomplishment.  But all I could do was turn the BBQ off to cool down, pour myself a glass of wine, wait for my husband to return from his self imposed exile, stare balefully at my piles of over-risen dough, and think about crying. 

I was laid low by dough. 

About an hour later my husband came home, looked at the state of his wife and the dough that she was cooking, and probably realised that I was about to crack even more.  So he went into crisis mode, and lent a hand.  After some discussion and review of the BBQ techniques that I had initially used, we decided not to turn all of the burners up to maximum temperature, but to leave the two burners under the cast iron grill pan either off, or at a lower temperature.  We also fiddled with the overhead sear burner, and undercooked some dough.  Finally, after another 8 or so pieces of dough we had it.  The four outside burners were to be turned to maximum, the two burners under the grill pan turned to low, and the sear burner turned onto medium.  By doing that, we achieved this:



Yes, the dough still wasn’t perfectly round and lovely, but it had been coked in 90 seconds, and had the look and feel that we wanted.  I did a little celebration dance around the kitchen, and then my husband pointed out the problem with getting the dough off of the cake cutter when it was laden with toppings.  We topped up one of the pizza bases with store bought tomato basil sauce and mozarella cheese and experimented, finally concluding that the best way to cook the pizza was to drop it, cake cutter and all, onto the cast iron grill pan, then removing the whole thing with an oversized spatula.  At this point, I was over the moon, and very, very grateful to my husband for pulling me back from the depths of despair and giving me renewed hope.  All that remained was to test our dough.

To do this, we rolled out each of the twelve different doughs, then cut little dough-circles out, and placed them on a labelled piece of foil:


After all the dough was prepared in this manner, we went to cook it on the BBQ…

…and discovered that the BBQ had run out of gas.

Since it was now past 10:00pm, we were unlikely, and unwilling to try to get a new gas delivery that night.  Instead we trusted that there was enough residual heat in the BBQ to cook our final dough test of the evening, and slapped them on.  We were right.  They came out like this:


I’ve made this photo a bit bigger than the usua so you can see that some of the dough circles puffed into a nice dough bubble, while others remained flat.  The codes written on the tinfoil are (for the flours) HP- HomePride, PF-Pasta Flour, SWB-Strong White Bread flour, ST-Stefano’s flour, and (for the waters) E-Evian, NZ-New Zealand Cool Blue, and DT-Dubai Tap.

So, after all of the time spent chasing down flour, making pre-ferments and doughs, and learning to cook it, did the difference in flour and water really make a difference?  In a word, Yes.

The tasting was less scientific than subjective, but my husband and I both rated the dough made with Stefano’s pizza flour and Evian water as the best, followed very, very closely by the dough made with Strong White Bread flour and Evian.  This, bore out Heston’s previous research about pizza bases with a high gluten content and a PH-neutral water being the best.  So, I should have just accepted what he said in the prologue to the recipe and gotten on with it.  The “worst” doughs (which, were still quite tasty, though not “perfect”) were the doughs made with HomePride and Dubai tap water.  The Pasta Flour brought up third place.

I would say that if you’re making this recipe at home, and all you have onhand is HomePride and tap water, all is not lost.  You will most  certainly have a Good Enough pizza crust.  However, if you have the time and ability to find better flour and a neutral water, do so, as your crust will be chewier, lighter, and tastier, in fact, one that’s damn close to Perfect.

The best part of having the dough taste test done?  I could put everything away and go to bed.  All that remained to do was making the tomato sauce and tomato topping for my pizza, and getting ready for Perfect Pizza testing day.  Oh – I had to find a better mozarella as well.  Neither my husband nor I liked the cheese that we had used for our sample pizzas.  Another search was in the cards…

Read The Perfect Pizza (part three) – The Attack of the Cherry Tomatoes here.

September 17, 2009

Rules of Perfection

1.  The recipe will be followed.  Shortcuts will not be taken, techniques will be followed.  Measurements will be precise.  There shall be no second-guessing; Heston put a lot of work into his search for perfection, and I must not mess it up with haphazard slap-dashery.


2.  Whenever possible, the same ingredients will be used.  I will do my best to use the same flours as Heston, the same oils, meats, and vegetable varietials.  Realistically though, I live in Dubai, and I’m not able to pop down to the local farmer’s market for fresh, local meats and produce (though there are non-supermarket sources for food, like the fish market and fruit and vegetable market, lots of the items there are still imported from more agriculture-friendly climes).  Additionally, Dubai’s carbon footprint is enormous.  When I can’t find the exact ingredient, I will do my absolute best to source the best possible equivalent, local where possible.  I’m not going to break the bank and add to environmental woes by specially importing any items unless they’re absolutely essential and I cannot find a reasonable substitute here.

3.  There will be a reckoning.  Each time I cook one of Heston’s “perfect” recipes, I’ll also prepare an “imperfect” version of the same dish, using the most convenient or oft-used technique and ingredients.  I’m doing this because it should help to highlight what makes Heston’s recipes “perfect” compared to the bog-standard versions.  When possible, the recipes will be tested by unbiased guests and rated.  Otherwise, my long-suffering husband and I will rate the two recipes on our own.  I’ll then decide whether the “perfect” recipe is going to replace the standard method, and whether it gets added to my repetoire or not.  In some cases, I may decide to synthesize the perfect and imperfect recipes into something that (in my kitchen) will be “good enough”, and will share this synthesis online.