Most of the hundreds of cookbooks on my shelves are there primarily for reference – I don’t actually cook from them. My Pizza is an exception – it’s in my top 10 most-used cookbooks, probably because of my quest to make amazing home-made pizza.
And what better way to learn than from a fellow obsessive? Jim Lahey writes, “Pizza deserves respect and admiration – for everything about it, but especially the bread, the crust. As a former art student who turned to baking, I see a pizza crust as a canvas, an invitation to paint and sculpt with food. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious; pizza is after all a peasant food, but a glorious peasant food when someone approaches it with care and affection, taking bread and building it into a beautiful whole meal ... I was drawn to the best of the thinner, crisper, disk-shaped pies of Naples, the ones that are so seductive hot and fresh from the oven. There is a touch of the spiritual in that disk – it’s an unforced, natural shape that reminds me of a pool of rainwater, of Da Vinci’s man of perfect proportions, or of the mandala, a symbol of harmony and spirituality. And these round pies are elegant besides – the toppings carefully placed, with a charred, blistered rim forming a dramatic, stark frame for the ingredients.
“I should pause for a second and say that although I’ve been describing the pies as round here, I don’t mean a perfect circle. Each pizza is handmade and, as such, idiosyncratic. From a purely functional point of view, they are shaped to be easy to cut into wedges. But I suppose it would be more accurate to call them ‘roundish’. When I see a cook laboring to perfect that shape, I see an individual who is perhaps too involved with the circle at the expense of the ingredients.”
I will have to memorise that last sentence for the next time someone criticises my pizzas for not being perfectly round.
A pizza begins and ends with the crust; it doesn’t matter how great the toppings are, if the crust isn’t right, the pizza isn’t right. And Lahey’s pizza dough is fantastic; I’ve tried many others, and keep going back to his recipe, which contains just flour, a scant amount of yeast, a sufficient amount of salt (although it seems like a lot) and water.
The toppings range from basic, such as margherita and pepperoni, to more interesting, including cauliflower; Brussels sprouts and chestnut; honshimeji and guanciale with quail eggs; bird’s nest (although it’s not bird’s nest as we know it, but shaved asparagus piled on the pizza, with quail eggs nestled on top); Popeye (it has spinach, of course); and shiitake with walnut.