“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child, American chef
I can’t remember precisely why I started by making bread of all things, but I can certainly remember when. I was barely into my 20s and my newspaper asked me to write about food. (This was perhaps because other writers wanted to hog all the crime and dirty politics for themselves.)
Other than liking to eat and knowing a bit about baking — thank you, gramma — I was completely unqualified. But, off I went, to restaurant after restaurant. I interviewed chefs, most often in empty dining rooms early in the morning.
They explained recipes and techniques. I took notes. They pushed tiny plates of this and that across the table. I tasted, took more notes and, somehow, a foodie was born. It’s been a lifelong preoccupation that, again, started with bread.
I made some brick-like loaves at the start. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here, for example, is a step-by-step recipe that even a newbie bread maker will enjoy.
Pizza Dough for 1 to 12
In a large mixing bowl, mix 5 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 package of active dry yeast. (I also like to add Italian spices and chili pepper flakes at this point, but I’d avoid this if serving children or picky eaters. I once had to explain — one at a time — to 30 or so caroling children that the colorful flecks in their pepperoni rolls were not bugs.) Set aside.
In a glass measuring cup, heat 1 1/2 cups water for 1 minute in the microwave. Stick your finger in the water. If it burns, the water is too hot and will kill the yeast. Start over with new water. If the water feels like a warm bath should, pour it into the flour mix and do an initial mixing with a sturdy spoon.
When the dough toughens beyond spoon usage, mix it some more with your fingers then begin to knead (inside the bowl, no need to make a mess on the counter) by pressing the heel of your hand firmly into the dough and shoving it down and away from you. Continue to knead, adding small amounts of flour whenever things get sticky, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic enough to spring back a bit if you poke it with your finger.
Shape the dough into a ball, place in clean bowl and pour 1-2 Tablespoons of olive oil on top, turning the ball so that it is coated with oil on all sides. Cover the bowl with a towel and set aside in a warm place to rise. (In the summer, put it outside in the sun. If it’s really cold, you may need to heat a clean sock filled with brown rice in the microwave and pop it underneath the bowl. A hot sock is a wonderful thing to keep in the kitchen.)
Check the dough after a half hour. When it is done rising, it will be about twice the size of the original ball. When you’ve reached that point, punch the dough so that it collapses! (This is called “punching down” and is way cheaper than therapy.)
This is where the 1 to 12 comes in. This amount of dough will make 12 small pizzas/ calzones, two large (10 inch) pizzas or a multitude of breadsticks/pizza bites. Figure out how you want to use it now and later and freeze what you don’t need in the correct quantity. For example, if you want two calzones at a time, split the dough into six equal portions. Set aside one portion for now and put the other five portions in separate, zip-locking bags and pop them in the freezer.
Frozen dough can be thawed overnight in the refrigerator or on the counter for a couple of hours (less if it’s a hot day). It does not need to rise again, just be thawed enough to be completely pliable.
Regardless of how you use the dough (calzones, pizza etc.), it needs to bake about 20 minutes in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven. Check smaller items, such as pizza bites, after 15 minutes to make sure they are not getting overdone.