Pizza has become an American classic. From its Italian origins it is now the food of both family dinners and celebrations. Most if the time, whether we go out or have it delivered, we let someone else do the cooking. Grocery stores sell take and bake pizzas, frozen pizzas, pizza dough, canned sauce and pre-shredded cheese so we can enjoy pizza at home but it always pales in comparison to the real deal. If, however, you want to make real pizza with a crisp crust and bubbling sauce, Jim Lahey is prepared to teach you in his new book My Pizza out later this month. He is famous for his no-knead recipes as much for his devotion to the floured arts.
In December 2011, New York magazine ran an article on Lahey titled “The Mad Baker of Sullivan Street” referring to the name of his New York City bakery. When it comes to bread, Lahey is serious, obsessive and yes, a little nuts, but the result of all of that is some seriously good pizza. His pizzeria Co., also in New York, turns out crispy charred crust beauties that may spoil you for anything else. Lahey says you can make these pizzas at home but, like a television fitness trainer exhorting the armchair athlete to feel the burn, he says you have to be ready to work hard to get results.
Pizza is a deceptively simple food. A bread base, sauce, cheese and toppings. But as Lahey shows, when it comes to pizza, the devil is in the details. A pizza stone is required as are good quality ingredients. Perhaps the most important component is a thorough understanding of heat and how to cook the pizza so that it is charred but not burned. And yes, the dough is no-knead but it also requires a day of rising at room temperature to achieve its full magic (the recipe is available on Bon Appetit this month).
Lahey begins with simple red sauce recipes that give new pizza makers a chance to focus on the basics. Then he moves on to white sauce pizzas. Both the red and white pizza sauce recipes also include a wide variety of specialty ingredients that outclass most of the humble pies in your local shop. His most wildly inventive pizzas might be the ones with no sauce at all such as the birds nest pizza topped with shaved asparagus, quail eggs and two types of cheese.
For a book devoted to pizza there’s also a surprising amount of space devoted to accompaniments including pea soup, an asparagus and avocado salad and baby octopus with purslane and pink peppercorn dressing. A final chapter on desserts seems more like an afterthought but even here Lahey can’t resist a closing touch of delicious madness, cranking up the oven to 500 degrees for his chocolate chip cookies and topping his olive oil cake with black olives.
For those in need of further instruction, Lahey is teaching his Pizza Essentials class in New York on March 24.