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Margherita, begin here

At loss for words attempting to explain my love affair with pizza, I decided an illustration of my obsessive compulsive cooking would best reconcile my lack of words.  Passion or obsession? Surely a bit of both. Obsession, at times, holds a negative connotation, when referring to recipe development, the outcome is generally positive. Perfection, a byproduct of obsession, has been the goal of these pizza trials. Mastering pizza has been a family affair, my brother orchestrating the sauce as a mad conductor, my sister developing a crust with a crisp bottom and chewy top. Construction and flavor profile define my role, in addition to carefully snapping photos of quickly cooling pies amongst impatient diners. For the past three months lucky friends and family visit our kitchen to experience this ongoing pizza experiment. Perfection will never be achieved, flavor being subjective and incarnations infinite, striving for perfection keeps our bellies full with constant anticipation.

Cool creamy avocado tempers onion fried in fiery chili oil.

Apparently, Houston pizzerias are experiencing somewhat of a “renaissance,” a wonderful development in such a food-centric city. As an east coast native, my pizza barometer lies in NYC, the crust, sauce and cheese created by master pizziolos with decades of genuine refinement and ethnic authenticity. Having sampled the latest creations of Houston’s hottest pizziolos, I confidently declare, “You/I/We can make better pizza at home.” I’m not knocking Houston pizza, it’s pretty good, it’s come a long way, but you can still create a better pie in your oven. No need to fret over overhead costs such as rent, staff, and marketing, greenbacks flow directly into the highest quality ingredients, no tip required. I’ve calculated a cost of $4-$5 per pizza at home as opposed to $12-$15 at the higher end pizza joints.

Savoring charcuterie… “Genoa salami, wilted sweet onion, red sauce, mozz.” Time to bake.

Parties involve participation, socializing, and interaction. Having a “pizza party” encompasses all these elements, someone working with the dough, another sauteing veggies and shredding cheese, a light buzz leading to arguments on oven temperatures and topping combination’s. With an opportunity like this, I can’t imagine hovering behind a menu trapped at a table, these “pizza parties” are my favorite social cooking events.

Balancing your pie

Truly memorable pizza is a “Man on Wire” act requiring a perfect balance of flavors and textures. The holy trinity of pizza, crust, sauce, and cheese should never be competing but rather working in harmony. I consider deep dish pizza an unbalanced embarrassment, it’s sole purpose to stuff you full of greasy calories quickly, the sauce, cheese and toppings lost in a gluey mass of Play-Doh. Go thin crust.

Not down with meat? “Oyster mushrooms” are an amazing substitute.

A crucial crust crunch

Crisp, charred and thin. Chewy success.

On bite, the crust should have an initial crisp, and airy but firm chew which quickly disintegrates as the other ingredients commingle. I’ll repeat, exhausting jaw muscles on a ball of gummy dough is never ideal, unless you’re in Chicago, so keep the crust thin. We’ve been using Caputo 00 italian flour(low-gluten), a popular choice for many pizza snobs. There are many schools of thought regarding which flour to use, how to knead, type of yeast, etc. I encourage you to experiment with different dough recipes and techniques, click this link for a truly obsessive study on dough, sauce, ovens and technique. Rather than provide specific recipes, this pizza entry will illustrate best-practices, tips, and rules of thumb I use to create pies better than most if not all restaurants in the neighborhood.

Great pies disappear quickly, have your dough army on high alert.

Classic New York pizza joints use ovens reaching 800 degrees, the benefit being a quickly cooked pie and a wonderfully charred bottom. Chances are, your home oven reaches a maximum temperature of 500-600 degrees. The hotter the better and with a pizza stone you can still achieve a beautiful and crisp char. The key is to preheat your stone for at least one hour, it will absorb the heat then radiate hellfire upon the bottom of your crust. Our pizzas average an 8 minute cooking time.

Hellfire from a pizza stone creates heavenly circles of char and crisp.

The Key to a delicate buttery sauce

Cracked stone

After a canned hibernation, plum tomatoes are reanimated with a little sea salt, sugar, garlic, and thyme then cooked and blended for a smooth and airy buttery texture. It’s crucial to blend your sauce after cooking, the tomato and olive oil emulsify creating a buttery pillow-like texture which hug your taste-buds. On bite, a quality sauce slowly melts a chewy crust then gently fades to the background as your toppings take center stage. If the cheese and toppings are sliding off in a flash flood of red… you’re using too much sauce. “Uncomplicated” should define your sauce – red, shimmering, and bursting with the natural flavor of ripe plum tomatoes. Accents of garlic, fresh herbs, and olive oil serve as undertones. Try Cento or organic whole peeled plum tomatoes, steer clear of bitter varieties. Another quick note on pizza stones, be sure to season your stone by rubbing with olive oil and baking prior to first use. Unfortunately, I’ve broken two stones by forgetting to season, the excitement of making fresh pies surely clouded my judgment. It’s possible the stone just cracked under the pressure of meeting a beautiful pie.

Sopressata, smoked jalapeno & carmelized onions. Sweet, savory, smoky, hot… pizzagasm.

All mozzarella are not created equal

Rounding out the trinity is cheese. Most chain establishments use low quality part-skim mozzarella leaving a plastic ball of petroleum product stuck to the roof of your mouth. Find whole milk fresh mozzarella, I use Belgioioso, not submerged in a salty brine but stored in a skintight plastic tube. I’ve found fresh mozzarella submerged in liquid often has a sour flavor, gritty consistency, and high moisture content leaving a puddle of acrid water in the center of your pie.

The Ocean: Mussels, scallops, shrimp, chili oil, cilantro

Toppings, remember the number “3″

We’ve nailed the trinity(crust, sauce, cheese), let’s look at toppings. Toppings are endless, from common pepperoni to obscure Italian charcuterie, fried eggs or fois gras. Treat your dough as an empty canvas, sauces as paint, place toppings as brush strokes. Below on the left you’ll see meaty oyster mushrooms sauteed with nutrient rich spinach, and on the right peeled sauteed shrimp, scallops, garlic and cilantro.

Repeat the mantra, “fresh, never frozen,” “fresh, never frozen,” “fresh, never frozen,” now head to the grocery store. Step inside the auditorium of ingredients and you’ll likely discover countless varieties of mushrooms, spinach, onions, cheeses, meats, fish etc. This is how I devise my next pizza creation, by walking into the grocery store and taking a moment to soak in all the possibilities.

Local Texas Olive Oil, for drizzling

Remember the number 3. A good rule of thumb is “no more than 3 toppings per pizza”. You’re better off baking a meatloaf with a side of rolls and ketchup than making a “supreme pizza.” Think about a “supreme pizza” consisting of ham, beef, chicken, peppers, onion, olives, and mushrooms. That’s seven toppings. The ability to appreciate the nuance of any one ingredient is lost leaving a mass of competing flavor. Would you enjoy a taco with beef, poultry, and pork? Probably not, your taste buds would be confused and appreciation for any one ingredient would be lost. There’s a reason Italians say “A margherita is all you need,” it’s an attention to simplicity, quality ingredients and full flavors. Don’t turn your pizza into a deconstructed meatloaf, respect your ingredients, that is all.

Saute your veggies first!

It’s safe to say sauteed vegetables are preferable to raw vegetables when topping your pie. Onions are better experienced caramelized or wilted than raw, the flavors of spinach and mushroom intensify if precooked. The risk of throwing raw vegetables on your pie include a pool of liquid soaking through your crust or raw stale bell peppers which were only warmed. Remember, the pizza only takes 8 minutes to bake,  so parcook your veggies, it removes excess moisture and only intensifies flavor.

Appreciate simplicity before complexity. Red sauce, mozz, torn basil, drizzled olive oil.

Get creative with unusual toppings and sauces

Nailing the basics, we can migrate to more complex sauces and toppings. Everyone is delighted with your cheese and pepperoni, try mixing and matching different combination’s of unusual toppings. Many times, leftovers from last night’s dinner are a perfect excuse for a pizza party. Go ahead and slice that pot roast as a topping, or use some leftover grilled asparagus, try a seafood pie with all that extra crawfish. Here are just a few unusual ideas:

Sauces: pesto, roasted garlic, alfredo, adobo sauce, bbq sauce, thai curry, mole.

Cheese: goat, feta, smoked mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, emmentaler, swiss, asiago, muenster, gorgonzola, ricotta.

Non-vegetarian toppings: lobster, caviar, clams, crab, chorizo, boudin, pork belly, brisket, rotisserie chicken, duck breast, pancetta, fried or poached egg.

Vegetarian toppings: roasted eggplant, squash, zucchini, arugula, roasted poblanos, smoked jalapenos, wild mushrooms, thai basil.

Creamy french feta, imported gaeta olives, tender roasted eggplant

My obsession with pizza has no end in sight, dedication unwavering and taste buds untiring. An item lending itself to infinite creativity, I’m already looking forward to the next incarnation. Maybe a sourdough crust and a sauce of roasted heirloom tomatoes, or a sauce of Thai basil pesto and curry shrimp topping. Camera handy, I’ll have more photos to share, and maybe declare, I knew nothing at all. Hope you enjoyed “Part One” in an infinite series. Until next time.