Text as published in Hiut Denim’s yearbook number three. Illustration by Bjorn Lie

“There’s a shop around the corner, go buy some flour, knock up another batch, you’ll clean up.”

It was 1pm and we’d just sold out. The weather forecast took a u-turn for the better, Bristol was packed and we’d flown through 120 pizzas in a couple of hours.

Our dough won’t be rushed though, our pizza’s slow pizza.

It cooks in less than 90 seconds but starts life a week before. The starter is fed, a mix, a knead, knead, knead, knead some more – by hand. A connection to the dough, to the subtleties of how it evoles, but one that loses its romanticism on a 40kg batch. Next a slow sedate rise. We give the enzymes time to do their job, to break down the gluten into something which is both delicious and easy to digest – but not too long, when you lose the loft and the acidity becomes too pronounced. It’s a balancing act, one we’re committed to. We’ve logged 118 iterations of our dough formula and counting, dozens more before it made it to a spreadsheet, it’s anal to the extreme. Thousands of pizzas, each bake taking a step closer to the pizza in our mind’s eye. 

What does that pizza look like? Well it’s all about the crust, the airy bits at the edge consume 80% of our effort. Great pizza is simple, good ingredients on good bread. We focus on the bread and showcase the amazing produce on our doorstep as toppings. We aim for loft, structure, the point the crust is barely cooked through, the starches gelatinised, and char. Flecks of char, notes of bitterness which offset the natural sweetness of our tomatoes. The base must be thin but not crisp, foldable not rigid or brittle. When the dough’s on song it’s robust, extensible, translucent on the marble, you could read a newspaper through it if there was one to hand.

We do it because it tastes better, because it’s healthier, because we’ve yet to find a better way. No shortcuts. Flavour before profit is the closest we’ve come to a business model. Time is the secret ingredient.

We keep two sourdough starters. Extravagant I know. This is mainly down to nostalgia but there’s the odd occasion where there are benefits of maintaining two at different hydrations or water contents. Sanj is getting on a bit now, born in my old flat, named after a flatmate and good friend he’s been with us throughout our baking journey. Clare, his classier other half has nobler heritage and hails from 200 year old Lapland stock if you buy into that kind of thing. I don’t. Granted I like the story and want to be part of a baking lineage, but my own view is that your starter quickly adapts to the local microflora, ours having long ago acquired a Bristol accent.
As an experiment I wanted to start a new starter. One born and bre(a)d in Bristol [sorry]. I mixed equal parts flour and water and left it on the counter. Repeated this once a day discarding 3/4 of the mixture and after a week baked a loaf. It really was that simple.
I lie. Baking’s not simple. Baking the perfect loaf’s a Sisyphean task, but one where you’re rolling dough not boulders and even the disasters taste great. Getting you own starter going is simple though and well worth the effort – amazing what you can do with just flour and water.
Seven days of starter evolution and the resultant loaf
There are plenty of well written guides online for making our own starter so I won’t dwell on the specifics, I like this one for example. Although my personal tips would be the following:
  • Use a decent organic flour with as much whole grain as possible
  • Rye makes a welcome addition, it has more soluble sugars than wheat and typically higher amylase activity, all of this equates to more food for the starter
  • Don’t bother with fancy glass Kilner jars, granted they look nice but with regular feedings and cleaning they smash far too easily. This grows tiresome. Cheap plastic containers like soup containers work much better
  • And finally if all of this still sounds too daunting, give us some notice and we can bring some of our starter along to an event for you (assuming you pass our extensive starter adoption vetting process)

 

…not from an Ethiopian as in Kipling’s version, or in the usual fashion for Neapolitan pizzas but get them he did and we were pretty proud of last night’s pizzas.

 

Yesterday was another day of tests, tweaking and perfecting. We were using Caputo Tippo 00 flour for the first time, we tried out three different dough hydrations (all with the Franco Manca recipe mentioned in the last post). We trialled three new topping recipes, all classics in their own right originating from some of the best places in the US. But we were also testing out a new method of making pizzas. Something I hoped would achieve the charred edges but chewy interior which we’d been aiming for. That’s what I was most excited about. That’s what I’d like to talk through here.

 

The technique itself I actually dreamt, yes, I now dream of pizzas – does that make me fluent?! The idea being to cook the base quickly and achieve the rise and ‘oven-spring’ in the crust as it’s placed on hot stone for 60-90s; at that point though, I would take the pizza off the stone on a metal peel and use the lower firebox section in Bertha to caramelise / carbonise – take your pick. That was the plan anyway.

 

Here’s how it looked in practice:

 

initial bake on the stone

 

finished off by the fire

And for once, it was a plan which worked. As tasty as our previous efforts had been, they’d always looked a little anaemic. We’d brought them out early to avoid drying out the crust and burning the base, but in doing so, we’d missed the speckled charring or leopard spots which add so much flavour – a hallmark of greatness for the best pizzerias.

Check out these beauties though:

 

 

 

 

 

The texture was amazing too, fluffy, chewy and just what we’d been aiming for. We were chuffed.

I’ve love to go on about the flavour, to talk about the specific toppings, as these were three recipes I’d had my eye on for ages, although our sinuses had other plans. We both had stinking colds and as visually appealing as these all were, we couldn’t taste a thing. What’s the sensory equivalent of a rain check? We’re going to have to make all of these once again.

Here are the recipes though if you’re having better luck on the mucus front:

 

Brussels Sprout and Pancetta Pizza (à la Motorino)

 

 Pizza Sorrentina (Kesté Pizza & Vino)

 Rosa Pizza (Pizzeria Bianco)

Saturday was D-Day, Dough-Day to be clear, we didn’t venture to Normandy. The aim was simple, to try a variety of dough recipes with a view to finding our favourite. We were sticking to classic Neapolitan pizzas which happen to be both our personal favourites and notoriously difficult to perfect. The dough has fewer ingredients typically than New York, or square pan Sicilian styles, but the higher temperatures required in cooking mean there’s a fine line when aiming for a charred exterior but soft chewy cornicione – or crust to you and me.
I’m an engineer by background and the geek in me took over as I insisted on minimising the variations between each pizza so we could be sure that all we were testing was the dough. Each pizza was formed from the same flour (not Caputo Tippo 00, which I know I’d be marked down for in Naples, but Stoate’s Organic Stoneground Strong White flour – I’ve got a 25kg sack of the stuff which I really should use up before ordering another). The same toppings were used, this was classic Neapolitan style so it had to be margheritas. The oven was held at the same temperate, well, within the relms of what’s possible on a small domestic wood fired oven. We heated Bertha so the temperature of the stone read ~300 °C with a flue temperature of 400 °C. Ideally I’d have liked this higher as traditional Neapolitan ovens tend to run around 500 degrees, however there the heat source is from one side and they have a much more even distribution. In Bertha the fire is directly below the stones, so the bottom of the pizza tends to cook much quicker than the top. As a result, we ended up having to take them out early to avoid burning the base, which means the crusts lack the telltale leopard spot charring typical of Neapolitan pizzas, but you can’t have everything… I’m already planning to experiment with the blowtorch to rectify this.

finally… almost pizza time
Margherita was the order of the day

time to cook

Bertha in action
Anyway, back to the dough. I ended up trying 4 variations, a sourdough recipe with a strong pedigree, as I believe it’s used by Franco Manca, “The Best Pizza Dough Ever” recipe from 101 Cookbooks, which stems from acclaimed baker and author Peter Reinhart. We also tried a no knead recipe from the Slice pizza blog and finally another Peter Reinhart recipe (I’m a bit of a fan) from his Crust and Crumb book, which started with a pre-ferment, poolish or sponge, so was a bit different to the others. Four dough recipes – can’t be that hard I thought. Error. Each required several day’s preparation along with an elaborate mixing and resting schedule, so out came the note book again. I didn’t help myself by selecting mainly US recipes either, how many millilitres of water are in a cup… (well it turns out it depends on your cup, that’d be 236ml for a US one or 250 for a metric one – I worked on the assumption that they’re patriotic about their cups in the US, so went with 236).
my scribbles, complete with pizza stained tasting notes

Here’s a summary of the different doughs I made:

Working Name
Origin
Pre-ferment / Special Preparation
Ingredients
1
Sourdough
Active sourdough starter (Clare)
20h ferment
Water: 250ml
Flour: 425g
Starter: 7.5g
Salt: 4.5g
2
101
Overnight rest for dough
Water: 196ml
Flour: 284g
Yeast: 1.5g
Salt: 6g
Olive oil 28g
3
No Knead
Room temp rise 8-12h
Refrigerate to prove for 2-4 days
Water: 242ml
Flour: 373g
Yeast: 5.6g
Salt: 7g
4
Poolish
Active poolish
Overnight rest
Water: 89ml
Flour: 224g
Yeast: 0.5g
Salt: 7g
Olive oil: 56g
Poolish: 140g (Flour: 126g, Water: 236g, Yeast 1g)

As you can see from the ingredients column there was considerable faff to sort the ratios into manageable quantities, if we’d stuck to the original recipes we’d have ended up with enough dough for 32 pizzas, which even by our gluttonous standards seemed ambitious. This way we had just over 500g of dough from each recipe so we could make two 250g pizzas.

On to the pizzas themselves, and confusingly in the order we ate them:

No Knead:

Our thoughts: Very light and airy, best rise, crust like fluffy white bread, not much flavour.

Poolish:

Our thoughts: Sweet. Less rise, more ‘crumb’ texture. Tastes like potato cakes! More caramelised, could work well with blue cheeses and figs.

101:

Our thoughts: Better rise than Poolish, lighter than No Knead, still little flavour.

Sourdough:

Our thoughts: More complex and substantial, interesting flavour. Sweeter tomato mixture would work well to balance the sour flavour from the dough.

Summary
So there you have it, 4 different dough recipes with some surprisingly different results. I don’t believe you can say which is the best, that’s too subjective, but what we can say is which was our favourite, and that was the sourdough by quite some margin. It had a far more interesting flavour and added more to the overall taste rather than being just a receptacle for the topping. The dough was also one of the easiest to make too. Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the recipe from the award winning Franco Manca came out on top, but we learned a lot along the way.
The first pizzas turned out so well we didn’t feel the need to repeat the process, so after stuffing ourselves with an extra sourdough pizza we took the spare dough and made some focaccia (mmm… salt and olive oil) and a loaf too:

Moving on to the next members of the family, this time the little ones, Sanj and Clare. These are our sourdough starters. Sanj, I made from nothing more than flour and water in my old flat, and he takes his name from my old flatmate. Clare, Sanj’s more sophisticated other half, came along later when I attended a baking course at the E5 Bakehouse and they both sit happily bubbling away in the fridge in their own booze. We feed them once a week, usually on a Thursday as this way they’re pretty lively for baking on a Saturday and they’re used every weekend we’re home be it for loaves, bagels, pizzas or even naans.

We’ve toyed with quite a few different recipes and have finally found one which we’re really happy with – that warrants a post of it’s own. Although if you’re interested in starting making your own sourdough bread I’d thoroughly recommend the course E5 Bakehouse run, they’re a really friendly bunch and the course packs in loads of information and techniques in one day.

Here’s the photo journal of this week’s efforts: