It seems like ages ago, but it has really only been a few months. I am, of course, referring to that explosion of fresh vegetables that covers the Midwest in late summer. Zucchini run rampant, threatening to cover whole towns. Cucumbers come to fruition so fast and furious no mortal can keep up, and pickling begins in earnest. Rainbows of carrots appear, stacked in neatly wrapped bunches, still lightly grubby with fresh dirt. The days are longer and lazy, enticing you to take a moment and stand a moment, soaking in that blazing ray of sun that is trying to fry your skin a delicate shade of red.
And now here we are, an early winter blast, and the urge to hibernate arises, to slow down and become blanket-covered lumps, to slowly braise meat and vegetables into stews that comfort and weigh down the body in the waning light of winter. Even though it is not technically winter yet.
Have you noticed how both seasons seem to call for things to slow down? And yet… that does not seem to be how we live. We are so busy, so crazed, everything presses in on us, telling us to speed up. I cruise through countless recipes on the internet, each one speaking of shortcuts, time-savers, using processed stuff in cans to speed things along. And I am not immune to it. Clearly, I have spent the last two and a half months so bulldozed by work I have had a few dinners that involved pouring a glass of wine and ripping open a sleeve of buttery processed crackers (that no longer taste good to me,) collapsing brain dead onto the couch to watch a TV show I have seen a hundred times before. So yes, despite my protests of “you have time, you can always make time to cook,” I clearly hit runs of being unable to do it myself.
But then… suddenly… a day appears. A weekend. Two whole days of no work needs. No emails to check, no checking in with editors, two whole days of time spooling out in front of me, and the sudden ironic urge to speed up and do all the fun stuff arises. Surely I can cook everything in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one weekend.
I work primarily from home, so there are times I am boiling a pot of beans in the background whilst I work away, which invariably leads to me forgetting about it and letting it go too far, ruining the batch. This time I can slow down and actually pay attention. And one of my favorite things to slow down is dough. Especially dough for pizza.
Dough is already a slow process. People try to speed it up, find shortcuts, buy premade stuff all ready to go, but to me… dough is meditation. The simple act of kneading, of losing track of all other things than the feel of the dough under your hands as it slowly transitions from soft mass to springy ball, that moment of knowing just from the feel of it under your fingers that the gluten has been pummeled into submission, and it is good to go. And then you wait. And wait. And wait. And there is no substitute for waiting, no substitute for the dough you make simply by hand.
One day I made a loaf of that no-knead bread that was making the rounds. An exceedingly simple loaf of water, yeast, a pinch of salt, and flour. And time. A great deal of time. Hours of rising in the fridge. And it is delicious. So I thought to myself… pizza can do this. Dough is dough is dough, and this is basically the same with a tweak of a ratio and adding some olive oil, right? I tried it a few times, whipping up a batch of soft dough and letting it rise for hours in the fridge, and it was fine, but it lacked oomph. I wanted depth. I wanted body. But… I did not want to use whole-wheat flour, the flavor being too strong and weighty. I rummaged around my cupboard and started throwing stuff in, and after several trial runs, I found the magic combination. The same base but with cornmeal and wheat bran added in, and suddenly, magically, it was a nubbly, light and tasty dough, good enough to be eaten on its own, but even more ridiculous as the base of a nice pizza.
This takes hours of waiting, the dough hibernating much like we want to do in the increasing chill. But waiting, no short cuts, no pre-done ingredients, just simple time… well it is delicious.
Sloooooooooooow Pizza Dough
(makes enough for roughly 2 14” pizzas, depending on how thinly you roll the dough)
2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
½ cup wheat bran (not the cereal type, the fluffy flakes)
½ cup medium or large grind cornmeal (I’ve done it both ways, and this sits so long it hydrates fairly well)
½ tsp. instant yeast
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
generous pinch sugar
1 c warm water
Mix everything in a bowl with a big ol’ wooden spoon until it becomes a cohesive soft mass. If it feels like it needs more flour, add it. If it feels like it needs more water, add sparingly. Lightly flour your counter and dump the mass of dough out onto it, and start kneading, turning a half turn every knead, until it becomes a smooth soft mass. It is really important to let this stay soft, so if it starts to get sticky, add flour, but only a tablespoon or so at a time. Due to the long rise time, you don’t really need to knead this until it springs back, just enough to make a satiny soft dough. Oil up a dish (I usually use the same olive oil I put in the dough, though some might see that as a waste,) and place the dough in the bottom, then cover and place in the fridge. The sweet spot is to let it sit for 14 hours, but I’ve gone as short as 8 and as long as 24 (which might have been pushing it.) The longer, the better, because it give the yeast a good long time to eat the sugars and create a beautiful depth of flavor.
An hour before you want to bake it, pull it out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Use as you would any other pizza dough in your favorite recipe. In summer I like to top it with just olive oil and masses of veggies, fresh herbs, and a bit of cheese. In winter I’ll make a quick sauce and go more traditional with this crazy cheese I find at the local Italian deli, scamorza cheese I think it’s called, mushrooms, and sausage. Do what you like! I usually bake it at 425 for 12-15 minutes. Sadly, I still do not possess a pizza stone, but if you do, you should totally bake it on there.
Bonus pizza sauce
(makes enough to cover 2 pizzas, depending on how thickly or thinly you slather it on.)
1 can tomato sauce (unsalted, if you can get it)
1 clove garlic, minced fine
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil
pinch of red pepper flakes (if you like it spicy, totally optional)
1 Tbsp. vodka (no seriously, alcohol unlocks flavor compounds in tomatoes, I always through a splash into my sauce, but it is optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Stir together in a pot with high sides (because tomato WILL spatter,) bring to a simmer, and then… let simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, tasting and adjusting seasonings as you go. If you have access to fresh basil and oregano, use it! And put more on top of the pizza…