Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rustlin' Evidence

Pizza is a thing we like to make. You may not feel the need, given the general ubiquity of the form across the country, but to my taste most of it is just unimaginative.
New York style? Greasy, limp, and overhyped—seriously, it cannot even be considered edible unless it’s beneath a tidal shoal of hot pepper flakes. Chicago style? Indigestible wodges of cheese drowning in oregano, poured into an oily shell. I know people (like Watson) will jump up and say, “But you’ve never tried this place or that place.” And sure, there are exceptions—New Haven style and Sicilian style, for starters--but for pizza you really, truly bond with, you’ve got to make it yourself. At least I do.

So the optimal Melvin-style ‘za is both a years-long work in progress and
an impossibility. There will always be another variation to try, whether in dough makeup, saucing, toppings, or temperatures. What’s below is just last night’s incarnation of a kind we’ve been tinkering for a while, called The Rustler after its inspiration, found at Minnesota’s Pizza Lucé.

Before we get into that, we’ve gotta talk crust. People, crust is not scary. It is not hard. And it does not even take that much time. Here’s all you do for a crust that is crisp, not puffy or oily, but also not crackery: measure a scant tablespoon of yeast into a quarter cup of warm water, then add a pinch of sugar and dissolve. In a large bowl, mix roughly 2 2/3 cups white flour with a very healthy tablespoon of your favorite salt. We’re using kosher right now, but coarse sea salt adds a nice crunch. You can use a little rye flour in place of some of the white if you must. Once the yeast proofs, mix it into the flour along with 2 tbsp. each olive oil and milk. This has been a point of great variation—the milk makes for a crispier crust, but adding too much of it can lead to weird exudations later on. Also add another quarter cup of water—I like to swirl this around the yeast bowl to make sure you get all that bacterial goodness.

Mix everything together a little and see if it’s too dry. For years, I aimed for a dry dough, but this was wrong. You want what comes together here to be wet but not sticky—you’ll get a feel the more you do this. So add some more water if it seems like a good idea, but try not to wait until things are really coming together because it’s harder to incorporate the water after a while. If it gets too wet, hey, add a little flour. (This is not astrophysics.) Knead the dough for just a few minutes—it can be very satisfying to pick this moist ball up in your hand and slam it down into the bowl or onto a board, if you’re using one. I tend to just use the bowl, since the dough is wet enough not to leave any flour behind. In any event, grease a bowl with some olive oil, put the dough into it, turn it once, and leave it to rise.

Oh, no, a rise! How long is this going to take? What do you take me for? You childless yuppies have no idea how real people live!

Let it rise a whopping 30 minutes. You’re going to need that time to prep the other ingredients and heat up the oven. Speaking of which, my preferred oven temperature right now is 520, but of course YMMV. 500 is a pretty good benchmark. I’ve taken it up to 550, but that has a tendency to set off smoke alarms and the like, as well reduce the cooking time to something like a minute and a half, which isn’t ideal for most toppings.

I could write a treatise here on toppings, but the general point is
Kenny Shopsin’s mantra: if there is something you like to eat, eat it. (This is perhaps better known as Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s mantra.) I’ve had success with artichokes, cilantro, pureed cauliflower, apples, anchovies, and dozens of other things. Whatever. We need to focus on the Rustler or this entry will never end. However, it is worth mentioning that tomato-based sauces are not in favor Chez Melvin right now—a swab of olive oil, a dab of anchovy paste, a blorp of chipotle salsa are more like it. (I am at the moment heavily influenced in this by Manetta’s, in Long Island City, New York.)

The Pizza Lucé Rustler uses a tomato-y barbecue sauce and a mix of cheddar and mozzarella, topped with mock duck, sliced red onion, banana peppers, and pineapple chunks. (I have to say that Lucé’s crust can taste like a waffle-tread sneaker, unfortunately.) What’s pictured above uses similar toppings, but we’re using Trader Joe’s meatless strips, and we skipped the banana peppers because, um, well, we forgot them. The critical element at work here, though, is the sauce,
Smoke Daddy Sweet and Smoky, which is heavy on the molasses and the vinegar. (We gave this stuff a tryout because Watson hung out with Señor Smoke Daddy as a vacationing child.)

By this time you have these things prepped and the oven heated, the crust is essentially ready to go. You can, however, let it rise for hours if you’re so inclined. No one will die. Lightly grease a pizza pan with vegetable oil (not olive oil), and stretch the crust out to fill in—it should be pretty elastic and shouldn’t require rolling. Swirl a nice layer of the sauce, add a blanket of mixed cheeses, and then dot everything else around to your satisfaction. Throw in the oven on the bottom rack for about 10 minutes. Then move it up—unless you like a very black crust—for another five or so. You will absolutely know when it’s done—everything will be nice and caramel-colored, the mock duck will be only just starting to carbonize, and there should be only a very little bit of liquid (from the pineapple, mostly) left on the top. Pull it out, slice it up, chomp into your first piece, and scorch the roof of your mouth. At least that’s what I do. More temperate souls might wait 5 or 10 minutes—you could make a nice salad, say, or pour a strong beer. We went for the
Left Hand Smoked Porter, which made for perhaps a too smoky ensemble. But hey, you know what you like.

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