Chef Ray’s passion for Italian cuisine has been evident since his culinary journey began. He gives us an inside look at how to make a great pizza.
Italy has been on my radar for as long as I can remember. I mentioned in a previous column that my culinary career started off pretty much on the path of Italian food. One of my first jobs in a kitchen was tossing 600 pizzas a day, in a hole in the wall pizza joint. The mafia-like owner would make the dough far away from prying eyes, in a room on his own, just so that we couldn’t steal his family’s secret recipe. The first restaurant I opened was Italian; my knives are Italian, my girlfriend… Italian. There is definitely a pattern evolving.
So it should come as no surprise that Pizza is pretty high on the list of my favourite foods. I will admit that I am a bit of a purist when it comes to this subject. A good pizza is all about the crust, if the crust is no good, the rest of the pizza is immaterial. Which is why in the restaurant industry, having the right oven and that secret dough recipe can make or break you.
While the debate will rage on endlessly as to which oven type produces the best pizza, there is no denying that a wood fired brick oven has a distinct advantage by delivering perfectly crackly, smoky, chewy crusts. Something magical seems to happen in a brick oven that just isn’t replicable in a gas or electric oven. The right dough requires temperatures of over 365c to yield a perfectly baked crust without overcooking the toppings. Brick ovens hold the heat in, intensifying it and speeding the baking process. Your pizza only cooks for 3 to 4 minutes.
Ovens and temperatures aside I am just as fanatical about what ingredients are used and where they come from. We are far from Italy but thankfully everything you need for a traditional pizza is readily available these days. But you shouldn’t stop there. Pizza is the perfect host for any organic and local produce. Toppings everywhere are becoming more creative and pizzas are going vegan, ethnic and regional. By using fresh, locally grown ingredients you make it relevant to your roots. During my days at Peponi Hotel in Lamu we used to make a pizza bianca with tuna carpaccio caught by my uncle, fresh herb salad, rocket that was grown in-house, home made citrus oil, crispy fried capers. It doesn’t get more local than that.
Look, no one is saying you have to invest in a wood fired pizza oven and become a master pizzaiolo. Only the best should let that dough fly high above their heads. But I will insist on a few things before you sit down to that perfect slice of pizza.
Leave your dough to rise on top of a tray dusted with semolina and dust the top also. This will help pull any excess moisture out as well as preventing it from sticking. Do not roll out your dough. The air pockets created by the yeast take a beating under a rolling pin, leaving the finished product dense and tough. Instead, think light and gentle, and work with your hands to pull and stretch the dough out to the desired size, don’t stress about the shape. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfectly round. If the dough keeps snapping back when stretched it has been either overworked or is too cold. Let it sit somewhere warm for 20 minutes to let the gluten relax and the temperature rise.
Crank up that heat. Too many people bump down the temperature and go for a slow bake but 180℃ will get you nowhere on your quest for pizza nirvana. Go hot and fast. Turn the oven temperature as high as it will go without broiling and keep your eye on the pie!