In an essay I’ve read several times this summer, Joan Didion suggests, as an antidote to crying, putting your head in a brown paper grocery bag.
Now, I have not yet attempted this–I’m skeptical of any purported cure for weeping–but I have learned the importance of habits like these, small disciplines that force perspective and teach character. “It is difficult in the extreme,” she writes, “to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.” Brown paper bags: for the sweats, a very hot shower. For anxiety, a cold one. For an attack of mid-day tiredness, not a nap, but a punishing run. For heart-sickness, I wish I knew.
And I wish I could convey to you the creeping sense of uselessness I’ve felt this summer, the daily hunt for small victories, the ceaseless work to bury the blues. We fill our lives with meaningful pursuits. We try to. But when our lives enter a stasis, a grey zone, as mine has–a thumb-twiddling time of waiting and wishing and wasting–the hours lose their urgency. Days turn to shapeless, shadowy swoons. So we settle for the clarity of tasks, challenges. We clean obsessively. We plant basil. We exercise. We make pizza.
There’s lately been a merciful flicker of cool weather. And the unwet air makes cranking up the broiler–a torturous impossibility a few weeks ago–a real option now for the semi-sane. And I stress the “semi” here, because it wasn’t enough to just assemble a pie. That could be accomplished in an evening, and I needed a task with real scope and scale, something with fearsome logistical hurtles and the pangs of probable failure. I am maybe exaggerating a little, but sometimes the purpose of one’s life boils down to pizza, and one becomes desperately invested in it.
The task: a one hundred percent homemade pie. I was to make the dough, the sauce, the cheese. I’d even grow the basil. It seemed quite a life to live–to concern myself chiefly with minutiae, with cheesemaking, with citric acid and rennet and curds and whey and draining and drying and good local milk. It’s quite a life to live–it is–if you’re willing to sacrifice difficulty and meaning for the leisure of killing time. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t. But everything has its cost.
Then again, sometimes a pizza is just a pizza, and that’s what we’re talking about, after all, and this pizza was good. But I have to tell you, it was even better once I ditched the homemade cheese, which was never quite so springy or melty or clean-tasting as the mozzarella I can buy from the farmer’s market. The beauty shot at the top of the page was taken with farmer’s market cheese. Here’s a pie with the homemade stuff:
You see what I mean. None of the delightful, scalding goo that marks truly great mozzarella. But even if I did flub the homemade cheese, it was fun to make, fun to get my hands dirty, fun to dream up happy little delusions about my future as a master curd-wrangler. Hard to imagine, I know, but I did–during one glorious afternoon wasted in the pursuit of something yummy.
Now, after a couple weeks and several pies, I’ve got a recipe for cracker-thin, chewy dough and a sauce that’ll melt your heart before it melts your tongue. And as for the cheese, well. There’s a blue-eyed guy in Evanston on Saturdays, and he has the good stuff.
I can make pizza now. I keep telling myself this. Artisan pizza. The real thing. And then I think, just maybe: time well-wasted.
For the dough (one medium pizza):
– 1 scant tsp dry active yeast
– 6 Tbsp warm water
– 2 Tbsp pale or amber beer
– 1 tsp honey
– 1 rounded tsp salt
– 1 Tbsp olive oil, plus a drizzle
– 1 and 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
For the sauce:
– 1 Tbsp olive oil
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 3 anchovy filets
– 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
– 4 very good, ultra-ripe tomatoes
– Splash of white wine
– 1/4-1/2 tsp sugar
– Kosher salt (1/2-3/4 tsp), pepper
– 1 recipe dough
– 1 recipe sauce
– 1/2 lb super-fresh mozzarella, torn
– 5 or 6 basil leaves, torn
– Sprinkle of corn meal
– Kosher salt and pepper
Make the dough. In a medium bowl, whisk together dry active yeast, warm water, and beer or wine until the yeast completely dissolves. Add salt, honey and olive oil. Stir. Add flour and work with a spoon until dough comes together. You can add another tbsp of water if you need it, but you probably don’t. Knead dough in bowl for 1-2 minutes. Remove dough to a smaller bowl that’s been coated in olive oil, and let sit in a warm place (a briefly heated oven does the trick) for one to two hours, until dough has doubled in size.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Submerge tomatoes in water for under a minute, remove immediately, and discard the water. When you are able to handle the tomatoes, peel them carefully. Remove the hard green core, if present, with a sharp knife.
In a medium pot, slowly heat olive oil with garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes over very low heat until the garlic softens and the anchovies melt and your kitchen smells like Italian food. No more than 2 minutes: you don’t want your garlic to burn. Add tomatoes and a splash of white wine. Smash tomatoes with a wooden spoon, season with salt, pepper, and sugar, and allow to simmer for at least 30 minutes, until tomatoes melt.
When the dough has doubled in size, place on a floured surface. Deflate the dough gently with your hands, form into a ball, and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. If you have a pizza stone, place it near the oven’s heat source. Preheat oven to its highest temperature (I mean it. If your oven hits 550, heat it to 550). Line a baking sheet with one large sheet of parchment paper and sprinkle with corn meal. Dust dough with flour. Roll it out very very thin, and gently place it on parchment paper.
Spread sauce evenly over pizza, within half an inch of the outer rim of the dough. Arrange with torn mozzarella, and I really don’t care if it’s farmer’s market, store-bought or homemade. (If you’re interested in making the cheese at home, Leener’s sells cheese-making kits and has a helpful video demo on their website.)
If you have a pizza stone, lift parchment paper very carefully onto the center of the stone, or use a pizza paddle, if you have one. If you don’t have a stone, place the baking sheet on a lower rack. Excess parchment paper will smoke in a very hot oven, but don’t worry about burning it.
Cook pizza for 7-10 minutes, until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown and crust forms air pockets. I find that in a 500 degree oven, 7 minutes is all it takes for a thin-crust pie. Carefully remove from oven. Season with salt and pepper and scatter the pizza with torn fresh basil. And eat! Quickly, before the basil turns black.