I've recently discovered what is easily the best way to make pizza at home for a crowd. It's easy enough that you don't need any kind of stretching or rolling skills to shape the pies, and you don't even need a pizza stone or fancy oven hack to get it to work. Here's how it went down.
In a recent effort to expand my horizons beyond the Neapolitan and New York–style pizzas that I love so dearly, I went on a short but focused effort to taste the best square pizza in the city. You see, as an pre-teen, I went through a minor love affair with the Sicilian slices at Dominic & Joe's (née Pat & Joe's, and currently Sacco Pizza) on Ninth Avenue, but in those days I was more interested in mastering Guile's combos in Street Fighter 2 than assessing the finer points of the interplay between cheese, bread, and tomatoes. Having since firmly re-ensconced myself in the round pie gang, I can't help but feel I'm missing out on something.
In the lexicon of pizza, the moderately thick, cheesy, saucy variety cooked in a rectangular rimmed baking sheet has it rough. It's got what I refer to as "Square Pie's Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century."*
In New York City, it's called Sicilian pizza, and it comes in inch-and-a-half-thick slabs coated with a thick layer of garlic-heavy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. Sometimes the sauce comes on top of the cheese. To a true-blooded Sicilian, the real pizza is sfincione—a thinner, chewier version dotted with salty anchovies and pungent pecorino. In Detroit, they take a similar crust, par-bake it, then spread cheese all the way to the edge so that it completely covers the cornicione, applying sauce in dollops.
Then you get what Long Islanders refer to as Grandma-style (aka nonna-style) pies. Completely unheard of within the city limits as recently as seven years ago, these crisper, oilier, sweeter, and homier pies seem to be a hybrid between a New York Sicilian–style and the deep-dish style known as Greek pizza in New England. These days nearly every pizza joint in Manhattan offers some version of a grandma slice, some made with cooked sauce and dry mozzarella, others with fresh mozzarella and fresh tomato slices. You'll also find square pies at Italian bakeries made on ciabatta-like bread baked in a sheet pan, or try one of the Roman hybrids that place spoonfuls of thin tomato sauce and cheese on top of the traditional 12-foot-long pizza bianca. Let's not forget about focaccia pizza either.
For me, the ideal square pie needs to combine bits of all of these styles. A soft, moderately chewy, and pliant crust, with a few large bubbles here and there, a distinct sweetness and an almost fried crispness to the bottom. The cornicione should be well-browned with bits of crisp aged cheese, and like in a good New York–style pizza, there should be a thin layer right at the interface between the bread and the toppings where the crumb remains ever-so-slightly doughy and chewy. The layer of cheese should be thicker than on a traditional pizza, and while a few light-brown spots are OK, the cheese should largely remain just-melted and gooey. As for the sauce, I like it with a hint of roasted garlic, a touch of herbs, and lightly cooked with a distinct sweetness and overt tomato flavor.
I know—I'm a demanding guy, but I'm also willing to work for my pies. Twenty-three take-out containers worth of leftovers,** eight pounds of mozzarella, 16 pounds of flour, and more tomatoes than you can shake a stick at later, I finally achieved the pie of my dreams. Let me walk you through it.
The first step was to perfect the flavor of my sauce. As I've found in the past, one of the keys to great sauce is to start with the right tomatoes. The more processed a tomato is, the more difficult it is to coax good flavor and texture out of it.
Almost all canned tomatoes are treated with calcium chloride to keep them firm, but with diced tomatoes, it works too well—they never break down. Crushed tomatoes or tomato purée are cooked products that can vary wildly from can to can. To get the best results, I went with whole tomatoes packed in tomato juice (fresher tasting than those packed in tomato purée). You can use fancy imported San Marzanos from a company like Cento, but Muir Glen makes a tasty domestic one that I actually prefer for cooked sauces because of its slightly sweeter flavor.
To give it that distinct sweet garlic kick, I first tried making my standard New York–style sauce, adding a couple extra cloves of garlic to the mix and letting the garlic brown more deeply than normal in the olive oil. It didn't work—rather than a sweet, roasted garlic flavor, I just got extra pungency and bitterness. I needed to figure out a way to cook the garlic more slowly.
Roasting a head whole in the oven worked, but I was loathe to develop a recipe that required roasting a head of garlic for 30 minutes before you even begin making the sauce and the dough.
Instead, I arrived at this compromise: I slowly cooked a few garlic cloves in olive oil in a small skillet over very low heat for 10 minutes until they turned tender and lightly browned. I then puréed those garlic cloves along with my whole tomatoes. In the garlic-scented oil left in the pan, I bloomed a pinch of pepper flakes and oregano before adding the puréed tomatoes. The stems from a few sprigs of basil (I'd save the leaves for topping the pie) and a couple teaspoons of sugar gave the sauce a balanced sweetness.
With the sauce perfected, I moved on to the crust.
Easy, I thought. I already have great recipes for a Neapolitan-style pizza dough. Surely a square pie is as simple as making an extra-large batch of dough, stretching it into an oiled baking sheet, and throwing it in a hot oven, right?
Not so. Here's what happens if you try that:
"How's it going?" my wife asked.
"My pizza refused to rise," I said flatly.
"Do you often try to incorporate Tom Swifties into your stories?"
"Not always, but I have a split personality," I said, being frank.
The problem is this: Neapolitan pizza dough is meant to be cooked in a wood-burning oven approaching 1,000°F. At these temperatures, the air and moisture inside the dough rapidly expand before the gluten—the network of protein developed during kneading and resting—has a chance to firm up. The result is an open, airy hole structure with thin bubbles that char and shatter.
Stretch the same dough into a rectangular sheet pan, load it down with extra sauce and cheese, and try to bake it in a normal 500°F home oven, and the crust hardens and dries out long before the air bubbles inside it get a chance to expand.
From experience making other Italian breads like ciabatta and focaccia, I already knew part of the answer: hydration. Here's the thing. The more water you add to a dough, the more bubbles of water vapor form as it's baking. When baking a very wet piece of dough, much of the energy being transferred to it from the heat of the oven rather than directly raising the dough's temperature instead gets used to initiate the phase change from water to steam. What does this mean? The wetter a given dough, the greater the oven spring, and the more open and airy the internal crumb structure. It's counterintuitive—you'd think that more water would lead to a denser dough—but it's one of the most important lessons to learn in baking.
Simply increasing the hydration level to 65% (which means that by weight, the water content of the dough weighs 65% of the flour content) produced vastly improved results:
Even so, it was still too dense. For my next test, I increased the hydration all the way up to 80%, creating a dough that basically poured like a sticky batter—to develop gluten in a dough this wet, you need to either allow it to rise at room temperature overnight, or knead it at relatively high speeds in a stand mixer—a food processor gets gummed up too easily.
On the other hand, by allowing the dough blob to rise on an oiled sheet tray for a couple hours, it basically ended up spreading on its own out to the edges of the pan as it rose, requiring only a minimal amount of last-minute stretching (oiling my hands prevented them from sticking to the wet dough) to get it out to the corners.
Despite its odd appearance, with a little extra baking time, it rose into a perfect, focaccia-like texture with a huge, open structure and a supremely elastic crumb and crisp, shattery crust. In my quest for square pizza, I'd accidentally perfected my focaccia recipe, a happy accident indeed!
Unfortunately, I wasn't after focaccia: I wanted something a little denser and richer in flavor with a more substantially thick crust, and fiddling with water content (74% hydration proved ideal) only got me so far. My thoughts went back to a pie I'd tried at Sarah Jenkins' Pizzeria Veloce, which managed to be both rich and chewy, but still oddly light. I called up the restaurant and discovered the secret: they add cooked potato to the dough.
It makes sense. Cooked potato should be able to add a starchy richness and slight sweetness to the dough without totally disrupting gluten formation the way, say, excess oil or fats can. Those added starches should also help form a more significant crust on the exterior of the bread. Adding 6 ounces of cooked and riced potato to 26.25 ounces of dough was just the right amount, producing the beautifully structured, rich and pliant crumb with a substantial crust and a soft, spongy interior—exactly what I was after! The best part: no potato flavor to speak of.
Check that beauty out!
One more issue remained: The cheese was ending up over-browned by the time the crust was sufficiently dehydrated and set. I tried reversing the cheese and sauce, thinking the sauce would protect the cheese, which worked. But the coveted layer of doughy interface between crust and toppings was lost.
Instead, I decided to parbake my crust with sauce only for 5 minutes before adding the grated cheese and topping it with a few more dollops of fresh sauce along with some fresh basil leaves. This head start was all the dough needed to come out perfectly crisp just as the cheese finished melting. Adding a shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano around the edges of the pie gave the cornicione even more flavor.
Like a Greek-style pizza, the base of the crust fries in the olive-oil laden pan so that it's extraordinarily crisp and crackly.
Here's the truth: I'm as excited by great Neapolitan and New York–style pizzas as the next person, but to be honest, they can be fussy to make at home, and certainly are not for beginners. Nor are they fantastic for serving a crowd easily, what with the fiddly oven work they require. That's what makes me so excited about this recipe. Since the wet dough doesn't need to be rolled or stretched out, it's extraordinarily simple to make, even for a complete beginner, and a full sheet of pizza is a good three times larger than a standard Neapolitan pie, making it the absolute ideal party pizza.
Even without the added conveniences, the textural contrast between the crisp fried crust and soft interior makes me question why I'd never really given square pies a fair shake in the past.
Well, square pie, I will question you no more. I have found you, and you are here to stay. May our relationship be long and prosperous.
Continue here for the recipe!
* Not to be confused with the very similarly named episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus
** Consumed by all five doormen and my mother.