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On guard, do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me? [Photographs: Chau Tran]

"Bringing kung foolery to pizza making" is one of his sayings, but make no joke about it, Chau "Jackie" Tran is dead serious when it comes to homemade pies. Within a relatively short period of time, Tran has honed his skills, deepened his knowledge of the pizza workflow, has become a core member of the pizzamaking.com forums, and is now an all-around pizza-making monster. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident is proof positive that lots of research and time spent with hands gooped up from dough adds up to some pretty kick-ass-looking and, I bet, -tasting, pizzas.

It's one thing to scour a variety of pizza recipes from books and the web to discover the one which best mimicks the vision of an ideal pizza. It's quite another to learn about and constantly experiment with the different variables involved in the baking process so that you can better understand how to formulate your own workflow and end up with a pizza that closely resembles the pies that haunt you late at night, when the pizza demons are on the prowl. With Chau's pizzas looking this good now, I can only imagine where they will be as time progresses.

We put the Crumb Master in the hot seat for further insight. So it's off to the races...c'mon slowpoke!

You've been making pizza at home for a relatively short period of time, right? How long?

I recall making crappy pizza as a kid here and there. I also made a lot of French bread pizza in college to get by, LOL. I've been seriously making pizza at home for about a year and a half.

From what I can tell, passion, insatiable curiosity, and lots of time are a big part of your being able to develop as quickly as you have. But what in particular would you say has helped you?

Yes, all of those things. I would add to that my perspective that failure is temporary and a necessary part of the process. Mindset, determination, and willpower are absolutely needed for success in all things we do.

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Two New Haven–style pies. Click to embiggen.

Did you have a particular aha moment while making pies?

Definitely. I had been using the Varsano recipe and adapted a hand-kneading method that for months turned out the same mediocre pies. I was always experimenting with several variables at once, determined to learn and improve. One night, I applied some stretch-and-folds from the bread-making world to half of the dough that was to be cold-fermented. I took that particular doughball out and reballed it after 24 hours of cold-fermentation and again prior to warm proofing. I baked a phenomenal pie in the home oven. The pizza heavens opened up and I could hear the pizza angels singing. It was a crust beyond any I've had from a wood-fired oven — and it came from my home oven.

The other pie from that batch without the added folds was typically mediocre. I then realized that the same ingredients, if combined or handled the right way, can bring forth a product that exceeds the sum of its parts. That pizza was my first perfect pizza, and I still remember it fondly.

Why did you adapt a hand-kneading method to the Varasano technique? Did you not have a stand mixer at the time?

At the time I didn't own a mixer. I knew the masters of old did it with their hands, so that's what I was determined to learn, and I wouldn't allow myself to buy a mixer until I learned how to make dough properly by hand. Consequently, it took me more than a year of dough making to really understand how to hand-knead properly using a variety of flours and techniques.

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A Varasano-influenced pizza.

The Verasano method employs natural leavening, which adds another variable to the mix. Is it possible there may have been some coincidental connection between your level of competency with sourdough and when you started adding stretch-and-folds to the recipe that got those pizza angels singing?

I now understand that there is definitely a difference in using a young versus mature leaven. They definitely give different results as far as flavor and structure because of the amount of [initial] acids and those developed from fermentation. If I had to guess, I was likely using an older, more mature starter at the time.

How often do you make pizza at home?

When I first started, I got the pizza bug pretty bad. I was making pizza three to four times a week for many months. Since I've discovered bread, I make pizza once or twice a week and bread at least once a week. I've gained a bit of weight this past year, so I'm trying to cut back.

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Hot off the press! Sauteed baby arugula, garlic slivers, and cherry tomato pizza cooked on Chau's Little Black Egg.

You likely made as many pizzas during those first several months as I have in the last 18 months. How many pies do you typically make in a session?

At first it was three to four pies per session, but I quickly dropped that number down to about two, since it's only my wife and me eating it — and lately just myself. I also decrease the size down to about 12 inches to avoid wasting pizza.

What qualities are you looking for in your pizzas when trying to make that "perfect" pie?

To me, perfect pizza starts with a perfect crust. The crust should be slightly crisp on the exterior, soft and moist inside with just a little chew. I like the crust to remind me of a good baguette. When holding out a slice initially, it should have enough strength to support its own weight. It's normal for droopage as the pie sits, but initially I like a crisp, well-baked bottom. Aside from the crust, achieving pizza nirvana requires achieving balance. The crust with the cheese and sauce, which should meld together. At one time I liked leoparding on the cheese, but I avoid that now. Salt levels can't be too low or too high. The pizza has to be balanced with proper heat from the bake — pies can't be underbaked or overbaked. The crust can't be too thick or too thin. Any spices, etc. all have their place as well.

Most important, it should be shared with a friend so that both parties can agree that it is that good!

I hear you about the friend part! Which part of the pizzamaking process is most challenging for you?

The dough and crust...it is the most difficult to make just right.

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What part of the pizzamaking process is most enjoyable for you?

Being able to problem-solve and find solutions. It's being able to keep at it, trying to figure out how to do something and then actually figuring it out and understanding the "how" and the "why." Also, being able to eat good pizza that I made myself is very rewarding.

What is your favorite style of pizza to make?

Neo-Neapolitan. It combines aspects of both Neapolitan and New York–style. Very similar to a typical Neapolitan pie but baked out longer in the three- to four-minute range. Toppings should be moderately applied, not too heavy and not too light.

It seems your cook times and tastes may have evolved slightly, as you once mentioned you preferred pies cooked for about five to six minutes. What in particular changed your cook times slightly? Was it experimenting with and eating more Neapolitan-style pizzas or something else?

My tastes have evolved in the sense that I'm much more critical about what is great and what is not. Still, my perfect pie has always been a cross between New York and Neapolitan. I have always liked aspects of both styles and wanted to incorporate those aspects from the beginning.

I've discovered that the majority of people seem to like the same kind of pizza with the same kind of crust. At the time I made my first perfect pie, I wasn't really timing the bakes closely, so my best guestimate is that it took about five to six minutes in my home oven. I now bake my NY-Elite (NY-Neapolitan) pies between three and three and a half minutes in the Little Black Egg (LBE). It's a different baking environment than the home oven.

In my opinion, the best pies are always sub-four minute bakes, closer to three minutes. But here's the kicker: You can make a very similar product with a crisp crust and soft, aerated crumb when a pizza is baked between 2.5 to 4.5 minutes, depending on the type of flour, hydration ratios, gluten development, etc. So, relatively, the exact bake time is not that important. It's a balance of the proper, even oven heat to produce good oven spring and the length of the bake to achieve the correct balance between the moistness of the crumb and the crispness of the shell (outer crust).

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Garlic and shrimp pizza cooked on the new LBE.

The LBE — I saw that you recently built one. What led you in this direction?

Yes, I recently put one together based on my MBE (Mini Black Egg) setup. The MBE is great. Fast heat-up times of less than 10 minutes and it uses minimal proprane to produce great pies. One issue I had was the small size. With a 12-inch stone, pies are limited to 11 inches or so, and part of the rim is almost sticking out of the front vent. I think there's not enough heat circulating in the smallish dome to create good oven spring all the way around. I have to turn the pies at timed intervals to get great spring to a portion of the rim and mediocre spring to the rest. Also, the smaller stone doesn't store enough heat to give maximum oven spring. I'm hoping my new LBE will give me a better spring in the rim all the way around and more even charring over the crust. Initial tests have shown promising results, but I still need to make adjustments.

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A cheese pizza cooked on the Mini Black Egg, December 2010.

One of the most immediately recognizable things about your pizzas is the awesome crumb. Is that crumb something you stumbled upon during a particular experiment or something you have always had in mind and been working toward?

Both. I stumbled upon it way back at the beginning of my journey and have made it a goal as well. I've always been able to get an open-looking crumb, but I didn't always understand all of the factors that went into making it.

For a while, I had some misconceptions about which factors were responsible for a great oven spring. It was [pizzamaking.com] member Scott123 who helped me understand more about the different variables and how they work together. He encouraged me to do some experiments comparing hydration ratios and dough size. Consequently, I learned a lot about oven spring doing these and other similar experiments ... [but] very important here is that the baking process and spring don't introduce anything new to the dough. It only completes the process and reveals what's underneath. What is there is already there.

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An experimental ultra-thin pizza.

Agreed, oven spring is the end point which helps to fully reveal a good crumb. Let's back up a bit. An irregular, airy crumb is often associated with shorter or less intensive kneading, higher hydration ratios, and proper dough handling, among other factors. How do you feel these play a role in your pizzas?

How I understand the difference between crumb structures (right or wrong) is that it comes from the source of yeast used, the aggressiveness of the mix, the extent of gluten development, and the extent of fermentation.

On shorter mixing: Scott also introduced me to the idea of minimal kneading, which he in turn learned about from several other members. This helped because I was getting dry crumbs from over-kneading high-protein-floured doughs. A lot of my pies had a nice spring with an open crumb, but the crumb was dry or it would dry out shortly after cooling down. What good is it to have a huge oven spring if the finished crumb is dry and tough?

Having developed more of an understanding for dough in the last year, I don't necessarily subscribe to the idea of minimal kneading for all situations. Minimal kneading is relative and applies more to high-protein flours and/or long, cold ferments. I am more of an advocate of proper gluten development relative to the hydration ratio and the level of protein of the flour. Meaning that if you use a low protein flour with a relative higher hydration ratio, you need to develop the gluten sufficiently by either increasing the kneading time and/or by incorporating stretch and folds to build gluten. Such a dough would not work well with minimal kneading.

But generally, I knead less for cold-fermented doughs compared to same-day doughs. The process of cold fermentation will toughen the crumb up a bit, so you want to under develop the gluten to compensate for this. I never knead to window pane. Windowpaning represents full gluten development, and I will typically knead to about 75 percent of full gluten development. I prefer to do stretch-and-folds to complete the development of the gluten after some rest periods or during the balling stage.

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Holy Rollin' through Crumbville. Click to make bigger.

On higher hydration levels: Higher hydration levels do help aid in oven spring as it lends more steam during the baking process, but this only works if you have sufficient or proper gluten development along with evenly distributed, high [temperature] heat.

On extent of fermentation: From what I've experienced (and it's very limited mind you), as a dough gets older and fermentation starts to break down the gluten matrix, you have a melding of alveoli. Cell walls break down and air pockets combine, giving that irregular look. This happens much more readily in doughs using starters or natural leavens as they produce more acid. In the later stages of fermentation, you have two things going on. One is that the acids toughen the crumb structure, resulting in a more chewy texture. Second, later stages of fermentation weaken the overall structure of the gluten matrix, breaking it down and releasing water. This is why a cold fermented dough may feel more wet and slack, but can have a tougher crumb at the same time

On dough handling: Generally, gentle handling of the dough is a good practice. During the balling of the dough, I generally throw in some stretch-and-folds to finish building strength in the dough. How much I do this really depends on the strength [of the dough] at the time that I'm balling it. You want to preserve the air in the dough and avoid degassing it prior to baking. This can aid in a bigger oven spring if the high heat is uneven or if the heat is not at a high temperature. I have seen that with the high and more even heat of a wood fired oven, gentle handling of the dough becomes less significant — it still puffs up even if you press the rim. Again, it's balancing what you have to work with.

Every variable and aspect of dough/pizza making has a purpose. It's important to try and understand how each of these factors affect the overall dough and then try to balance them all together to produce the crumb that we want.

Chau balling pizza dough.

How do you feel the stretch-and-folds contribute to your finished product?

After I made my first incredibly great pie using stretch-and-folds from the bread-making world, I have since then adapted that technique to all of my pies. I use this technique to trap air in the dough and to create the big air bubbles in the rim. This step balances out the higher hydration and completes the development of strength in my doughs.

Pizza has a different form factor than bread, and pizza-making enthusiasts may ferment pizza dough for much longer than many bread recipes. Do you feel there are any differences between the two products with respect to getting good hole structure?

I have always believed that dough is dough, meaning pizza dough follows the same set of rules and principles as bread dough. Since learning to make bread, my thoughts have been confirmed. For bread, we only shape it and bake it out differently than pizza, but the same principles that apply to getting a great crumb in bread also are the same for pizza dough.

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You've said you like your profession and that you wouldn't consider opening a pizzeria unless you could be in the top ten. What do you think it would take for you to reach that level and what do you feel would be the biggest challenge with operating a commercial establishment?

Reaching that level would require me to be able to make the very best pizza I could possibly make and be able to do it on a consistent basis regardless of changing conditions. I guess I wouldn't have to be a top ten pizzeria, but I would have to be satisfied that my pizzas could compete with the best pies out there.

I'm sure there are many challenges when it comes to running a pizzeria. I would think one of the biggest challenges is in maintaining a high-quality product while being profitable.

Who would you like to see interviewed next?

Gosh, there are so many members at pizzamaking.com. Definitely the two Scotts (Scott123 & Scott R), Texas Craig, Villa Roma, & others.

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White sauce, proscuitto di Parma, baby arugula, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar, grated Parmigiano and pine nuts cooked on the Little Black Egg. Is there a dhorst in the house? (Click to embiggen.)

When Slice gets to New Mexico for its United States of Pizza series, they should put both yours and Bill SFNM's houses on the list of best pizza places in New Mexico!

LOL, you're too kind. I still need to do a lot of work with my pizza.

And that is the mark of a true Pizza Obsessive — the never-ending hunt for pizza perfection. Thanks for sitting in the hot seat, Chau!

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