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Pizza Obsessives: Norma Knepp, Experimental Pizza Maven

If you've checked out My Pie Monday, then you know Norma427 by her experimental pies. Let's get to know one of Slice's most imaginative pie makers a little better by getting her in the hot seat.—MS

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Norma holding one of her preferment Lehmann dough pies that she makes at the market.

Name: Norma Knepp
Location: Manheim, Pennsylvania
Occupation: Pizza Maker at Roots Country Market
URL(s): Blog, learningknowledgetomakepizza.blogspot.com; seriouseats.com/norma427

What type of pizza do you prefer?

I like almost any style of pizza, but mostly prefer NY style or Neapolitan pizza. I am always open to trying out some kind of new pizza or experiment with different ingredients to see what kind of pizza it will make. Oh, I also really like a double crust deep-dish pizza.

The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?

I don't remember my first slice of pizza, but the first slice I do remember was Mack's Pizza in Wildwood, NJ. That is still one of my favorite pizzas. I think it is the cheese that makes it so special. I just visited Mack's last May and still really do love their pizza.

My taste in pizza has evolved over time, especially since I started making my own pizzas. When I first started my small pizza stand at Root's Market, I didn't know anything about making pizza. Pizzamaking.com is where I got all the help I needed and that led me to want to know more about all the various kinds of pizza.

What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

I really don't have any favorite toppings and I'll try almost anything. I have tried some really different toppings, most of which I liked. But I can eat a normal cheese pizza any day.

Where do you go for pizza in your area?

Since I learned to make pizza, I no longer have a favorite pizza place in my area. My friend Steve (Ev) built his own wood fired oven last summer and now that is where we try out doughs. Before last year I had never tried a pizza made in a wood fired oven, but now I really like them.

In addition to making pies at the market, I think it's safe to assume you make a fair number of pizzas at home. Would you remind us of the methods and ingredients that you use?

Yes, I make many kinds of pizza at home, involving many experiments. I have tried all kinds of home oven set-ups, but I mostly make pizzas them in my low temperature oven or on my BBQ grill set-up. I need to work more on my BBQ grill set-up. I have tried many home oven set-ups. It would take too long to name all the formulas I have tried. I have played around with wild yeasts that I captured using different flours, thanks to some guidance from Foolish Poolish. I then went on to make different pizzas with them, which were mostly Sicilian pizzas. They were the start of my ventures in higher hydration doughs.

At the market, my regular dough for the last year and a half has been a pre-ferment Lehmann dough that I bake in a Baker's Pride oven. But I am always testing out new doughs. Some are taken to my friend Steve's wood fired oven, and some get baked in my oven at the market. Most recently, I made some dough in an old Universal bread maker (1904) with manteca and that pizza turned out really good!

Norma tosses some dough at her pizza stand in Roots Market [Video: Norma on YouTube]

So just how many pizzas a week do you make?
The number of pies I make at market each Tuesday varies due to the time of year, weather (snowing or raining, hot or snowing) and so many other factors. In addition to the market pies, though, I average 2-4 experimental pies per week.

Anything new that you are currently working on that you'd like to share?

I am now working on using homemade dough enhancers to see if they can create different flavors in the crust, more oven spring, and a better pizza.

So what do you think should NEVER go on a pizza?

The kitchen sink? Just kidding... but I would try almost anything on a pizza. I haven't tried any toppings that I didn't like on a pizza yet.

I should have expected that kind of renegade response. In that case, which of the pies that you have experimented with do you consider the most unusual?

I think the Triple Berry Muffin Mix, Fairmount Bagel Pizza, and the Bisquick Biscuit Pizza are the most unusual pizzas I have made or have eaten so far.

Conceptually, you seem to be willing to go where no pizza maker has gone before. What's the farthest you've physically traveled for pizza?

The farthest I have traveled for pizza is to NY and NJ. I got to go to Keste's, in November of last year, and that has been my favorite pizzeria so far. The pizza there was fantastic. I even got to talk to Roberto for awhile.

Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?

Pizza is a much more complicated food than I ever thought it could be. Knowing when the dough is mixed right, fermented right, and correctly baked is a process I am sure I will be learning the rest of my life. There is just so much to know and I am learning daily from the moderators and other members pizzamaking.com.

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What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness?

They are almost ready to disown me. They think I am too obsessed. One man from the market, Dave, drew a cartoon representing how I like to play with dough and labeled me the Dough LI Lama. He also drew a picture of me in a pizza (above) that says: "Norma's Dream Was Fulfilled When She Became A Topping On A Pizza." I had to really laugh when he showed me that picture. I keep both of them at my little pizza stand.

Steve, my pizza making buddy, helps me out at the market. We enjoy talking about making pizza every Tuesday, but Steve's wife calls us pizza geeks!

Well it sounds like they are as playful about your obsession as you are with the object of your obsession. Now: Who would you like to see interviewed next?

There are so many members on pizzamaking.com that are worthy of being interviewed, it's hard to name just one. If I had to name a few, they would be Matt, scott r, and my friend Steve (Ev).

Those sound like some worthy candidates. Thank you for sitting in the hot seat, and we're all looking forward to seeing what your pizza creativity and experiments will produce next!

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