The Pizza Lab: How To Make New England Greek-style Pizza At Home
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There's a good reason why Greek pizza, a style found mostly in the "Pizza Houses" and "Houses of Pizza" in New England is not more popular, and the reason is this: It's not very good.
Ok, let me modify that statement. It's usually not very good. See, most pizza, like Neapolitan or New York-style or even deep dish pizza are still edible, and in fact quite good even when they aren't at the peak of their form. There's a reason the old saying that "pizza is like sex—even when it's bad, it's good,"* exists, but it fails to take into account Greek pizza, which is only ever good when it's not terrible. There's no real middle ground here.
*or was it the other way around?
For you scientific types, if we were to graph the absolute quality of a pizza based on its commitment to the form versus the way it tastes, we'd get curves something like this.
So while a 6-quality Neapolitan pizza may rank about 5 on the overall flavor scale, a 6-quality Greek pizza is still just as bad as a 1-quality Greek pizza.
In other words, if your Greek pizza ain't spectacular, then it ain't worth eating. And spectacular is what we're after.
The concept of a Greek-style pie is pretty simple. Start with standard pizza dough enriched with a bit of olive oil. Stretch the dough into a steel or aluminum pie pan coated with another layer of oil. Top with a chunky, well-cooked tomato sauce heavily flavored with oregano, then pile on masses of cheese. Bake in a moderately hot oven (around 500°F) until cooked through.
But in order to be victorious, you must know and understand both your friends and your enemies.
Let's first take a look what most commonly passes for Greek-style pizza:
Even without tasting it, the flaws are pretty obvious. We start with a crust that's so uniformly golden brown and fluffy looking that you don't need to imagine too hard to picture its dense-crumbed Wonderbread-like texture. Next we move on to a pale orange sauce that just screams "Spaghetti-O's!" Finally, we see a congealed, vast blanket of cheese. Rubbery, bland, and barely cooked.
Gross, right? I spent way too many all-nighters in college ordering in this kind of stuff.
This, on the other hand, is what great Greek pizza should look like:
This is a pie from George's on the Cape, and to date, it's the best Greek pizza I've had.
We start with a crust that's shatteringly crisp on the bottom, with a texture that's almost deep-fried, which makes sense, because it essentially is. Next there's a thick-but-not-as-thick-as-Sicilian layer of chewy, bready crust that gives way to a tomato sauce that is definitely cooked and heavy on the oregano, but with enough brightness to really shine.
Finally, we come to the cheese which while extremely thick, is perfectly melted, pulling away from the slices in thin strands with a pretty significant amount of browning on the top surface. The cheese has just barely begun to separate, leaving the faintest slick of orange oil on top of each slice. In most cases, this amount of cheese would be called heavy. Here, I'd describe it as generous.
Crisp, gooey, salty, and fresh, I'd put a great slice of Greek pizza up against a Neapolitan or New York any day of the week.
In order to perfect the style at home, I'd have to go through each element—sauce, cheese, and crust—one at a time. Here's what I found.
Pizza sauce ain't just pizza sauce. Like deciding whether to ford the stream or go around it when making your way down the Oregon Trail, you've gotta understand your surroundings*. So, for a New York pizza, you'd use a lightly cooked, lightly seasoned sauce like this one, while for a Neapolitan, you'd probably go with straight up San Marzano tomatoes blended with a bit of salt.
*Extra wagon wheels and time? Go around. Little Katie's got dysentery? Shore up that Prairie schooner and float'er across!
For Greek Pizza, you want a deeper, richer, cooked tomato flavor. The quickest way to get there? Tomato paste. A cooked tomato product made by slowly reducing tomato juice, it has a distinct richness and slight metallic flavor.
For my first attempt, I cooked down some garlic, a good amount of dried oregano, and a pinch of red pepper flakes in olive oil before adding tomato paste, and finally a can of crushed tomatoes. After letting the whole thing simmer for an hour I tasted it and was... unimpressed.
Cooked is one thing, but this just tasted downright flat. Cooking it for a shorter period of time resulted in a sauce that wasn't quite rich enough. I tried tweaking the ratio of paste to crushed tomatoes which helped a bit, but the real key turned out to be reserving a third of the crushed tomatoes before I simmered the sauce down, adding them back to the pot right at the end.
Like the Prince of Bel-Air, my sauce suddenly found itself to be both fresh and rich!
There are few serious pizza styles around the world that don't use mozzarella as their base, and growing up, I always figured it was also the cheese of choice for Greek pizza. But something didn't sit quite right. The cheese on a Greek pizza doesn't melt in quite the same gooey strands as regular mozzarella does. It seems more prone to breaking, just a bit greasier, and a tad tangier to boot.
Bottom Shelf correspondent Will Gordon clued me on to something when he asked...
Do low-end "house of pizza" places all cut their mozz w/ cheddar? The one I worked at in high school did and it was pretty standard middle-of-the-road Massachusetts Greek crud, so I assume it's common enough, but having a hard time finding confirmation. (Not real cheddar, obviously, but a big block from Sysco; I think its job is to provide actual flavor, since the big block of Sysco mozz doesn't do anything but melt nice.)
Well, Will, I did a bit of digging and confirmed from at least two different reliable sources that yep, most Pizza Houses cut their mozzarella with either cheddar or provolone. Happy birthday, buddy.
A 50/50 ratio of whole milk mozzarella and sharp white cheddar proved to be the ideal mix for my palate, though I must admit: I got a little fancy pants and added a grating of good Parmigiano-Reggiano to the top of my pies as well. (Don't tell the Greeks.)
As with sauce, Greek-style pizza crust is a beast unto itself. It's not quite like focaccia, which is a bit airier, nor is it quite like square pie/grandma style, which is a bit too chewy. It's more like New York style, but obviously much thicker. The fact that it gets cooked in a pan with oil so that the bottom can fry is also significant.
The easiest/best method I found to make the dough was to use a no-knead dough. That is, a dough that you bring together just minimally then allow to sit overnight at room temperature. Overnight, enzymes get to work breaking down long flour proteins into shorter ones, which then entangle themselves with one another to form the long, stretchy network of gluten which allows your dough to form those great airy, chewy bubbles.
Now normally, when you stretch out dough, you need to do it on a floured surface, since you're going to be setting the stretched pizza crust directly on a stone. With Greek pizza, you're going to be placing it in a greased pan, which means that you can stretch it on a greased surface (and let it rise in a greased bowl). I find all of this terribly convenient, since oily dough sticks way less than floured dough.
After allowing the dough to rise overnight, I ball it up, let it rise a second time in greased bowls, stretch it, transfer it to my greased pizza pans, and let it rise one last time before topping and baking.
Greased and Ready
Asides from the DL on the cheddar, Will's former life as a pie slinger also let me in on another bit of intel: perhaps it's not actually olive oil going into those pans.
See, according to Will, the Greek pie pans he worked with were greased with Crisco. Interesting.
Why would one want to do such a thing? Well, there's the obvious factor of cost. But let's give the piemen a bit more credit than that. Vegetable shortening also happens to be a superb frying medium. Whenever you're frying something, whether it's perfect french fries, fried chicken, or tempura dog s*%t, the crispness of its crust is directly related to the type of frying medium you're using. Namely, the more highly saturated the fat you fry in, the crisper it gets. Anyone who's ever eaten potatoes cooked in duck fat, or better yet, beef fat, can attest to this. The Belgians swear by horse fat. I'll take their word for it.
Imagine a fat molecule as a long string of conga dancers, each one grabbing the hips of the person in front of them with both hands. When every person is holding on with two hands (I.E. the fat is fully saturated), the line is pretty inflexible, so stays fairly straight. Now imagine one person decides to answer a text on their cell phone while the dance is going on. Rude, yeah? They lift one hand, suddenly creating a weak point in the line. The line can quite easily bend and form a kink at this point now, and your fat has become mono-unsaturated. Now imagine that half the people in the line suddenly get text messages all at once (what are the chances?). Your fat is now poly-unsaturated, and has gained the ability to become quite kinky indeed*.
*no, not like that
What's the point? Well, the straighter and stiffer your fat, the more easily it can pack together into a firm cohesive structure. Every fat or oil is made up of a combination of saturated and unsaturated fat molecules, and thus there's a direct relationship between how firm a fat is and the ratio of its saturated to unsaturated fats. So thin, easily pourable fats like olive oil or canola oil are relatively low in saturated fats, making them quite poor mediums for frying. On the other end of the spectrum is peanut oil, which is quite viscous at room temperature. It produces exceptionally crisp food.
Go even further down the line, and you find fats that are solid, even at room temperature. Most animal fats fall into this category, as does vegetable shortening, which is vegetable oil that has been artificially saturated through a process known as hydrogenation. (Essentially, hydrogen molecules are forcefully added to the fat chain—the equivalent of putting a text message blocker on all those cell phones.)**
TL;DR version: the more solid the fat, the crisper the crust.
**Saturated fats, which for a long time were believed to be the unhealthy ones, are not the same as trans-fats, which are now thought to be the unhealthy ones, and are a particular type of unsaturated fat in which the conga line has not just bent, but has had half its members flipped upside down. I can't attest to the validity of any sort of nutritional information, which seems to shift on a daily basis. I just do what tastes good. In moderation, of course.
This crust was baked in a pan greased with Crisco shortening:
Crisp, thick, sturdy, almost flaky in texture. Sorely lacking in flavor.
This one, on the other hand, was baked in a pan with olive oil:
Flavorful and robust, but not nearly as crisp as I'd like it.
The solution? A mixture of olive oil and shortening.
You all coming along with me here? Good, because we're in the home stretch.
Assembly and Baking
I tried baking pies in round cake pans (fine, if you want to kinda wreck your cake pans with the high heat), in springform pans (bad idea, unless you enjoy oil dripping out onto the floor of your oven), and pie pans (works ok, but the pies are quite small) before finally settling on my old stand-by: the cast-iron pan. (Yeah, you can use an oven proof non-stick skillet if you haven't got cast iron. Or just get a cast-iron pan. Seriously.)
They're sturdy, attractive, take well to heat, nearly invincible, and non-stick. Basically, all the same qualities that I enjoy about my wife.
Apply sauce thickly...
...and cheese even thicker, making sure to spread it out to the very edges (we want some good burnt cheese bits at the edge of the crust...
...then bake! 15 to 20 minutes in a 500°F oven later, and you've got this:
I know, right?
Now, because of the thickness of the cast-iron pan, and the very nature of the way ovens heat, there's a good chance that the bottom of your pie won't be quite as done as you like it by the time the top is done.
Mine could use a bit more browning.
The beauty of cooking in a pan is that if your bottom ain't done enough, alls you gotta do is drop it right on top of the stove and cook it over moderately low heat until the bottom is just as crisp, charred, or downright burnt as you'd like.
The number of people in the world who have been exposed to great Greek pizza is woefully small, and I'm telling you, this is pretty great stuff folks. Great enough that you may even be able to convince your Italian friends that perhaps Italy is not the be all and end all when it comes to all things food related.
Ok, perhaps not quite that great. But you get my point.
And one more picture, for good measure:
One last note: Greek pizza does not reheat well, nor does it even sit well. It must be consumed within the first fifteen minutes after it comes out of the oven. I have a feeling that this won't a problem for most people.