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Pizza Obsessives: Amy McConnell (aka Atmast)

If you've been peeking at My Pie Monday, then you've most likely noticed the nicely rounded beauts produced by Slice'r Atmast. Her pies have a signature look and she's got some tricks up her baking sleeves that you can learn a little bit more about during this week's Pizza Obsessives Q&A.—MS

20120509-pizza-obsessive-atmast-top.jpgName: Amy McConnell
Location: Cambridge, MA
Occupation: Lawyer-ish
URL(s): seriouseats.com/atmast; Twitter@amytmaster

What type of pizza do you prefer?

I suppose I lean toward Neapolitan, or "neo" Neapolitan. Though I'd never kick a good square of Sicilian off of my plate.

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've given this a lot of thought, and I think the first pizza I remember eating was Pizza Hut deep dish. My family would go to Pizza Hut during the summer, usually after spending the day at the local pool, baking in the sun. The pizza was salty, crunchy, and a little doughy. I loved it then but can't say it's anything like what I look for now in a good slice.

Now I want quality, balanced toppings, with the emphasis on a well-made crust. The dough for a pizza is its foundation. If the dough is not solid, the entire pizza will fail. So, if that's evolution, then I guess I've evolved.

What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

I'm a sucker for buffalo mozz, preserved meat, and a stinky vegetable. By stinky vegetable, I mean the cruciferous ones: brussels sprouts, cauliflower, shaved cabbage. These get beautifully caramelized under high heat, give off the right amount of moisture to make sauce unnecessary, and play well with the saltiness of the meat and creaminess of the cheese.

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Check out some of Amy's handiwork from My Pie Monday. From top left, clockwise: sousvide corned beef, shaved garlic, chili flakes, buffalo mozz, Parmesan, and brussels sprouts; caramelized onions, bacon, and fontina; speck, banana peppers, aged provolone, and dry whole milk mozz; and hot banana peppers, buffalo mozz, and sausage

Where do you go for pizza in your area?

Usually just my kitchen. But, if I don't have dough in the fridge and must have pizza, Area Four is constantly improving and close to my home. I went to Posto in Davis Square once and really enjoyed it. When in the North End, Galleria Umberto for a Sicilian slice is great (though I've recently heard they may be burning their cheese).

Yeah, I heard the same about Umberto. Maybe you could give them some pointers... Start with us. Can you let us in on the recipes and methods you use?

Lately, I've been making pizza twice a week at home. This might slow down as the weather heats up, but maybe I'll just switch to Kenji's fried method! I've been developing my dough formula and cooking method over maybe the past 2 years. I reached a tasty and decent plateau about a year ago, and then I bought the Tartine Bread book. It was a revelation. Combining what I've learned from Tartine and the formula generating power of the Preferment Pizza Dough Calculator from pizzamaking.com, I think my pizza is almost where I want it to be.

Right now, my favorite formula uses a 100% hydration sourdough starter that's half bread flour, half whole wheat flour. I use 20% starter, 68% hydration, and 2% salt. I think the key to this formula, though, is that the rest of the flour in the dough is hi-gluten flour (King Arthur Sir Lancelot). Then I use a modified version of the by-hand mixing method detailed in Tartine Bread. The dough is bulk fermented at room temperature and turned five times over about three hours. Then the dough is divided, balled, and refrigerated for two to four days. I'll take it out about two hours before I'm going to bake.

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My home oven preheats for about an hour at 550 (its highest temp) with a pizza stone on the second to bottom rack. Twenty minutes before I want to bake, I put an aluminum foil tube that contains a frozen paper towel core over the thermostat in the oven. This tricks the oven into getting to about 700 degrees. For a touch more heat, I turn on the broiler and put the pizza on the stone when I see the broiler coils just beginning to glow. The pie usually bakes in 2:30, but lately I've been able to get enough heat to bake in 2:00. I've also been trying to perfect a new formula that uses all bread flour so that I won't have to keep ordering the Sir Lancelot.

I fully support trying the fried method. But the results you get with the frozen paper towel trick look phenomenal! On to the next question: What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

Just one?! It sort of depends on the style of pizza. For example, I'd never want anything fishy on a pizza that has gooey cheese. Also, pineapple on a Neapolitan pie is not my cup of tea, though it may work on another style. I'm not a huge fan of chicken either, as it can get pretty dry when subjected to high heat.

Those all seem like some solid no-nos. How about the most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?

I had a wonderful pizza at City House in Nashville a few years ago that used a puree of fresh fava beans and cream as the "sauce" for a pie topped with belly ham and house-made mozz. Unusual? Perhaps on paper, but it made perfect sense still steaming from their wood fired oven.

What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

Just for pizza? I guess it was a 250 mile drive. Until a few years ago, I was living in Nashville, TN. My parents came to visit for my mom's birthday, and I somehow conned everyone into driving to Atlanta. "Oh, Mom, the shopping there is so much better than in Nashville! Plus, we can get pizza at this place that just opened, Varasano's." They'd only been open two months, but it was terrific. We went during lunch, sat at the bar, watched them make our four pizzas, and even met Jeff Varasano. I don't think my family minded that they'd been tricked.

Nice move! That sounds a little confessional. Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?

Please bring Serious Eats to Boston! There are so many SE editors and correspondents that live in the area, Boston should definitely be the next city on the list!

You heard the lady, Ed! Surely he'll listen to a fellow pizza fanatic. Speaking of which, what do your friends and family make of your pizza madness?

It's a love/hate thing. My husband loves it, and saying "pizza night" as he heads out to work is a sure-fire way to have him home before 7:00 p.m. My parents hate that they live too far away to join in pizza night. Actually, my mom has said that I'm not allowed to tell her when we're having pizza anymore. She claims I'm being mean by not coming to her house (450 miles away!) to make pizza for her. I have to remind her that my dad killed the sourdough starter that I gave him, and I wouldn't be able to make it for her anyway.

Who would you like to see interviewed next?

After reading Adam's short article about Jutes Templo, I'm really intrigued by the idea of someone trying to open a Neapolitan pizzeria in the Philippines. I would love to learn more about him.

Good call! I'll see what I can do. It was great to get to know you a little better, Amy! Keep those beautiful pies coming. Hopefully through the power of pizza we can bring even more Serious Eats to Boston.

About the author: Meredith Smith is the Slice editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @mertsmith.

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