When I first began dreaming of the School of Cooking and Sharing, I knew that our first offering would be a community pizza night. Pizza is the perfect way to begin baking. It is a relatively easy yeasted dough, has a very flexible timeline, and is incredibly forgiving. After all, at the end of the day there is melted cheese on hot bread so you can’t go wrong. Better yet, it is a bread meant for sharing. Anytime there is pizza, there is a party. It is food for gathering around the table, eating with your hands, telling stories and laughing. Teaching people to make pizza at home isn’t just about building a dough – it’s about building a community. I’ve seen this over and over again when I have taught private “pizza for happy hour” classes in the homes of donors, led after-school healthy pizza baking programs for hungry kids, hosted pizza baking parties at the local drop-in center for homeless teens, or grilled pizza in my own backyard with friends and family. One of my favorite things that happens after I’ve taught a class on pizza baking is when my phone lights up the next weekend with pictures of people baking pizza at home for the first time – they are never alone! That’s why over time I have come to think of this recipe as a recipe not just for pizza, but for “community pizza.” I’ve had requests for step by step directions with photos to show what the dough “should” look like at each stage. This past weekend I had some very special pizza chef hand models in town and I can assure you that their results were as delicious as they are beautiful! Each step is important, but as you will see below the timeline is incredibly flexible. You can make crust this afternoon to bake this evening, or you can make crust this evening to bake next week. It’s up to you and your schedule. Just don’t forget that community pizza is as much about the people eating your pizza as it is the pizza itself!
STEP ONE: GATHER
Ingredients for pizza dough are simple so quality matters. I use King Arthur Flour in all my classes because the quality of the flour is consistent and because I know that the company and the people that work there are committed to using their resources to help end childhood hunger. Many of our kid’s baking programs here in St. Louis are possible because of King Arthur’s generous donations of flour, recipe books, and resources. For this recipe you will want their White Whole Wheat Flour (a great way to incorporate more healthy whole grains into all your baked goods) and their higher protein Bread Flour. You will also want yeast (my favorite is SAF), salt and a little bit of olive oil. That’s it! Infused oils like garlic, basil or rosemary can make your dough even more delicious. Play around with the flavor and develop your own “signature” recipe!
While you are gathering your ingredients, don’t forget to gather your friends as well. Call your community and let them know there is a pizza party in the works. One of my favorite things to do is make a few batches of dough in advance and then top and bake the pizzas with friends on a Friday night, but you can make your own pizza community any time of the week.
STEP TWO: BLOOM
Because yeast is alive we want to make sure that it is warm, well-fed, and happy so that it can do what it’s meant to do. Isn’t that what we want for everything that’s alive? When we buy dry yeast it is in a dormant state and we need to wake it up gently. Start by putting 1 3/4 cups of warm water into a bowl. People always ask, how warm? Remember that yeast is alive, so make it a comfortable temperature, like a warm bath. Too cold and it won’t grow, too hot and you can kill it.
How do you know it’s working? It blooms!
Yeast proves that it is alive by “blooming” and you can watch it happen about five minutes after you stir it into the warm sugary water. It will pop, foam and bubble – literally blooming. When this happens you will know you are ready to move on to the next step!
STEP THREE: MIX
When you are using a whole grain flour, it always helps to add it first because whole grains absorb more water. For community pizza, add a cup and a half of white whole wheat flour to the yeast mixture and mix. It’ll look a little bit like pancake batter at this stage.
Next add 1 1/2 cups of bread flour.
Then 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (I use kosher salt but feel free to get fancy if you’d like)…
Add a good drizzle of olive oil, about 2 tablespoons…
Then stir! I love a dough whisk for this task but a regular wooden spoon will work just fine!
You are going to end up with a shaggy dough, so feel free to use your hands to incorporate all the flour.
STEP FOUR: KNEAD
Kneading scares people more than it should. This is the fun part. Just dump your dough out onto a floured surface, gather it all together, and sprinkle a little more flour on top.
Fold it over itself and push it away from you. Then fold it over itself and push it away from you again. Do this over and over again for a few minutes until the dough smooths out and forms a ball. When you start kneading the gluten in the dough is just tangled together like a pile of cooked spaghetti, but as you knead you help it to strengthen and organize into a web of gluten that makes the dough stretchy and elastic. Keep sprinkling just enough flour on your board to keep it from sticking but not so much that you dry out your dough. In the end you want it to be about as sticky as a post-it note. It helps if you use the palms of your hands and not your fingers…
…but if your hands do get sticky don’t worry about it. Just scrape off some of the dough, flour your hands and keep going.
After a few minutes your dough will smooth out and become cohesive.
STEP FIVE: REST
If you are feeling tired and overworked (and who isn’t?) this may be your favorite part. Put your dough into a bowl you’ve coated with a bit of olive oil, then cover it with plastic wrap and a pretty towel. Let it rest at room temperature for an hour or two. Really. An hour if you are in a rush. Or two if it’s nice out and you want to take a walk. Three if you decide to read a book, fall asleep, and have a great nap. The dough is very forgiving at this stage and will adjust to your schedule. Take an hour or so and just rest.
While you and the dough are resting the magic happens. The dough ferments, just like beer or wine, and as the yeast feeds on the sugar it breaks it down into carbon dioxide and alcohol which makes the dough rise and gives it flavor. Like all good things in life, it just takes a little time.
STEP SIX: DEFLATE
Some recipes will tell you to “punch down” your dough, but really, who wants to be punched down after a nice rest? Just uncover your dough, sprinkle it with a little flour to keep your hands from sticking, and gently press it down.
STEP SEVEN: DIVIDE
The community pizza recipe makes two pizzas, because what community only eats one? After you deflate your dough, gently dump it out onto your floured surface and divide it in half.
Using just as much flour as you need to keep your hands from sticking, shape each half into a ball. This extra bit of working the dough helps to reorganize the sugars so the yeast can keep eating and also helps to strengthen the gluten.
Now place each ball of dough into a gallon sized zip log bag coated with olive oil, seal the bag, and put it in your refrigerator.
STEP EIGHT: CHILL
The cold temperature in your refrigerator will slow down the fermentation but not stop it. The dough will develop these beautiful air bubbles and build great flavor while it rests this second time. You can let it chill for a couple hours if you are in a hurry or make your dough in advance and chill it for a couple days if you want to plan ahead. The extra time just means more flavor. I think 24-48 hours in the fridge is ideal. If you really want to plan ahead, you can drop the bag of dough in the freezer and leave it there for up to a month!
STEP NINE: PREPARE
It’s almost pizza time, get ready! Call your friends. Preheat your oven to 475. If you have a pizza stone, put it in the oven to get hot (if you don’t, just preheat the oven and have a cookie sheet on hand for baking). Take your dough out of the refrigerator and let it warm up to room temp (be sure to allow a few hours if it is frozen!). Get your toppings ready. For this pizza, we picked the last of the tomatoes from the garden and roasted them with olive oil until they popped (this, and other, topping recipes in Dear Elizabeth), and bought some house made pepperoni from our favorite local butcher. Use your imagination!
STEP TEN: SHAPE
It is great fun to have a group of friends help with these final stages! For each pizza, spread some olive oil onto a sheet of parchment paper (or the cookie sheet if you are not using a stone).
Drizzle a little more oil on top of the dough then use your fingers to press and stretch the dough into shape.
You might need to let the dough rest a few minutes along the way if it is fighting you and won’t stretch out. That brief rest will allow the gluten to relax.
STEP ELEVEN: TOP THE PIZZA
You are limited only by your imagination. Some of my favorites are the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil combination. Roasted butternut with goat cheese. Shredded brussels sprouts and gruyeres. Bacon, cheddar and hamburger. Make what you love! My only cautionary advice is this: too much of a good thing is just that. Too much. Overtopping your pizza will make it soggy.
I like to finish with cheese…
STEP TWELVE: BAKE
If you are using parchment, use a pizza peel to slide the pizza onto the hot stone in your oven. If you are using a cookie sheet, just put the cookie sheet with the pizza into the hot oven.
Every oven cooks at a different speed. Keep an eye on the pizza and take it from the oven when the the crust has bubbled up and caramelized around the edges and the cheese has melted and begun to brown.
BONUS STEP: SHARE!
Too many people think that baking is the last step. Baking is not the last step. Sharing is the last step. Well, you need to let it cool a bit also, but then share! Sharing is what turns regular pizza into community pizza. So share with a friend. Share with family. Leave your comfort zone and occasionally share with someone you don’t even know yet. That’s how community is made. The word companion literally means someone with whom you share bread. Sharing turns strangers into companions, and that is what community is all about!