Lessons in an Italian Cooking Class, Part II

I learned a lot about from my first-ever cooking class “Bread and Pasta,” like how to knead dough, how much salt to add and that I’m definitely better at eating than cooking.

So to keep with the carbohydrates theme Marco and I chose pizza and focaccia for our second class, because we know what’s truly important. (carbs)

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It’s the same premise as making bread: dissolve yeast into room temperature water, make a circle of the flower, add the water. Then according to the very basic instructions, you just stir it all together and voilà! Focaccia! Not so. Yes, to make both pizza dough and focaccia you do need only flour, water, yeast and salt (though some add a bit of sugar to their recipes, it’s personal preference) but as with finicky bread, there’s a method to be followed.

Our teacher was a fast talker and rather unorganized. I didn’t mind so much because I’ve been in his position and was only there to enjoy myself, not become a chef, but between one thing and another I didn’t hear the instructions well. Looking at those around me who had already started I made a well out of the flour and dumped the water in the middle, beginning to work the flour and water together with my hands. I only learned afterward that the water should be added a bit at a time.

The shock of water caused my dough to be super hard and very difficult to work with. Nowadays most people make their pizza dough and/or focaccia bread with a mixer, Kitchenaid style, but if you do decide to knead it by hand you should know that it is a workout! My arms were aching by the end because I worked the dough so much and yet the teacher largely ignored me, knowing that it needed to be worked much more to become softer.

Once I was as buff as any decent baker I molded my focaccia dough into a ball, smoothing out the cracks as best I could and switching it around with other’s so no one would know whose was whose. Our dough was lightly wrapped in saran wrap which we occasionally opened to allow more space for the dough to grow, rewrapping it around our slowly rising loafs. You can also wrap the dough in a humid cloth or place a slightly moist cloth over the bowl.

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Ideally the dough should be allowed to rise for at least two hours, at the very minimum it needs one hour with a slight font of heat, like sitting on top of the oven. The risk, at least with pizza dough, is that you will have trouble digesting it (a famous Italian problem) or that you will be able to taste the yeast once baked.

After the rising process we readied our loafs, rolling out the pizza crust or forming the shape of the focaccia we desired, covering both in olive oil and put them in the oven.

While we waited we prepared the sauce for our pizza margherita, the base pizza in Italy that is simply tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella. Though you might think it’s boring, a truly excellent pizza margherita is one of the top joys in life and a solid indication of the cook’s capabilities.

Though our neglected-from-the-start focaccia came out as hard as a rock, our teacher basically forgetting about them and the oven definitely not humid enough for a softer bread, the basic idea was displayed. Plus, the pizzas turned out good!

Though neither of our carb-centered classes proved that baking perfect bread or pizza crust is wildly easy, it did prove that a basic dough can be created in minutes, that the yeast process isn’t as intimidating as it seems and, most importantly, that the only way to improve is to try. So weeks after the second class I finally bought some fresh beer yeast, got out my flour, cleaned the table and got started.

Pizza, bread, pasta and focaccia: they’re typical foods that can seem utterly out of our cooking comfort zones but are actually so accessible. With a basic recipe, inexpensive ingredients and a “I don’t give a damn if this fails” kind of attitude, you just might end up eating your very first homemade pizza for dinner tonight. I enjoyed mine!

Try it for yourself:

Pizza Margherita 

For the dough:
– 250 grams of flour grano tenero di tipo 00 (meaning the finest milled flour, is the best for making bread etc. Most American recipes simply call for all-purpose flour, so go for it!)
– 1 deciliter (approximately) of room temperature water (better slightly warmer than cooler)
– 15 grams of beer yeast
– salt

For the toppings:
– one can of diced tomatoes or tomato paste
– mozzarella as prefered
– olive oil
– basil
– salt

1) Pour your sifted flour and salt onto a clean tabletop, forming a large circle with your hands (shown here)
2) Dissolve the yeast into the water then pour a third of it into the center of the flour circle.
3) Begin to mix the water into the flour ring with your hands, adding more flour and water slowly until it is all mixed up.
4) Knead as necessary mixing all the flour into the dough. Add water if the dough is too dry or won’t collect the remaining flour.
5) Place ball in a bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Allow it to rest for at least an hour.
6) Place ball on a flour-covered countertop and roll out with a rolling pin until reaching desired thickness.
7) Mix tomato, basil, oil and salt together in a blender. Spread across pizza crust and add mozzarella as desired. Cook until lightly browned and relatively stiff underneath.

Buon appetito! 

 

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