[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]
In the mid-nineties I had the opportunity to tour St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It sounds silly to say given the setting, but on viewing Michelangelo’s Pieta I had a near religious experience. There was no Coleridge mentally prompting me as he did his tourist at the waterfall, because no prompting was needed. It is sublime. Every curve and fold amazes. Mary’s sorrow hidden near one and a half thousand years in marble until one man set his gifts to reveal it is terrible to behold. I’ve never been stabbed so I can’t say for certain that the metaphor fits, but my reaction to the work was immediate, deep, and unexpected. Tears welled and ran down my cheek. It was not pretty.
The Pieta is a reminder of what man is capable of. It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time. We all have some creative bent we indulge. He may not be Michelangelo, but the hobbyist guitar player who’ll never quite get bar chords right is following that same urge towards the divine. As a race we strive towards a perfection we can never achieve, but the likes of Beethoven, Austin, and Yeats leave behind spectacular failures to remind us how close we can get.
The world is scattered with garage workbenches and sewing rooms, shared studio space and open mic nights. I was lucky enough to spend an evening in the company of science fiction legend Mike Resnick. He was holding court and answering questions from fans and aspiring writers. One person asked him a question about writing fiction but couched it by saying “I’m never going to show anything I write to anybody so it’s just for me.” Mike said, “Why?” He wasn’t asking why she wasn’t going to show it to anybody. He went on. Writing is taking what is inside and putting it on the outside. If nobody is ever meant to read what you write, why write? He said something about saving time and daydreaming instead but it was more nuanced and cool because anything that emanated from him was of such caliber as to win an award. My wife once joked that Mike pooped Hugos.
He made allowances for diaries and journals but practically he was dead on, even though he was wrong. Why spend time and effort fashioning your thoughts to a medium meant to convey them to others when they’ll always be solely for you? That makes sense, but there’s an industry making millions selling rugged notebooks that look like something Indiana Jones would carry in his pocket or ornate ones you’d imagine Lola Montez could use to bring down monarchies. Pace Resnick, people write for themselves all the time. They don’t always care about the audience.
Something in our nature urges us to project what we feel. We take the physical world and manipulate it to our wishes. Whether it’s whittling on the back porch or dragging horse hair over a violin string at the Kennedy Center we can’t leave well enough alone. It’s a noble compulsion, an attempt at the divine and we shouldn’t be discouraged because we are not putting out pietas or pooping Hugos. “L’art pour l’art,” said Victor Cousins.
I like to cook. I like taking stock of what’s in the fridge and improvising. I get to have fun and let loose. I throw a bit of cumin in, now some orange zest, and then flat-leaf. It’s taste, correct, try, fail, succeed, and reflective of my wants and whims. You get to eat it at the end too. Don’t forget that part. All the better if people enjoy what you put together. It’s a wonderful creative outlet.
Baking isn’t like that. Baking is evil. It’s cooking inverted where instead of mercurial you casting and directing a vibrant stage show you become a mechanical device, not even a functionary, in service of the ingredients. Play assembly line and don’t stray from the prescribed dosage. There’s no taking advantage of seasonal anything. It’s flour and sometimes eggs or butter and alchemical processes requiring yeast and sugar. Don’t express yourself. Park your elan at the door. The amount of flour will be the amount of flour and your job is to make sure that the precise measurement written is reflected by the measurement added. You’re a slide rule that pays the gas bill.
There was a time when old wizened women with wiry arm muscles ropey from kneading could smell changes in humidity and adjust accordingly. Was that inspiration that led them or experience? It doesn’t matter. Their ways are as quaint to us as divining for water. Any adjustments in baking these days are dictated by the barometer. Read it and obey.
There are only two reasons surrender your humanity to a kitchen scale. The first is obvious. Store bought chocolate chip cookies will never be precisely as gooey as you want them to be. It’s cheating, but there’s a loophole in the baker-as-thrall-to-ingredients construct that allows discretion when approximating doneness. Grasp onto that last bit of determinism like you were Picard wired into a Borg cube.
The second is pizza dough. I can’t explain all the mysteries at work, but I suspect that participating in the act of production highlights how base an origin the magnificent pizza rises from and makes it that much better. Its like finding out the CEO started in the mailroom. Heights are higher when the climb began below sea level, though I’m not buying that crap about Mauna Kea be the world’s tallest mountain. Making pizza dough is bearing witness to the creation of the transubstantiation “Before” picture.
The rest of the baking menu can be had through the labors of others. Crusty baguettes are a necessity of life, as are English muffins and all the sandwich holders. Don’t get caught up in a moral examination of the right and wrong of paying people to do things you find too abhorrent to do yourself. I don’t want to slaughter cows and I’d pay a vet any dollar amount they ask to drain my dog’s anal gland. A good chunk of the country kept themselves fed through a pandemic they wouldn’t dare go out in by paying Door Dash and Uber Eats drivers to assume the risk for them. We’re not going to feel guilty for employing a whipping boy all of a sudden. Support your local bakers.
My pizza dough recipe was ripped from the internet. It’s easy as can be. I have a few others but they take anywhere from six hours to three days to proof and this one is ready in an hour or so and forty of those minutes are no effort proofing. I’m not sure who I got it from but it works. It makes a pliable slice with a crunchy crust. Maybe Tyler Florence? If so, kudos to him, but you can’t copyright a recipe.
aybe Tyler Florence’s Easy Pizza Dough
- 1 packet active dry yeast
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 cup warm (~110°) water
- 1 tbsp. kosher salt
- extra virgin olive oil (2 tbsp. for dough with more for greasing bowl)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
Add yeast and sugar to your mixer’s bowl and slowly pour in water.
Set a five-minute timer. When the timer goes off check for a frothy bloom as seen above. It may take ten minutes but no bloom after that long means your yeast is dead and you have to start over. Sorry.
Add the flour, salt, and olive oil to the mixing bowl and mix with a dough hook attachment.
When the dough forms a rough ball it’s ready to come out. If it’s overly sticky while mixing add a little bit of flour. If it’s overly dry, do the same but with water.
On a lightly floured surface, kneed into a ball.
Lightly coat a second large bowl with olive oil and add the dough. Toss it a few times to coat the dough.
Set the bowl in a warm spot and cover with a towel. (I have never gone looking for a warm spot. I have no idea what the baseline temperature these baking fanatics assume but I put it on a counter in an area that presumably is the same temperature as the rest of my kitchen. I think they want more measurement obedience and think I’m going to run around the kitchen with my infrared thermometer taking and noting sample variances. Use common sense. Don’t put the bowl in the fridge and you’ll be fine.] Set a timer for 40 minutes and go away.
After 40 minutes the dough should be well proofed by which I mean the air inside should have expanded the ball a good bit and made it spongy.
Punch the bread down and move it to a lightly floured surface. Kneed it a few times and form into a loaf.
Cut the loaf into three equalish pieces.
Roll the pieces into balls.
If your not ready to make pizzas right away pack the balls in zip-loc off brand bags. Be sure to squeeze most of the air out because the dough expands a little more and if too much air is in there it may pop the bag. They’ll keep two days in the fridge. Three is iffy.
Don’t forget to thank the creative team.
I’ll have some topping suggestions and sauce thoughts up next week. Until then, I’m operating on the assumption that you’ve had pizza before and know what you like on a pie. Do that.