I remember back when I first began making my own pizza at home. Let’s just say that when I first began this journey I had no idea what I was doing. While I cannot recall the occasion, I had been given a pizza stone as a gift, and I was itching to try it out. For my first pizza, I decided to buy a container of pizza dough (the kind that comes in the cardboard cylindrical can), shredded mozzarella cheese, pizza sauce, and pepperoni. Upon returning from the grocery store, I excitedly placed my pizza stone in the oven and began to preheat it. I opened the can of dough with a loud pop and started stretching it into a disc. As I attempted to stretch the dough, I quickly realized that I was in over my head. After some time of wrangling the dough, I finally ended up with an irregular shape that vaguely resembled a circle. Satisfied with this result, I quickly placed the toppings on the pizza. Using my infinite foresight, I thought that I could use an old pizza pan to transfer the dough onto the stone. You probably know already where I’m going with this. As I attempted to transfer the pizza, it stuck to the pan, and I could not get it off. Panic ensued, and I tried desperately to move it onto the stone by any means necessary. Finally, I succumbed to my fate and flopped the pizza onto the stone in a terrible mass of dough, sauce, cheese, and pepperoni. It was nothing short of a monstrosity.
After cooking the pizza (if you could call it that) for several minutes, I carefully removed the mess of ingredients from the pizza stone, attempting to scrape off the melted cheese and burned pepperoni. While the pizza was uglier than the backside of a mule, it didn’t taste half bad. So, my pizza making journey continued through the present day.
At this point, you may be asking yourself why I have spent your precious time with this anecdote. You came here to read about a pizza book, am I right? I tell you this anecdote as a fair warning. Making homemade pizza while not difficult is not as easy as the pros make it look. My experience was like jumping in the deep end of the pool before learning to swim. You might still learn how to swim with this technique, but I would say that it is more traumatizing than it needs to be. Likewise, starting your pizza journey without a guide and without learning the basics is like jumping into the deep end of the pool. It works, but you’ll need to be okay with ruining a few meals and starting a few small fires in the oven (I was only guilty of this once!). To help you avoid these pitfalls, I recommend that you first learn the ropes under a kind mentor if you have one, but what if your next door neighbor knows nothing about pizza and your best friend thinks pizza is a leaning tower in Italy. If you’re in this scenario, books can be great teachers.
Making pizza at home is an exciting hobby, which can be awesome and full of fun or extremely frustrating. For these reasons, it is important to have an experienced guide. Ken Forkish, the author of The Elements of Pizza, can and wants to be that guide (at least initially) on this journey.
A Trip to Italy Changes a Baker’s Perspective
In The Elements of Pizza, Forkish begins by traveling to Italy to learn about pizza’s roots. While in Italy, he learned techniques from some of the master pizzaioli of our day. Not only does he describe the technical processes of these modern day pizza professionals, but he also delves into the history of pizza in Naples, Italy. This historical lesson is an appropriate lead in to his chapter on the details of great pizza crust, which brings us to our philosophical question of the day. Can you have amazing pizza without great crust? I would say no as the crust is the heart and soul of the pizza, which I believe Forkish would agree with.
The Right Crust is a Must
As a strong proponent of the importance of pizza crust, this book focuses on the techniques and elements that make good crust amazing crust. In the chapter “Eight Details for Great Pizza Crust,” Forkish discusses the various components of pizza crust, including time and temperature, and how to think about them during the pizza making process. In several of his dough recipes, he borders on a pathological attention to detail regarding temperature and fermentation of the dough. Not only does he discuss the process of making great dough, he also covers the various ingredients needed to make amazing pizza crust. Although the focus is primarily on the crust, Forkish also covers different sauces (how to make them) and toppings.
While Forkish goes into detail regarding how to make pizza crust, he sticks primarily to the Italian style, which makes sense given that this book is based on the knowledge he gained from his education in Italy. You will not find many examples or discussion of other types of pizza styles, such as the Chicago or Detroit styles. I don’t necessarily think that this focus is a weakness of the book as I do not believe it was meant to be an all-encompassing guide to pizza. Instead, it is a book that specializes in the classical Italian styles and adapts those pizzas for the amateur home pizzaiolo.
Adapting Wood-Fired Pizza to the Home Oven
While Forkish’s discussion of crust is one of the best I have come across, this book really shines in its adaptation of the wood-fired pizzas of Naples for the home kitchen. Classically, Neapolitan pizza is baked in a wood-fire oven for a short duration at a very high temperature (much higher than a home oven), which gives it its light crumb and leopard spotted crust. Many amateur pizzaioli, including myself, would like to make Neapolitan pizza at home. I initially thought that this style was beyond my reach with just a home oven. However, I learned differently from this book and that nugget of information is worth the entire price of the book all by itself. By manipulating the broiler of the home oven and altering the dough recipe, Forkish has successfully adapted the Neapolitan style for the home oven. While the results are not the same as a wood-fire oven, they are relatively close as can be seen in my picture below.
From Pizza Margherita to Grandma Pie
Another strength of this book are the numerous recipes provided. While this isn’t a recipe book, there are enough recipes to keep you busy for some time. Again, the focus is on the Italian pizza styles. The pizza carbonara pictured above is one of these Italian inspired recipes, and it is absolutely delicious. Not only are Italian pizzas included, but there are also several New York style recipes as well as a few different sauce recipes. While these other recipes are good, the Italian recipes are the bread and butter of this book, and they are done exceptionally well. For example, Forkish’s pizza margherita recipe was very true to the style and also very easy for even a first-timer to make.
If you are looking for a book with lots of different pizza recipes, this may not be your first choice, but if you are more interested in delving deeper into classical Italian pizza at home, then this book is for you.
The Bottom Line
Whether you are a beginner or you have been making pizza at home for some time, this book is an excellent addition to your library. It provides a succinct summary of the history of pizza in Italy and also discusses the Italian pizza styles in depth. The various components and process of making pizza crust is described from both the conceptual and practical standpoints so that the reader is given a good understanding of how to make great crust at home. The author does not only focus on great pizza crust, but he also provides several interesting pizza recipes. If you’re looking to start making pizza for the first time or you’re just interested in elevating your pizza game, then The Elements of Pizza needs to be added to your library.
This post is the first in a series of pizza book reviews. Please stay tuned for more articles.
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