Forming and Topping your Pizza
To use the dough, turn it out onto a floured surface and to shape your pizza. A larger recipe will make one large pizza, divide into two or more smaller balls to make individual pizzas. If you divide the dough, either do it before the rise (each one rising in separate bowls) or to save bowls, divide using a bench scraper, then fold and form the dough back into ball shapes. If they seem too elastic to form balls, let the dough rest a few minutes before shaping your dough balls. You can let your dough balls relax in the fridge, laid out on an oiled sheet pan and covered with plastic wrap or a floured kitchen towel before use. Take them out a few minutes before forming your pizzas.
There are many ways to shape a pizza. If you want a really thin crust you can use a floured rolling pin--a simple log shaped one is best to ensure an even thickness. A tapered French pin will not roll out dough evenly. One of the easiest ways to form a pizza is to use all of your fingertips... pressing down and pushing out to flatten and then widen your dough into a round.
To make it easier for you, you can shape your pizza on a sheet of parchment paper and then when done, slide your peel under the paper for topping off. I tend to shape it on a floured surface, then transfer by hand (draped over my floured forearms) onto my peel which has a sheet of parchment covering it.
You can also transfer using a "booking" technique. Once you have your dough shaped on your work surface, get your peel ready, placing it next to your work surface with a sheet of parchment paper on top. To "book" your dough, lightly flour the top of the round, spreading the flour over the top with your hands. This will ensure the dough doesn't stick to itself when you start folding it over onto itself. You want to fold into thirds--the two side thirds fold in toward the center third. Fold one over the center first, then the other. Quickly (to prevent sticking), transfer to your peel and carefully unfold your dough round and adjust its shape.
A more advanced technique is to shape your dough like pizzaioli do in Italy. Below is one of the most instructive videos I've found on this technique...
A wood surface gives you "grip" for shaping pizza dough. Marble, granite or Formica surfaces can make the dough stick, so be liberal with bench flour while kneading and forming your artisinal dough. I use a bread board (like the one pictured above) that sits on top of your counter.
Don't forget your best tools--hands. I mainly use my hands when shaping pizza. Since I'm really making a more delicate, artisanal style pizza dough, you really can't throw it like in a commercial pizzeria. First, make sure you have a decent amount of flour on the workbench. Now, toss more flour on top of the dough before you start. Basically, you want the dough to have enough flour under it to slide easily when working it. You also to flour your hands so your hands don't stick to the dough.
Basically, I tend to leave a slight mound in the middle, then press with the sides of my hands to form a thicker crust edge (I like a thick crust on the perimeter of a pizza). Pat the middle with your flat hand, or use your finger tips (all of them) to push down the high spots of the dough until you make the diameter the size you need. As you press, push outward to where you need more width. If the dough won't move or slide, lift up and dust some more flour underneath.
If you make a hole, tear a little dough off the side and patch it. If you aren't using the parchment paper underneath, gently lift one side of the dough round and lift it on top of your floured forearm. Then with the other hand, help to lift and slide it onto your pizza peel on top of the waiting parchment. Pull the edges of the dough to fill your peel or into a circle, whichever you prefer. Rustic shapes are fine too.
By the way, instead of using parchment, you can also sprinkle a good amount of coarse corn meal on the peel and put the raw shaped pizza on top of that. The corn meal acts like little ball bearings making it easy to slide your pizza onto the stone. I've switched to using parchment simply because it's a bit neater... some corn meal winds up at the bottom of the oven and tends to burn, messing up both pizza stone and the oven.
I never would recommend topping off the dough while it's still on the work counter. I've even seen TV chefs do this and then have some trouble when trying to slide a metal peel underneath, pulling and tugging the loaded, wet dough. Just have all your toppings ready beforehand, place your dough on your parchment lined peel, and top-away! You can use my Basic Pizza Sauce Recipe or any jar sauce, as long as it's not too thick. Pizza sauces tend to be on the watery side. (Click Here for our Basic Pizza Sauce Recipe.)
As for cheese, while most home pizza makers will use supermarket mozzarella, don't forget to try others:
Sharp provolone, burrata, Italian Fontina, smoked or fresh mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, bocconcini, mascarpone, ricotta, ricotta salata (or feta), Gorgonzola, cacciacavalo (our favorite sheep cheese), asiago, Parmigiano reggiano or formaggio fresco (called basket cheese in some Italian neighborhoods).
Depending on the type of cheese, it can be sliced, diced, grated or simply dolloped on top of your pizza. With mozzarella, cut it into thin slices with a knife or grate it with the 1/4 inch holes on a typical cheese grater. Mozzarella is easier to grate if you place it in the freezer for 15 minutes first. When using fresh mozzarella, try pinching off rough pieces and dropping them randomly on your crust. You might even try partially baking your crust first and then adding cheese and toppings for the final few minutes of baking. This is a method used in Italy when using very fresh cheeses like buffalo mozzarella, fresh ricotta or burrata.
As for the rest, live it up and experiment. If you want a simple Pizza Margherita, all you need is sauce, basil leaves and some mozzarella, with perhaps a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle of oregano (we grow our own in summer). We love olives (buy pitted and just squish them in your fingers and drop them on), smoked or Virginia ham, prosciutto, speck (Italian smoke-cured prosciutto), leftover bacon from Sunday breakfast, paper thin (cut on my mandoline) slices of dry sausage or zucchini, caramelized onions, fresh heirloom tomatoes, smoked turkey, home made meatballs... whatever suits your taste.
After Thanksgiving we use leftovers for a Thanksgiving Day Pizza--turkey, stuffing, cheesy mashed potatoes, fresh cranberries and for the sauce, turkey gravy. Recently, I even made a Chicken Marsala pizza. Lisa likes a white pizza--easy to do (without red sauce), smeared with ricotta cheese (she makes it fresh) and drizzled with olive oil finished with grated Romano and oregano.
TIP: Don't let your topped off pizza sit too long on the peel.
Get it in the oven quickly or it could stick to your parchment or peel (making it difficult to slide off into the oven), or the wet ingredients might soak too far into the dough.
After you've topped it off, slide it into your oven onto your preheated stone/steel. Place the leading edge of the peel about 1" from the rear edge of your steel, then give a gentle slide at first to touch the rear edge of pizza onto the surface. Next, give a quick thrust backwards, pulling your peel out from under your pizza. This should land the pizza perfectly, but practice carefully at first. Just be careful not to allow the edge of the pizza to droop over the edge of your stone!
True confession... when rushing one Saturday night to get my pizza into the oven, I swung the oven door open, slipped it from the peel into the oven and suddenly realized I forgot to put the steel into the oven! With the help of my metal peel and a large metal spatula, I managed to get it out, folded it into a pan and made a fairly presentable stromboli. Dinner saved!
If your oven is around 510-515 degrees a pizza should cook between 3 and 5 minutes. You can try using a higher temperature (my oven goes to 550F) but that might cook the bottom crust before the toppings.
Use a metal spatula or peel to check under your crust to make sure it's browned. (The sugar added to the dough aids browning). After the timer goes off, use the peel to slide under the parchment and pizza (or your pan pizza), lifting out and transferring to a wooden serving board or serving pan. Use a pizza wheel shears to cut your slices. If you've made thin crust individual pizzas, place them directly on large plates and eat them Napoletano style... either with a knife and fork, or da portare via (take out) style and fold them in half or quarters and eat it like a sandwich.
The world is your pizza, when you just stop and think about it... but, don't stop... make pizza!
--Jerry Finzi, la Pizzaiolo di Famiglia Finzi
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