Generally speaking, we’re rather out of touch with our dairy products. Milk and cheese come to us mediated and sanitized. Usually I’m satisfied to congratulate myself for buying glass bottled milk with the cream on top. But lately I’ve been thinking about curds, cheesecloth, rennet. How is cheese made? Can’t I make it myself? The answer is yes, and no.
Armed with some unbleached cheese cloth from the Brooklyn Kitchen, I began with ricotta. Having glanced at a few blogs, I tried a version with buttermilk and whole milk. I boiled the ingredients, kept an eye on the temperature, and stirred gently. It seemed so simple, but the curds and whey (mostly) failed to materialize. My research indicates I should have used cultured buttermilk. The end result was about 3 tablespoons of mild, milky, slightly chewy ricotta. Not exactly the yield I’d had in mind.
I’m going to continue my research soon because fresh cheese, whether ricotta or mozzarella seems like the perfect accompaniment to summer’s bounty.
Cheese failure aside, the day of pizza making was well underway. As the dough was rising, I gathered the ingredients: kalamata olives, pesto, preserved lemon, pickled grapes, asparagus, green garlic, a very small amount of homemade ricotta, Arcadian Pastures bacon, and fresh mozzarella from the amazing Williamsburg mozzarella lady.
My favorite thing about these pizzas was the way the late spring flavors came together- the savory sweetness of the grape and olive pizza, and the buttery zing brought by the very last of my preserved lemons. Pizza can be a lot of effort, but these were so perfect that it really made it worth all the work.
I was also really happy not to have pizza sauce. I hadn’t made pizza without it before, but it really simplified the process and led to pizzas that were not at all soggy. If you do decide to use sauce I recommend a simple marinara used in moderation.
Four Pizzas from Scratch (adapted from Alice Waters’ the Art of Simple Food)
for the dough
2 teaspoons dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup unbleached white flour (for the starter)
3 1/4 cups unbleached white flour (for the dough)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup olive oil
Prepare the yeast mixture by combining the dry yeast and lukewarm water; add 1/2 cup of flour and stir. Set aside until mixture is light and bubbly, roughly 30 minutes.
In a food processor, combine the 3 1/4 cups flour and the salt. Add the yeast mixture, and then the cold water and olive oil. Turn in the food processor until the dough is well combined and forms a ball. Turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead for 4-5 minutes until dough is smooth and pliant. Add more water or flour if the dough is too dry or wet. You want it to be damp but not sticky. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and place in a warm place for 2 hours. Take note of the dough size so you can gauge when the dough has doubled in size.
When the dough has about a half-hour left to go, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. If you are using a pizza stone, be sure and preheat that too. When dough has finished rising divide it into four rounds. Stretch the dough so that it is 12-14″ in circumference. Make the pizzas one by one. Sprinkle corn meal on the surface where you will be making the pizzas and use a pizza peel or a plate to transfer. Corn meal on the pizza stone really helps the dough to slide from surface to surface.
for the topping
1 lb. mozzarella, sliced, excess water removed
3 tablespoons or more fresh ricotta
1/4 cup olive oil for brushing on the pizzas
a handful of pickled grapes, sliced or quartered
a handful of olives, pitted and quartered
green garlic, sauteed and chopped into strips
asparagus, woody ends broken off, peeled, and sauteed and chopped into 2″ segments
preserved lemon, rinsed and sliced into thin strips
bacon, cooled and crumbled
pesto with assorted garden herbs, green garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil
Brush the dough with a small amount of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Then add desired ingredients. We made a pesto and mozzarella pizza; a pickled grape, olive, and mozzarella pizza with just a bit of crumbled bacon and several turns of black pepper; an asparagus, bacon, and mozzarella pizza; and a sauteed green garlic, preserve lemon, and fresh ricotta pizza. Cook each pizza roughly 10 minutes, until the dough is just golden and the cheese has melted. For the last pizza, cook without ricotta for 7 minutes, and then add it for the last three minutes of cooking.
Serve immediately with a big, lightly-dressed, frisee salad.