Adventures in Pizza Making

To say I've been hamstrung by dough wouldn't be a stretch. Sugar cookies have always been my bane; I've rolled and cut tacky dough into shapes that were anything but cookie cutter. And crimping kolduny, my Russian family's heritage dumpling recipe, is more delicate than it looks. But on the flip side, I've got chocolate chip cookies hands down, and I know not to over-stir pancake batter. So when the opportunity rose to take a four-hour class at BAKE!, the teaching bakery at Zingerman's Bakehouse, I knew making good on a pizza would get me points with the dinner crowd.

The class syllabus? To make two types of pizza dough – Chicago deep dish and New York style – shape, fill and top the pies, and bake. A dozen of us, eleven women and one man clad in aprons, wrap the big rectangular butcher block surface in the teaching kitchen. This is my first culinary instruction of any kind, but half of the group has taken classes here before. Six women have driven up to two hours from northern Ohio.

That's common for a weekday evening session, according to Amy Emberling, managing partner of the Bakehouse. And for weekend and four-day classes, students often come from Chicago, but also as far as California and Florida.

"Culinary tours are sort of the big thing these days, and so people are looking for trips to take," Emberling explains.

Zingerman's, she says, is one of just a few options in the country, the others being the San Francisco Baking Institute and King Arthur Flour Co. in Vermont, for those interested in the substrata of baking. Like us.

We start mixing Chicago deep dish dough with BAKE! principal and instructor Shelby Kibler, a former pizzaiolo, presiding.  We mix until the dough morphs into a "shaggy mass", until it resembles wet sand in the wide-mouthed stainless steel bowl. It sounds like sand, too, plus "It's really fun to say 'shaggy mass,'" says Kibler.

Italian minstrels croon on the iPod. The music serves not only as a conduit for the amore of which Dean Martin croons, but as a kitchen timer. We knead dough for a two-song interval. We're getting the motion: stretch, then fold with one hand, bench-scrape the scraps with the other, work them back into the clump. "Looking good!" Kibler calls.

While that batch is fermenting, it's on to New York style and an eye-widening technique for more timid dough workers like myself: stretching the dough on the backs of the hands by drawing the fists apart and spinning a few gentle turns, just like the pizzaiolo does in the window.

Kristie Brablec, a Zingerman's Mail Order employee, wonders why we don't roll the mixture out instead. Maybe the dough wouldn't like it, she muses: "I'm sure dough has an opinion."

Actually, stretching versus rolling is a stylistic choice, Kibler explains. Stretching gives a puffy outer rim to the crust, while rolling creates an even thickness. "We're shooting for something that's more Neapolitan-style rather than cracker-like." There's a bottomless supply of answers to questions on technique, which goes to the most common reason why people take the class, Kibler says - to learn how the pros do it.

To the deep dish dough, baked in a cast-iron skillet, we layer ¾ of a pound of mozzarella, a pound of Italian sausage, fresh-made tomato sauce, and then glaze the crust with olive oil. The New York style is spread with tomato sauce, fresh basil leaves, mozzarella, and pepperoni. Many students are interested in oven baking techniques, and we try both variants: home-style oven and wood-fired. New York pizzas from the wood-fired oven in the lobby bake at 800 degrees and are done in under two minutes - a kind of flash-baking, if you will.

We sample small slices, comparing eating - where all flavors whoosh together - with the more discerning art of tasting. Taste in point: The puffy, charred crust from the wood-fired oven is the most tender, a pizza stone yields a blend of chewy and crackly, while crust made on the pizza screen, with air flow underneath, is the crispiest.

The thrust of the classes is to encourage more home baking, but some students have professional aspirations. "We have lots of younger people, high school kids, who like to come, and they are trying to decide if they want to go to culinary school. So I think it has given people an opportunity to test it out before they make a big decision," Emberling says.

The Bakehouse added a second teaching kitchen earlier this spring to accommodate the demand. About 10 classes a week serve from 4-5,000 students per year. Many are repeaters. Most commonly, students' ages range from 30-65; about 85-90% are female, similar to this class. The cost runs from $75 to $250 for three-hour to daylong bake-outs, $500 for weekend sessions, and $1,000 for four-day weeks.

The pizza-making course is $100, and consistently fills, says Emberling. No wonder: it's a universal food. "And that's proven to be true," she agrees. "We were thinking about technique and what are we experts in. We can make pizza but we're not selling it [at the Bakehouse] so we didn't really expect it to take off in the way that it did."

We leave with a list of ingredients and recipes, three disks of dough for future pizzas, a melting-hot deep dish pie, and pizza Margherita. Tonight at my kitchen table, I don't taste. I eat.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, poet, and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last column was: "Ride the Electric Chinese Wave." ;


All photos by Doug Coombe


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