LEARN TO MAKE WOODFIRED PIZZA
BY Susan Laughlin
There’s nothing quite like baking bread or making pizza in an outdoor stone hearth — the blasting warmth, the woody smell, the high drama. It might take all day to get the oven to close to 900 degrees, but there is magic in that heat and excitement in the wait.
Fortunately, once at temperature, food caramelizes and cheese melts rather quickly and a satisfying pizza is close at hand.
Jill Strauss has a beautiful home in the backwoods of Kennebunkport and, after leaving the nearby school system, she looked for a way to share her passion for cooking and teaching. She had always loved Italian food, rustic cooking and, as she says, “I am madly in love with fire.”
Strauss used her “librarian” skills to research how to make the perfect wood-fired pizza. In addition to extensive reading, she traveled to New York and Italy to work with masters in the art of pizza making.
Her teacher in NYC was the famed Jim Lahey, who revolutionized bread baking with his no-knead techniques. In Italy she experienced pizza making with a fourth-generation pizzaiolo, Enzo Coccia, of Naples. She learned traditional techniques but what struck her most was the Italian passion for using quality ingredients — something she brought home.
Of course, her Italian teacher said, “You can take the recipes and techniques, but you won’t be able to make a real Neapolitan pie because you are not making it in Italy. And your oven will not be Neapolitan because you are not using Italian sand and brick.” In spite of those prognostications, Jill has continued to perfect her pie-making skills in both the outdoor hearth oven and her kitchen’s gas stoves.
The good news is that she shares these hard-earned lessons at her cooking school, Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School, based out of her gracious home. Local tradesmen built a handsome stone hearth for baking pizza and bread by wood fire and a stone patio for dining to enjoy the pizza while it’s hot and the sun sets in the west. “I consider my school a little conduit to Italy,” says Strauss.
I was able to take a class recently and experience first-hand the subtle techniques that she shares with students.
Strauss offers classes several times a week, starting in May. Friday is pizza making; Saturday is open to private parties (birthdays, girls’ night out, etc.). The first Sunday of the month brings a brunch class and the other Sundays an afternoon pizza session. Classes are made up of individuals, couples or groups who work together to produce a variety of pizza and accompaniments, followed by communal dining upon the savory lessons.
Strauss has one dough technique for the outdoor oven and another for a regular kitchen oven. She uses a recipe adapted from Jim Lahey of no-knead fame for the kitchen oven and a recipe from Cook’s Illustratedthat uses a food processor for the outdoor oven. The home oven needs to be set to the highest temperature to get those signature results — a nice crispy and chewy crust. Also, to help sear the bottom, she suggests putting a pizza steel in the oven. The metal retains extra heat for those precious few moments of baking. The high temps help emulate the magic of the wood-fired oven. At home I was able to get my electric oven to 500 degrees and gas ovens may get even hotter. The hotter the oven, the more flavorful the crust.
Students are able to watch and participate in the handling of the dough. Adding just the right amount of flour and the right touch for stretching is key to a crisp, yet chewy crust. As with Lahey’s other bread recipes, there is no kneading, just a few gentle turns and stretches. Strauss demonstrated to the private class of three women on a girls’ weekend last November the proper technique using just their knuckles and the back of the hand to hold and turn the dough.
The pizza dough is just the blank canvas. There is no end to the variations for toppings, but Strauss suggests that less is more. “You want the identity and flavor of the individual components to come through. There is no wrong answer in choosing how to dress a pizza, but Strauss suggests not to muddy the picture with too many divergent tastes. Also, a thickly laid topping might not crisp as well.
Everybody created their own pizza variations for the two dough types. Color with chopped greens or sun-dried tomatoes, texture with toasted pistachios or prosciutto and fragrance with rosemary or thyme completed the picture. Finally, we drizzled the compositions with virgin olive oil. Strauss’s favorite brand is Frantoia from Sicily.
The pizzas were placed on a baker’s peel dusted with Semolina flour and finished in the wood-fired oven. It took just minutes for the dough to blister and brown, leaving a wonderful texture and crunch and a
delightful bit of char. The kitchen oven pizzas took about 15 minutes with the temperature near 600 degrees. The pizzas and side dishes were enjoyed at a communal table with wines we had brought along for the feast.
A few of Stauss’ favorites include the Cherry Bomb with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, basil, hot red peppers, salt and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
New this year is a Sunday Brunch class offered the first Sunday in the month with special egg dishes, biscuits and local meats on the menu. It’s designed as a cooking lesson, hearty meal and generally great communal experience.
Sure, you can read cookbooks with spoon in hand, but personal instruction with only one degree of separation from Italy’s best is worth its weight in virgin olive oil.