For my second attempt at preparing a meal that wasn’t constructed in a New Jersey chemical plant and wrapped in microwave-safe plastic, I opted for America’s Test Kitchen’s Thin-Crust Whole-Wheat Pizza with Garlic Oil, Three Cheeses, and Basil. While pizza might seem a bit ambitious for a no-talent chef, if I could master this, think of the money I’d save by not having to tip the delivery guy every night.
I started the dough on a rainy Saturday afternoon while This American Life played on my kitchen radio. The recipe was for two 13-inch pizzas, but I decided to halve it due to the size of my household (one human, five radios). The label wore off my only measuring cup years ago but I'm pretty sure it’s a full cup. I measured out the flour but I didn't know if it was supposed to be a flat cup or a heaping cup so I tossed a coin. Tails meant flat, so I leveled it off, dumped it into a bowl, and then realized that it was the wrong kind of flour. This was thin-crust whole-wheat pizza, not thin-crust all-purpose pizza. Whoops. At least I hadn't started mixing yet.
The recipe said to combine the ingredients in a food processor, but who has a food processor just lying around? I’m not trying to start a restaurant over here. I opted for my most-used appliance instead—a blender that I found on the side of the road and now use to make Big Gulp-sized smoothies every morning so I don’t have to think about lunch. I dumped 1 cup (or so) of whole-wheat flour and 1 cup (or so) of bread flour in the blender and wondered what setting would most closely replicate a food processor. After trying all of them, I realized the answer was none, but I didn’t have any other options so I added honey, yeast, and water, and hoped a little moisture would fix the problem.
It didn’t. The flour quickly turned into cement at the bottom of the blender while the top layers remained dry and unmixed. I took the blender jar off the base and started shaking. After several minutes of alternately hand-shaking and blending, my arms were tired and it smelled like the appliance’s motor was burning out. This was not going to work. I scooped the sticky dough out of the blender and started kneading by hand. Much better. After a few minutes, I had a roundish ball of dough. I slathered it in olive oil, covered it in plastic wrap, and left it in the fridge to rest overnight. Unfortunately, all that cooking made me hungry and I had nothing in my kitchen but some frozen bananas and old yogurt. I would have made a smoothie but my blender was broken.
Twenty-four hours later, I was ready to complete my pizza. It was Sunday evening and a Weekend All Things Considered story about non-traditional families was playing on my kitchen radio. A segment about a family with a bunch of kids and three parents made me shudder—I spent $75 at the grocery store on just myself that morning; I couldn’t imagine having kids to buy food for, much less two other adults, although I guess I can see the advantages. For one thing, one of your co-parents might own a pizza stone, which I don't have and Thin-Crust Whole-Wheat Pizza with Garlic Oil, Three Cheeses, and Basil calls for. The ancient cookie sheet that the previous tenants left would have to do.
I preheated my oven to 500 degrees, slid the cookie sheet in, and took the dough out of the fridge. Besides the pizza stone, I was also missing anchovies and two of the three cheeses the recipe required, so I decided to make a few alterations. The recipe specifically states: NO TOMATOES! The sweet-tart flavors of tomato sauce clash with earthy whole wheat. Instead, we top our pizza with cheeses and herbs. Probably good advice, but every time I eat a pizza without tomato sauce, I think, "That was good. It would have been better with tomato sauce," and so I decided to combine America’s Test Kitchen’s dough with The Splendid Table's Classic Pizza Margherita recipe, or at least a modified version of it that doesn’t include fresh basil or parsley, which I didn’t have. I sautéed onion and oregano until the onion was translucent, threw in some garlic and canned whole tomatoes that I smashed against the pot with a fork while wishing I hadn’t ruined my blender the day before.
Besides a brief stint working at Taco Bell at age 16 (I lasted for three hours before telling the manager that corporate life just wasn’t for me), my first job was as a baker. This was also brief, as I kept putting sugar in the biscuits and salt in the muffins, and was moved to the coffee bar after a few weeks. That's the entirety of my baking experience, and so it probably won't surprise you to learn I don't have a rolling pin. No matter, the bottle of olive oil in my pantry was roughly the same shape. I scattered some flour on the counter and start rolling out the dough.
A small hole quickly started to grow in the center of my dough so I folded it in half and rolled it out again. It was definitely thin—at least I got that part right. Things were going fine until the smoke alarm started going off. The pizza wasn't even in the oven yet but something was burning in there, probably a few decades worth of crumbs that my slumlord hadn’t bothered to clean out before I moved in. I ran to the smoke alarm and started jumping up and down and waving a napkin under it until it stopped shrieking.
Once everyone (I) had calmed down, I slathered tomato sauce on my pizza dough and went to the fridge to take out the fresh mozzarella I’d bought some weeks before, during my first attempt at this recipe. The mozzarella was less than fresh now and explained the mystery smell that had been emanating from my fridge over the previous few days. Luckily, I had a bag of shredded mozzarella that was so processed it didn’t have an expiration date. I sprinkled it on my pizza and took the cookie sheet that had been pre-heating at 500 degrees out of the oven, wondering how I would get this thin, wet pizza onto it without either dropping the pizza or burning myself.
There was no way to smoothly move the pizza without the dough ripping and so I tried slowly inching it over to the burning cookie sheet. This also failed, so I cradled it from the middle and tossed it. It worked, kind of, but it wasn’t pretty. I sprinkled some more cheese on top and hoped it tasted better than it looked. When I took it out of the oven ten minutes later, it didn’t resemble the recipe photos (or any pizza I’ve had before) and I could see the blackened cookie sheet through holes in the crust. Sadly, it tasted about as good as it looked and so I gave up after a slice and ordered Thai.
You win this time, pizza, but I’ll be back, and next time, I’m bringing a food processor.