Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A Pizza' the Action (Sorry)

Well I’ve had an amazing two days; the sun even came out for a few hours too- which was a bonus! I feel very lucky to be here, the family who run the school have been so kind and generous and I haven't, even for a second, felt lonely. Biagio, the Italian chef, is such an awesome character; he really makes the whole experience even more magical.

What I’ve loved about the whole thing is just how integral food is to the family life. Mealtimes are long, social and highly enjoyable. We cook each day and at around 7-8pm people congregate either in the bar area, or the tables in the cookery school and we all eat, chat and have a drink together. Not once have I ever been asked to pay (although I have tried) for anything. You instantly feel part of the family and although I can’t speak Italian I have felt so comfortable and at home. These are good, honest people, willing to share all they have with you, for nothing in return. The food is simple, homely and delicious and nothing goes to waste. Every last scrap is used up somehow.

I have learnt so much already, not just about pizza either, things I’m certain I’ll never forget and wouldn’t have learnt from years reading books or watching YouTube videos.

Day 2:

Today we made the starter for the dough we would be using in the wood oven. Traditional Naples pizza contains no yeast, so it takes a long time for the dough to be ready, in fact the dough we were starting today (Tuesday) we wouldn’t be cooking until Thursday. Good pizza takes time, Biagio told me. Unlike the dough we had made before there was no sugar or oil in it, just flour, cold water and salt. Which is why for hundreds of years it’s been a staple food for Italy’s poorest people, it really is so cheap to make. It makes you wonder how come back home we end up paying over £10 for an average, sometimes terrible pizza, crazy really when you think about it. We mixed the starter ingredients, flour and water along with some natural yogurt or fruit juice to start the fermentation and production of natural yeast, then it was left at room temperature, covered, for 24 hours.

After this we got on with making a local specialty made at Easter time using the same dough as we made yesterday, it is called Casatiello or Easter Pizza. I don’t know about you but I’d swap a chocolate egg for a slice of Easter Pizza any day, no contest. The pizza dough was rolled out to a rectangle, dotted with pork fat then filled with a mixture of chopped meats and cheese (whatever was leftover)  and sliced hardboiled eggs. It was then rolled up like a cigar and left to prove in a round tin before being glazed with more egg and baked until golden. The result was an impressive centrepiece for any Easter feast that was simple and most importantly inexpensive to prepare. We ate it for dinner with a simple salad and a delicious dish of homemade pasta cooked with a little garlic, parsley, olive oil and the most delicious mushrooms. It was wonderful. After dinner a few of us wandered into the local square for a few more drinks, where we were given even more food (for free). It was a good job I was spending 3-4 hours a day walking around as well as a daily morning run to burn off all this extra food!

Day 3

I was so excited that today, finally, after years of waiting I, Lucy Nev, would be cooking in a wood oven. It was like Christmas eve as a child, the minutes seemed to drag by so slowly until finally it was 11.30 and we could begin. We used the starter from yesterday to make tomorrows dough, as a rule of thumb you use 200g of starter for every 1 kg of flour along with 20g salt and about 400-600ml of cold water, added gradually and always by eye not amount. The dough was made in the mixer and Biagio just knew, from years of experience, exactly how the dough should look and when it was ready.

That was one thing I was really learning.... to be a truly good chef, or even a truly good pizza chef you had to understand the dough, that could only come through constant practice and experience. The dough was then shaped into balls, about 280-300g each, covered and left in the fridge overnight. The dough we would use today would need to contain some yeast. Biagio explained to me the less time you had the more yeast you would need. We had about 2 hours, so for 3kg of flour (we were making pizza for a LOT of people) we used 75g fresh yeast, about 60g of salt and 2 litres of water. The dough was mixed, shaped into balls and left to prove in a well floured container while we prepped up the toppings and set off to the wood oven, which was in the orange tree filled garden of Biagios friend, Michelangelo.

The oven was lit and took about 1 hour for the wood to burn down to the correct temperature, upon which it was pushed to one side and we were ready to begin. I learn the technique for hand shaping, a lot of flour was used and the dough was first pushed into a round using your finger tips then hand stretched. It was then put on a pizza peel, topped with hand crushed plum tomatoes, a little basil, mozzarella, olive oil and Parmesan. Not too much, or the pizza would be soggy. Once gently eased into the oven it cooked in around 90 seconds. What I tasted today was hands down the best pizza I have ever eaten, so simple yet so delicious. A lightly charred, slightly chewy crust, sweet acidic tomatoes, creamy mozzarella and salty Parmesan and fresh basil served piping hot straight from the oven, with a plastic cup of Sorrento red, of course.

Biagio told me I was a 'natural' and he couldn’t believe I’d never worked in a pizzeria before, maybe he tells all the girls that but hey, it made my day. I truly had had one of the best experiences of my life, as well as THE best pizza. It had been a good day indeed, and it was still only 3pm!

Roll on tomorrow!

Makes 2 big pizza pies, enough for about 8-10 slices per pie

1kg ‘0’ Canadian flour
30g fresh yeast
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp olive oil
20g salt
about 600ml cold water
4 hardboiled eggs
About 2-3 tbsp pork fat, lard or olive oil
Mixture of ham, salami, Provolone, Mozzarella, Parmesan, sausages, ricotta (whatever you have leftover) You need about 4 handfuls, 2 per pie.

1 Heat oven to high, about 180C Lightly grease two round tins with a little of the fat. Make the dough by hand or in a mixture by combining all the dough ingredients. Mix for about 7 minutes, or knead by hand until smooth and soft. Leave to prove in a floured bowl covered until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

2 Chop all the filling ingredients into small chunks.

3 When the dough is ready divide into two, shape into a rectangle by pressing with your finger tips, now roll out using a rolling pin until about 30 x 40cm. Dot with half the fat and scatter n half the filling and two of the eggs (peel and slice them first, obvs). Roll up and transfer to the tin, see pic. Cover and prove for about another 30-40 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling.

3 Glaze with egg then bake for 35-45 minutes, until golden, risen and hollow sounding when tapped. Leave to cool a little on a wire rack before serving. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

Pizza, it's simple but complicated.

Well, I made it here. I was secretly pretty impressed with myself too, I had managed to get on the correct bus from Naples airport to the train station and from there the correct train to Sorrento, which although took over an hour only cost me 4 euros!!! Admittedly I did get a little lost, and go the wrong way 4 times, from the station to the cookery school and B&B but hey, whose counting?

Upon arrival the chef greeted me with a seriously good espresso and two huge slices of cake that he had made, I don’t usually eat cake but I felt like it was the polite thing to do and OMG they were good. One was a flourless chocolate cake, similar to a brownie but much, much better. The second was a frangipani and pear tart, which was light as a feather and tasted and smelled absolutely wonderful. I was going to get fat here. 

I asked him how long he had been a chef for “Forever, cooking is all about passion, it comes from the inside and it’s always there.” I liked him instantly. He told me pizza although simple was complicated, and we wouldn’t be able to cover everything in a week, but it would be a good start. I was happy with that, most things worth something in life were simple but complicated.

My room was lovely and even though it was raining I explored and instantly fell in love with Sorrento. It was good to be here. I didn’t have an umbrella but refused to let the wet weather dampen my mood. Everyone was incredibly friendly although I did get a lot of strange looks. No doubt because people were wondering why I was more than content to stroll around absolutely soaked with a huge grin on my face, taking pictures of everything I saw. It was great and I hope I never forget how magical everything looked to me.

Day 1:

We started with basic pizza dough, one suitable for cooking in an electric oven, so the kind of pizza you could easily make at home. Not only could the dough be used for pizza but also calzones and focaccia too, although this wasn’t the focaccia I was used to, in fact it was more like the pizza bread you could often get as a starter in Italian restaurants. Light, crispy and totally addictive with just a hint of fresh rosemary and garlic drizzled with plenty of really good olive oil. It was handy for making Italian sandwiches too, I was told, and I couldn’t wait to give that a go when I got home. We also made sun-dried tomato, oregano, pecorino and olive rolls, which were light as a feather and tasted amazing. The calzones were stuffed with a mixture of salami, ham, ricotta and mozzarella cheese then gently fried in sunflower oil until golden brown. The fried dough developed a slightly sweet flavour, which contrasted perfectly with the salty salami and stringy, gooey mozzarella. In fact we made a vast amount from just the one batch of dough, it was all very exciting.

Pizza dough:
Makes loads (seriously from this batch we made 10 calzones, 8 mini pizzas, 1 big pizza, 6 olive rolls and 1 big focaccia, I think you could make 8 pizzas from this)

1kg ‘0’ Canadian strong flour
20g salt
25g fresh yeast
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp olive oil
cold water
Toppings: Tinned tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmesan and whatever else you like.

1 Tip the flour onto a clean work surface (this was marble) make a large well in the center and crumble in the yeast, add the salt, sugar and oil. Pour in about 200ml of water (he didn’t measure this just did it by eye) and use your fingers to combine the yeast with the liquid while gradually bringing in the flour. Keep going, adding more water, until you have soft, sticky dough. Knead for a couple of minutes until soft. Place in a floured bowl and cover, prove for about 40 minutes.

For pizza:

1 Heat oven to high, about 250C or as high as it will go. Lightly oil a baking tray, we used rectangle. Take about 1/8th of the dough and gently press out with your fingers until you have a rough rectangle. Put onto the tray then turn over so both sides of the dough are oiled. Leave to rest in a warm place for 10 minutes, repeat with the rest of the dough, or freeze in portions, or make something else with it.

2 Tip a can of plum tomatoes into a bowl; squeeze to crush with your fingers and season with a little salt. Add garlic if you like or leave as is.

3 Once the dough has rested use your finger tips to spread out to the edges of the tray. Spread on a little tomato, then slice a ball of mozzarella and add this. Lastly sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Bake for about 12 -15 minutes, depending on how high your oven goes, until the base is crisp and the cheese has melted. Eat immediately.

Everything I ate today tasted absolutely wonderful. The flavours are simple and seasoned only lightly with a little salt and good olive oil but work together to create the most stunning results. It was honest, refreshing cooking taught by a true Italian family and exactly what I had came for. I will go to bed happy tonight.