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May 01, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

In recent years pizza has overtaken other fast food snacks in unexpected ways. It now shows up on menus in the trendiest of chic restaurants as well as the neighborhood hangout. And it also has earned a goodly amount of space in the frozen food sections of supermarkets and the hot food sections of most delicatessens.

Along with the increase in popularity of the pizza, however, comes inevitable change. The days of the simple chewy wedges of freshly baked pizza dough lightly flavored with herbed tomato sauce and shredded cheese apparently are waning. Today's pizzas sport toppings of imported goat cheeses, prosciutto, ratatouille and marinated artichokes, among others. They are a far cry from the earthy Italian open-faced sandwiches that were their forerunners.

Fortunately, pizzas tend to be flexible enough to lend themselves to creative design without losing their basic flavorful characteristics. A good cook can have a whale of a time creating a variety of masterpieces by switching doughs and toppings. All it takes is a bit of free-thinking, a sense of humor and a healthy appetite.

The dominant current thinking seems to be that when it comes to fillings, more is better. And when it comes to pizza dough, anything goes. Thick, chewy crusts, skinny crisp ones. Whole-wheat doughs, rye doughs . . . take your pick. It's a whole new pizza world out there.

There's probably no better protagonist for creating masterful pizzas of all types than Abby Mandel, an admitted pizza freak who has authored a number of cookbooks devoted to helping cooks everywhere understand and use a food processor successfully.

"I love pizza," she said in an interview in The Times' Test Kitchen as she deftly whipped up a batch of yeasty pizza dough in a food processor. "It was the first thing I made when I bought a processor in 1973. That's what sold me on the machine."

Mandel's enthusiasm for making pizzas from scratch, using a food processor, is catching. She makes it look so simple. And it is. Her methods are quick, concise and remarkably easy to follow.

Her admitted pizza addiction and recognized expertise with food processors have produced a batch of easy tips on making different pizza doughs that assure cooks of almost foolproof results. She also has experimented extensively with different types of pans and different baking techniques.

"Black metal pans will produce the best crust," she said. "The outside of the crust will be crisp and brown, but the inside will remain chewy." And if you're really into pizza making, you can closely approximate the stone-lined ovens found in pizza parlors by lining your oven with unglazed quarry tiles or a pizza stone (available in some housewares departments).

For a crisper crust for pizzas other than those with a paper-thin crust, she suggested sprinkling a well-oiled baking pan with cornmeal. Mandel prefers to use olive oil when greasing the pan and says to oil it well, but be sure not to use so much that it "puddles."

Her extensive experimentation with pizzas has led her to a couple of conclusions about flours. "I find no big difference between using all-purpose flour and bread flour," she said. "But don't use 100% whole-wheat flour for your dough as the crust will be too crisp and dry. Use half whole-wheat and half white flour."

The same is true for rye flour, although Mandel recently found Joyce Goldstein of San Francisco's Square One restaurant was turning out a wonderful rustic-type pizza using one-third rye flour to two-thirds all-purpose flour for the crust.

When preparing pizza dough in a food processor, the stickier the dough the better, our expert contends. That way it won't dry out. If it sticks too much, it's easy to add a little more flour through the feed tube, letting each addition work in before adding more. When the dough pulls away from the sides of the processor bowl cleanly, it will be ready to turn out into a greased bowl for a rising period, or onto a well-floured board for immediate rolling, depending on the recipe you choose.

When ready to roll the dough, roll it from the center out, large enough to extend at least half an inch beyond the pan. Sprinkle it with flour if it begins to stick to the rolling pin.

If the dough suddenly begins to retract extensively as you are rolling it, let it rest a few minutes to relax the gluten. Then try again. Don't try to hurry it. When it is the proper size for the pan, brush any loose flour away with a soft brush and fold it in half, then in half again. Place it in the pan and unfold it, pressing it to fit the bottom and sides evenly. If you have an excess amount around the edges, cut it with scissors to a half-inch overlap. Fold excess dough under to form a thicker rim after filling the center.

Mandel pierces thin crusts with a fork all over the bottom and sides before filling so they will remain flat as they cook.

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