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Evolve, pizza pan!

A new cast-iron number brings a pizza lover out of the Stone Age.

January 24, 2007|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

GROWING up with neither Neapolitan grandmother nor local pizzeria (lived in Iowa, ate haggis), I learned how to make my own pizza out of pure desperation, often, and with giddy pleasure. Maybe this giddiness is why I've broken all four pizza stones I've owned. So when I saw a beautiful persimmon cast-iron pizza pan in a store recently, it was both its sturdiness and its color that caught my eye. So what if it was Mario Batali's persimmon: I once bought a pair of Emeril clogs too. I couldn't wait to get it home and start throwing dough.

My new pan's charms were immediate: The clarion tones it made when I dropped it while getting my groceries through the door was a huge improvement on the sound of broken pottery. And for making pizza, it blew my old pizza stones out of the water -- well, oven.

The pan made glorious pizza, with gorgeously burnished outer crusts and a bottom crust that remained perfectly crisp under the bubbling toppings. The pizza and its attendant pan moved easily from counter to oven and back again, thanks to its handles, easy-to-grasp enamel-coated half-moons. The pan retained heat and thus kept the pizza warm; it was also pretty enough to bring to the table.

And it made other unpromised things too: sandwiches, fajitas, pancakes, crepes. As with a pizza stone, you preheat the Batali pan in the oven before laying the uncooked pizza on it. But the Batali pan is a lot easier to use than a stone: It's smaller, and therefore it fits better in my oven. It's much easier to transfer fragile laden pies across the expanse from counter to waiting open oven. And unlike a stone, you can actually remove a hot Batali pan from the oven, thanks to the handles.

But best of all, that crust really rocks.

The cast-iron pan cooks just as evenly as a pizza stone, and it beats the stone in speed. But the pan produces a crisper, darker crust than a stone, one that's slightly flatter than one made on a stone, with less lift at the edge of the crust. (Not surprisingly, while it makes fantastic pizza crusts, it doesn't work for baking bread because it cooks too quickly and burns.)

You can use your pizza pan to precook toppings. Toast the walnuts for arugula goat cheese pizza, or roast the radicchio for a sausage, radicchio and burrata pizza. Since the pan's already hot, it's simple and faster; you also don't have to use (or wash) any additional kitchen gear.

The instructions say you can bake pizza on the stove top, baking the crust on both sides first like a flat bread and then adding toppings -- but pizzas baked in a hot oven (450 degrees works best) are far superior. On the stove, the crusts can deflate and even burn, and the toppings never seem to cook uniformly.

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Beautiful and versatile

PIZZA is not all the pan does. In the oven, it roasts vegetables in a flash; the preheated and pre-seasoned surface needs less oil than a baking sheet would. You can toast nuts and spices on it, roast root vegetables, fennel or tomatoes, or even use it to sear steaks or fish.

On the stove top, the pan makes flatbreads, pancakes and sandwiches. It makes crepes too, though my old crepe pan makes better ones on its shopworn metal surface; the Batali pan makes rougher, crisper crepes than I generally like. But what the crepes lack in texture, they make up for in sheer size: You can make giant ones, like those you get on the streets of Paris.

This isn't the first enameled cast-iron pizza pan on the market; Le Creuset had one but discontinued it. Lodge sells a pre-seasoned cast-iron pizza pan that isn't enameled, but it's not available in stores, only by mail or online. The Lodge pan makes pizza similar to the Batali pan -- perhaps slightly less crisp -- and can do pretty much everything else too. But without the pretty enamel, it's more utilitarian, not fitting as a serving plate.

For a wonderfully flavorful crust, ignore the recipe that comes with the Batali pan (it rises too fast and never develops body) and make a simple bread dough, using one packet of yeast, about 2 1/2 cups of flour, water, olive oil and salt.

Let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator: This allows the flavor to develop and gives you time to invite friends.

The next day, form it into two balls and let it rest on the counter for an hour while you assemble toppings and heat up the oven and the pizza pan. Then use your fingers to spread out the dough on a sheet of parchment and layer toppings over it. If you don't want to use a peel, slide the parchment with the pizza onto an inverted cookie sheet and then transfer it onto the hot pan. (Using parchment means you don't need to use cornmeal to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter, or to the pan -- or the peel, if you use one.) When it's done, slide the parchment off the pan and onto the cookie sheet again, or serve the pizza right on the pan.

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