PROVO, Utah, September 26, 2013 — Applewood smoke drifts through a central Provo neighborhood carried on a soft night breeze. A lanky man in a fire-resistant shirt aims a leaf blower turned bellows at logs burning in a fire pit. Embers and sparks shoot everywhere.
“We’ve got to get the logs hot enough before we put them in the pizza oven,” he says before revving the blower again, blasting another glowing cascade all over the tiny backyard. Moments later he picks up a garden hose and sprays down the greenery.
Boo Crandall possesses an impressive comfort level with fire. He developed these skills over the last decade, working as a wildland firefighter battling blazes in the Mountain West region.
When the still burning logs become coal-covered, wearing only thick leather gloves, he reaches into the bonfire and grabs them one by one tossing them into the mouth of the oven. He only misses once.
I wonder out loud if the gloves are “special” and he assures me that he can feel the heat.
The pizza oven was Crandall’s brainchild after serving a two year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Northern Italy. He returned home fluent in Italian with a love of the Italian people and a love of pizza di Napoli.
Traditional Neapolitan pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven at a lofty temperature of 800°F. The walls of the oven are lined with firebrick and the top is a cement dome Crandall crafted over a carved Styrofoam form. He constructed the oven on a repurposed piece of sidewalk, and once drove it across town on a forklift while moving houses because the landlord did not care for his 130lb Alaskan malamute. It looks quite professional though he later tells me that building it was a trial and error process.
Crandall slips into science teacher mode explaining how the oven is so effective.
“There’s a lot of radiation and conduction and convection all going on at the same time! That’s why the fire can be in one part but the pizza pretty much cooks evenly, because it’s all somewhat balanced, once the firebricks heat up and give off their unified love.”
For a purist like Crandall, the ingredients for the perfect pizza di Napoli are specific–no substitutions. The flour must be “tipo 00” and the sauce is crushed tomatoes straight from the can and nothing else. He is willing to grant some leeway on the cheese, allowing regular low—moisture mozzarella due to the expense of fresh mozzarella.
I present him with my contributions to the pizza party: Genovese basil from my garden and two pounds of fresh mozzarella I found at a club store. We chat about his most recent adventure: teaching science and history to Yup’ik Eskimo kids in a remote Alaskan village with no plumbing and no cars as he demonstrates how to roll out the dough on a wooden peel with a three-foot-long pasta rolling pin.
The dough must be thin and the toppings sparse because the crust can only support so much weight. We add the toppings, and then it is off to the oven which is blistering with heat. The heaps of coals are pushed to the back, and I get to slide the pizza into the center. The crust begins to puff at once, and the spicy smell of basil fills the air as it crisps and releases aromatic oils. Every 30 seconds he gives the pizza a quarter turn until it has been in for about a minute and a half total. Then he slips it from the oven and back onto the peel.
As I bite into my first slice of authentic pizza di Napoli, I forget that it just popped out of an 800°F oven and suck air, trying to eat gracefully. The crust is almost crackery on the bottom—it is so thin—but the tomato sauce keeps the top soft.
I find myself agreeing in an age of cultural digestion, fusion cuisine and far-out pizzas, when our neophilic urgings push us to explore and search for each new thing more edgy and hip than the last, that there is superiority in simplicity.
A straightforward combination of single ingredient pizza sauce, topped with fresh mozzarella, and basil mixed with a hint of fruit wood smoke is perfection. The simplicity of the food allows for joy in the complexity of the human interaction.
Friends work together to make a meal as old as kings and queens as more friends pop by to celebrate a birthday, eat some pizza under the stars, and share a moment away from busy lives brought together by a love of good food.
Most of us do not have a wood fired pizza oven in our backyards. This recipe for Pizza Margherita, a type of pizza di Napoli, has been adapted for the oven in your kitchen. The dough has a chewier texture when made and kneaded by hand. Kneading dough is also very therapeutic and highly recommended after a stressful day.
4 cups all purpose flour
1 generous teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 ½ cups warm water
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra oil for greasing the bowl
1 ½ teaspoon yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
1 (14.5 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
16 ounces fresh mozzarella
fresh basil leaves
kosher or sea salt, to taste
In a measuring cup, add water, olive oil, sugar, and yeast. Stir and let it sit for 5 minutes. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon salt. Make a well in the center. Pour the water mixture into the well and stir the water into the flour slowly incorporating the flour. The dough will be lumpy with shaggy bits. Gather the dough together into a rough ball and let it rest for 5 minutes.
Move an oven rack to the second-highest position in a cool oven. Place a pizza stone in the center of the rack and preheat the oven to 550°F. If the oven temperature doesn’t go up to 550°F set it to 500°F and leave the pizza in a little longer when you cook it.
Lightly flour your workspace and place the dough in the middle. Knead the dough for 8 minutes, by pressing it down and folding it over. If the dough is sticky, lightly dust it with flour. Knead the dough until it becomes silky and smooth. Oil a large bowl with extra virgin olive oil and place the kneaded dough into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place. Let dough rise for about 30 minutes or until almost doubled in size and soft. Punch dough down.
Lightly flour a pizza peel or a rimless cookie sheet. Remember that the dough must not stick to the pizza peel because you will slide it onto the pizza stone. Slice the mozzarella into ½ inch thick slices. Break off a handful of dough—about a 1 cup measuring cup sized piece, and shape it into a ball.
Set the dough ball on top of your floured pizza peel. Roll the dough into an 8 inch circle that is about ¼ inch thick. Spread a couple of spoonfuls crushed tomatoes onto the dough circle, and sprinkle with salt to taste. Break the slices of cheese into pieces and add 6-8 hunks of cheese –about 2 slices broken up, and 4-5 fresh basil leaves per pie.
Slide the pizza off the peel and into the center of the pizza stone. Give it a little jerk to get it moving off the peel. Bake for 3-4 minutes, or longer if oven is less than 550°F. When crust is lightly browned and cheese is bubbly, remove the pizza from the oven with a spatula and slide onto a plate.
Yield: 8 pizza pies
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