Note From Peter: Bob's first installment has drawn a record number of great responses, so I'm excited to offer you Part Two in his ongoing saga. We'll keep Bob's story going for as long as he keeps sending us his terrific writing. Enjoy!!
PART TWO. A GOOD PIE NEEDS A GOOD CRUST.
So, “what the heck is a Tomato Pie?” you ask. My seasoned reply is simply that “pizza is like a Tomato Pie on steroids.” A strange way to answer? To that, I quietly say “Tomato Pie is not a lot of things.” Do you get it? Tomato Pie is, and always has been, about the bread and tomatoes!
The bread is thin and crisp enough to be picked-up without folding. No seasoned tomato sauce is used, only pieces of tomato cooked on the pie. Cheese and other toppings are used sparingly to enhance, not overwhelm, these ingredients. You may have read that Tomato Pies are built upside down – meaning the cheese goes on first – that is true. But do you know why?
In the early days at DeLorenzo’s, there was no menu. You could have a plain pie, or one with just a few pieces of sweet Italian sausage. As I recall, extra cheese, mushrooms, pepperoni, and so on, were either frowned upon, or suspiciously 86-ed. My pies adhere to these principles, with the substitution of a few toppings – homemade sweet basil sausage, sautéed shitake mushrooms or spinach - and yes, begrudgingly, pepperoni (if I have any).
Well, I can hear you saying, “That’s an easy pie to make.” To which I reply, “Dream on” (or worse). It’s the simplicity of these few ingredients that have made my quest (and yours) such a challenge.
Keep reading as I guide you through the ingredient landscape and tell you about the choices I have made, and the techniques I now employ to build my Tomato Pie. Compare this with your present approach. Steal my best tips, but most of all along the way, try to think with the “Mind of a Chef.” Sean Brock laughs a lot on TV, but I just know he would say, “Don’t ever stop thinking critically when preparing food.” Keep asking yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish?” and “Is this the best way to achieve that objective?”
Let’s start with the bread
I always remember the axiom, you eat first with your eyes. So, how can we make each pie more attractive - like a piece of art? It’s obvious to me - stop making them industrially round or rectangular in shape! My pies are irregularly shaped – by design – and only coincidentally round. It dawned on me one day that my pies weren’t “perfect” as I eyeballed a vendor cooking pies with a new wood-fired oven trailer. His were perfectly round, matching exactly the outline of the cardboard serving tray he was using – incredible! Either I couldn’t toss a dough ball into a round, or it just wasn’t that important to me!
No. I have concluded my irregular shape alters the thickness of the crust and the topping distribution to help make each bite taste different – exactly what I remember about eating DeLorenzo’s Pie. Uniformity is a golden rule of cooking, but one that must be broken at times. I believe this is one of those times. Also, I cut my pies differently. Not into familiar pie-shaped pieces, but rectangular-like shapes that don’t fold when you pick them up. Cut across the widest dimension first, and then perpendicularly into 6-8 pieces.
I am sure that DeLorenzo’s didn’t make long-fermentation (artisan) dough. But after trying a slew of dough recipes over the years with mediocre results, I finally concluded (with help from Peter’s books) it was time to try using an artisan-like crust approach. I read everything I could find, attended the Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival (coming up again this year April 12th) and seminars by Peter Reinhart and Lionel Vatinet – and voila - I was on my way.
At the same time, I had begun constructing my wood-fired oven using the Forno Bravo Pompeii Oven guideline plans, and the resources of the Forno Bravo Forum (more about my oven later). I had already decided that my gas and electric ovens were never going to cut-it if I was to bake the Tomato Pie and crusty breads I so dearly missed now that I lived in North Carolina.
Finding vendors of ingredients was another big obstacle. I needed hard (high protein) wheat flour – like King Arthur Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad and other Unbleached Bread Flours – you know, but not in 5-pound grocery store bags, but in 50-pound sacks. Soft (low protein) biscuit flour is everywhere down here in the south because they can grow soft wheat (and it’s cheaper), and only recently have scientists begun developing winter wheat varieties that will grow in the southern climate. David Bissette at The Grain Mill in nearby Wake Forest solved this problem for me.
Experimentation led me to understand how to adjust recipes using the baker’s percentage. Remember that most published recipes assume you are using off-the-shelf bread flour. The harder the flour, the more liquid you need. My restaurant apprenticeship years ago with Chef Jack McDavid in Philadelphia taught me, first and foremost, never serve what doesn’t look or taste right. I just had to make outstanding bread! So I mixed, and I baked, and I threw a lot away (fed it to the chickens). Sounds a lot like I huffed, and I puffed, and I blew the house down – but that was a fairytale. I must confess. I cussed a lot (please forgive me).
My dough recipe today uses King Arthur Sir Lancelot (high gluten) flour, water, yeast and salt - no sugar or oils added. I prefer pies no larger than 12” across because they are easier to manage in the oven. I cut about 250 grams of dough and refrigerate each in sealed plastic containers to develop flavor. I flour my room-temperature, wet-doughs on the counter, stretch them, and then “throw” the dough onto a short handled wooden peel with a thin coating of semolina flour. I like semolina, rather that corn meal or regular flour, because it doesn’t burn as quickly in the oven and ruin the flavor of the crisp crust.
I am proud to say that I think my crust is spot-on. Chick would be proud too. I’m not done talking about making and baking Tomato Pies yet, but need to check on my baby calves. It’s been a long winter feeding and watering through the wet and freezing weather. My back-pasture slopes south and grass sprouts sooner there. Above freezing temperatures and growing grass are signs of spring and the prospect of fewer demands on me to care for my herd and recent newborns.
Understand that there is more to life on a farm than baking Tomato Pies. I’ll be back soon to continue describing my odyssey. My cows are lowing.