I’m not exaggerating when I say that pizza cooked in a fiercely hot clay oven is the best you will ever taste. Why are they better than pizzas cooked in the gas or electric oven in your home? It’s all about the heat! The oven in your home will reach a maximum temperature of around 250° C. A clay oven, fired for a few hours, will reach temperatures well in excess of 400° C and it’s this furnace-like heat that turns a thin circle of dough, topped with oil, meats and cheese, into an absolute gourmet treat! Pizzas cooked in a clay oven take no longer than 2 minutes to cook. They have thin, crisp and slightly charred bases while the toppings remain delicious and full of flavour. Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is! so lets get on with the main thrust of this post which, if you haven’t guessed already, is about making pizzas in a clay oven.
Firstly, if you want the best pizza ever you really need to buy the best ingredients you can get your hands on. Make sure you buy good quality flour, organic if possible. Dried yeast is perfectly adequate so don’t worry about trying to get hold of the fresh stuff. The toppings are crucial too so don’t scrimp and buy cheap ingredients – you don’t need masses, so splash out and treat yourself to quality. The following recipe is borrowed/copied from Dan Stevens, a chef from River Cottage HQ (Dan has recently written the River Cottage Bread Handbook which is due for release anytime soon I hope!).
Dough (this is enough to make at least 15 small pizzas)
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain flour
350ml warm water (room temperature)
5g dried yeast (10g of fresh)
10g fine salt
A glug of olive oil
Add all of the dry ingredients to a large mixing bowl and give it a quick mix. Next add the water and mix into a rough dough. Finally add the oil and squidge it well into the dough. Flour a surface and tip your dough out onto it – it’s time for kneading! You can use a electric mixer with a dough hook to do this if you prefer but I like to get working on the dough with my hands – it just seems right somehow! You will find that this dough is quite wet (sticky) compared to traditional bread dough.
A tip about kneading. There are lots of methods you can use for kneading dough but I like to use this one (again thanks Dan at River Cottage). Hold the dough ball to the surface of your table with the tips of your left hand. Then with the heel of your right hand placed in front of the fingers of your left, push the dough forward, stretching it along the surface top then, in a fluid motion, pull the dough back towards your stationary left hand. Rotate the ball and repeat. I normally knead for about 10 minutes or so. Lightly oil a large bowl, put the dough into it, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise until it is double the original size. That’s it – dough done!
The choice of toppings is totally up to you but here are a few essentials as far as I am concerned:
- A mixture of olive oil, crushed garlic and herbs is, for my money, a much better pizza base topping than the traditional tomato sauce. Just drizzle or paint it over the surface of the dough before you add the rest of your toppings – it’s delicious!
- Grated cheese (mozzarella, Gruyere, Cheddar)
- Chunks of other cheeses (buffalo mozzarella, blue cheese)
- Mixed cured meats (spicy sausages like salami and chorizzo chopped or sliced, chunks of good organic ham)
- Roasted artichoke hearts
- Fresh basil
- I would have suggested anchovies to give that powerful salty, fishy blast but unfortunately anchovies stocks are in crisis due to over fishing so I no longer buy them – I suggest you do the same for the time being.
Other things you’ll need (ideally)
- A rolling pin
- A wooden chopping board
- A bakers peel (pretty much essential)
- A sharp knife
Making the pizzas
One of the best things about making pizzas outside using your own clay oven is building your own pizza – rolling out the dough, selecting various topping mixes from pots of delicious, fresh ingredients, sliding it onto a peel and finally into the hot oven. It is enormously rewarding and great fun so I always get everything ready outside then let friends and family make-up their own pizzas as they go – trust me everyone loves it! The process is simple:
- Make sure your oven is really hot. I normally fire mine for about 2 hours before cooking. Leave a fire burning at the rear of the oven and keep feeding this throughout the cooking period with extra wood. Scrape clear the floor of your oven. I normally push any embers to the back of my oven using the upside down blade of my bakers peel.
- Grab a small piece of dough and roll into a rough ball – about golf ball sized should do. I prefer to make smallish (maybe 7-8″ diameter) pizzas because they are much easier to handle in and out of the oven.
- Flour your rolling surface and rolling pin well but don’t over do it with flour. You need enough to stop it from sticking to the surface but too much and it burns on the base of the pizza once in the oven.
- Roll the dough out into a very thin disc (mine often come out in strange “country” shapes but it doesn’t matter). Add more flour if it sticks. Critically you want to ensure the base is NOT sticking to the surface because you will have all sorts of problems getting it onto your peel once the toppings are on otherwise.
- Paint or drizzle the base with the olive oil or traditional tomato topping.
- Throw on your toppings. Hint: don’t pile too much on your pizzas because toppings have a tendency to fly off when you slide the pizza from the peel into the oven!
- Slide the pizza onto your bakers peel – I find if you lightly dust it with flour first, then lift one edge of the pizza and with a quick, fluid movement pull it onto the peel. Practice makes perfect!
- Next you need to slide the pizza from the peel onto the hot floor of your oven. Again you might not get this right the first few times but persist and you’ll have it cracked!. The technique you need to master is “yanking” the peel from underneath the pizza - very much like pulling a tablecloth from underneath a fully laid table without breaking the plates or spilling the drinks!
- Let the pizza cook for about a minute – keeping a close eye on it. I normally then slide the peel underneath it, take it out of the oven and rotate it through 180° so that the side that was facing the open oven entrance is now facing the fire burning at the back of the oven and vice-versa. You might end up with a pizza burnt on one side if you fail to do this. Pop it back in for a little while longer until you are happy that it looks cooked.
- Slide the pizza out of the oven onto the peel then transfer onto a wooden chopping board. Slice and serve.
- Savour the best pizza ever and feel smug that you have created such a spectacular thing!
- Repeat until you and your guests can’t move for eating pizza.
I’d love to hear how you get on and maybe you can also share some of your own pizza recipe ideas.
Good luck and happy eating.