The secret to good pizza without doubt is the 'dough'. Which when cooked at the highest heat possible should be chewy, olivey and slighty dry. A bad base, makes for a puffy pizza, full of air and no substance. Pizza - simple and yet sophisticated, get one thing wrong and the whole experience is ruined forever. Get it right and the pleasure is nothing short of heavenly.
I took my first bite of pizza, when I was seven. Instantly I was in love, and its a love affair, that's lasted.
'Eat it with your fingers Nicky! No not with a knife and fork, with your fingers.' said my Uncle. Copying him I did the unthinkable and lifted food off my plate with my hands. It felt dangerous and exciting. I bit in. A slightly tangy tomato sauce met a crispy base, topped with grilled cheese. It tasted forbidden and eating it with my hands, added to the illicitiness of the experience.
Since that first taste I have been addicted to good pizza.
Good pizza is surprisingly difficult to find. I've looked for it in Sicily, hoped I'd find it in New York City, dreamed about it in Hamburg, searched for it in London, given up my search in Belfast, been disappointed in Barcelona and found close to perfection in Charleston, South Carolina. In the past 20 years pizzas have been bastardised, deep fried and generally abused. Cheap nasty ingredients, pungently chemical tomato sauces, soggy bases and greasy cheese make for a downright horrible experience. Sadly, pizzas like this abound in supermarkets, takeaways and restaurants. I recently had a pizza served to me in a restaurant, that was literally swimming in a pool of grease, with a base that hadn't seen a hot oven in it's life.
Santa brought me my first pizza cookery set and since then I have been on the quest to bake perfect dough. There is something very connecting and soothing for me about mixing a mound of flour, olive oil, yeast, and salt with water to make an elastic dough. The simple process of kneading and rolling, knocking and and bringing the dough together, then flipping it between the palms of the hands to make thin circles is almost a spiritual pursuit.
Sadly time is not always on my side, and making dough becomes a luxury rather than a necessity. With my love of pizza never waning I have trawled shops to find good cook at home pizza because sometimes well a lot of the time in my case you want pizza. You want it to be good, and you want to be able to pop it in the oven, toss a salad, pour something sparkling then eat, at home maybe at the table. Possibly on your lap while sitting on the sofa watching a movie. Or maybe to share with a pal over a beer. It's that idea of pizza without fuss or fret. For years I have searched for this rather elusively I must admit. But I am delighted and excited to announce I think finally I have found it. It's not the perfect pizza, but the dough is nothing short of astounding.
May I introduce you to Marks & Spencer Woodfired Pizzas. In my opinion the best pizzas to have made it onto the high street shelves in a decade. I tasted the three pizzas listed above.
The Chorizo, Sweet Peppers and Manchego Cheese was my favourite. The combination of spicy sausage, sharp cheese and succulent sweet peppers was very morish. The flavour was rich, and warming, and needed only a tossed salad to accompany it.
But it is the crust that takes the biscuit, wins all the gold medals and does a jig. I have never tasted a home cooked shop bought pizza with such a base. In fact there are few pizzas served in restaurants with such a good base.
The crust is not too thick, or so thin the ingredients slide off,instead it has a chewy and crispy texture, with a good flavour of a grassy olive oil, and a hint of salt. For me it is the perfect dough, I think I could eat it right out of the bowl. Seriously, it is that good!
I asked Serena Vickers, the M&S Pizza Expert about the dough, she told me, 'The base is key in creating authentic pizza. Ours are made with only the finest natural ingredients; water, flour, yeast, salt and olive oil. These ingredients are then married together in a secret combination, and the dough is slowly fermented overnight using traditional methods. To deliver a wonderful flavour as well as the perfect texture.'
I shared the pizzas I tasted with several friends. Asking each of them 'What makes this pizza stand out for you?'
The reply was without waiver 'the dough'.
In fact the crust was so good I would love to be able to buy just the wood fired base, maybe dusted with rosemary, crystals of sea salt and anointed with olive oil. Or even scattered with roasted garlic and chilli flakes. Or even a base on its own for me to cook as I wished.
Pizzas need heat. Hot! Hot! Hot! ovens. Temperatures the average cooker will never reach. To ensure the dough cooks the instant it finds the heat and the toppings follow immediately afterwards. Wood fried ovens abound in good pizzerias across the world. I remember standing beside one in Sicily, where the dry heat coming in waves from the oven felt like a sauna. Pizzas took minutes to cook. How can results like this be possible with a cook at home range?
The secret is two fold, first the wood fired pizza that will be cooked at home has already been wood fired "the pizzas are baked through a scorching hot open flame stonebed oven. The oven bed is made of lava stone, formed by the solidification of magma on the surface of the Etna Volcano in Sicily! It's the unique porosity of this stone which means the heat is retained within the stone itself which cooks the pizza to give the perfect crispy base." Serena said.
This means when the pizza gets to our ovens it only needs a short blast at a high heat, which will work the toppings into each other, and heat the base through, adding an extra layer of crispiness.
Serena told me about the stores research journey to create this pizza, saying that the search took their 'team of experts over a year to develop with lots of research and visits to pizzerias all over Italy and the UK ... an extensive trawl of Italy's finest pizzerias.' Learning from generations of Italy's expert pizzaiolas, the M&S team took in Da Michele in Naples; featured in the film; Eat, Pray, Love, and Antica Forno in Rome.
M&S's research has clearly paid off because these pizzas, especially the crust are delicious.
The pizzas are currently on a 3 for 2 offer in M&S stores throughout the UK. Have you tried them? I'd love to know what you think?
Tell me how do you like your pizza?
That's it for now ...
Salt & Sparkle = Life Remarkable