I’ve been on a bit of a library bender. Did you know you can borrow Kindle books from the library? Like, without leaving the house? I’m working my way through the Goldfinch and My Brilliant Friend. Both highly recommended. And, in case two books isn’t enough to juggle, I’m also casually reading a real-life paperback copy of The Debt to Pleasure, a novel full of foodstuff. It’s glorious. Here, from the instructions for a certain Russian pancake:
“When smoke starts to rise out of the pan add the batter in assured dollops, bearing in mind that each little dollop is to become a blini when it grows up, and that the quantities here are sufficient for six. Turn them over when bubbles appear on top. Serve the pancakes with sour cream and caviar. Sour cream is completely straightforward and if you need any advice or guidance about it then, for you, I feel only pity.”
Further evidence of my many-books-at-a-time habit: I have three cookbooks checked out of the library, and as of last week, they were all piled on my nightstand. One is Jim Lahey’s My Pizza, which I may have owned at one point but no longer do. It’s almost due back at the library, so last weekend we had friends over and I put the cookbook to use at a pizza night. The momentous occasion here is not that I actually cooked from a book before returning it, though that gets honorable mention; what’s really noteworthy is that, after many failures, a couple semi-successes, and much handwringing, I finally mastered white pizza.
Tomato pie lovers, take note: I am on your team. D is, too — perhaps even more vehemently than I. We both are loyal to red pies. That’s partly because we love tomatoes, but partly it’s because white pies are often brittle, dry things with a heap of vegetables, but nothing to soften those vegetables and coax them into submission. More like flatbread than like pizza.
The answer, at least according to Jim Lahey? Embrace the genius of bechamel.
Bechamel is white pizza’s answer to tomato sauce. It bridges the gap between crust and topping. Also — dare I suggest it has an advantage over tomato? — it gets bubbly and browned in the oven, adding more meltiness than mozzarella alone can provide. Under the scalding heat of my oven at its max, last Sunday’s white pizzas became glorious, white-hot pillows cushioning piles of sliced mushrooms, garlic confit, and caramelized onions. Because the bechamel had less liquid than tomatoes, the underbelly of my white pies stayed impressively crisp.
The verdict was clear. Red pies still hold the special spot in our hearts, but bechamel-blanketed white pies now make the permanent roster, too.
If you’re not a mushroom fan (weirdo), we also really loved the cauliflower version: chopped cauliflower, bits of green olive (the kind with pimentos, so throwback), lots of garlic confit and caramelized onions, and maybe a chopped anchovy or two.
With that, back to Passover cleaning.
Best Mushroom Pizza
Adapted from Jim Lahey’s My Pizza
Makes 2 personal pizzas or 1 large (13 x 18 sheet pan) pizza
This is a pizza with several steps, but it more than rewards your patience. In truth, the process won’t take more than an afternoon; most of the prep work can be completed while the dough rises. We use a white flour dough for most pizzas around here, but these tomato-less pies respond particularly well to a whole wheat crust enriched with a bit of honey.
250 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping the dough
275 grams (1 3/4 cups) white whole wheat (or regular whole wheat) flour
1 gram (1/4 teaspoon) active dry yeast
16 grams (2 teaspoons) fine sea salt
350 grams (1 ½ cups) water
30 grams (1.5 tablespoons) honey
243 grams (1 cup) whole milk
57 grams (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
9 grams (1 heaping tablespoon) all-purpose flour
1 grams (1/8 teaspoon) fine sea salt
3 rasp grates of nutmeg or a pinch of ground nutmeg
8 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 onion, halved and sliced into rings
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
20 grams (6 tablespoons) grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
100 grams fresh mozzarella, pulled into small clumps
300 grams (10.5 ounces) mixed sliced mushrooms (we used shiitake, cremini, and oyster)
1 recipe garlic confit
1 recipe caramelized onions
1 recipe bechamel
Make dough: Combine flours, salt, and yeast in a medium mixing bowl. Add water and honey, and stir with a fork to combine. (Everyone else uses a wooden spoon, but I don’t get it – everything sticks to wood.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel, and set aside in a warm, draft-free spot for about 18 hours, until the dough has doubled in volume. This will take less time in a very warm spot and more time in a cold spot.
Lightly flour a work surface and turn dough onto floured surface. Divide in half, and shape each half into a ball, by lightly stretching the four sides of each piece out and back into the center of the ball, one by one, helping build surface tension in the dough. Then shape each piece into a ball, and turn seam-side down onto the work surface. If dough is sticky, dust each with a bit more flour.
Cover with a damp cloth and let rest for at least an hour while you assemble the fillings, or wrap the balls individually in plastic and refrigerate for up to 3 days. If refrigerating, return to room temperature by leaving them out on the counter, covered in a damp cloth, for 2 to 3 hours before needed.
Make bechamel while dough rises: In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat until it foams. Add flour, and stir until flour and butter are fully combined but flour has not started to brown. Add milk in a slow stream, whisking to combine it with the roux. It will start to thicken slightly as it heats up; continue stirring to prevent clumps. When milk is the thickness of heavy cream, add salt and nutmeg, give a good stir, and remove from the heat. It will continue to thicken as it cools. By the time it’s fully cool and ready to go on pie, it will be almost shmearable.
Make garlic confit: In a small saucepan, combine garlic, olive oil, and salt over medium-low heat. Garlic should sizzle lightly; if it looks like it’s starting to brown too quickly, turn down the heat. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until cloves are soft and lightly golden. Set aside to cool.
Make caramelized onions: Peel onions, halve them from pole to pole, and slice into thin half-rings. Pile the onions into a large shallow skillet that has a lid. Turn the heat to medium and add the butter and salt. When the onions start making those wonderful sizzling noises, give the onions a good stir, reduce the heat to low, and cover the pan. After 20 minutes, check the onions. They should have sweated down considerably to the point where they are very soft and possibly turning tan. Cook the onions 5-10 more minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and ensure even cooking. Remove from heat and set aside.
Assemble and bake pizzas: If using a pizza stone, place in whatever part of your oven contains the heat: in my gas oven, the heat comes from the bottom so I put my stone in the bottom third of the oven. Preheat oven as high as it will go (for me, that’s 550 degrees F).
If using a stone, dust your peel with semolina or flour. Take one ball of dough, and gently stretch it, slowly and deliberately, until it is 9-11 inches across. Set the disk onto your peel; working quickly, spoon the béchamel over the surface and spread it evenly, leaving about an inch of the rim untouched. Sprinkle the surface with Parmigiano. Distribute mozzarella clumps, mushroom slices, bits of the garlic confit, and caramelized onions over the surface. Sprinkle a bit more Parmigiano on top.
Use a quick, jerking motion to transfer the dough from peel to stone. Bake 6-8 minutes, until pizza is bubbling and golden brown. Use peel or a very large flat spatula to remove pizza from oven. Slice and serve immediately.
If using a metal sheet pan, drizzle sheet pan with olive oil, transfer the dough onto the pan, and slowly and deliberately spread the dough until it mostly fills the sheet pan. This may take time; if the dough tenses up, let it rest for 10 minutes or so and it will relax and be ready for spreading. Once dough mostly fills the pan, distribute ingredients as described above.
Bake pan pizza for 7-10 minutes, until brown and bubbly. Remove, slice into squares, and serve immediately.