Make your own Pizza Stone

September 4, 2010

As promised, a post about my homemade pizza stone. Here it is in action, baking yesterday’s lunch: roasted duck,  caramelized onion, sage and mozzarella pizza. (No, I did not roast a duck for this pizza. As I said in my pizza post, think leftovers and get creative with your toppings!)

Caramelized Onion, Duck & Sage Pizza

Where to start:

  • Measure the barbecue or oven you’ll be using the stone in, and find the the best-sized tray to fit your space and your needs, the heavier duty the better. I use an undersized cookie sheet only because I have yet to locate a 16″ x 22″ industrial baking sheet.
  • Locate enough firebricks to fit your tray. The ones I found are 4 3/8″ x 9″ x 1 1/4.” If I remember correctly, they were only a few dollars each. Bought them at Willamette Greystone, a local vendor for concrete and rock products.Fire Brick

Now all you have to do is get the bricks to fit into the tray. Owning, begging or borrowing a wet saw makes this whole process easier, but it’s also relatively inexpensive to rent one. If you’re only clipping corners, a cheap masonry bit on a circular saw will do your trick. Even better: Find your fire bricks at a hardware store that offers a few free cuts with a purchase, and they’ll do the work for you. If none of the above is doable, find a tray that will fit full-sized bricks without making any cuts.

WELL-Seasoned Pizza Stone

Here’s another idea: Maybe the bricks could be placed directly on the grate. They’re weighty enough that they’re not likely to move around to much during the cooking process… Only time I see it as a hassle is when you’re baking bread just before barbecuing a main course, but a heavy-duty hot pad and sturdy metal spatula might make it simple enough to remove them one by one. No cuts. No tray. Hmmm…

As with just about everything, there’s room for improvement here.

My brother is currently experimenting with bricks cut down to half their thickness. If this doesn’t make them too fragile, may be the way to go as they’ll heat faster and therefore cut down on prep time for breads and pizzas. Also need to make sure they don’t heat too quickly in relation to the barbecue’s ambient heat, meaning the bottom of a pizza or loaf would overcook by the time the top is ready…

If only the process of removing one pizza and inserting another didn’t let most of the heat out of my barbecue… but until the time comes to build one of these, my homemade pizza stone will do just fine.

Forno Bravo Pizza Oven

Forno Bravo Pizza Oven


P.S.  Coming soon: Pesto! Pesto! Pesto!

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

August 29, 2010

Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the basil is lush and fragrant, and sun-ripe tomatoes are hanging like jewels on their vines.  The cool mornings remind me that fall is just around the corner and I’d better enjoy these warm days and the garden’s bounty while they’re still here.

Might be “enjoying” the warm days too much… we spent the last week installing a thousand or so square feet of gravel pathway between home and shop.  Add wine to the tired body in the evening, and not much energy is left for posting blogs (yes, Saturday did pass without a post, if anyone’s counting). Not much energy for cooking either, but, as I walk past the garden on our new path, those ripe tomatoes are calling, “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”

If I were still living in Italy, I probably never would have attempted homemade pizza as there seems to be a pizzaiolo and a wood-fired oven just around every corner. There are few places in America where this is true, and our little corner of rural Oregon is not one of them.

Starting completely from scratch, making both your dough and sauce, pizza can be quite an endeavor. It’s unlikely that I would make the time to do it often. Since pizza is one of my husband’s favorites, I’ve found ways to simplify the process.

  1. Most important step is cooking your pizza on the barbecue. Few home kitchens are equipped with an oven capable of baking a pizza quickly. A well-heated barbecue can do it in 6 minutes, almost quick enough to keep up with Stefano’s appetite. And when he’s on his best behavior, it’s even enough to keep up with a small party. Until we build ourselves a wood-fired pizza oven, barbecued pizza is the way to go.
  2. You will need a pizza stone. Although store-bought pizza stones will work, they’re a little thin and a barbecue’s intense bottom heat may overheat the stone. In the past, when cooking with the stones, I kept two on hand so I could switch stones when the other became too hot. These days, I use my homemade pizza stone made from firebricks. I’ve had a few inquiries on this, so I’ll make it a separate post where you can find the information.
  3. Have the dough on hand. A few weeks back, I posted the recipe for Chewy Italian Bread — which is what I use for pizza dough. Included in that post were instructions on how to make more than one batch of dough at a time. Each “loaf” of dough will make three 12″ to 14″ pizzas, depending on how thin you roll the crust. Allow one refrigerated “loaf” to come to room temperature, and you can have barbecued pizza on the table in 30 minutes. Note: When I have time, I prefer to make pizzas out of a “fresh” loaf of dough (rather than a previously made refrigerated loaf) because it’s more willing to roll out to a thinner crust. If I know ahead of time I’m making pizza, I’ll turn a batch of biga into a batch of dough and let it sit in a covered bowl for 2 to even 8 hours until I’m ready.
  4. Get creative with the toppings.
  • Use fresh tomatoes and make a 5 minute quick sauce (recipe below).
  • Next time you’re cooking tomato sauce for pasta, make a little extra and set it aside for pizzas.
  • Ditto for bechamel/white sauce. (Bechamel, fresh prosciutto and grilled zucchini is a personal favorite!)
  • If you’re sauteing mushrooms, make an extra cup and freeze them.
  • Grill up an extra zucchini.
  • Skip the sauce altogether and make one of the pizze in bianco (white pizzas) below.
  • Stock your refrigerator and cupboards with topping like olives, artichoke hearts, anchovies…

Pizza dough basics:

  • Have your dough at room temperature, whether it’s homemade fresh, refrigerated, or store-bought, and flatten a softball-sized lump onto a floured board.
  • Although I’ve done my share of dough flipping, just rolling it out keeps the kitchen a little cleaner (and the ceiling).
  • Keep your dough and board well floured, and turn the dough often so you don’t end up prying it off the table with a spatula.
  • Roll it out into a shape that works with your pizza stone. Make it as thin (or thick) as you like, just make sure that it’s not so thin that it won’t support the weight of its toppings as you slide it from pizza peel (or cutting board) onto your pizza stone.
  • Spread a thin layer of cornmeal on the pizza peel to keep your dough from sticking.
  • ALWAYS wait to put your toppings on until after you have transferred from your workspace to your pizza peel.
  • The longer you leave a topped pizza on the peel, the harder it is to get off. And, yes, I know from experience that it is possible to reach a point where it will not come off in one piece.
  • When transferring the pizza from peel to stone, give it a little side-to-side shake first. Use your spatula to loosen any areas that stick BEFORE you try to slide it off, and keep the spatula handy in case you missed a spot.

Ready for Toppings

Pizza In Bianco 1

One of my favorite pizza toppings is a simple mix of

  • fresh mozzarella
  • fresh basil
  • olive oil
  • salt

If your fresh mozzarella is packaged in water, you’ll need to let it drain and dry for a few hours.

Mix chopped basil and cubed mozzarella in a dish, pour at least a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on top and smush a bit. Spread on the pizza (this one was a little heavy on the cheese and it ran off the sides when baking). Salt to taste just before serving.

Ready for the Barbecue

Six minutes later…

Ready to Devour

Kitchen Tip – Saving Basil

In Italy, you can purchase confections of cubed, frozen parsley, and I always thought this was a great alternative when fresh herbs weren’t on hand. I brought the practice home with me. Whenever I pick parsley, I pick a bit extra, chop  it up, and stick it in a Ziplock in the freezer.

Basil is a different story. Who wants brown flecks of defrosted basil on a pizza? The trick is to keep the cut edges of the basil from being exposed to the air for too long. As with the parsley, when I gather fresh basil, I gather as much as I can, chop it up, set aside what I need for my current dish, and stuff the rest into an ice cube tray I keep just for this purpose. Then I fill the cubes with just enough olive oil to cover the basil (pushing the basil down into the oil with a small spoon once it’s moistened with oil helps), and freeze. Store the frozen cubes in a Ziplock. In winter, it’s the next best thing to fresh basil. Use the cubes in pasta sauces, soups, pizza, even Pesto! If necessary, they can be defrosted in the microwave on a low setting, and any extra oil (is there such a thing?) can be drained off and used for other dishes.

Tray of Basil Ready for the Freezer

Frozen Cubes Ready to Use

Sal’s White Pizza

  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • parsley
  • fresh Parmesan cheese

Another one of my favorite white pizzas is this simple “garlic bread” pizza. It’s been almost 20 years since I worked for anyone besides myself, but my last job was waiting table in an Italian pizzeria in Glenwood, CA, ( a blip on Park Boulevard between Oakland and Montclair in the east bay). Sal’s parlor was always packed. More than an appetizer, Sal served this yummy creation as an “appeaser” while patrons waited for their entrees.

Mix a tablespoon or so of finely chopped garlic with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, squishing the garlic a bit with the back of the spoon to release its flavors. Pour onto your dough and use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped, fresh parsley and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Salt to taste

Sal's Garlic Bread Pizza

Pizza Margherita

A simple pizza, named after a princess called Daisy.

  • tomato
  • garlic
  • basil
  • mozzarella

I’ve consumed more than my share of simple tomato sauces on pasta and pizza over the years, but these days I just don’t care much for most tomato sauces unless they’re either made from barely-cooked fresh tomatoes or  if they’re sporca — dirty — as our friend Andrea would say — filled with loads of yumminess like olives and capers and bacon.

The trick to make a 5-minute tomato sauce is to start with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, chop your tomatoes into half-inch cubes, and strain all their water away before tossing them into the pan. (The small size of these pieces makes in unnecessary to remove the tomato peels.)

For one 12″ – 14″ pizza:

Saute slices of fresh garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Strain 3 -4 chopped, plum tomatoes, giving them an extra squeeze as you transfer them from colander to pan. Saute on medium to medium-high. The heating tomatoes will generate some water — don’t cook any longer than necessary to evaporate that liquid. Your tomatoes will start to lose their shape, but should not be cooked long enough to lose their fresh-tomato color.

Spoon onto a prepared pizza dough and spread with the back of a spoon. Add a few slices of fresh mozzarella, chopped basil to taste, and get it on the barbecue.

Margherita Ready for the Grill

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

And there you have it. Three pizzas start to finish in 30 minutes. Since we were eating the first as the second and third cooked, after 15 more minutes all that was left were the dishes and the last sips of wine.

Now, if only I could figure out how to write one of the posts so quickly!!!

Buon appetito ~

You can tell a lot about a culture through its proverbs. Italians say that while sharing a table with family and friends, one does not grow old. And rather than kill two birds with one stone, Italians feed them with one bean.

Creating, sharing, and eating food is tantamount to life and love in Italy. Knowledge, necessity, and anticipation unite, merging past, present, and future to nurture body and soul. The bountiful Italian table urges one to pause long enough to inhale the scents of the season’s harvest and feel the heartbeat of the day. To break bread is to forge bonds.

Fortunately, breaking bread is universal, and I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who understood the soul-warming effects of homemade bread. I still remember the drums of whole wheat we hauled home from her parents’ far-off farm. Wheat that was cracked into wholesome bits, baked into russet loaves, and devoured in inch-thick, steaming slabs.

When I left home at 17, I also left behind the luxury of homemade bread. Living in a dorm while attending college, a VW van while following the Grateful Dead, a backpack while hitchhiking Europe, and a camper while working in the circus were not conducive to baking bread. When I found my way back to Oregon, Italian husband who Cannot Eat Without Bread in tow, I forayed into the yeasty world of bread baking. But the only way it was going to work was if I could make good, failsafe bread. Running two businesses from home meant it had to be easy. And spontaneous entertaining meant it had to be quick.

I’ve tweaked a handful of recipes over the years to meet our needs, everything from Simple as Sunshine Focaccia to Low Carb Cranberry Walnut Bread to Chewy Italian Bread, our current favorite, and the recipe I’ll be sharing today. I would prefer to have more pictures, but I’m still without my desktop, AND I’m publishing this while selling at Eugene’s Saturday Market. Hopefully I get that darn computer back this week.

According to the Italians, Pan di sudore, miglior sapore. Bread you sweat for tastes better. I agree.

Yes, you can make good homemade bread, and, with a little prep work, you can make it in a flash. If you have a handy dandy Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, you can even make it without the sweat! The following instructions may seem long, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll be able to whip up lovely loaves of bread in no time. You’ll need 5 minutes to start your sponge (biga in Italian) and 20 minutes a few hours later to prepare the dough. Then, when you want to bake your bread, all you’ll need is the time to warm an oven and bake it, a total of 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on your method.

You can bake this bread in a regular oven just fine. A pizza stone will help make it crusty, but you can also make do with a cookie sheet.

I bake my bread in a gas barbecue. It heats in 12 minutes, bakes in 17, and it produces the closest I’ve come to wood-fired bread at home. Since I bake bread a few times a week, year round, another benefit is keeping all that heat outside during the summer. You’ll definitely need a pizza stone for this method, which you can find at almost any store with kitchen gadgets. Maybe I’m clumsy, but I find these store-bought stones  too thin and too flimsy (and expensive to replace). After destroying 3 of them in my first 6 months of bread baking. I finally made my own heavy-duty stone by purchasing oven bricks at a local building supply store and fitting them into a sturdy cookie sheet. The whole thing cost me less than half what a single mass-produced pizza stone runs.

Biga for four loaves of bread:

1 t yeast

1cup warm water

3 cups flour (I use half unbleached white flour and half unbleached bread flour. Using all plain, old unbleached flour will work just fine, though your finished product won’t be as chewy.)

Pour your warm water into quart glass or Tupperware container and sprinkle the yeast on top. Once the yeast is dissolved, mix in the flour. This will make a dryish mix, and I don’t fuss over getting every last bit of flour mixed in. Once the water is absorbed and the flour clumps, much like biscuit dough, I call it done. This process shouldn’t take more than five minutes tops.

The biga will be ready to divide and mix into dough after left for a few hours in a warm spot. If it’s cold, let it sit a little longer. If you won’t be making bread for a day or so, leave it in the refrigerator where it can stay for 10 or so days. If you only want to make the starter for one loaf at a time, use ¼ t yeast, ¼ cup water, and ¾ cups flour.

To make your bread dough:

1 portion biga (1/4 of the recipe at top)

1 t yeast

1 1/4 cup water

2 3/4 cup flour (again, I mix this half and half between regular flour and bread flour)

2 t salt

Handy things to have:

Pizza stone for baking

Kitchen Aid Mixer or other mixer capable of kneading a relatively soft dough

Spray bottle for spritzing your loaf while baking

Pour ½ cup of the water into a bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top, and let it dissolve. I sprinkle on ½ tsp. at a time to avoid clumping the yeast and slowing the process. In a bowl (your mixing bowl if using a Kitchen Aid type mixer), add 1 portion of biga, 2 tsp salt, ½ cup water, and enough of the flour to keep the water from sloshing all over your kitchen. Use the paddle attachment to mix the biga into the flour and water. (If your biga has been in the refrigerator for a day or more, it will be dense enough to remain in its own little lump. Make sure it’s merging with the rest of the dough.) If you’re mixing by hand, time to get your fingers gooey.

Once the biga has merged with the flour and water, add the remaining flour, the yeast and water mix, and the remaining ¼ cup water (which I use to rinse the last of the yeast/water out of the bowl I dissolved it in).

When it’s well mixed, switch to the bread hook and mix for 10 to 15 minutes.  If you’re doing this by hand, keep the dough in a bowl for as long as you can. Eventually, you’ll have to put it onto a board, but it needs to remain moist (and therefore sticky), so be careful not to add too much extra flour on the board. A scraper will help you turn the dough. In the mixer, if I notice that the dough completely slumps to the bottom of the bowl, I add up to 1/4 cup more flour. You want to end up with a smooth, soft dough that is elastic enough not to break when you stretch it.


Testing the Stretch of the Dough

Tip: to be able to have bread ready on short notice, I usually make a double batch of dough at once, using 2 portions of biga (half of the recipe at top), 4 tsp. salt, 2 ½ cups water, and 5 ½ cups flour. Once the dough is mixed I put half of it in a glass or Tupperware container and leave it in the refrigerator for up to a week or so. When it’s time to bake it, I start the oven or barbecue heating, plop the cold dough onto a floured cutting board, stretch to shape, and cook as usual.

Once the dough is blended, divide if you’re making multiple loaves. Refrigerate if you’re not going to use that day. If you are baking one the same day, splash a teaspoon or so of olive oil into the bowl, flip your dough around to coat it and the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until double, usually 2 -3 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. (If you’re in a hurry and your oven has a bread-rising feature (+/- 100 degrees) you can cut the rising time in half.

Turn the raised bread onto a floured board and stretch into an oblong. I use a pizza peel, but a cutting board works just as well. Let it rest for as long as it takes your oven or barbecue to heat to temperature. To fancy up your finished product, try making shallow diagonal slices with a sharp knife. This works best when using chilled dough.

Fresh from the Barbecue

To bake in a gas barbeque: heat barbecue to high, roughly 500 degrees on mine. Store-bought pizza stones are usually only ¼ to 3/8 inch thick and therefore heat quickly, which means the bottom heat from your barbecue may burn the bottom of your bread before the top is browned. So, if you’re using a thin stone, use a spatula to loosen the dough from your floured board and transfer onto the cold stone. (Some flour will transfer with the dough, which will keep it from sticking. If you have a problem with dough sticking to the stone, either dust with flour or cornmeal before adding your loaf.) Place in the preheated barbeque. Immediately turn the temperature down to medium-high. With my thicker, homemade stone, I need to pre-heat the stone with the barbecue (or the bottom of the bread wouldn’t brown). I leave my barbecue on high, and the loaf bakes in 15 minutes. You’ll have to gauge your time and temperature according to your barbecue and pizza stone. Check it after 10 minutes and gauge whether or not you should raise or lower your barbecue’s temperature. A balance of nice brown crust on top without burning the bottom is most flavorful. (A few charred edges can do wonders for the flavor, but watch overdoing it.)

Tip: for a wonderful smoky, wood-fired oven flavor, try adding a few sticks of hardwood to the edges of your grate. Again, gauge when they should be added and where they should be placed by the temperature and size of your barbecue.

Tip: to make your bread even crustier, spritz the partially-baked loaf with water a few times during the baking process. This works for both oven-baked and barbecued loaves.

To bake in the oven: preheat pizza stone to 425 for at least 1/2 hour (while bread is rising on cutting board or peel). Using a spatula to gently loosen the dough from the board, transfer to preheated stone and bake for 30 – 35 minutes. Again, exact baking time depends on your oven.

Cool on rack to maintain crust and mangia! mangia! mangia!


Walnut Bread: Mix in 1 – 1 ½ cups lightly toasted walnut chunks while mixing your loaf. Save a few halves for decoration

Rosemary Bread: Saute a few sprigs of fresh rosemary in ¼ cup olive oil. Add the oil while mixing your loaf. Chop the sprigs and add them as well if you’d like more flavor.

Olive Bread: Add 1 cup or so drained, dried, chopped, and pitted olives while mixing dough.

Whole Grain: My husband is not fond of whole wheat bread, pane integrale in Italian, so I usually don’t experiment with different flours. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t start with 100% whole wheat… maybe 50%, and then play with the ratio to find the balance between whole grain and chewy texture that pleases you.

Buon Appetito!