The measure of a cookbook might not be in any particular recipe, but in the author’s power to get you psyched to try. San Francisco baker Josey Baker (that’s literally his given name), co-proprietor of The Mill, is master of the psych. The word passion is such a cliché in food writing it’s embarrassing, but Baker embodies the kind of passion for breads that invites you to get over your embarrassment and just submit, find your own passion. Baker is always pumped. He’s got an easy, whole-face smile that you feel in his eyes as much as his grin. He wants to help you be awesome, even if you’ve never made bread in your life and you have no idea how to reach even marginal awesomeness. His book, Josey Baker Bread, is an invitation to give up your fears and submit to that smile and simply believe: You can be totally awesome.
Baker showed up at the CHOW Test Kitchen after we asked him to come teach us how to make pizza. Mondays at The Mill are pizza night. Like everything Baker touches, they’re about more than just pizza, but about the vibe, the coming together over something comforting, only purer and more delicious than you’re used to.
The recipe for the dough is from Baker’s book. He calls it “The Raddest Homemade Pizza the World Has Ever Known,” which is pure Josey. It calls for sourdough starter that you’ve already made and keep nurturing, made into a so-called pre-ferment with water and whole wheat flour. You let that rise for 8 to 12 hours, then you make the actual dough. That’s a mixture of the pre-ferment you just made, plus more water with bread flour and fine sea salt.
You knead the dough, let it rest for half an hour, then knead it some more and give it another 30 minutes’ rest. You do this two more times, then shape it into balls that will become your pizza crusts, then let them rise for a couple of hours.
The rest is actual pizza process. At The Mill, Baker has a four-deck steam-injected oven, but there’s absolutely no shame in using a cast-iron skillet and a cranked-up home broiler.
You stretch a dough ball into a circle that fits your skillet, which by now is hot because you’ve set it over a high flame and coated it with a tablespoon of olive oil.
It takes about 3 minutes to cook the bottom, and it’s this window of time through which you build your toppings: a bit of salt, sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella hunks.
When the bottom has enough dark spotting (you pry up the edges with a spatula to peek), you transfer the skillet to the shelf underneath a hot broiler and watch it over the course of 2 to 3 minutes, until it’s speckled and browned. Rotate the pan if this is not happening evenly.
And that’s it. You slide the pizza onto a board and dribble some extra-virgin oil over the top, maybe dust it with a little Parm or scatter some small greens on top, something like mizuna.
You cut it up and everybody takes a slice and you do it again, until everyone’s full. For the next pizza you might crack an egg on top before it goes under the broiler, then sprinkle it with a chiffonade of basil when it’s done.
Or you use halved cherry tomatoes and little fresh mozzarella balls.
And what you’ve accomplished, even if your pizzas don’t turn out quite as beautifully as Baker’s and maybe next time you’ll do it a little differently, is to take a very technical and complicated process and turn it into something that feels as intuitive as playing. That’s totally Baker’s genius, and his charm. He left and we were psyched.
Photos by Chris Rochelle