I have been trying to make good pizza at home for a long time. I mean, a long time, like since I was 15. I feel like I've been a pizza apprentice, albeit with no resident master baker to guide me.
In the past year I have had some quantum leaps in quality due to two very unlikely sources: a pizza dough recipe from a freebie direct-mail sample issue of "Cuisine at Home", that I received by chance and happened to look through, and a canned pizza sauce from the grocery store.
Yes, you read that correctly, a CANNED sauce.
I've always considered pizza making to a variant of my first loves -- cake- and pie-baking. It's a doughy concoction, and meant to be labored over and loved. I never try to go for convenience and quick steps in it, though I often welcome those short-cuts in my weeknight cooking, simply because I pizza-bake primarily as a hobby. It's been fun for me.
I've spent literally years trying to perfect various pizza doughs and carefully simmered various sauces for hours, tasting and adjusting, trying to find the right balance.
Also a note here: I love fig-topped pizzas, (I learned to worship it at Todd English's Figs restaurant in Boston), white pizzas, vegetarian pizzas, etc, but my specific hobby has been to perfect, to my mind and my husband's discriminating palate, the traditional thin-crusted, red-sauced, mozzarella-topped, pepperoni pizza. I've not been trying to make anything new here, but rather to perfect, as much as possible in a home kitchen, an American classic. I don't pretend to try to rival the great margheritas, etc, of Naples.
Speaking of Naples, in this weird free publication I got, Cuisine at Home, an "authentic Neapolitan" pizza dough recipe was printed, along with an easier and less time-consuming "basic' recipe. One Sunday afternoon I gave the Neapolitan recipe a try.
It's simple in ingredients, approximating the Italian super-soft flour with a combination of cake flour and all-purpose. I was skeptical at first, but gave it a whirl. No sugar. Very little olive oil.
The first step was to knead for 30 minutes. Yep, a half an hour. It specified to use a stand mixer. No kidding!
So after 30 minutes I was expecting a white washed-out lump, like you yet when you overknead white bread dough.
However, it was tough and stringy and elastic, not promising either. The next step is to let rise 4-6 hours. Yep, 4-6.
Then, after that, shape into 4 balls, and let rise another 2-4 hours.
We are up to a minimum of 6 1/2, and a maximum of 10 1/2 hours, just kneading and rising time. I was incredulous, but still thought I'd give it a whirl. I agree with Rose Levy Berebaum when she said that the nice thing about making bread (or by extension, pizza dough) is that, even if you mess it up completely, all you've ruined are a few cents' worth of flour and yeast. That is the beauty of it -- so I continued with this recipe.
Shaped into rounds and baked (and the shaping was a major pain, I'll tell you -- this is recalcitrant dough requiring patience and strength for stretching and shaping) it proved to be THE BEST PIZZA CRUST I've ever eaten, hands down. Please note: I've never eaten pizza in Naples, so I imagine it will even be better than my at-home versions. I'll get there someday!
I was completely convinced by this massively long rising process. The rising times are so long that, almost, a biga develops, and with it some fantastic flavor. It's hard to describe this crust since it's so different than any I've ever had (including the fantastic pizza I had and Pizza Regina in Boston's North End). It was a difference in kind rather than degree -- the highest expression of flour and yeast I've personally ever eaten. Forgive the hyperbole.
Moving on from there -- I had been almost universally dissatisfied with the pizza sauces I'd made at home. I've made most of the recipes from the major Italian cookbook authors, and also some of my own. I've made it from impeccable garden tomatoes in July, and slow cooked them. I've cooked down all-day marinaras to a pizza-sauce consistency. I really thought I'd tried everything, and was resigned to okay-but-not-great pizza sauce that I made myself.
In despair, one day at Whole Foods I picked up Muir Glen's canned pizza sauce. On that same trip, I thought I'd try the "large format" super-thinly-sliced pepperoni from Whole Food's deli (sliced for me by the deli counter workers).
This canned sauce was fantastic. It has a really full, rich flavor, with the right balance of acidity and sweetness. It's organic, with no high-fructose-corn-syrup just as a bonus -- though it is so good that even if it had the bad stuff in it I'd buy it. My tasters (friends and husband) looked at me with wonder and delight after the first bite. This sauce completely rules. The pepperoni was mild and non-greasy, without any of that strange orange grease oozing from it. It brought the pizza yet further into the realm of super-deliciousness.
I've managed to make a bigger step in these two changes (the dough and the sauce) than I have in 18 years of trying.
Try the sauce. Let that pizza dough rise a long time. You'll be pleased you did.