Maybe you remember the 1960s – all but the youngest Boomers do. But even if you weren’t there in person, you may have heard a bit about that tumultuous decade.
Vietnam. Woodstock. The Summer of Love. Kent State.
Social upheaval was rife throughout America, as college students occupied campus buildings (decades before they occupied Wall Street); police and protesters battled one another at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the Civil Rights movement smoldered, then burned fiercely – in Selma. And Detroit. And Watts.
Not all the changes during that decade were violent, though. A gradual shift was happening in American tastes, as well. The can-opener cuisine of the 1950s was being replaced by something new and fresh – literally. Canned tomatoes gave way to fresh heirlooms, Cheez-Whiz in a jar to organic goat cheese, and we’ve never looked back.
The 10 years between 1974-1984 were a watershed decade for pizza. Biscuit crusts and canned anchovies disappeared, to be replaced by airy yeast-based crusts topped with fresh (and exotic) ingredients, seared to perfection in wood-fired stone ovens.
Chef Jeremiah Tower, in his book Jeremiah Tower Cooks, lays claim to creating the first of the single-serve “gourmet” pizzas – on August 28, 1974, at a birthday celebration for Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ 3-year-old restaurant in Berkeley, California. The concept took off, and Chez Panisse’s wood-oven pizzas became wildly popular.
It wasn’t until 1982, however, that gourmet-style pizza traveled beyond northern California. Chef Wolfgang Puck, enthralled by the imaginative pizzas created by Ed LaDou at San Francisco’s Prego restaurant, promptly stole LaDou for his own new launch, Spago, about to open in West Hollywood. Over the next 3 years, LaDou and Puck created and served more than 250 different pizza “concepts” to their Hollywood audience of star (and star-struck) patrons.
LaDou eventually went on to create the menu for California Pizza Kitchens; while Puck opened a series of restaurants all over the country, including outposts in airports and shopping malls. And gradually, pizza beyond pepperoni (barbecued chicken; spinach and garlic; roasted vegetable, et. al.) went mainstream.
I decided to experience for myself what those first signature pizzas might have tasted like. I’ve got a pizza stone, great flour, and access to a typical 21st-century American supermarket – which offers many of the ingredients that, back then, were so exotic.
And since Jeremiah claims to be the gourmet-pizza godfather – let’s start there.
Of his Potato, Fontina Cheese, and Fresh Sage Pizza in Jeremiah Tower Cooks, Tower says, “Many pizzas are more exotic or esoteric than this one, but simplicity of flavors should rule, without too many ingredients. This is my everyday (if I were so lucky) favorite.”
Let’s check it out.
Looks like a fairly typical recipe, eh?
Wow, that’s a lot of olive oil. And I can tell by looking at the flour/liquid ratio that the dough, even using high-protein bread flour, is going to be unworkably sticky; so I cut back the water by 1 ounce (2 tablespoons). The result is a nice, smooth dough.
Note: It could be that Chef Tower measures his flour differently than we do here at King Arthur. We use the sprinkle flour into your cup, level with a straight edge method; he might simply dip his measuring cup into the flour and scrape off any excess, which can result in an extra 25% flour in each cup, compared to our method. This discrepancy is why, when you’re using a recipe from an unfamiliar source, it’s good to try to determine how the author measures his/her flour.
For topping, the chef calls for thinly sliced (1/8″ thick) “yellow, waxy” potatoes (I choose Yukon Gold); Fontina cheese; fresh sage, and freshly grated Parmesan.
I have to start winging it at this point; like many chef cookbooks, the directions are a bit scanty. For instance, while Parmesan is listed in the ingredients, it’s never called for in the directions; ditto salt and white pepper.
And, if Chef Tower can tell me please how to thinly slice a soft cheese like Fontina, I’ll be eternally grateful (er, greatful).
I forge ahead, brushing the crusts with olive oil, sprinkling with chopped fresh sage, then layering on the potatoes. I figure this is a good time to use the salt and pepper, before adding the cheeses.
The pizzas go onto a hot stone in a 450°F oven immediately, without rising.
And 15 minutes later…
…four thick, billowy pizzas. The potatoes are perfectly cooked; the cheese melted and just beginning to turn golden, without being rubbery or tough.
If you like a thick-crust, minimally topped pizza with good flavor, you’ll enjoy this. My husband and his fellow volunteer trail workers at our local state park happily ate it for breakfast.
Next – Wolfgang Puck and his signature smoked salmon pizza.
Wolfgang Puck’s Pizza, Pasta, and More! offers the reader a wonderful assortment of some of this superstar chef’s best recipes.
Its toppings are simple: thinly sliced red onion; sour cream mixed with chopped shallots and fresh dill weed; and smoked salmon. The garnish is chopped chives and caviar.
Seeing as most of us are living on a Home Depot (rather than Hollywood) budget, I choose to skip the caviar.
I’ve made this pizza crust more than once – it yields four 8″ crusts, thinner in the center, thicker at the edges; a nice individual size. The dough is a pleasure to work with.
At this point, I can bake the crusts right away; but I choose Puck’s option of refrigerating them overnight. This gives the crusts a chance to develop flavor; and besides, baking them right away doesn’t fit into my schedule today.
So – onto a lightly greased plate the dough goes. I cover it with a clear shower cap, its elastic edges nicely cinching everything shut at the bottom.
Next day – risen and ready! I carefully divide the balls, gently deflate, re-round…
See that parchment paper? Cake rounds (9″) are the perfect size for individual pizzas. Parchment makes sliding pizzas from peel to stone a no-brainer.
I brush the crusts with oil…
OK, truth be told, I mess up the recipe at this point – I’m so used to bagels with lox, cream cheese, and red onion, it doesn’t occur to me to actually read Chef Puck’s directions. Which call for strewing the thinly sliced onions atop the UNBAKED crusts before sliding them onto the oven stone.
Oh well… Dill sour cream, then onions…
…and smoked salmon on top, with the chopped chive garnish. I’m using Ducktrap River of Maine “pastrami-style” smoked salmon, thus the dark edges.
Actually, while the recipe calls for chives, I think fresh dill will be equally tasty. And probably prettier than these pallid, skinny chives that have wintered over in my outdoor garden.
Yes, my OUTDOOR garden, which has experienced both below 0°F temperatures and multiple blizzards over the past 4 months. And through it all, the chives have stayed green and kept growing. How do they DO that?!
This pizza Is every bit as tasty as it looks. Wonderfully light crust, with lots of crunch and a soft interior; and the topping – well, you can never go wrong with sour cream and smoked salmon, right?
Next time I’ll try to follow the recipe and bake the onions WITH the crust.
To wrap up this salute to gourmet pizza, I’m going to the source of so much American culinary innovation over the past 40+ years –
That’s Alice in the center, flanked by two of the collaborators on her 1984 book Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, & Calzone.
From everything I’ve read, Alice is responsible in large part for the popularity of goat cheese; fresh and local to her northern California café/restaurant, it’s always been a key ingredient on her menu.
Thus my choice of her Leeks, Pancetta, and Goat Cheese Pizza.
Well, considering the price of leeks (as well as the fact that the supermarket produce aisle could produce only 2 leeks), I supplemented them with sliced sweet onion.
Waters suggests I “stew until tender in butter” the sliced leeks, then season them with fresh thyme.
Which is what I do – the night before. The topping needs to cool before being added to the pizza, so into the fridge it goes.
Next day, I start with the rye starter.
Once it’s risen, I add the remaining crust ingredients.
When you’re working with REALLY sticky dough, it helps to beat it for a few minutes before switching to the dough hook. See how it sticks to the sides of the bowl (upper right), but finally clears the sides (lower left) after a few minutes of beating?
And look at that finished dough – how wonderfully supple and elastic it is.
The recipe calls for the dough to rise for 2 hours in an unlit oven with the light on.
Ninety minutes is all it takes for the dough to blow right out of its bowl.
Time to preheat the oven to 450°F – with its baking stone inside, of course. Remember, we’re trying to mimic the wood-fired stone ovens all these chefs use.
Waters calls for shaping the dough into a 12″ or 14″ round, though she also notes that you can “feel free to make it any shape you wish.”
I choose an oval; since a 12″ round translates to a 9″ x 13″ oval, and a 14″ round has the surface area of a 10″ x 15″ oval, I go somewhere in between the two. Note that I do this on a large piece of parchment; when it’s time to get this pizza into the oven, I’ll simply slide it onto the back of a baking sheet, and “jerk” it onto the baking stone.
So – the recipe calls for the stewed leeks (and onions) to be mixed with 3 ounces of crumbled goat cheese. Check. Onto the crust they go, followed by 3 slices of pancetta, cut into small pieces.
I’m wondering whether I’ll be able to find pancetta at the supermarket. After a long meander around the store with a friendly but confused employee (a journey that includes side trips down the baking aisle and through cleaning supplies), I find it on my own: in the packaged cold cuts case.
Like the leeks, this Italian-style bacon isn’t inexpensive; feel free to substitute regular American bacon, if you choose.
Once the crust is topped, into the oven it goes. About 18 minutes later, its crust and toppings are both golden brown.
“Garnish with a little extra-virgin olive oil,” suggests Alice.
I do what I’m told.
I can feel the crunch at the edge, and the softer give at the center as my pizza wheel slices through this tasty creation. The cheese, onion, and mere hint of smoky bacon play very nicely together indeed.
And that’s it – a casual exploration of how smoked salmon, leeks, goat cheese, Fontina, pancetta, dill weed, and other “beyond the pale” ingredients first made their way into the American pizza pantheon.
What’s your favorite fresh/local/unusual pizza topping? Share your thoughts in “comments,” below.
Have you enjoyed this post? Read about pizza’s anchovy-laden American birth in America’s love affair with pizza: in the beginning.