Wanderings – The art of baking pizza

I am not a baker. In our family dynamic, my spouse Isabell is the baker, and I am the cook. Cooking is art. A pinch of this, dash of that, and a little char goes a long way. Baking is science and except for the optics unit in Mr. Labrie’s Grade 12 Physics class, I am not good at the science things. Burning cakes and cookies is expected when I attempt such voodoo things.

Just as lenses and refraction make sense to me thanks to photography, a small part of the baking world is now making sense to me – pizza. More specifically, pizza dough. This is not some pandemic hobby flit at trying some new old thing like sourdough or pasta from scratch only to ignore it when a new hobby comes along. No, this new kick is out of my desire for nostalgia.

Many years ago, I had the best pizza in the world, long before marriage, kids, and adult responsibilities – in Manhattan. Following a New York Rangers game, I had the best slice of pizza ever. New York-style. A large slice with a thin crust, crispy bottom, gooey cheese – heaven. I went there a few times during that trip; the pizza place, not the Rangers game (go Sabres.) Memories of that pizza are troubling though because I can’t remember the name of the place. It wasn’t far from MSG, it was near the Macy’s and I clearly remember a TGI Friday’s sign was within view. The pizza place was busy, and you had to walk up to the window to order – there was no seating inside. I remember the sounds of the street, the lights of the buildings, the crowds, and the smell of that pizza – but not the name of the pizza place. Canadian pizza is good, but not the same. I will add right now that pineapple on pizza is wrong.

Over the years, travels to New York State have created close facsimiles to my nostalgia at restaurants that serve “New York-style” pizza: but they’ve never hit all the right notes. Unless I travel to Manhattan again and attempt to retrace my 26 years past footsteps, I don’t think I’d find the right pizza either. So in a foolish attempt to chase a goal that I probably will never attain, I tried to recreate this without any skill or useful knowledge – what could go wrong?

Most recipes are similar: yeast, water, salt, flour. Proof the yeast, add the flour and salt, mix, rest, rise, cut, roll, and then add the toppings. Ingredients add many variables in quality and type. Some combinations are more successful than others. I’m not old school, so I am not trying the sourdough trend. After quite a few pizza failures, I am getting okay at making decent pizza. My taste testers at home are happy with trying the different variations. But my experiments in pizza making have limits.

I am not going to put a wood-fired pizza oven in my back yard. Nor am I going to buy an expensive pizza stone or pizza steel for my oven. I have an electric stove and I am not converting to natural gas. But I am happily trying out different variations once or twice a week. Trying, that’s the operative word.

It’s funny to me how stuck one can get on an idea, a thought, a memory, or a feeling of how something was. We compare that unreachable thing to all other things in comparison, and instead of appreciating the other things – we focus on the past, hoping to grasp it one more time. What I’ve come to appreciate with my experiments in the science of pizza making is that I am getting to the point of being okay with never recapturing what once was.

I likely will never make a pizza that will be like the one from that place 26 years ago. But I have made pizzas that are good, that are improving, and are my pizzas – my creations, my art. Thin crust pizza with a little crunch around the edges, good Italian tomatoes with basil for the sauce, pepperoni, and mozzarella.

American record producer and artist Rick Rubin said, “The goal of art isn’t to attain perfection.” I agree: it’s to bake tasty pizza!

This column was originally published in the October 4, 2023 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.