So ya know…I made a little pizza last night. I know, I didn’t say a word about it, but come on, do I have to tell you every little thing that goes on between me and my oven?. Normally the wife and I order out, but since pizza really isn’t so great around here (we’re both from the great city of Chicago, where fabulous pizza virtually flows out of the water tap), and since the wife is a little…how can I put this kindly…cheap, she asked me to make pizza at home for a change.
Well, being a bit of a perfectionist, I put off home pizza making until I could order some really groovy Italian-style flour. It arrived by UPS this week and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. I used the pizza recipe from the Bread Bible which is specifically formulated for that kind of flour. It was an eye-opener I have to say. Extremely light and tender, with a good crispy bottom. Everything one would expect from a crust that has very little gluten, which is exactly what Italian flour contains (or doesn’t contain, to be more exact). It reminded me very much of Lou Malnati’s pizza back home, though it wasn’t nearly as thick.
Perhaps I should interject here that pizza crust comes in two basic types, the Italian version, and the much more common American version. The more authentic Italian version is made with low-protein (read: low gluten, the terms are interchangeable) flour and is kneaded hardly at all, so as not to stimulate what little gluten it contains. It comes out as I mentioned above: light, tender and a bit spongy. The American version is much higher protein, made from what the food industry terms “high-gluten” flour, a product that can’t be had in grocery stores since its only two practical uses are pizza crusts and bagels (things Americans typically get out). The extra protein produces a very elastic dough that’s perfect for things like this and of course makes a very chewy crust. Obviously there are many points in between on the pizza crust continuum. Perferences vary widely.
Chicago pizza makers are known around the world for their unique bastardization of the Sacred Rules of Crust. That is, they put a little cornmeal in the dough (horrified gasp). It’s an aberration that cooking show hosts sometimes refer to, usually with a roll of the eyes and a toss of the hands…”those nutty Chicagoans!”.
But last night’s pizza got me thinking: what if the corn meal crust isn’t just some crazy thing old grampa Ando accidentally invented when he spilled corn meal in the mixing bowl one evening. What if it had a purpose? The Chicago Italian community is very, very old. It dates back to a time when Italians certainly wouldn’t have had access to boutique low-gluten Italian-style flours. They would have had to make due with the glutinous New World stuff, milled from hard, Northern wheat.
In order to achieve the tender texture they were missing from their breads back home in Napoli, they would have had to find a way to cut the protein. And how to do that? Well, since wheat flour is the only cereal grain that contains gluten, all they would have had to do was blend it with another grain flour that had no gluten. But sacks of spelt, amaranth and other gluten-free flours weren’t exactly setting the Chicago grain markets on fire in those days (my great-great grandfather in fact lost all of his money in kamut futures…but that’s another story). Corn, however, would have been another matter entirely. Chicago was, and is, the corn trading capital of the world. No other grain would have been as available or cheap as corn, and meal was its most common ground form. It would have been the perfect thing to add to tenderize an over-elastic dough. Its utter lack of protein would have made the dough weaker, and the hard little granules would have had the added benefit of severing most of the gluten strands that did manage to form. It’s also great for sprinkling on your peel to help a pizza slide into the oven.
Of course pizza as we know it is a fairly modern invention. But that’s not to say that Italian bakers in Chicago might not have been employing this technique for other types of breads before the post-World War II pizza craze began (focaccia being just one possibility).
So there, I’ve formed a theory. Look out food anthropologists!