I was too good for Papa John’s

Few people know of my brief attempt to redeem the fast food pizza business in the early 1990s. I took a part time job with the Papa John’s Pizza on Germantown Road in the Memphis suburb of Cordova while in college.

On my first day, the manager assigned me to the assembly line adding sauce, cheese, and toppings to pizzas before baking them in the conveyor belt oven. I marveled at the talented lady who magically turned and spun the dough from hand to hand and above her head before bringing it to a perfect landing on a round baking sheet.

My awe of the overhead whirling dervish pizza lady and my perfectionist tendencies got me in trouble in the middle of the fast-paced assembly line. Growing up, I remembered ordering pizza delivered on Friday nights as a family treat. Every now and then, we received a sad pizza with too little cheese and not enough of the toppings we ordered. Faced with a chance to show Papa John’s the error of its ways, I took too much time evenly distributing the cheese and toppings over the entire surface of pizzas. Unable to leave any ingredient gaps on pizzas, I backed up the line during busy times.

The manager at Papa John’s declared me an “artist.” I preferred to be called an artisan, but she intended no compliment. She reassigned me to the phone lines to take orders for the rest of my brief tenure. I was too fancy for fast food. I was too good for Papa John’s. Of course, I couldn’t stay. I knew my worth.

I enjoy taking time in my kitchen to make good food at home. I recently found joy in making pizza dough from scratch and giving the top of my pizzas the attention they deserve.

Since the shelter-in-place measures ordered by local, state and federal authorities began in response to the COVID19 pandemic, I see many pictures of homemade sourdough bread loaves, pizza and other baked goods in my Facebook feed. Being at home allows me and others time to establish rhythms of sourdough feeding and baking in our kitchens. After almost two weeks of daily feeding of my whole wheat starter, I now refrigerate my starter during the week and feed it on Fridays.

Moving to a weekly feeding cycle means less waste when discarding starter. On Friday mornings, I remove 150 grams from my starter container (1/2 of my starter) and then feed the remaining starter in my container with 150-300 grams of equal parts whole wheat flour and water, depending on whether or not I am simply feeding my starter or planning to bake a loaf of bread on the weekend. I don’t like throwing out the 150 grams of starter I remove, so I use it to make Friday Night Pizza dough.

I prefer a thin, crisp pizza crust. When I began experimenting with this recipe, I struggled to achieve a thin crust to fit the 13 inch round pizza stone I own. When using other published recipes, I ended up with too much dough, and thick but flavorful crust. I could pull off some dough to roll out and shape a thinner crust, but my goal is to avoid wasting flour. After repeated weekly trials, I decreased the amount of flour, water, olive oil, and salt added to my recipe to attain a thin 13″ pizza crust. This recipe fits my sourdough feeding cycle and the available tools in my kitchen. Others may need to adjust their routine and recipe to their own resources and circumstances.

When I remove the 150 grams of starter on Friday mornings, I combine it with my other ingredients (flour, water, salt and olive oil) in a bowl designed for my kitchen stand mixer.  I mix the dough with a hook attachment until a ball forms which pulls away from the sides of the bowl. I then cover the bowl with cling wrap and refrigerate the dough until around noon. At midday, I remove the bowl from the refrigerator and allow the covered dough to proof at room temperature on the counter. My dough proofs into a malleable and elastic mass ready to shape for pizza by 5 PM.

In my early iterations, I struggled with large bubbles in the pizza dough which left large areas of my pizza without tasty toppings. Unacceptable! To prevent this from happening, I used a fork to prick the dough surface immediately after placing my dough on the hot stone and place in the oven. The small pricks over the surface prevented large bubbles from forming. I pre-baked my dough on the pizza stone for 5-8 minutes, removed from the oven to add sauce, cheese and other toppings and returned the pizza to the oven to finish baking.

Thirty years later, I am back to save Friday night pizza. I’m pleased with the result of my artisan approach. Take that Papa John’s!

Friday Night Pizza Dough

  • Servings: 8 Slices
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Print

Tools:

Pizza stone (13-inch diameter), round baking sheet slightly larger than pizza stone, silicone baking sheet, kitchen stand mixer with dough hook (optional if you prefer to knead by hand), rolling pin (optional)

Ingredients:

  • 150 grams of whole wheat starter
  • 200 grams all purpose or bread flour
  • 100 grams dechlorinated water*
  • 6 grams kosher salt
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • Cornmeal (optional) or additional flour for dusting
  • Pizza toppings of your choice

Directions:

  1. In the morning, mix ingredients with dough hook in stand mixer until the dough pulls away from sides of the mixing bowl (2-3 minutes). Then refrigerate the dough in the bowl covered with cling wrap.
  2. At midday, remove bowl and allow dough to proof on the kitchen counter away from heat sources at room temperature. Continue to cover the bowl.
  3. Place pizza stone on a round baking sheet slightly larger than the stone. Set pizza stone set on a high rack  and preheat oven to 500-550F.
  4. Stretch and spread dough out with hands and fingers on a silicone baking sheet to a 13 inch diameter. Use a dusted rolling pin as an added tool. Sprinkle some corn meal or dust some flour over the top of the dough. Prick the surface with a fork.
  5. Use the silicone baking sheet to roll the dough out and over the preheated pizza stone. Bake for 5-8 minutes.
  6. Remove pizza crust from oven and place sauce, cheese and other toppings onto the pizza. Return to oven and bake for 10-15 minutes.
  7. Remove pizza from oven and transfer to a cutting board from which to slice and serve.

*The amount of chlorine in tap water varies by location and water source. Boiling water removes most chlorine from tap water. I bottle cooled water from my teapot to feed my starter and use in recipes involving natural yeast.

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