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With love, here’s a pizza my heart

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Oozing pools of mozzarella cheese. Crackling leaves of basil sprouting through slices of oven-dried tomato. Swelling air bubbles pocketing the slightly charred surface of a crispy-thin crust. The oven beeps the song of a mouth-watering pizza ready for consumption, and I dance over to contemplate my success on toes of Italian summer sunshine and warm, ripe vegetable fields. 

Cracking open the glass door of the oven, just a hair, my eyes struggle to peek through hazy clouds of steam. So I close them. 

Inhale. 

Puffs of oregano, black pepper and garlic powder tingle through my nose — each a mini explosion of spice and tang. 

Oven mitts on. The apple pie cloth on my palms, their mangled patterns — from previous experiments — marred and burnt crusty-black.

Carefully, I reach into the 450 degrees Fahrenheit oven, careful not to touch the bright, shining-hot metal. The burn on my right thumb from last time serves my attention well.

Lifting the rectangular tray out, I carefully place it upon the stove top. Despite the colorful array of cheese and basil, tomato slices and herb-flavored tomato sauce, the majority of time was spent on allowing the pizza’s original form to grow itself. 

All the effort of kneading and forehead sweating, not to mention the painstaking hours of waiting — all for a small lump of beige-colored dough to inflate into a puffy, smooth balloon — is quickly displaced in a matter of minutes by the rapid slicing and gobbling and inhaling and swallowing of eight grabbing hands and four hungry mouths. 

Backtrack five hours ago, 7:30 sharp, on a bright and sunny Saturday morning. 

The digital alarm clanged through the air, and my eyelids shot open. Today, I had a mission in mind: attempt my first-ever pizza creation, all by hand and homemade. Trudging through the rising temperature of a July day in California, hair sensibly tied up and mask securely strapped behind my ears, I tiptoed into a near empty Target. 

Don’t touch too long, avoid surface germs

My father’s stern yet essentially useless COVID-19 prevention advice ran a merry-go-round circle within my head. 

Still, I quickly plucked the first package of mozzarella cheese in sight, a plastic-encased sprout of bright green living basil, a 15 oz can of tomato sauce, a 6 oz can of tomato paste and a singular Beef tomato (the best one to use per the trusty internet) and rushed over to a self check booth, taking care to minimize contact with all surfaces and heavily applying hand sanitizer afterwards. 

Upon arriving home, I placed my perishables in the fridge, then headed to the washroom, lathering my exposed hands with an exorbitant amount of soap and frothy bubbles while humming the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ twice over. Then, heading to the kitchen, I began to follow my adaptation of NYT Cooking’s “Roberta’s Pizza Dough Recipe.” 

Now, what with my numerous baking experiments since Kindergarten Baking 101, I would have loved to boast of my dessert skills as ‘slightly-above-average,’ but I had to admit that this savory attempt would be a first. 

In my largest, shiniest metal mixing bowl, my ultimate pride and joy, I combined 153 grams each of 00 flour and all-purpose flour, along with eight grams of salt for an extra pop of flavor enhancement. In a separate bowl, I poured in a very warm 200 grams of water (I tested it by dipping my hand in to see if the temperature felt the same), eight grams of sugar and two grams of the magic-maker, active dry yeast. After waiting a few minutes for the yeast to bloom, I mixed the yeast-water mixture into my bowl of flour. 

Then came the very messy, very satisfying process of kneading. 

By squishing all the water and flour together with my knuckles, I formed (more or less) a round ball of dough, which I then incorporated with four grams of extra-virgin olive oil before continuing to knead the whole mixture for 5-10 minutes. Apparently, mere minutes of a knuckle workout can break up all that gluten in the flour for a much more elastic and bouncy dough. 

Lessons Learned:

  1. Add the entire liquid mixture to the dough at once, or the kneading process will consist of disgusting lumps that resemble semi-dried glue from failed second grade science projects. 
  2. The whole ‘yeast blooming process’ can be daunting, so I recommend this helpful tutorial here. Essentially, if the water is too cold, the yeast will not activate. Too hot, and the yeast will burn and its function will cease. Staying within that temperature range is crucial.
  3. Please oil the tray your pizza dough bakes in. Failure to do so results in growing frustration of scraping pizza crust unforgivingly glued to said tray.  
  4. Note: this recipe makes two pizzas, perfect for sibling squabbles over bell peppers or more basil for topping if I do say so myself.   

Finally, I halved the dough and smacked two seriously silky-smooth spheres into a large bowl, which I then covered with a damp cloth and relocated to a warm and cozy space. 

See you in three hours, dough baby, until you rise into a chubby dough toddler. 

Meanwhile, I opened up my cans and tossed in about a teaspoon each of oregano, parsley, garlic powder, onion powder, onion salt, black pepper and sugar. A perfect balance of herby-spice, sour and sweet, but of course, one may add whichever flavorings they would like to their own red-sauce.

I then placed the sauce in the fridge, perused Stanford Daily’s articles for a few hours and, when the timer rang, flew downstairs to meet my two risen dough-children. 

Gently and lovingly lifting the aerated dough out of the bowl, I slowly began the laborious process of stretching and flattening. I do recommend stretching the dough until it is translucent in several areas for a delightfully thin, crunchy crust. Then, oiling my black baking tray, I draped over the glossy metal surface a blanket of luxurious yet delicate dough. Dipping a brush into the bowl of special sauce, I spread my new white canvas with what I liked to believe were artistic red circles, leaving about half an inch blank from the perimeter of the dough for the crust.

Crust (n.): hands down the best part of any pizza. 

From my Target expedition’s selection of goods, I laid down even slices of glistening white mozzarella, ruby-red tomatoes and fluttering leaves of fresh basil, sprinkled the tray with a flamboyant flourish of shaved parmesan cheese and slid the tray, precariously wobbling with toppings, into my preheated oven. 

Until we meet again, my last well wishes to my labor-intensive creation flitting through the oven door before I shut it with a definitive click. 

Lifting the hem of my floury apron, I primly dabbed at two drops of sweat slinking down my forehead, sent a silent prayer to the pizza divinities above and began my staring contest of exactly 13 minutes with the ticking clock. 

Three.

Two.

One. 

RINGGGGG. 

It’s ready. 

Contact Alysa Suleiman at 22alysas ‘at’ students.harker.org.

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Alysa Suleiman is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.