Talking Home Cookin’ With Jen Strickland & Making Pizza With The Skillet-Broiler Method
Jen Strickland, co-owner and woman behind the pizza peel at Home Slice Pizza, is a native New Yorker whose love of NY-style pizza compelled her to learn to make it at home. I spoke with Jen hoping to garner some wisdom on home pizza cooking before my first attempt and learn more about how she started at home and how that led her to opening a pizzeria. In the second half of this article, I’ll document my first try at making pizza in my oven using a cast iron skillet in lieu of a stone.
Tara: So, you’re from New York, why did you move to Austin?
Jen: I moved here with a boy. New Yorkers tend to think that where they live is the greatest place on earth. I was of that mindset and worried that I’d never see any of the rest of the country. Texas was an adventure.
T: What prompted your interest in making pizza?
J: Pizza had always been my favorite food, and when I got to Austin in the early 90s I was woefully disappointed in the pizza. I had met a couple other NY expats and we all informed each other every time we heard of a “NY-style pizzeria” opening in Austin and raced to be the first to try it out. None of them seemed to be the real deal. (Maybe Nikki’s in Dobie Mall was the closest.)
T: When you started making pizza at home in Austin, had you made pizza before? Did your family make pizza?
J: I had not made pizza before, besides out of a Chef Boyardee box! I come from a large Italian family of entrepreneurs in upstate NY and my uncles had owned a pizzeria before. But I only had interest in eating pizza then so I didn’t really pay attention. But later in my 20s, when I was traveling in Mexico, I became friends with this kind of Mexican renaissance man who would buy french bread dough at the bakery and take it home to make pizza for us and it was really great and really easy. I think he might have inspired me a little too.
T: Did you have an idea in your mind of a pizza that you considered a “compass” for what you were going for? Or was it just NY style in general?
J: I wanted it to be a combination of Grimaldi’s — a classic sit-down place in Brooklyn — and a general (really good) slice place on one of the corners in lower Manhattan. At the time I LOVED St. Marks Pizza which is no longer there, and Ben’s in Soho which, unfortunately, is no longer very good.
T: What was the hardest or most surprising challenge when you were trying to perfect your pizza at home?
J: Getting the pizza off the peel onto the stones. Enter semolina flour! Also the dough. You really need to have a thermometer to make sure your water is warm enough for yeast growth but not too hot because you’ll kill it. And dough is temperamental! One day you need more flour, the next you need less. It’s all about the weather and humidity, you just have to practice and get a feel for it. My pizza bible — The Pizza Book by Evelyne Slomon — was essential in my learning to make NY-style pie at home. The book encourages you to turn your oven into a real pizza oven by retrofitting the bottom with cheap quarry tiles, which are available at Home Depot. Then you can turn the temp up to 500 and that is pretty close to the temp of a deck oven in a pizzeria.
T: Do you remember the moment that made you get the idea to take your pizza from something you shared with your friends to something you wanted bring to a larger audience?
J: I think the first time I tasted the NY-style recipe I was blown away at how much better it was than practically anything you could get in town at the time.
Pt. 2: Cooking Pizza with a Cast Iron Skillet, Sort of
I have always been an adventurous home cook but growing up in and working in pizzerias has eliminated the necessity for me to make my favorite food at home. However, after reading about a cast iron skillet method on a couple blogs, and mostly because I have a skillet and I do not have a pizza stone or quarry tiles, I decided to take the leap into one of my kitchen’s final frontiers: pizza.
The idea is to heat the skillet up on high to get it super hot, conceivably hotter (or at least conducting heat better) than a pizza stone. Then you throw the pizza in the hot skillet in the broiler as close to the heating element as possible, cooking the pizza in only a few minutes as a pizza oven much hotter than the 500-550 degrees of a conventional oven would.
There is such a staggering amount of info online about the minutiae of pizza making that I quickly became overwhelmed. Just scrolling through Jeff Varasano’s very thorough instructions reminded me of the day I went to the library to check-out Infinite Jest. After walking around with it for 30 minutes while browsing other titles, I put it back on the shelf feeling very accomplished. I do think that this info will be invaluable once I have some real-world context.
So, I decided to be very unscientific and pick a dough and sauce recipe at random from the top Google hits. No, I did not use the Home Slice recipes. Those are perfected and I was interested in the idea of starting my learning from scratch. Learning by making all the mistakes. And mistakes were made. Oh boy.
The dough recipe is from the NY Times:
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 1/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.
I don’t have a food processor, so I hand kneaded the dough. I think that may have contributed to the lackluster consistency of the final product, I don’t think I got the gluten activated enough. But I have no idea.
The sauce recipe I made up as an amalgamation of several I read:
28 oz can of crushed plum tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp of salt
roughly 2 1/2 T of fresh, chopped basil
3 T of extra virgin olive oil
3 T tomato paste
2 tsp minced garlic
There are many sauce recipes that called for sugar, which is not uncommon in NY-style pizza sauce, but the tomato paste adds that sweetness in this recipe.
I topped my pizza with sauce, dried oregano, aged Pecorino Romano, freshly grated provolone and hard mozzarella. You have to grate it fresh because pre-shredded cheese is coated with anti-sticking additives. I used a lipless cookie sheet as my pizza peel. I dusted it with cornmeal before topping the pie.
For the first pizza, I had turned the skillet up to high, as recommended. But it started smoking and I wussed out and turned it down as I began stretching my dough. That was mistake number one.
Another challenge is sliding the pie into the skillet. The edge folded under and I had to peel it back out. It’s just like putting a real pizza into a real oven, you can’t hesitate. It has to be one fluid motion. With the height of the skillet, it especially has to be. You wiggle the pie slightly back and for on the peel to establish movement and to make sure there is no part sticking. Then it’s go time. You have to jerk the peel forward forcefully and pull the peel out from under the pizza in one, smooth motion. There’s no “easing” the pie in.
So, yeah. In the broiler, that pizza cooks crazy fast. DO NOT try to play a turn on Words With Friends, or you will burn that pie, as I did.
Although I left it in too long, the cheese was still browning faster than I wanted it to. I did some quick searches and found the suggestion to freeze the cheese for 15 minutes before topping your pie. Done and done. Upon inspecting the bottom of the pie, I noticed it was not nearly as brown as the top.
Tasting the pie, I came to many mistake-inspired conclusions. The dough and the sauce were too salty. Pecorino Romano is a salty cheese, and the one I was using seemed especially salty. It tipped the salty factor over the line. I also oversauced it. Easy fix there. I had made two batches of dough because I let the first batch rise too long. I used that for the first pie since I figured it wouldn’t be good anyway, so the dough consistency was off as expected. Although I LOVE garlic, I thought the flavor was too strong. In the future, I’ll sauté the garlic or leave it out.
For the next pie, I used the newer, more properly risen dough. The dough was smaller, so it didn’t quite fill the pan. This time, I left the skillet on high and turned the broiler to low. I used less sauce and a less Romano. And I slid it into the pan with more gumption, avoiding any folding.
The crust was still a bit denser than I was hoping for. The bottom got a little bit darker than the first pie and I was happy with the cook on top.
All in all, the pizza was pretty good. I was surprised at how good it was considering all the things I would change next time. Luckily, there is a wealth of knowledge in books, online and from friends.