The first time I ever made bread, I got up from the living-room couch, opened a book by Julia Child and followed the directions. In the end, I had two lovely baguettes, and although my friends complimented my work, I found out later that they thought I'd been doing this for a long time, so they were only moderately impressed. They should have been astounded.
I've never made bread like that again. I've come close. I've bought special pans and special flour and even special yeast. A KitchenAid mixer really helped, as did a food processor, since my carpal-tunnelized wrists always let me down during the kneading process. But lots of times the dough didn't rise properly in the oven, or the inside was kind of gummy and dense while the outside was burned. Over time, I think you could safely classify my bread as terrible.
I had better luck with the no-knead bread method presented by Jim Lahey, the founder of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery, but I really wanted an aromatic, crusty-but-not-too-crusty baguette. No-knead bread is baked in a round, cast-iron pot, and it's really not the same. I wanted, obviously, the long and skinny kind you get in France (European countries with good bread: all of them except England, Germany and Spain — plan your trips accordingly).
However, I have this friend who makes the best bread ever. Really. I feel very confident in saying that without qualification. And his pizzas are so good that I almost cried when I first bit into one. How does he manage it? He's a corporate lawyer — when were they appointed keepers of the sacred golden bread recipe? I mean, seriously?
Peter Gilbert ( pictured ) does have one secret: a large, adobe-type structure in his backyard. It's a handmade, wood-fired, baked-earth bread oven he built in two weekends.
"The oven itself is essentially an earthen dome overtop a floor of firebricks," he says. Because of the humid climate here in Virginia, it also needed a roof and a wooden door. "It was those components that slowed me down a little," Peter says.
Inspired by his childhood in the African republic of Cameroon, a stint cooking in a Moroccan restaurant in Charlottesville and watching George Schenck of American Flatbread build a temporary oven in Peter's parents' backyard for his rehearsal dinner, he says, "It occurred to me that it might be possible to enjoy the luxury of a wood-burning oven without having to import a team of north African builders."
Regular ovens are unpredictable for bread and pizza making. You can buy oven bricks and special pans to help the process along, but it's still hard to regulate the temperature. The main problem is that temperatures in a normal oven just won't go high enough. People have been known to snap the safety lock off their ovens so that they can use the self-cleaning cycle for baking, but frankly, that sounds like something only a maniac would do.
Peter's oven exceeds temperatures of 700 degrees, and it takes about three hours and the equivalent of about five fireplace logs to get it there. One of the most astounding sights, if you're fortunate enough to be invited over to Peter's house for dinner, is to stand in front of the oven, heat blasting away, and watch a pizza rise and turn golden in less than five minutes. It looks like some sort of freaky time-lapse photography — but it's not. This quick rise bubbles up the cheese and makes the crust thin, crispy and chewy all at the same time. Perfection.
"I was lucky as a kid to live in a country where there was an abundance of cheap, freshly baked bread. I'll always remember sitting in the back of my parents' Peugeot and tearing into the end of a hot, crusty baguette on the way home from daily trips to the bakery," says Peter.
"I think anyone who has had that experience and then is deprived of it, as I was when I moved back to the U.S., is going to devote time and effort into finding a way to re-create it. On some level, that's what my obsession with baking is all about."
Peter Gilbert's Perfect Caramelized-Onion Pizza
First, prepare your favorite pizza-dough recipe. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Then make the topping.
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 to 3 pounds of onions, sliced (according to Peter, always caramelize more than you think you'll actually need)
- 1/2 teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme and/or rosemary
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup to 1 cup of Gorgonzola cheese
- 2 to 3 Roma tomatoes, slivered (halve them, de-seed them and then slice them lengthwise)
- 1/4 cup of finely grated Asiago cheese
- 2 tablespoons of Italian parsley leaves, chiffonaded
Heat the oil in a large skillet with high, straight sides and add the onions. Cover the pan and cook until the onions are translucent (15 minutes or so), stirring occasionally. Uncover the pan and turn up the heat to medium-high. Stirring frequently, cook the onions for another 20 to 30 minutes until they are deep brown. Add the herbs, salt and pepper. Purée the onions to make your "sauce."
Next, flatten the dough and place it on a pizza peel (a large, wooden, paddle-shaped tool to help ease pizzas in and out of the oven) generously sprinkled with cornmeal. Smear a thick layer of the onions on the dough. Top with Gorgonzola, arrange the slivers of Roma tomatoes, and sprinkle with the grated Asiago and parsley.
Slide the pizza into the oven. Set the timer for 10 minutes and start watching. Your pizza may be done at the 10-minute mark, or it may take up to another five minutes. Remove it from the oven when the crust is golden brown and let it cool on a rack for five minutes. Slice and devour!