How to make artisan pizza like a pro
As our pizza emerged, sizzling, from the 700-degree oven, my classmate and I exchanged triumphant looks.
“Wow,” I whispered, awed by the sight of just-set eggs nestled in a bed of sautéed spinach, mushrooms and shallots. “That looks amaaaazing.”
I recently learned the secret to perfect pizza at an “Art of Artisan Pizza” course taught by cookbook author Brigit Binns, whose titles include 2013’s “The New Wine Country: Recipes from California’s Central Coast.” Based in Paso Robles, Binns’ Refugio Kitchen program provides intimate hands-on cooking classes for foodies of all experience levels.
The second I stepped out of the summer heat into Binns’ air-conditioned classroom — an open and airy kitchen with ample counter space, two stovetops and twin convection ovens — a woman handed me a chilled glass of rosé from Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.
Sipping gratefully, I settled into my stool alongside my fellow students and listened as Binns and her husband, actor and director Casey Biggs, walked us through the basics.
“It’s all about the dough,” explained Binns, whose sourdough-style dough undergoes 48 hours of fermentation in the fridge. “The wild yeast in the air is coming to kiss the dough and give it most of its rising power.”
The result is “super-sexy, great big gas bubbles” that create air pockets in the finished product, she said. “That’s what gives it great flavor.”
Binns doesn’t put tomato sauce on her pizzas — subbing slow-cooked garlic confit, caramelized fennel or even olive oil.
Her gourmet pies get more flame-kissed flavor from a wood-fired pizza oven manned by Biggs on a picturesque outside patio. (Don’t have a wood-fired oven? Heat your conventional oven on its highest setting with a heavy baking steel — essentially a metal pizza stone — inside.)
After receiving the basic rundown, students broke off into pairs to try Binns’ recipes firsthand. I teamed up with Kate Dubost, co-owner of Dubost Vineyard & Winery in Paso Robles, for a culinary exploration that occasionally erupted into nervous giggles and happy sighs.
Who knew that my favorite bagel fixings — smoked salmon, whipped cream cheese, piquant capers and fresh, feathery dill — would work so well on pizza? Or that squid, chorizo and manchego — Spain’s answer to surf-and-turf — would make such a gorgeous pie?
I loved the garden-fresh flavors of a flatbread that combined caramelized garlic, Tuscan kale crisps and spicy tomato salad. Imagine bruschetta with pizza crust instead of crostini.
The Pig and Fig was a symphony of salt and sweet with fresh, fleshy figs, smoked mozzarella and thick-cut prosciutto topped with a simple salad of arugula tossed with olive oil. A dark drizzle of balsamic vinegar syrup lent a tang to the finished dish.
Each pizza was paired with a different Ancient Peaks wine — crisp sauvignon blanc for seafood, smooth merlot for sweet tomato.
For me, the biggest revelation was the spinach, mushroom and egg pizza, paired with cabernet sauvignon. Tapping into a much-Instagramed food trend (#putaneggonit), the picture-perfect pie featured mountains of veggies with a snowfall of fontina cheese.
I cracked farm-fresh eggs directly onto the hot crust and watched them cook until the whites turned from clear to opaque.
When Kate cut into the crispy yet chewy crust, rich yolk spilled out — as yellow as summer sunshine. Yum.
I walked away from the “Art of Artisan Pizza” class with a quintet of tasty new pizza recipes and a copy of Binns’ e-book, “Kissed by Fire: Wood Oven Recipes From Wine Country” — plus a newfound sense of confidence in my cooking abilities.
I can’t wait to put my pie-crafting skills into practice. Breakfast pizza, anyone?