I spent a glorious week once in a rented villa with my boyfriend and a bunch of his school mates, taking turns to spin into the local market and pick up raw ingredients to turn into feasts we could share on the balmy terrace. Meals would come together at an easy meandering pace; with frequent snacks being proffered up to anyone clever enough to wander through the kitchen to see if anything needed doing (or rather, eating). Just as delicious as the food being cooked was the atmosphere itself: the relaxed camaraderie that comes from sharing a task such as cooking. A couple of days in, and I felt like I had known these new friends all my life.
I was reminded of this special holiday on the third last day of our four-week course in Dublin Cookery School.
There was an air of spring about it, wafting in the open back door and mingling with the easy banter rippling through the group. The next day was the big one, when we would cook a seven-course tasting menu for ourselves and 18 invited guests at our big Restaurant Night bash. But today wasn’t about impressing guests. Today instead was about savouring some of the final hours of what had been a truly extraordinary experience for myself and the 16 other students on the course. Thursday’s feast would be a showcase of our skills. Today was about party food amongst friends.
For such a famously fast food, making your own pizza is something that has to be approached at a leisurely pace – to begin with at least. It only takes a few minutes to knead the 00 flour, yeast, salt, sugar, olive oil and warm water into a soft dough, but the real magic happens when you leave the dough alone for the next hour or two to do its own thing. (Find somewhere cosy for it to hang out: a warming oven, or hot press even.)
We used that time to knock together some delicious canapés which had been demonstrated the day before (and had been served up to us at intervals during our whistlestop wine tasting with sommelier Martina Delaney).
The trick to party food – with which you are aiming to please palates rather than feed hunger – is to cook the kinds of things you love to eat at any time of day, and to serve up in steady streams of bite-sized deliciousness. Each mouthful could be something as exotic as Atul Kochar’s recipe for okra bhaji with a honey yoghurt spice dip, or duck spring rolls with Neven Maguire’s chilli jam (both demoed by Lynda Booth) or as homely as scrambled eggs on toast transformed into celebratory fare with a slick of truffle oil (as demoed by John Wyer).
As our dough gently swelled and doubled in size in the proving ovens, we rolled cigars of black pudding; panéed balls of Parmesan-rich bechamel sauce for golden croquettes; grated fresh horseradish into creme fraiche with which to dress some smoked mackerel; and transformed slices of bread into squares of Croque Monsieur, of blue cheese crostini, of red onion and goat’s cheese bruschetta.
And then we cranked the ovens up as high as they could go, lined up our mise en place for our individual pizza creations, floured our countertops and got ready to roll.
Once your pizza dough is ready to rock, the fun can begin. Divide the dough into as many individual balls as you plan to make into individual pizzas (reckoning on 450g of flour for two to three 10″ pizzas, depending how thin you can get it). Keeping the reserved dough covered until use, flatten out each ball with a rolling pin, stretching with your fingers as you go and aiming for as thin as possible.
There’s a reason pizzerias take such pride in their pizza ovens: temperatures of over 500ºC. You’ll be hard-pressed to reach such heady heights in your home oven but it helps significantly if you invest in a pizza stone (which you should always preheat simultaneously with the oven itself to avoid cracking) onto which you can flick your masterpiece.
You can use a heavily floured breadboard as a pizza paddle, though it’s much more fun to get to play with the real deal and they’re cheap enough to pick up. Once your pizza is rolled and stretched to a suitably skinny state, rest it on the floured paddle, top with your favourite flavours and place it with a deft flick of the wrist directly onto the hot stone for about four or five minutes, keeping a close eye on it as you do.
It’s up to you what you put on your pizza. But Lynda was keen to remind us that less is so often more: better to showcase one or two flavours than to have all them scrapping for your attention. And remember that not every pizza asks for a slick of tomato sauce: Lynda made a humdinger that combined candied shallots with mozzerella and goat’s cheese, while John’s moment of glory came in the form of squares of pizza smeared with slow-roasted garlic with thyme and oregano, dressed with roast peppers, Parma ham, rocket leaves and shavings of Parmesan.
Because pizza is best eaten piping hot, and shared amongst friends, you should enjoy each creation as it comes out of the oven before assembling the next one. As befits one of the quintessential Italian ways of eating, it’s as much about the people with whom you’re sharing the food as it is about the food itself. And on Day Eighteen of this amazing month-long culinary odyssey, getting to share pizza with 16 new friends (not to mention the brilliant team of staff who had lead us on our journey of discovery) seemed to me the perfect way to almost end our pilgrimage.