After three cooking lessons with 11-year-old girls at St. Martin De Porres in North Philadelphia, it was time to add some chemistry to the skills they were learning in the convent kitchen. Not the periodic table, mind you, but the magical alchemy of baking. And what is more exciting than baking pizza from scratch?
Because the dough is made with yeast that takes hours to rise, I brought some that already had risen, as well as ingredients so the girls could make some themselves.
"Are we actually making the dough?" asked the not-easily-impressed Jayla Reeves. "Wow!"
Pizza is one of the cheapest meals going, the crust made of flour, water, yeast, and a little sugar and oil. Once you learn how to make the crust, of course, there are dozens of variations for toppings.
I brought some special equipment, a pizza stone and a pizza peel. Neither is necessary, as you can simply put the pizza on a baking sheet. But the stone - a flat disk that needs to be heated in a hot oven - really does improve the crispness of the crust. So, while we started on the dough, we preheated the oven, and popped the stone in.
First step: Proof the yeast. The girls measured out yeast and sugar, then added both to a cup of warm water.
Keep an eye on it, I told them, until you see it start to bubble. When that happens, it means carbon dioxide is being released. That is what will make the dough rise. Then we can start adding the flour.
Bubbles, not many, but a few, emerged; the flour was poured in, a little at a time.
"You have to keep incorporating the flour into the dough, and work it into a ball," I told them. "Once the yeast is mixed in, the dough becomes a living thing."
Those were the magic words. Now the girls were dying to get their hands on it.
"Let me touch!"
"Let me feel it!"
"Oooh, it's weird!"
Once all the flour was worked in, it was time to knead: "You need to work the heels of your hands into the dough. And keep working it, until it gets more elastic and almost silky."
"It's not doing anything," said Maliyah.
"Have you ever heard the expression, put some elbow grease into it? You have to push hard and work that dough. Don't be gentle!"
"Can I be next?" said Mariah Bey, my most enthusiastic student.
But she was not alone: "I want a turn!" said Hope Wescott.
As they took turns kneading, Jayla made the simple tomato sauce, squishing with her hands the whole tomatoes from a can and stirring in olive oil and a little salt.
Mariah, Hope and Maliyah were chopping when not kneading: red peppers, tomatoes, zucchini. These girls love to chop!
When the dough was silky-smooth, we covered it and put it in the fridge to start its rise. (The girls would take it to make pizzas at home.)
Then we divided into four parts the already-risen dough, and sprinkled it with flour. Even after making dozens of pizzas over the years, I'm no expert at tossing dough for pizza. My best results come with a rolling pin, so that is how we proceeded.
We dusted the pizza paddle with cornmeal (to make it easier to slide the pizza off when it was done), and began rolling out the dough.
Once again, everyone wanted a turn rolling the dough in one direction and then the other, to try to keep the shape relatively round.
OK, time for toppings.
Maliyah - who is not, shall we say, enthusiastic about vegetables - tried to argue against any at all, suggesting just tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. But to that basic margherita we added some red pepper and a sprinkling of basil. I showed them how to slide it onto the stone in the oven. We set the timer, and we were on to our next pie.
But, meanwhile, Kayla Reid was on the phone with her mother, who was coming to pick her up early.
"Can you get me a Shamrock Shake and a cheeseburger and fries before track?" she asked.
To my great delight, her best friend, Jayla, called her out: "Are you really ordering that, right here in front of our teacher, who is teaching us to eat healthy?" she scolded. "You are not!"
Kayla, don't you think you will be full after you eat all this pizza?, I asked gently. Won't eating all that fast food before practice make you sick?
"No, I can really eat a lot. I really can."
I do remember being that age, being endlessly hungry and being able to eat and eat. So I did understand. I only wished she and the other girls would start to think about the nutritional value of what they are eating.
Then, perhaps as proof that the lessons were sinking in, Kayla added: "You know my mom made that turkey meat loaf with your recipe the other day."
"Really, Kayla! That is brilliant! I'm so thrilled!"
Meanwhile, Jayla got a call that her mom was here to take her to track. She was so disappointed not to taste the pizza that she strong-armed her friend: "Kayla, I swear to you, if you do not bring me that pizza I will never let you in my house again. Do you hear me? Do not forget!"
When the first pizza came out of the oven, the crust had puffed up nicely. One bite and Mariah was in heaven: "Mmmmm. That is so good. This is the best pizza I ever had in my life!"
Even Maliyah ate it with the red peppers - or at least she did not let me see her pick them off before she, too, scooted out for practice.
Then, while the second pizza was still in the oven, Mariah was told her grandmother had arrived. "How long till that pizza is done?" she cried in anguish. "I never get picked up early!"
We all willed the pizza to hurry up so we could wrap some in foil to send with her.
For the last two pies, I persuaded the two remaining girls to make use of all those lovely veggies they had chopped. So we added sliced tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and cheese.
When that beautiful pizza came out of the oven, both girls were duly impressed.
"I got to admit, that is the best-looking one of all," said Kayla.
In fact, they were so excited, they did a cheer, with crossover handclapping, rhythmically calling out the name the class has given me:
I think they liked the pizza, vegetables and all.
Makes 4 pizzas, or about 8 servings
One Basic Pizza Dough
For the sauce:
1 16-ounce can peeled tomatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced for topping, (or more, depending on other toppings)
Fresh vegetables for topping: sliced tomatoes, sliced red peppers, sliced zucchini, etc.
1. Once the dough has risen and about an hour before you want to make the pizza, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
2. At least 40 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. If using a baking stone, place it in oven.
3. Make the sauce: Crush tomatoes by hand, then mix in olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside.
4. Punch down the prepared dough and divide it into four pieces. Shape each piece into a ball. On a lightly floured surface, roll each ball of dough into an 8-inch round.
5. Sprinkle a wooden pizza peel, or baking sheet, with coarse cornmeal and place the round of dough on the peel or sheet. Working quickly to keep the dough from sticking, assemble the pizza, first with a layer of tomato sauce, then with vegetables of your choice, then cheese. Sprinkle with basil.
6. Slide the pizzas off the peel and onto the baking stone in oven. Or place the baking sheet on a rack in the oven. Bake until the dough is crisp and golden, 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Remove from the oven, transfer to a cutting board, and cut into wedges. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 284 calories, 8 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, 1 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 550 milligrams sodium, 1 grams dietary fiber.
Basic Pizza Dough
Makes 4 small pizzas
1 teaspoon dry active yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/3 cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
About 3 3/4 cups flour
1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and water, and stir to blend. Let stand until foamy, about 5 mintues. Stir in the oil and salt.
2. Add the flour a little at a time, stirring until most of the flour has been absorbed and the dough forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and knead until soft and satiny but still firm, 4 to 5 minutes, adding additional flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking.
3. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator. Let the dough rise in the refrigerator until doubled or tripled in size, 8 to 12 hours. The dough can be kept for 2 to 3 days in the fridge. Simply punch down the dough as it doubles or triples.
Per serving: 197 calories, 5 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 3 grams fat, no cholesterol, 188 milligrams sodium, 1 grams dietary fiber.