Review: American Pie
Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
If you are a regular Macheesmo reader, it’ll be no surprise to that I like a good pizza pie. Personally, I’m a thin crust kind of guy but on a cold day I can get behind a good deep dish pizza. Any way you slice it though (ha!), there’s nothing like a good piece of pizza.
While it’s an older book, I think it’s worth taking another look at “American Pie” by Peter Reinhart. If you didn’t know, Peter knows baked goods. He’s been called a master bread baker by more than one qualified person and I’ve learned a ton about bread from his other book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.” So yea, I wanted to check out his thoughts on one of my favorite foods.
The Hunt. Peter is a fantastic writer and I was pulled into the story behind this book. I think it was so appealing to me because I’ve had a similar idea to go on the hunt for the “perfect pizza” whatever that may be.
The moment is one you may have had… you arrive in a town and a friend or lover or family member or complete stranger says that you MUST go to (insert pizza place here) because they make THE BEST pizza. But do they? Do they really?
Well, for the first 80 or so pages of this book, Peter documents his hunt. Now, as a regular cookbook reader, I must say that it’s pretty ballsy to spend the first 80 pages of a book devoted to something other than recipes.
But if you’ve ever had a pizza that is just… heavenly, especially if you have had the privilege of eating at one of the places Peter visits on his quest, I think you’ll enjoy the ride. He’s a great writer and story-teller and he makes his quest for the perfect pizza into an Odyssey of sorts.
But more than that even, it legitimizes him as a pizza authority. After you read (or even skim) these first 80 pages, you’ll know that this guy knows his pizza. And the recipes that are in the last 2/3s of the book are very, very legit.
The Recipes. Before we even get to the recipes, Peter does the right thing and addresses a few issues about making pizza. First, and this is something I completely agree with, crust is 80% of the battle. Figure out how to get a really good crust in your home environment, and you can beat 99% of the pizzas in America. Seriously. He also has a few words about sauces and cheeses, but really most of the introduction is devoted to the crust – and rightfully so.
What I was very happy to see is a number of scenarios for the home baker. A really good pizzeria almost certainly has a brick oven or some other method of cooking the pizza evenly and at very hot temperatures. This is hard to replicate for the home cook, so Peter lays out different scenarios that you may have and how to best approximate a pizzeria crust.
Even the worst scenario (normal oven with no stone or baking tiles) is covered and he has some nice tricks that still produce decent results (I’ve tried one of them.)
Speaking of Crust. Finally on page 103, we get into the recipes. I must say though that I didn’t find this to be a problem at all. The first 100 pages of this book are an awesome read and if they don’t make you excited to make some pizza, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
The first thing that becomes apparent when you get into the recipes is that Peter is not a fan of shortcuts, and with good reason. But at the same time, he makes it clear why each step is necessary in the crust process and he actually makes it all very accessible. There are 12 pizza dough recipes in the chapter and they really span the gambit of doughs – from the super thin to the super thick. My favorite and one that I’ll be trying very soon is the frozen pizza dough that you actually par-bake and then freeze to mimic (but destroy) the store-bought frozen pizza varieties.
In my opinion, this chapter is the most important in the book, the rest is just, well, toppings.
Sauces. Well, there are definitely your standard tomato sauces in this chapter, but that is just the beginning. Peter introduces us to a killer pesto (and a few varieties) along with some spicy, infused oils, eggplant purees, white sauces and even an onion marmalade. All of these, along with the dozen or so of other sauces, would be wonderful on a pie.
Finally, The Pizzas. So the last 90 pages of the book is devoted to actual pizzas. But here’s the thing. After you’ve read the crusts and the sauces, they actual recipes seem almost unnecessary. I mean… he’s given you the building blocks for great pizzas, so start building!
But there are some other details that he gets into in this chapter that will definitely help you out. Things like how to actually shape a pizza correctly and how to pick a cheese or two that will work well with your pizza. Important stuff no doubt. He also gets you started with about 30 or 40 actual pizza recipes (dough, sauce, cheese, toppings all together). But the variations on each of these recipes is pretty much endless. The point is that he does a fantastic job of giving you the tools and info you need.
So, if you happen to live in one of the cities that is considered a pizza haven, then this book will give you the tools to produce similar results – close to your favorite pizzeria. But, I think this book might be even more important for someone living in say, rural Wyoming where I’m from. The best pizza we have there is from the local Pizza Hut. If that’s the case, using the tips and recipes in this book, I would bet you can make the best pizza in a 100 mile radius.