He took me on Via Constantinopoli, to Port'Alba to Piazza Dante, to Via Toledo. I was overwhelmed by the names, the noise of the traffic the voices, the colours, the festive atmosphere, the effort of keeping everything in mind so that I could talk about it later with Lila, the ease with which he bought me a pizza melting with ricotta, the fruit seller from whom he bought me a yellow peach.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
After a self-imposed book-buying ban came to an end a couple of weeks back (in a veritable spree of purchasing), I wandered in to my favourite bookshop, The London Review Bookshop. Not only does this glorious shop have the best curated selection of books and literary gifts in London, it has the most divine cake shop attached. What's not to love? I also know the staff, so when I spotted Natalia's recommendation table laden down with Ferrante's novels, I had to take the first home with me. I am now anticipating the pleasure of making my way through the next three; the last in the series of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels was released this week.
Growing up, my female friendships were intensely important to me. Alongside my sister, my earliest friendships were with three girls I met at kindergarten: Nell, Maddie and Amelia. We all lived with our single mums, and spent most of our afternoons and school holidays in and out of each other's houses, backyards and pools. These friendships continued through primary school, and I then spent five years in an all girls secondary school. I am not convinced single-sex education is always the best idea, but I loved the fierce friendships it engendered, especially in the final couple of years. As an adult, my circle of friends has naturally narrowed, but the close female friendships I cultivated in Australia and have made since moving to London remain very dear to me.
The memory of these friendships was at the forefront of my mind when reading My Brilliant Friend. The book focuses on the relationship between Elena and Lila, as they grow up together in Naples following the Second World War. This relationship is wonderfully real, as is Ferrante's construction of Naples, and the families that inhabit it. I couldn't get through a chapter without wanting to put the book down and cook something mentioned in it. Halfway through the book, it was the scene above that finally stopped me - I went off and researched Neapolitan pizza.
You can have really good homemade pizza on the table in less than an hour. I don't want to get evangelical about it, but this is recipe below is better than 'really good' pizza. The proving time is invaluable - the dough is both crisp and chewy, and has a wonderful flavour. If you have the time and fridge space, give it a go. I'm hooked - I've already made a second batch.
Makes 6 pizzas
500g Tip00 flour
300ml water (at blood temperature)
20g fresh yeast (or 5g fast action yeast)
Handful of semolina
1l whole milk
Large pinch sea salt
Passata or homemade tomato sauce
...or whatever you'd prefer
Cast iron pan/pizza stone
Pizza paddle/cake slice/baking sheet
1. About 72 hours before you plan on eating the pizza, prepare the dough. Crumble the yeast into the mixing bowl, and add the water. Whisk to soften the yeast. Add the flour and salt and mix with your hand. Tip onto the bench and knead for ten minutes, until the dough is soft, smooth and elastic.
2. Clean the mixing bowl and return the dough to it. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for half an hour at room temperature. Move the dough to the fridge, and leave for 24 hours.
3. After 24 hours, split the dough into six even pieces and shape into balls. Place on a baking tray lined with paper, sprinkle with flour and cover with cling film. Return to the fridge for a further two days.
4. One day before you want to make the pizza, prepare the ricotta. Line the sieve with the cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Pour the milk and ricotta into the saucepan and heat to 80C, stirring constantly. The liquid will separate into white curds and a yellowish whey. The curds will float on the top of the whey when the temperature hits 80C. Skim the curds off the top, and place in the lined sieve. Strain for between three and twenty minutes, depending on how firm you want the ricotta (I like it soft, so went for only a couple of minutes). Transfer to a jar/bowl and stir the salt through. Refrigerate for a day.
5. About an hour and a half before you want to eat the pizza, remove the dough from the fridge. Allow it to come to room temperature, and then rise for a final hour. While the dough is rising, place the cast iron pan/pizza stone to your oven and turn it on to the hottest setting (should be between 240C - 300C in a domestic oven). It will never be as hot as a true pizza oven, but getting it hot for a good length of time before putting the pizza in is a start.
6. Each ball of dough will be full of irregular holes; this is exactly what you're looking for. Handle the dough with kid gloves to try and retain as many of these holes as possible. Instead of rolling the dough out with a rolling pin, push and pull it gently into shape with your hands. If you can spin it in the air, do it - mine would inevitably end up on the floor. Ensure that you are gentle around the crust, keeping it a little thicker than the centre.
7. Sprinkle some semolina on your bench, so that the dough doesn't stick. Trickle some olive oil into the centre, and spread it over the dough with your fingertips. Spoon a tablespoon of passata onto the base, and then add your toppings - some ricotta, a couple of anchovies, a small handful of capers and some basil leaves works well.
8. Slide your pizza onto a paddle/cake lifter/thin tray that you've sprinkled some semolina onto. Shake the pizza onto the stone in the oven and close the door of the oven quickly. Bake for around seven minutes, until the base is puffed and blackened in places.
9. Once the pizza has cooled for a couple of minutes, drizzle with chilli oil and serve. Continue making pizzas with the rest of the dough and toppings - allow guests to choose their own toppings, but keep it simple. The dough won't puff up and can be stodgy if you load it with ingredients.