Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: The volume of recipes opens by defying your expectations of what a recipe book can be
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 3, Chapter 12, "Iconic Recipes," Part 1
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
It looks like intense flavor: a pizza with big, caramelized bubbles and bits of pink salmon, salmon roe and green chives. Then, there’s an extreme closeup of olive oil drizzling from a copper cruet onto a red, white and bright green Margherita pizza ready for the oven, with chunks of fresh, fat, white bufala and a deep red sauce. Next, a steel factory conveyor covered with pans of steel parts, nuts and bolts, all surrounding a golden caramelized Detroit-style pan pizza.
Even before reaching the first page of the opening chapter in Volume 3, the Modernist Pizza photography is stunning--and in the Detroit case, maybe just a little wrong. Wrenches and bolts and pizza, oh my. If you're unaware of the legacy, Detroit pizza was invented in 1946. Since the available baking pans at the time were insufficient, Detroit pizza was baked in pans from an automotive supplier. The pans were originally intended for holding small parts on auto assembly lines.
Once again, Modernist Pizza defies expectations. You’d think that Volume 3 of a three-volume set, especially with a title like Recipes, would be straightforward and without much to discuss. Oh, no. This photography is just a precursor of the ongoing Modernista intensity to come.
And I admit, it seems like the height of egoism for an author to name a section of his “Iconic Recipes” chapter “Our Iconic Recipes.” Who says, "Our work is iconic?" It’s also easy to argue that they mean that these are their versions of these iconic recipes. That’s clearly what’s being discussed in the text. It just seems odd that a pair as intense and detailed as Mhyrvold & Migoya let this slip—unless someone there was just having fun. That’s possible, too.
The Modernistas quickly let us know what we’re in for with this chapter, and I’m already fascinated by the idea of a category called “pizza cousins.” I’m assuming that it doesn’t refer to English Muffin pizzas or Mexican pizzas made on flour tortillas. (I call those things PLO, or Pizza-Like Objects. Not sure what Mhyrvold & Migoya call them.)
My first tingle of excitement in this chapter comes with the promise that “We’ll also give you some of our favorite flavor combinations in the Flavor Themes chapter.” In my experience, understanding flavor is key to innovating on your own and inventing new pizzas that you’ve never before heard of. (Yet, if you Google your exciting new pizza idea after making it, you’ll find half a million results and hundreds of recipes for that very same pizza. Such is life in the Google lane.)
I take real reassurance in the promise that they will tell us how to eyeball topping amounts instead of using a scale. There’s so much scale chauvinism among the pizza cognoscenti, and the scale isn’t a silver bullet for anything. Looking at a pizza and knowing it is sufficiently topped should be the yardstick for whether it’s ready to launch, not the number on a scale.
In other words, they’re showing us how to do it like a pizzeria does it. But if you’re a precision freak, they also have alternate intel for you. They’re also careful to let us know that “the predecessor of all pizzas originated in Naples in the 18th century. This is likely the pizza that was introduced to the United States and swept the nation before it was adapted for the US market and spread around the globe. For some, Neapolitan pizza is the gold standard by which all other pizzas are measured.” Mhyrvold & Migoya never tell us it IS the gold standard. Your pizza preference matters, Neapolitan or otherwise.
I admit that even the introduction here makes me feel a little disappointed in myself. Over the years, I’ve certainly said, “What would happen if…” I’ve speculated at length about making pizza in a waffle iron or as a quiche. Well, on both counts, Mhyrvold & Migoya apparently said, “What if” and followed it with “Let’s try.” They’re delivering all kinds of cockeyed recipes to make the purist throw down his peel and curse the Modernistas to a place in pizza hell for realizing that crazy idea first.
“There are moments where you have to practice and pay full attention.” This quote comes from the section called, “Crucial moments in making pizza.” This section, which is short, is chock full of important tips. And one of my favorite passages in the entire book so far: “When you care about the craft, you’ll never think that you’re done learning.” This is all accompanied by photo guides to crucial steps for various kinds of pizza.
Oh, yes: More tables. The first table in this chapter is assembly and baking times for major styles of pizza.
What follows next is a kind of high-end primer on making all the iconic pizzas. It begins with thin crust, and allows for the fact that (like almost everything else with pizza) there is a lack of consistency in how “thin” thin crust really is. Nonetheless, they identify key characteristics and how to attain them. They also identify a couple of problems and solutions. Then, how to shape thin-crust pizza using a rolling pin, a sheeter, or your hands.
And it wouldn’t be Modernist Pizza without a photograph of a micrometer measuring how thin an actual thin crust pizza is. That’s because they wanted to see how thin they could go. If you’re interested, they ended up with “an ultra-crispy pizza that seems impossibly thin.” They then offer steps to achieve such a pizza at home or work.
And yes, there is more detail about using a dough press than you ever wanted to know. That is, unless you’re a working pro desiring to produce thin-crust pizza, and then you might be pleasantly surprised. There’s also a visual guide to thin crust pizza.
And, if you’ve never seen one before, there’s the first in the mind-boggling exploded photographs of the layers in a pizza, this one a thin-crust pizza. It might sound like a gimmick. But when you realize the photo is surrounded by commentary explaining the virtues of each layer’s construction, you realize there’s a method to the Mhyrvold madness. (Besides being a former tech exec as well as a chef, Nathan Mhyrvold is also an extraordinary photographer. His stunning technique can leave you wondering how the heck. And I’m sure that all it takes is desire fueled by a bottomless budget. If only we could all enjoy such luxury.)
And just by the way, though “a thin-crust pizza slice might look flimsy, the crust is firm, crisp, and can hold a plank, so it is strong enough to hold a surprising amount of toppings.” So there ya go. Following that is a recipe for sausage and cheese thin crust pizza, as well as a pepperoni variant. There’s a chart of baking times depending upon the oven being used. There s a chart of options for baking gluten-free thin-crust.
Then, from out of nowhere, “The Machine’s Role In Making Pizza.” It’s a quick tale of all the machines that are used in pizzerias to deliver consistency at a lower price point. Mixers for dough, dough presses, even automatic saucing machines. But you’ll be glad to know that as far as these guys are concerned, no machine can replace the finesse of a skilled pizzaiolo at the oven.
Next up is St. Louis-style pizza. That’s followed by a “topping variation” recipe for Alsatian tarte flambée, both of which are thin-crust; a Brazilian thin-crust calabresa pizza; Brazilian Margherita; another exploded view of the layers, this time a Brazilian thin-crust; recipes for a shrimp and hearts of palm pizza, and a chicken and Catupiry pizza with olives (Catupiry is apparently a mayonnaise-like cream cheese that Brazilians love and the Modernistas don’t—but hey, they’re nothing if not democratic about all this); and, there's an “innovative variation” on thin-crust pizza called pillow pizza, including the dough recipe for what is essentially a pita bread filled with pizza toppings.
This basic model of iconic style assembly and variations is going to follow us into all styles and sub-variants. It’s also teeing-up a surprising and an occasionally bizarre pizza schooling in next week’s part two of this review. Among the surprises, including a pixelated pizza, a quizza, and (yes) a black-on-black pizza.
If the idea of owning a copy of Modernist Pizza attracts you like a moth to the candle flame, you can find it here. If you want a skinnier, simpler, sillier book that teaches only one kind of pizza, you can find Free The Pizza! here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
When you click those links to Amazon (and a few other sites we work with), and you buy something, you are helping this website stay afloat, and you're helping us have many more glorious photographs of impressive pizza.