Pizza Dough by Heart

I haven’t made pizza dough in over a year. I used to make it all the time, at least once a week like clockwork. I’d pull out the old Betty Crocker Cookbook because, even though I made the dough week after week, I never memorized the recipe. But I liked pulling out that old book. My father-in-law sent it to my husband, along with a half-dozen others, when Adam applied to be a firefighter. He hadn’t been hired yet, but my father-in-law must have had a hunch that he would. Every firefighter needs to know how to cook, he said. I suppose he’s right.

But firefighter’s wives don’t have to know how to cook. Or, at least, this one didn’t. Adam made all our food – his great aunt’s macaroni and cheese recipe, burgers he cooked on our tiny fourteen-inch grill. He learned to make chili and cook a full chicken with a beer can stuffed inside it. He made our first Thanksgiving meal in our tiny apartment – a full turkey for just the two of us. I made the cranberry sauce. It was easy, and I liked it.

Whenever I’d stand in the kitchen to assemble something to eat, I’d flash back to my bridal shower when my mother had laughed at all the kitchen gadgets I opened. “You’re going to cook?!” she gasped, incredulous. I was embarrassed. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to cook; no one ever taught me.

The first pizza dough I made was a recipe from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I read it while I was pregnant with my daughter, almost nine years ago. I was curious about food then, about having a garden and eating conscientiously. The slow food movement was big, and I became infatuated with the idea of eating close to home.

And I was pregnant with my first child, which was changing my perspective on everything. A year earlier, I had been content eating pepperoni and sliced cheese on Ritz crackers for dinner, and washing it down with a few cold beers. Maybe my mom was right; I wasn’t the cooking type. But it was all coming into question – what kind of mother would I be? The kind that made dinner every night? The kind that grew her own veggies and baked her own bread?

I took care to follow Kingsolver’s Friday Night Pizza recipe, kneading the dough carefully, feeling its sticky springiness. I let it rise, then rolled out the crust on a baking sheet, covered it with toppings, and baked it. That night, Adam and I sat at the table and ate my first pizza. We talked about food and family, what was next for us and where we wanted to go. I told him I liked making the pizza from scratch, and he joked that he liked the night off from cooking. Maybe I can cook, I thought. All I knew was I wanted to do it again.

I made that homemade pizza every week, but somewhere along the way, I gave up on Kingsolver’s recipe in favor of our gold standard: the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I swapped out whole wheat flour for white, which stretched and squished as I kneaded it and rose to a fluffy gold when baked. That dough recipe stuck, and I used it with whatever topping combo suited my fancy: broccoli, tomato, and feta; zucchini with lemon zest; or (my favorite) salad pizza.

On pizza night, I would pull down the cookbook, flip to the most-worn page, and follow the directions: add flour, yeast, sugar, and salt; mix, then add a cup of hot water and some olive oil; mix again, and gradually add more flour as you feel the dough thicken and form a solid mass. It was a quick process, then the dough sat for a half hour to rise.

I knew the recipe well enough, but never memorized the exact measurements. Maybe it’s because I liked the ritual of taking out the book, one that people have relied on for years, one filled with tried-and-true recipes, no matter how basic or passé they might be. Maybe it’s because, even after my pregnancy-induced foray into cooking, cooking stressed me out and I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

Eventually, I gave up on making pizza dough all together. I started buying store-bought pizza and made it on nights Adam was at work. The kids didn’t complain. A slice of pizza and a few raw vegetables made them happy, and I was spared the work of making something from scratch.

But the other day, I got the itch. At the grocery store, I grabbed some pizza sauce and shredded mozzarella and decided Wednesday would be homemade pizza night.

On Wednesday, I grabbed the Betty Crocker Cookbook from its spot on the highest shelf in the cupboard. The book is tattered, old now. Some of the pages fall out, and the cover is worn around the edges. I held it for a minute before laying it on the counter. I had done this so many times before – held this book in my hands, opened up to the well-worn page with the recipe for pizza dough – but it had been a long time.

I pulled out each ingredient, trying to remember without having to refer to the recipe, and grabbed the large stainless-steel bowl that banged on the counter when I set it down. My daughter, Lily, came in and asked how she could help.

“Do you want to knead the dough?” I asked her.

She ran to grab a stool. “Yeah, I love that part,” she said, pulling the sleeves of her sweatshirt up.

I glanced over and watched her squeezing and rolling the dough, flour on her cheeks and the front of her sweatshirt. “You doing okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “but my hands are getting tired.” She placed the ball of dough in the bowl and itched her face with the back of her hand.

“It’s hard work,” I told her. I pulled out the plastic wrap and tore a piece big enough to cover the dough. “You did a good job. Thanks.”

She stood at the sink, washing the sticky dough off her hands, and I kissed the top of her head before setting the timer for thirty minutes.

Lily sat down at the table to do her homework before dinner, her brother sitting beside her, mashing a ball of Play-Doh with a plastic fork. They sat quietly, and I turned on some music – an old album from high school I hadn’t listened to in ages. The music started, and I washed a few stray dishes beside the sink, then tucked the worn, red cookbook back up on the top shelf.

I knew what to do next – sit with kids at the kitchen table while they worked, answering questions and laughing with them; watch the blue hour descend outside the bay window; wait for the timer to summon me; kiss my husband when he came home.

I knew the rest by heart.


Words and image by Lindsay Crandall.