Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza

As far as I’m concerned, EVERYONE should have to account for their pizza sins. I’m sick of just comparing New York and Chicago – why is no one yelling at Detroit, where they’ve been selling what is essentially defiled focaccia since the dawn of time with seemingly no consequences?

The UK’s pizza landscape is a blasted heath full of wet, flappy crust and weird tiny sweet peppers and something called the “American Hot”.

Their “deep-dish” only comes frozen, sold by a company called “Chicago Town” (EXCUSE ME, WHERE?). This is, chillingly, “The UK’s #1 Frozen Pizza Brand!”, a fact which fills my soul with enough terror and pity to make an entire Greek chorus die barfing. (“In Chicago Town [again, where?], we don’t just make pizza, we go to town on it!”).

What is even the wrongest thing about this picture? It’s “going to town” on my brain.

I have seen one sit-down deep-dish restaurant here, in Shepherd’s Bush. It was called “Chicago Grill”, and when I looked at it reality blinked in and out like I was in the Upside Down.

The sign outside Chicago Grill

It is for this reason that I have decided Chicago-style pizza should immediately be submitted for protection under UNESCO World Heritage standards, like Champagne, and every other place that sells it should be forced to call it “big dish pizza”.

But apparently “real Chicagoans” actually eat thin-crust and deep-dish is for all intents and purposes a tourist trap intended to snare the unwary, like Navy Pier, or the Blackhawks. It’s true: Chicagoans eat thin crust, and pupusas, and nasi goreng, and Hunan chicken, and we’re not generally that bothered about “defending” something that’s a subjectively tasty, but  entirely non-mandatory, facet of the Chicago experience.

Then, as if “Chicago Town” wasn’t enough, New Jersey of all places hits you with The Audacity of This Bullshit:

So, alright, cool, I guess this is just one of those things you say because you heard someone else say it and thought ‘hey yeah that sounds vaguely patronizing’ but didn’t bother to follow any of it through to its logical conclusion, cool cool cool great awesome. You’re entitled to your opinion, even when it’s an opinion RIFE with INTELLECTUAL POVERTY, GLIB INCURIOSITY, and UNEXAMINED, UNEARNED SMUGNESS. I expect nothing less from a people who are so upset about not being New York that they have to make fools of themselves in public on Twitter dot com. No one’s talking about “New Jersey pizza,” guys.

Let me state for the record that casseroles are an ESSENTIAL cultural artifact of the Midwest, of which Chicago is a part. You’re really gonna try to lecture Midwesterners about what is and is not a casserole, Jersey? Really?

Last night I was tasked with making dinner out of ingredients I already had at home. Did I make a stir-fry, or a stew or (God forbid) a salad? Of course not! I combined a variety of ingredients with a béchamel and some macaroni, poured it into a Pyrex, and baked it at 375 for 35 minutes. I know what a damn casserole is.

Yes, deep-dish is baked. Yes, there are layers of meats, cheeses, and vegetables assembled into a stratified, saucy mess which can be sliced and served.

NO, it is not a casserole.

First of all, what casserole has a crust? As soon as casseroles have crusts, they become pies. Like it or not, pizzas are pies, even though calling them that makes me feel like the social media coordinator for Little Caesar’s, or the kind of hipster obsessive that calls slices of pepperoni “roni cups”.

Casseroles are homemade, ad-hoc, potluck meals. Deep-dish pizza is an entirely separate genre of experience. Deep dish is mid-February, the sidewalks gritty and patchy with ice, the cold slicing right through your butt-covering puffer jacket, grabbing the shitty banging door and going down the stairs into a beery, sausagey fug of pure comfort and then waiting 40 interminable minutes for the most beautiful, the most soul-warming, the very deepest dish. Crisp, buttery crust encasing layers of sweet, bright tomatoes that taste like pure sunshine, the unctuous pop of mushrooms, spicy, greasy, salty sausage, and a stretchy layer of molten mozzarella. God, what a dream.

Suffice it to say, no one in their right mind would ever bother to make deep dish at home, and no one orders casserole from a restaurant.

One does not simply decide to make deep dish at home. No one on the internet knows how to make it, because no one who loves it would ever bother. People who know and love it will find a way to get the real thing. Unless, uh, there’s a global pandemic and your husband is away at war your favorite takeout place doesn’t do international shipping.

You can tell right away that most online recipes don’t know what they’re talking about: putting cornmeal in the pizza dough, or rhapsodizing about the “fluffy, bready” crust. People who try to recreate it make what they imagine it should be, not what it is.

Deep-dish is not about thick fluffy bready crust supporting a thin upper strata of toppings, like that viral cheesy pan pizza from King Arthur (which is admittedly delicious). It has a crispy, strong, shattering crust, like a shortcrust pastry oiled up for wrestling, encasing a molten lava crater of everything delicious you can possibly think of. Properly baked deep dish should have a crust as thin and crisp as the bottom of Paul Hollywood’s quiche.

Here’s the thing about deep dish crust: its function is almost medieval. Back in the day, before we had things like “packaging”, long before we had to reckon with the fact that the Big Gulp Jennifer Aniston drank from in Office Space is probably still alive and well in a garbage dump somewhere and won’t fully decompose for another 10,000 years, we had to encase our food-to-go in SOMETHING. And that something was usually pastry, which is why meat pies and/or dumplings exist in almost every culture. Deep dish crust is closer, spiritually, to a pie crust than a flatbread.

This gets at the heart of what people misunderstand about deep dish: they think it’s about being overwhelmed by sensation – the crust is big and fluffy, it’s too large to possibly eat, too heavy to finish, too salty, too greasy, its stuffed crust is stuffed with other crusts, and other stuff. This, again, is deeply wrong.

Deep dish, like all great dishes, is about balance, both in flavor and texture. The tomatoes are juicy, sweet, and lightly acidic. There’s fattiness from the cheese, but also stretchy gooey warmth. The sausage is meaty and rich, but it’s also bright with salt and spices.  Vegetables add texture and color, and the crust supports the entire crispy-chewy ecosystem. But each of these ingredient layers is THIN, paper-thin, even the crust, in order to make room for each of them to shine together as one.

You shouldn’t make deep dish. You should get one overnighted to you from Lou Malnati’s. The following recipe is less a set of instructions than a public record of my heroic first attempt at bringing myself the taste of home in the face of overpowering odds. Recreating that taste requires deep understanding, which is both a function of true love and a symptom of being irreparably bonkers.

A DESCENT INTO MADNESS! SHEER INSANITY! LOOK UPON IT AND DESPAIR, IT’S: DEEP DISH FROM SCRATCH

With thanks and appreciation to the fine people at Real Deep Dish Dot Com

TIME: About two hours, plus an overnight

YIELD: This recipe makes enough for two small 9-inch pizzas, or one larger one that you can figure out the math on if you want. That includes ingredients and toppings, but none of them will be worse for wear covered in the fridge overnight. The Italian Sausage recipe makes, like, so much. I only used about half of it for both pizzas, but again – I’m not prepared to do the math on this. Extra Italian sausage is great fried into patties and made into sandwiches, or stirred into pasta sauce, or stuffed in the freezer until you can figure out what to do with it.

INGREDIENTS:

For the Dough:

  • 2 and ¼ cups all-purpose flour (pizza flour is for stretchy, chewy thin crusts – not what we’re doing here)
  • 6 oz water
  • 4 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp sugar

Cheese:

A whole lot. At least 16oz of deli sliced mozzarella, or two balls of fresh, or a big pack of shreds.

Italian Sausage:

DO NOT BE AFRAID

1lb pork mince

1.5 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

3 ½ tsp paprika

½ tsp red pepper flakes (or more if you want it hotter)

½ tsp fennel seed

1 tbsp chopped parsley

2 large cloves garlic, minced (or 2/3 tsp powder)

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp dried thyme

½ tsp dried basil

Sauce:

A can of the best and fanciest crushed tomatoes you can find.

Or, just like, whatever canned tomatoes you have plus ½ tsp sugar.

Garnish:

Dried basil and dried oregano and grated parmesan

INGREDIENT NOTES:

NOTES ON THE PAN:

If you want something this deep of dish to cook through in 30 minutes, even at a pizza-punishing 500 degrees, each of the ingredient layers has to be very, very thin, from crust through to sauce. This is why cast-irons don’t work so well – you need that heat conducted right through to the pizza itself ASAP, with no time wasted on trying to get a heavy pot to heat up. So I suggest, instead of a Dutch oven or a cast iron, you use a cake pan – preferably one with a removable bottom. I have a 9-inch one that worked a treat – the only problem is that it’s small. That’s not a big problem in the world of deep dish. The 9-inch pan made enough pizza for two people to share, and then have a second pizza the next day.

NOTES ON THE CRUST:

You don’t technically HAVE to ferment it overnight, but I think an overnight rise vastly improves the flavor. Because the rest of the pizza ingredients are so highly flavored, the crust is pretty bland. That’s fine. But the overnight rise gives it some time to develop a greater and more complex tastiness. This is the scientific terminology, I don’t make the rules.

NOTES ON THE CHEESE:

Ideally, you’d be using mozzarella deli slices and laying them out like a patchwork quilt right on the dough. Don’t skimp. If you’re just doing a cheese pizza, go nuts with this part. Bagged mozzarella shreds will work fine, too, but press them into the crust a little bit and make sure the coverage is Thick. If you just have fresh mozzarella for some reason (no comment, online shopping is tricky okay), tear it into shreds and put it in a sieve over a bowl to dry. Stick that whole apparatus in the fridge, covered, for about 4 hours. 15-20 minutes before the pizza goes in, take out your Cheese Dehydrator and press the shreds between two bits of paper towel until you need to use them. Damp cheese is counterproductive when it comes to pizza.

NOTES ON THE TOPPINGS:

In my opinion, sausage and mushroom is the peanut butter and jelly of pizza toppings. Truly these are two great tastes that taste great together, and pizza is always just a little bit sadder without them. I also highly recommend spinach.

However, can you find Italian sausage in England? What a hilarious, adorable question. Luckily, sausage isn’t a magical separate genre of meat, it’s just pork mince with spices in it, spices that you can absolutely get.

Other good moves would be: mushrooms, spinach, onion, garlic, bacon, pepperoni, raw tomato slices, green peppers (if you MUST), black olives

Lay out your toppings on top of the cheese but under the sauce. So, not really “toppings”, more like “middlings.” Whatever.

NOTES ON THE SAUCE:

Unlike most pasta sauces, tomato sauce for pizza shouldn’t be cooked. This counts for thin-crust too. The tomatoes will mellow out enough in a 500-degree oven for 30 minutes, and you need them to be bright and acidic to counter all of the meat and cheese. If you can, use really fancy canned tomatoes, the fancier the better. Ideally you should be able to just spread crushed canned tomatoes over your toppings and call it a day, but most of us buy normal canned tomatoes which can taste a little tinny. ½ teaspoon sugar helps with this.

Most of the salt and flavor comes from the toppings, especially if you’re doing sausage, pepperoni, black olives, etc. If you’re just doing a cheese pizza, I would zhuzh up your tomato sauce with salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, garlic, etc. Just pick the spices you like from the Italian sausage ingredients list and use those. Otherwise, the taste might be a little plain.

NOTES ON THE GARNISH:

Traditionally, deep dish is topped with dried oregano, dried basil, and a light dusting of parmesan. If you’re already going to the trouble of making this whole nightmare beast, why not finish it off right?

METHOD:

DAY ONE:

MAKE THE DOUGH
  1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve sugar and salt into the lukewarm water.
  2. Mix half the flour with the yeast, then add with the oil to the bowl of water. Salt kills yeast, so we hide the yeast in the flour instead of adding it directly to the bowl of salty water.
  3. Mix until you have a thick batter, then add the rest of the flour and continue mixing until combined.
  4. Knead until the dough comes together into a smooth ball, then stop. If the dough’s a little dry, add water a tablespoon at a time. It’s fine if the dough is a little shaggy. Make sure you don’t over-knead – we’re NOT looking for a lot of stretchy gluten development. No more than two or three minutes of kneading.
  5. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 to 2 hours.
  6. When the dough has doubled, punch it down and put it in the fridge overnight. You could also use it immediately, but it just won’t taste as good.
MAKE THE ITALIAN SAUSAGE
  1. Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well with your hands until it’s uniform. Cover and refrigerate overnight to let the flavors get together.

DAY TWO:

  1. Set up your Mozzarella Apparatus and start it draining
  2. Take half of your cold dough out of the fridge to start rising (in a new bowl, covered with more cling wrap or a damp tea towel)
  3. About an hour before you’re ready to bake, pre-heat your oven to 500 degrees F, 250C. Put a baking sheet on the lowest rack.
  4. 15-20 minutes before you’re ready to bake (when your oven’s almost there and the dough’s just about at room temperature), squeeze dry your cheese between paper towels, and set your canned tomatoes to drain in a sieve over a bowl. Don’t forget to add sugar if you’re doing that.
  5. Get your cake pan, oil it lightly with a neutral vegetable oil, and press half your dough into it. Squish it out from the center with your fingertips and knuckles, encouraging it evenly out to meet the sides of the pan. It should be really pretty thin on the bottom, and you should have just about enough that you can pinch the edges about an inch and a half up the side of the pan with your fingertips, pressing up to a leaf-thin tapered edge. If you go on the Lou Malnati’s website for research, as some of us have been forced to do, you will be confronted with videos of Marc Malnati, 2nd generation pizza Don, talking to you very seriously about his ingredients while staring intently down the barrel of the camera with a terrifying intensity. Watch the chefs as they squish out the crust and you’ll see what I mean.
  6. Lightly press your cheese into the dough, then follow with sausage. I like to pinch off chunks and distribute them into a loose network, but I also respect the “giant puck of meat” method where you squish it out evenly like you did with the dough. Just remember to keep your layers very thin.
  7. Add any other toppings, like mushrooms or spinach, again in a very thin layer.
  8. Ladle over just enough of your drained tomatoes to cover the pizza – not too much.
  9. Finish off with a sprinkle of garnishes, then place the pizza in its pan into the oven onto the preheated baking sheet.
  10. Bake for 30 minutes – I only needed to bake my little 9-inch pizza for about 20 minutes. The tops of the crust edges should be golden brown, but it’s okay if the rest of the crust is paler. The liquid given off by the toppings should be gently bubbling, and it should smell absolutely divine.
  11. Be careful when you take out the pizza – the excess liquid may bubble and hiss against the hot pan. The crust should be coming away from the sides of the pan, and it should be pretty much impossible not to eat as soon as you possibly can, which you should. Try not to burn your tongue.

A TRICK ABOUT GARLIC:

I have literally never had “too much” garlic, because I don’t think that’s an amount that actually exists. The problems you run into with garlic are problems of format. The smaller garlic is, and the less it’s cooked, the stronger the flavor will be. This is why I consider garlic powder the nuclear option, and the easiest to go overboard with, whereas I will blithely throw 5 or 6 whole smashed cloves of garlic into a sauce without batting an eyelash. A whole head, roasted? That’s mellow as hell, you can put that whole thing into mashed potatoes for 2 and not even notice. Sliced garlic (Goodfellas-style) is good for a sweet, gentle flavor, and does well sautéed in sauces and soups. Minced or chopped garlic is tricky – the pieces are small, which means it’s a stronger flavor, and when it’s raw it can be really intense. If you’ve ever chomped on a too-big piece of undercooked garlic, you know what I’m talking about.

SO: when you’re dealing with a recipe that asks for minced garlic, smash the cloves to get the skin off, then chop them roughly into minced-size bits (whatever you’d usually do before going “good enough” and dropping them in), and then take the salt that the recipe calls for (or about ¼-½ tsp, if there is none) and pour it all over your little pile of minced garlic. The salt will draw the liquid out of the garlic and turn it into, essentially, mush. After it’s sat for 10-15 minutes, drag the edge of your knife blade over it at a 45-degree angle to basically grind it against the chopping board. Do this a couple times, and voila, garlic paste! It’ll melt inconspicuously into your dish without leaving big old garlic chunks, and will cook much more evenly and give better flavor. You can just plop it right into your sautéed onions or hot olive oil or whatever.

2 thoughts on “Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza”

  1. This was truly heroic and helped me recover my appetite after reading “CHEEEZEBURGER” (three Es, one Z, good god) on that British pizza box.

    Liked by 1 person

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