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Stephen Dobyns 8:30 a.m., July 20
Six thousand years ago, in Egypt, someone noticed that warming beer and adding grain made a bubbly sort of mix. Thus the concept of leavened bread was born. So what have we learned since then?
We've learned that microscopic organisms, yeasts, like to munch on carbohydrates and, shall we say, péter, while taking a warm bath. Combining yeast, grain and liquid, under the right conditions, can produce a number of yummy results, my two favorites being beer and bread.
We've learned to add salt to bread dough for flavor and to make sure the yeast doesn't grow too quickly, to add fats, eggs, dairy and sweeteners to tenderize, make it easier to handle and enhance shelf life. We've discovered that spices, fruits and nuts have their place in a bread pan or a barrel. We also know that beer and bread can be mass-produced fairly quickly, with consistent, but usually bland results.
Ultimately, we've learned that making good things from yeast, grain and water is both astoundingly simple and frustratingly complex. To produce a truly great beer or loaf of bread, you need to be a bit of a yeast geek.
When I met Justin Burlingame, the owner and yeast wrangler of Red Oven Pizza, I figured he was a kindred spirit. Ten minutes of hand kneading bagel dough gives me an endorphin rush like a runner's high, so I usually recognize other yeast-aholics on sight. Turns out that Justin spent four years testing dough recipes before he hit the right one, and only after throwing out all his previous experience and his measuring utensils. He goes by sight and feel alone, adjusting on the fly to whatever temperatures or humidity levels Mother Nature throws at him.
Justin's pizza dough is true Neapolitan style, starting with a biga, a small amount of organic Giusto's 00 flour, water and yeast that is fermented overnight to develop flavor. The next day, salt and additional flour and water are added. No oil, no sugar. He mixes it all by hand, the whole twenty pound batch. Three days later, Justin or one of his crew will hand stretch it so thin you can see daylight through it, top it with your choice of simple, excellent sauces, meats and vegetables, and slide it into his 900+ degree Mugnaini wood fired mobile oven. About 90 seconds and perhaps a sprinkle of fresh herbs later, and you get to taste the result of all this loving attention.
Far from being just a vehicle for cheese and meat, this crust has big, slightly charred bubbles on the outside, and a thin, perfectly even, perfectly crisp middle that's still just the right amount of chewy under the sauce. Very nice balance between crust, sauce and toppings, which are fresh, high quality and well cooked.
Red Oven Pizza also has excellent gluten free crust, and there are usually a couple of seasonally based special dishes (this week it's butternut squash lasagna).
Red Oven Pizza can be found at local craft breweries, farmer's markets, gastro truck gatherings, and local events through social media. Rumor has it that there may be a brick and mortar Red Oven in the future, too, with an expanded menu.