For many of us, the familiar refrain "don't play with your food!" echoed throughout childhood. For Jeff Mahin of Los Angeles's Stella Barra Pizzeria, encouraging just the opposite has yielded delicious and profitable results. Mahin made a break from his fine-dining roots so he could re-engage in culinary play and recapture the fun of food. "I've always liked making pizza," he says. "It combines my two loves into one: cooking real food and playing with dough every day."
Mahin found a kindred spirit in Francis Brennan, former baker for François Payard, with whom he worked as part of the opening team at Chicago's L2O. "I had questions; he had answers," Mahin says. "He would give me bread books, and we would make bread at L2O. We bounced things back and forth and were really big nerds about the whole thing." Tossing around business ideas along with bread techniques, Mahin cultivated his pizzeria concept while he learned to cultivate starters. "I didn't know a lot about pizza, but I could figure it out because it was basically cooking. It was so fascinating to me. I was learning and starting from the ground up. What helped me was that I had no rules."
Bloomsdale Spinach, Crispy Purple Kale, Young Pecorino, Roasted Garlic, Cracked Black Peppercorn, and Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil White Pizza
Shaved Mushroom White Pizza, Gruyère, Melted Onions, Black Truffle, Torn Parsley, Fried Rosemary, and Dehydrated Thyme
Prosciutto and Farm Egg White Pizza, Mozzarella, Gruyère, Pecorino, Chile Flakes, Black Pepper, and Sunny-side Up Egg
Chef Jeff Mahin of Stella Barra Pizzeria- Los Angeles, CA
Stella Barra Pizzeria- Los Angeles, CA
Mahin developed his technique with little regard for Italian traditions or pizza norms, though he does draw on a few tenets of artisan bread making. A long cool fermentation—almost 24 hours, mostly refrigerated—builds flavor without straying into sourdough territory. He's also worked out a new system for optimal proofing: after bulk proofing and scaling, individual boules are placed into oiled 1.2-liter plastic containers. When pulled from the refrigerator to come to room temperature, a given portion of dough is ready to use once it has proofed right up to the rim of its container. "This was a fluke," says Mahin. "It just worked out that 325 grams of dough is perfect once it reaches the top in this container." This blatant visual indicator helps a busy pizza cook know which portion to grab for the next pie without ever interrupting the flow of his hustle, and ensures a crust which has attained its peak flavor and texture potential.
A veteran of such kitchens as New York's Nobu, San Francisco's Millennium, Spain's Arzak, and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck research kitchen, Mahin's scientific, methodical approach to recipe development was integral to his signature pizza dough. "Having a science background, I was interested in how [bread is] just four ingredients, but you can have it come out 100 different ways based on the method." For six months, Mahin tested his dough every day at L2O, using the restaurant's deck oven in the absence of a true pizza oven. "I was told as a kid, 'it's the carpenter, not the tools.' That whole idea infatuated me."
His work yielded a complex, flavorful crust, with a satisfyingly toothsome interior. His flour, coming from a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, is not the typical "00" flour used for pizza dough, but a bread flour with a slightly lower protein content than most (11.2 percent vs. 12 percent to 14 percent). And Mahin continues to use an electric deck oven to bake his pizzas at the relatively low temperature of 500°F to 520°F (pizza blasphemy!). "I wanted the flavor of bread in that crust. By baking it lower and longer we get an amazing dark amber color, and we really get those flavors. The crust is airy, light and shattery, but with chew like a good baguette." Through Mahin's carefully developed technique, the simple combination of flour, water, yeast, and salt becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.
Stella Barra Pizza Technique
Mix dough aggressively to hydrate and develop gluten in the relatively low-protein content flour.
Bulk proof dough 1 hour at room temperature. Press out air and fold like a letter to form a square. (This encourages the dough to rise upwards in an organized fashion, instead of growing wildly in every direction.) Retard in refrigerator 12 hours.
Scale dough to 325-gram portions and form each into a tight boule. Proof each boule in a lightly oiled 1.2-liter plastic container, seal airtight, and proof 1 hour at room temperature. Refrigerator 10 to 12 hours.
Remove boules from refrigerator and rise at room temperature until dough reaches top of container.
Carefully release each boule from its container and gently punch down the middle while sparing the edges (for a lighter crust). With dough resting on fists, use two hands to stretch it from the center out, making motions as when coiling a hose. To maintain an airy crust do not handle outer edge.
Rest dough 5 to 10 minutes before topping with sauce and cheese and baking. This will ensure dough is relaxed when it goes into the oven, allowing it to achieve the greatest possible oven spring.