Guest Column, Joseph Calcagno, A Pizza Journey to King Arthur Flour’s Baking Center
In the beginning there was pizza, and it was good. If Adam and Eve were alive today they would probably live in Vermont. Banished from the Garden of Eden, they’d spend their weekends driving the scenic routes of the Shires – longing for days gone by as they move forward in search of a new paradise, which would undoubtedly include plenty of pizza.
They’d leave early on a late October morning before the dawn, climbing the mountains by moonlight as charming structures around them eagerly wait to be noticed in their cozy habitat. A historic red covered bridge on their right and a century old stone church on their left, used to worship a God they know so well. They’d pass some Victorian homes freshly painted in shades of purple, antique shops with vintage treasures, farms with tasteful goods and maple syrup so sweet and pure that their guardian angels would call it divine. A downtown farmers market would welcome them with an assortment of jams, treats, cheddar cheeses and not-so-forbidden fruits to be had. The rain would be falling softly but it could not wash away the warmth that would fill their hearts in this brand new world. They’d continue north up the mountains past Manchester, wondering why the leaders christened it the Green Mountain State when so many more beautiful colors resonate up towards the heavens this time of year.
At the break of dawn they’d reach route 5 in Norwich and continue forward, their hearts anchored but souls wandering about this beautiful land. They’d pass an old man sitting alone on his front porch staring at the New Hampshire coast just a skip away, separated by the Connecticut River. The old man would watch them pass with trustful eyes amidst a gentleman’s agreement between him and his land, speaking together in a language only they know and have shared for decades.
Finally they’d reach “Eden” – in the form of the King Arthur Flour Baking Center. Not just the namesake of the premium flour you find in stores today, this sacred facility outfits a bakery, café, gift store, and state-of-the-art baking school. Each year aspiring and professional bakers from all over the world make vocational pilgrimages to this baking mecca to be baptized by flour and sugar.
While enjoying a savory breakfast, they’d read about the history of King Arthur Flour on the walls of the café, following a timeline that dates back to 1790 and a mission of baking for a better world. Just feet away, through glass windows, bakers are seen crafting beautiful breads, cakes, and pastries. It wouldn’t be long before the doors of the baking school would open and they’d be greeted by baker Jonathan Frishtick, flashing a healthy smile behind a hearty thick beard, set to teach a class that morning called, “Pizza Perfected”.
The class starts with each person going around the room introducing themselves and sharing a quick anecdote of their pizza inspired backgrounds. A common theme emerges that pizza making at home can be mildly intimidating and is best reserved for special occasions. Frishtick acknowledges this and takes the lead. Like many culinary professionals he was inspired at a young age, amplified by the bond of family.
“I have wonderful memories of watching my grandmother bake and cook for the Jewish holidays,” he recounts. “I baked a little in college but I didn’t really start baking in earnest until my two children were born.” Frishtick has been at King Arthur Flour for five years, serving first as an assistant at the baking school. Throughout his journey he’s absorbed a mountain of knowledge from many passionate and talented mentors, who are recognized as world-class bakers. This knowledge allowed him to foray into teaching bread baking classes which has grown to include pizza, bagels, bialys, challah, babka and more. He teaches the class on the basics of making dough, the role of gluten, kneading techniques, and the subtle nuances of temperature and source heat when cooking in a home kitchen. His kneading looks effortless as he speaks from personal experience, emphasizing his passion with a passing mention of what his kids enjoy about their pizza. He fields questions with a smile as the participants’ curiosity grows along with their appetites. He changes the trade winds of an ugly myth to set sail towards a promising truth: “Good pizza can be made at home.”
In this class, two recipes for the crust are on the agenda. The first is an All-Purpose flour dough that allows for a distinct chew and salty flavor that New York slice shops have emulated for years. The second is a Semolina flour dough that adds a nutty, sweet profile with an excellent crunch. The crust, Frishtick emphasizes, is key. “In class we concentrate on the crust,” he explains. “I want to show students how they have control over the taste of their pizza. My goal is to teach the necessary skills so that when you go home, you can make pizza the way you like it in your own home oven. I feel a great satisfaction when at the end of class I see sixteen smiling, happy faces.”
At this point Adam and Eve breathe a sigh of relief,after years of toil since the fall of man. Their faith in pizza is unshaken, their hope for a better crust is firm. Flour dust they are, and to flour dust they will return. They take a moment to find out what pizza means to their newfound baking prophet. “I love pizza. I think it’s its own food group,” Frishtick, a New York City native fondly exclaims. “Pizza was an integral part of my life. Growing up in Fresh Meadows (Queens), we had many wonderful neighborhood pizza joints within walking distance. My favorite is a place on Harding Expressway called Brother’s (a home run pizza joint, with the New York Mets nearby). I still get back there every now and then and the pizza is still great. The original owners have retired but the same pizzaiolo has been making those pies for forty years. I remember when he was just a young guy! It’s a delicious thin crusted pizza, made with salty tomato sauce, stringy grated mozzarella cheese, and a pinch of dried oregano, tossed on top of the pie just before it heads into the oven.”
Tales like these remind everyone how special the journey they chose to embark on really is, as the latest edition of their pizza quests comes to an end. It is etched into their souls like biblical scripture — serving to teach, inspire and understand how wonderful this journey through pizza can be. While they make the rainy drive back to the Hudson Valley of New York, hoping to someday return to King Arthur Flour, they’re aware that paradise is lost, the tree of life forever out of their reach, being guarded by the flaming sword of the mighty cherubim. The ancient serpent slithers amongst them in their daily lives with cruel temptations. Alas, a glimmer of hope creeps into their bellies. Adam reaches for another slice of pizza from that day’s adventure and takes a bite, amazed at the miraculous transformation before him. He’s harvested wheat in the fields before. Now, the final product from the sweat of his brow is leavened and topped to a tasty perfection. The simple part of his heart is content for the moment. He smiles at Eve. “Yes,” he thinks, “Sometimes they are truly blessed.”
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Pizza Quest Info
Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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