The journey to a fluffy, perfectly crisp pizza crust starts with molecules of water and how much of that water is in the dough when it hits the heat from an oven. One of the secrets to hummus that tastes creamy and as light as air is also water, icy cold and poured slowly over tahini until it turns the color of sand.
New cookbooks by some of Philadelphia's biggest chefs — Mastering Pizza, by Marc Vetri and David Joachim; and Israeli Soul, by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook — offer road maps to making food from far-off places using time-honored techniques.
Mastering Pizza is designed to show novices the way to foolproof crust by focusing on hydration levels and on adapting recipes for different types of ovens.
Vetri said that as he became more interested in making pizza over the years, he noticed that cookbooks didn't always allow for differences in heating sources.
"Depending on what heat you have, you need to change the recipe," he said. "Not everyone has a 700-degree wood oven."
The key, he said, is adjusting the hydration level in the dough. In delving into the chemistry behind that, Vetri amassed tips that make the first half of Mastering Pizza more like a science textbook than a cookbook. And in the name of research, he tested recipes on everything from a Viking oven to a Big Green Egg grill to an iron skillet.
"We just came up with all these different ways to get the best results out of the dough," he said. "All of this is just the knowledge you need in order to do that."
The book, released Aug. 28, includes recipes for pies, toppings, and sauces, including Margherita-style pizza, white pies, cacio e pepe, and fresh crab with roasted peppers. There are also instructions for rotolos, calzones, and focaccia.
Vetri recently hosted a pizza-making class at his restaurant Vetri Cucina, where he has held pasta classes for years, and he said he enjoyed seeing the attendees get good results with their dough.
"I think many folks are too scared to try making pizza," he said. "There's a sense that it's too overwhelming. … I try to demystify it."
For Solomonov and Cook, Israeli Soul was a chance to delve deeper into the history of a country whose story they had only begun to tell in their Zahav cookbook.
"The earlier book was looking at the food through the lens of the restaurant, this very specific prism," Cook said. "We wanted to get to the essence of this food."
Much of the book, to be released Oct. 16, was photographed in Israel, and it features the stories and techniques of local falafel purveyors, bakers, and grillmasters. The volume includes recipes for mixed grills, salads, soups, breads, pastries, and drinks.
Israeli Soul is infused with the history that informs much of the country. Readers can learn how to make flatbread in the way the Druze, an ethno-religious group, have been making it for generations in the hills of the Galilee. Or how to make a Yemenite-style soup with beans.
"Israel is a small country, but there are so many layers to it," Solomonov said. "What we want to do is take them apart and be the conduit between readers and those cooking traditions."
The book also pays tribute to Solomonov and Cook's restaurant empire. Devotees of Zahav's classic hummus recipe can try a new "five-minute" version, and fans of their vegan restaurant, Goldie, can try their hand at recipes for falafel and seasoned French fries. All recipes were tested in Solomonov's home kitchen.
"We want to celebrate the food of a country we love, but we also want it to be approachable," Solomonov said. "I want it to be easy to use."
Quattro formaggi (Four-cheese pizza)
Makes one 10- to 12-inch pizza
1 8-ounce dough ball (using recipe from page 78 of Mastering Pizza, or substitute other recipe)
Flour, for dusting work surface
1 ounce fresh mozzarella cheese, torn into bits
1 ounce Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 ounce smoked scamorza cheese, shredded
1 ounce fontina cheese, shredded
½ ounce freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Flake salt, such as Maldon
Freshly ground black pepper
Using a lightly floured work surface, stretch the dough to a 12-inch circle that is thin and even across the middle, with little to no rim around the edge. Gently poke fingers about ¼ inch from the edge of the dough ball and all around it, then press them into the center to begin gently stretching the dough away from the center. Gently flip the dough and repeat on the other side, gently pressing your palm into the center to stretch it and gradually rotating the dough to keep it round. If the dough tears, patch it by pulling a piece of dough over it and pressing it with your thumb.
Lay dough onto floured wooden pizza peel, draping it over the edge. Reshape it round if necessary.
Scatter the mozzarella, Gorgonzola, scamorza, fontina, and Parmigiano (if using) evenly over the pizza all the way to the rim.
Drizzle with olive oil.
Cook as directed by recipe or dough instructions.
After slicing, finish it with salt and pepper.
— Reprinted from "Mastering Pizza," by Marc Vetri and David Joachim
Makes about 30 pieces (5 or 6 sandwiches)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 pound dried chickpeas, soaked in water overnight and drained
Big handful fresh parsley
Big handful fresh cilantro
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons cold water, plus more as needed
Canola oil, for frying
Mix together the baking powder, salt, cumin, and turmeric in a small bowl.
Layer half the ingredients in a food processor in this order: chickpeas, fresh herbs, vegetables, garlic, and the mixed dry seasonings. Repeat with the remaining ingredients in the same order. Add the water and pulse until very finely chopped and the mixture holds together when pinched between two fingers. If necessary, add a bit more water and pulse again to get the right consistency.
Scoop the batter into a colander set over a large bowl to drain while you make the falafels. Squeeze out the liquid from the batter with your hands until the dough stays together, then shape into 1-inch balls. Set them aside on a plate.
Heat a couple of inches of canola oil to 350 degrees in a large pot. Lower the balls into the hot oil with a long-handled slotted spoon and raise the heat to high to maintain the temperature of the oil. Fry in batches for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the falafels are brown and crispy (but not burnt!).
Immediately transfer the falafels with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve hot.
Serve alongside salads and hummus, or make a sandwich by layering 2 falafel balls with salad and sauce in a pita and repeating until the pita is full.
— Reprinted from "Israeli Soul," by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook