Learn to Make Woodfired Pizza

Learn to make delicious woodfired pizza with Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School

There’s nothing quite like baking bread or making pizza in an outdoor stone hearth — the blasting warmth, the woody smell, the high drama. It might take all day to get the oven to close to 900 degrees, but there is magic in that heat and excitement in the wait.

Fortunately, once at temperature, food caramelizes and cheese melts rather quickly and a satisfying pizza is close at hand.

Jill Strauss has a beautiful home in the backwoods of Kennebunkport and, after leaving the nearby school system, she looked for a way to share her passion for cooking and teaching. She had always loved Italian food, rustic cooking and, as she says, “I am madly in love with fire.”

Strauss used her “librarian” skills to research how to make the perfect wood-fired pizza. In addition to extensive reading, she traveled to New York and Italy to work with masters in the art of pizza making.

Her teacher in NYC was the famed Jim Lahey, who revolutionized bread baking with his no-knead techniques. In Italy she experienced pizza making with a fourth-generation pizzaiolo, Enzo Coccia, of Naples. She learned traditional techniques but what struck her most was the Italian passion for using quality ingredients — something she brought home.

Of course, her Italian teacher said, “You can take the recipes and techniques, but you won’t be able to make a real Neapolitan pie because you are not making it in Italy. And your oven will not be Neapolitan because you are not using Italian sand and brick.” In spite of those prognostications, Jill has continued to perfect her pie-making skills in both the outdoor hearth oven and her kitchen’s gas stoves.

Jill Strauss uses her Kennebunkport home to teach classes the art of pizza making in a wood-fired oven.
Photo by Susan Laughlin

The good news is that she shares these hard-earned lessons at her cooking school, Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School, based out of her gracious home. Local tradesmen built a handsome stone hearth for baking pizza and bread by wood fire and a stone patio for dining to enjoy the pizza while it’s hot and the sun sets in the west.  “I consider my school a little conduit to Italy,” says Strauss.

I was able to take a class recently and experience first-hand the subtle techniques that she shares with students.

Strauss offers classes several times a week, starting in May. Friday is pizza making; Saturday is open to private parties (birthdays, girls’ night out, etc.). The first Sunday of the month brings a brunch class and the other Sundays an afternoon pizza session. Classes are made up of individuals, couples or groups who work together to produce a variety of pizza and accompaniments, followed by communal dining upon the savory lessons.

Strauss has one dough technique for the outdoor oven and another for a regular kitchen oven. She uses a recipe adapted from Jim Lahey of no-knead fame for the kitchen oven and a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that uses a food processor for the outdoor oven. The home oven needs to be set to the highest temperature to get those signature results — a nice crispy and chewy crust. Also, to help sear the bottom, she suggests putting a pizza steel in the oven. The metal retains extra heat for those precious few moments of baking.  The high temps help emulate the magic of the wood-fired oven. At home I was able to get my electric oven to 500 degrees and gas ovens may get even hotter. The hotter the oven, the more flavorful the crust.

Students get hands-on lessons in dough-handling techniques.
Photo by Susan Laughlin

Students are able to watch and participate in the handling of the dough. Adding just the right amount of flour and the right touch for stretching is key to a crisp, yet chewy crust.  As with Lahey’s other bread recipes, there is no kneading, just a few gentle turns and stretches. Strauss demonstrated to the private class of three women on a girls’ weekend  last November the proper technique using just their knuckles and the back of the hand to hold and turn the dough.

The pizza dough is just the blank canvas. There is no end to the variations for toppings, but Strauss suggests that less is more. “You want the identity and flavor of the individual components to come through. There is no wrong answer in choosing how to dress a pizza, but Strauss suggests not to muddy the picture with too many divergent tastes. Also, a thickly laid topping might not crisp as well.

Everybody created their own pizza variations for the two dough types. Color with chopped greens or sun-dried tomatoes, texture with toasted pistachios or prosciutto and fragrance with rosemary or thyme completed the picture. Finally, we drizzled the compositions with virgin olive oil. Strauss’s favorite brand is Frantoia from Sicily.

The pizzas were placed on a baker’s peel dusted with Semolina flour and finished in the wood-fired oven.  It took just minutes for the dough to blister and brown, leaving a wonderful texture and crunch and a
delightful bit of char. The kitchen oven pizzas took about 15 minutes with the temperature near 600 degrees. The pizzas and side dishes were enjoyed at a communal table with wines we had brought along for the feast.

A few of Stauss’  favorites include the Cherry Bomb with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, basil, hot red peppers, salt and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

New this year is a Sunday Brunch class offered the first Sunday in the month with special egg dishes, biscuits and local meats on the menu. It’s designed as a cooking lesson, hearty meal and generally great communal experience.

Sure, you can read cookbooks with spoon in hand, but personal instruction with only one degree of separation from Italy’s best is worth its weight in virgin olive oil.   

Pizza Dough for the Inside Oven

Adapted from Jim Lahey’s Recipe

3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping the dough
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 ½ cups water

In a medium-sized bowl, thoroughly blend the flour, yeast and salt. Add the water and with a wooden spoon or your hands mix thoroughly.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow it to rise at room temperature (about 72 degrees) for 18 hours or until it has more than doubled. It will take longer in a chilly room and less in a very warm one.

Flour a work surface and scrape out the dough. Divide it into four equal shapes. For each portion, start with the right side of the dough and pull it toward the center, then do the same with the left, then the top, then the bottom. (The order doesn't actually matter; what you want is four folds.) Shape each portion into a round and turn seam side down. Mold the dough into a neat circular mound. The mounds should not be sticky; if they are, dust with more flour.

If you don’t intend to use the dough right away, wrap the balls individually in plastic or put in a proofing box and refrigerate for up to three days. Return to room temperature by leaving them out on the counter, covered in a damp cloth or covered in the proofing box for two to three hours before needed.

Jillyanna’s Porcini Cream Sauce

Jill uses this mushroom base for a pizza she bakes using a cookie sheet in the oven and the Lahey dough recipe. It is topped with thinly sliced button and shiitake mushrooms, thyme and Parmesan cheese.

1 cup hot water
1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup minced shallots
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon truffle-infused salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Place the dried mushroom in a medium bowl, cover with the hot water and let sit until reconstituted and soft, about 15 minutes. Drain the mushrooms and their liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a clean bowl, squeezing the mushrooms to extract as much liquid as possible. Reserve the liquid and roughly chop the mushrooms. Set aside.

Heat the oil and melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring until soft and fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the garlic and stir while cooking until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the chopped mushrooms and stir while cooking for another two minutes. Add the reserved mushroom liquid, bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is nearly all evaporated, 1 to 1 ½ minutes. Add the cream, salt and pepper and return to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally until the cream is reduced and thick about 4 to 5 minutes. Allow mixture to cool.

Ladle porcini cream sauce into Vitamix blender and purée on high speed until all ingredients are completely blended. Taste and re-season. (Immersion blender may work as well.)

Spring Schedule

  • May 4: Opening day Sunday Brunch Lesson, $150
  • May 11: Mother’s Day Sunday Brunch Lesson with special rates for mother/daughters ($250 for two)
  • June 15: Father’s Day Sunday Brunch Lesson with special rates for fathers/daughters ($250 for two)
  • Sunday afternoons: Pizza class, $150
  • Friday evenings: Pizza class, $150
  • Saturdays: Private classes, call for rates and availability
  • A wood-fired intensive cooking class is planned for the end of September.







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