KENNEBUNKPORT — When I opened the car door and smelled wood smoke, I was pretty sure I was in the right place. When I began walking up the gravel driveway and saw a petite woman in a full baker’s apron heading toward the garden with scissors, I was positive. Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School stands on a woodsy residential road in Kennebunkport’s village of Cape Porpoise. Jill Strauss moved to the site 26 years ago; last fall she added an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven surrounded by a broad bluestone patio. In June, she and her partner, Valerie Glynn, launched the cooking school.
Even with Kennebunkport’s summer allures, the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon pizza-making classes often ran at capacity (a maximum of eight students per session). Now that an autumn chill makes the beaches less appealing, four hours learning how to make heavenly pizza seems like an especially appetizing way to round out a Kennebunkport weekend. My Saturday class focused on Maine farm products, while Friday classes use Maine seafood, and Sunday classes are devoted to Italian classics. As we were to learn, though, pizza is really more about the dough than the toppings. Strauss is a graduate of the Johnson & Wales University culinary program and worked in the “Cook’s Illustrated” America’s Test Kitchen. That’s where she picked up the basics for a food-processor dough that she teaches as part of each class. I suspect that experience also had something to do with her penchant for measuring everything to the gram and constantly checking oven temperatures.
Since I was the first to arrive, I was enlisted to help snip basil from the garden. Strauss and Glynn had already sliced and lightly salted large yellow and red tomatoes they had bought that morning at the farmer’s market. Later the tomatoes would be layered with whole basil leaves and slices of fresh Vermont mozzarella for a Caprese salad. In the meantime, Strauss stretched a food processor dough that had been rising slowly since the previous day onto a quarter-sheet lipped pan of heavy-gauge steel. She smeared the surface with porcini cream, covered it with sliced mushrooms, and slid it into the oven to be ready when the rest of the students arrived.
“It’s an appetizer to get everybody into a pizza mood,” Strauss explained.
Most of my classmates lived nearby and had heeded Strauss’s advice to bring wine to sip during class and at the sit-down meal at the end. (The school isn’t licensed to serve alcohol.) After we tasted the mushroom pizza, Strauss put us to work making pesto with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle, proving that a little elbow grease makes a more aromatic product than a food processor. After the basil, garlic, and coarse salt had been mashed to a paste, most of us added ground nuts, cheese, and olive oil to make pesto. A few of us added vinegar and freshly squeezed orange juice instead to make a vinaigrette to pour over the Caprese salad.
Our first dough lesson was perhaps the most dramatic. Strauss provided pieces of very elastic dough that she had learned to make in Naples from fourth-generation pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia. The ball had been mixed the day before and had risen slowly overnight in the refrigerator.
Tearing off pieces for each of us, she demonstrated how to produce a perfect ball shape. We each tried to replicate her C-clamp hand grip while poking the dough up into a dome with the other hand. (Some of us tried several times before getting it right.)
Working on a floured stone surface, we first gently teased the dough into a flat round before getting downright aggressive, turning it over and slapping it down on the stone. Sure enough, each of us managed to stretch this resilient dough into an approximate round before adding toppings. I was conservative, making a classic margherita of tomato sauce, torn basil leaves, and small patches of fresh mozzarella. Other students loaded their pizzas with sliced sausage, meatballs, all manner of garden vegetables, and caramelized onions — all of which Strauss and Glynn had prepared ahead.
Each of our pizzas was transferred by wooden peel to the 700-degree pizza oven, where they cooked for no more than 90 seconds. Removed from the wood fire, they were a revelation: pizza as good as any I had eaten in Naples (and I had tried many).
Before we got too excited, Strauss delivered the bad news. Unless we had a super-hot oven at home, we couldn’t replicate that pizza we had just made. The Neapolitan dough, made with Caputo “00” flour and kneaded a long time by a powerful machine, would come out of a conventional oven hard as a cracker instead of crusty on the bottom and chewy on the top. It took us a minute to digest that sad reality as we munched our perfect pizza.
“But other doughs work perfectly in a home kitchen,” Strauss said, and our pouts turned to smiles. “The first dough is exactly the opposite of the Neapolitan,” she explained, ushering us back into the kitchen. Just to get a feel for it, we mixed up a batch of a no-knead dough that Strauss had learned from New York pizza guru Jim Lahey, then set it aside for the next day’s class. Strauss gave us each soft, almost gooey balls that had been made a day earlier. “You have to be gentle with it,” she said, demonstrating a stretching technique that looked a little like tickling.
Once we had assembled our toppings, our pizzas went into a gas-fired oven that had been preheated to 550 degrees. Inside the oven a thick slab of steel worked like a pizza stone to impart crispness to the crust.
Finally, Strauss pulled out some food-processor dough (adapted from the “Cook’s Illustrated” recipe) that had been rising overnight and explained that there was no need to demonstrate the technique. “Just dump everything in the food processor and press the button,” she said. We teamed up to make quick work of this last pan pizza. Another student who had a far defter touch with dough than I did formed the crust. I stuck to arranging toppings. These pizzas went into an electric oven, also with a steel.
Then we all sat down to Caprese salad, pizza, and wine — laughing and joking, teasing each other about misshapen crusts and too many or too few toppings, and sharing the tastes of some truly great pizza. There are worse ways to spend a weekend evening in Maine.
JILLYANNA’S WOODFIRED COOKING SCHOOL 141 Wildes District Road, Kennebunkport, Maine. 207-967-4960, www.jil
lyannas.com.A class is $135, offered Fri-Sun through the second week of December.