I can recall almost every pie that’s ever come out of my mother’s oven, both sweet and savory. The recipes are handwritten on cards in my grandmother’s beautiful penmanship. Sense memories of an almost-burnt crust from a pumpkin pie that crumbled in my fingers are filed neatly next to puckered taste buds from a rhubarb pie she made for a church potluck, with rhubarb pulled from her garden. Her pizza pies were memorable, anchored by a particular tomato sauce from the small-town supermarket across the street, with crusts that were never the same twice—sometimes fired on a cast-iron sheet with a toasty cornmeal grittiness, sometimes charred and puffy. But there’s one pie I simply can’t remember.
I’m sure my parents asked what I might like for dinner as we drove from the airport to my Midwestern childhood home. I had no answer for them. I shoved on my mother’s boots and layered my dad’s sweatshirts to fend off the blunt winter chill from the lakefront gales tearing across the Lake Erie coast of Ohio. I’d staggered off a 28-hour plane ride from a tropical climate on the other side of the world. What was meant to be a year-long contract performing with my beloved at a posh new venue had ended after a few months with overdrawn credit cards, abusive work conditions, and terror. My chest ached from betrayal, heartbreak, and the accompanying cracked ribs from an ill-chosen lover. Dengue fever had ravaged my bone marrow, the pain of which felt like breaking bones. I felt no impulse to eat, or receive comfort of any kind. I felt nothing. I was in shock. So my mother made pizza.
I don’t recall this pizza. I don’t remember cornmeal or puffiness. I don’t know if I had my usual two slices or if I struggled to choke down a few bites. But I know Mom made pizza.
The next time she made pizza for me, I recall a more generous sprinkle of Italian herbs melted into the cheese. I was beginning to be able to taste again; I was coming back to myself. There would be more moments of struggle as I slowly healed from the trauma of that time, but there would be many more moments of triumph and recovery. The most important one was the day I was able to taste again, the day I was able to rejoin my family at the table over pie. I will always have the deepest gratitude for the constant show of love coming from my mom’s oven, for the pies that helped to bring me back.
Dana Aber is a performer, producer, writer and advocate in New York City. Her musical solo show "Baggage at the Door" addresses the process she pursued to unpack her past traumas and practice trust to love again. She can be found at www.DanaAber.com.
Gwen’s Ever-Evolving Pizza Recipe
(crust adapted from Bobby Flay)
3 1/2 - 4 c. bread flour, plus more for rolling
(Bread flour will yield a crisper crust. All-purpose flour will yield a chewier crust.)
1 t. sugar
1 envelope instant dry yeast
2 t. kosher salt
1 1/2 c. water, 110 degrees F.
2 T. plus 2 t. olive oil, divided
good quality jarred spaghetti sauce or canned chopped tomatoes
dried Italian herbs, to taste
12 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
optional: pepperoni or turkey pepperoni, sliced black olives, fresh basil
Combine flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer.
With mixer running, add water and 2 T. oil.
Mix on high until the dough forms a ball.
If the dough is sticky, add additional flour, 1 T. at a time, until it comes together.
If the dough is too dry, add additional water, 1 T. at a time.
Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead into a smooth, firm ball.
Grease a large bowl with the remaining 2 t. olive oil, add the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and put it in a warm area to let it double in size, about 1 hour.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 2 equal pieces. Cover each with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let them rest for 10 minutes.
Roll each piece into a 14-inch circle.
Preheat oven to 475 F.
Place each piece on cooking surface of choice, crimping the edges.
(A pizza stone adds a little crisp, cast-iron gives a little char, and metal pizza pans provide a nicely crimped crust.)
Spread evenly with sauce and sprinkle with dried herbs, if desired.
Sprinkle with cheese, and add optional toppings.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes.