A couple times a year, I set a day aside to make pizza from scratch. Although the preparation is time consuming and requires a bit of work, it is also a lot of fun, and in the end, well worth the effort. My hope is that I may convince a few readers to give homemade pizza a try. But be forewarned; it just may become a tradition in your household, as it has in mine.
SHOPPING: I like to pick up the ingredients first thing in the morning, the same day I will be cooking the pizza. Having fresh, quality ingredient is important. Although what you will need for the dough and sauce is relatively inexpensive, if you decide on making several types of pizza, the toppings can run the cost up considerably.
PIZZA CRUST: It may be the fear of working with the pizza dough that deters many people from attempting to make homemade pizza. For most pizza recipes, the list of ingredients is simple: Flour, water, yeast, oil and salt. But it is the kneading, resting, rising and working with yeast that makes it a little tricky. With almost everything I cook, I tend to experiment a lot, and not really follow recipes. But when it comes to pizza dough, I stick to specific instructions without trying to improve on it.
I make a simple Neapolitan dough, but there are many other good doughs, including cornmeal, wholewheat and sourdough. It is not my intent to provide a recipe here. My goal is to get you interested, so you will find a recipe that suits your tastes.
SAUCE: My sauce is simple. I sauté a couple of cloves of garlic, and one or two finely chopped onions in a small amount of olive oil until the onions are clear. Then I add a couple pounds of cubed ripe tomatoes (usually two or three different varieties).
I like to add several finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes to give the sauce a natural sweetness and tang.
I recommend adding some fresh chopped basil leaves in the last ten minutes to give the the sauce a richer flavor. For those who like a little spicy kick to their sauce, add one or two finely chopped chilies to the mix.
Cook over medium heat for about 40 minutes.
The one processed ingredient I like have on hand is a large can of tomato paste. I don’t always use it, but some tomatoes contain more moisture than others. The tomato paste is a quick and simple thickener. It also gives the sauce a nice velvety texture along with some added flavor.
Some people like to pile on the sauce. My philosophy is to spread just enough sauce to thinly cover the surface of the dough. This way the flavor enhances rather than competes with the chosen toppings.
If you have left over sauce, it makes excellent bruschetta. Just put some sliced baguettes under the broiler for a minute or two until browned, add the sauce, top with mozzarella cheese, and broil until cheese is melted. Adding salt, pepper and a little balsamic vinegar to the sauce ahead of time would even make it better.
TYPES OF PIZZA: Knowing that tastes and dietary requirements and preferences vary substantially, I will include the pizzas that I like to make, along with some options. Each of these pizzas is first brushed with olive oil and minced garlic, and then coated with the sauce.
Herb Pizza: I traditionally bake an herb pizza first of all. The house is already bathed in the aroma of fresh tomato sauce. Now the waiting diners are treated to the fragrance of the fresh herbs. For me, rosemary, basil and parsley are the essential herbs I always include. Oregano, marjoram and chives (or green onions) are also good. Top it all with mozzarella cheese, and it’s ready for the oven.
Vegetable / Chicken pizza: Some of the best restaurant and homemade pizzas I have eaten were vegetable pizzas. The reason I included chicken in this section is it seems to pair so well with vegetables. Also, feta cheese goes great with both chicken and vegetables. It is a combination that is hard to beat.
When using chicken on pizza, it should be precooked, and cut into smaller pieces.
Here are some of the vegetables I like to use:
Marinated artichoke hearts: this is another popular topping. The last time, I substituted artichoke bottoms packed in water because when I eat boiled artichokes this is my favorite part. The bottoms turned out to be disappointingly bland.
Fresh tomatoes: Don’t discount fresh tomatoes just because they are the main ingredient in the sauce. I personally don’t care for them on pizza, but that does not mean that others would not.
Sun-dried tomatoes: The last sun-dried tomatoes I used were on the mushy side, but good SDT’s (packed in olive oil) bring some sweet tangy goodness to the party.
Olives: The stores now carry such a variety of olives, that you are bound to find one to compliment any pizza. In fact, for my last batch of pizzas, I made one with just olives on it.
Baby asparagus: I used asparagus as a pizza topping for the first time last week. I read several ways to prepare the asparagus, but I ended up doing my own thing. One of the ways we like to cook asparagus is to put them on a pan, roll them in olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Then I broil the batch until it has a hint of charing. Well, if you do this, except pull them out when they start to limp up a bit, they are ready for the pizza. Remember, they still have 10 to 12 minutes to cook. If using regular asparagus, it might be a good idea to quarter them lengthwise so they can fully cook. Getting off the subject a little, when I was preparing my baby asparagus I tried one of the raw bottom halves that you are supposed to throw away after snapping them off. It was delicious. To me it tasted like fresh peas. I ended up eating most of the remaining bottoms as well.
Onions: Several types, each with its own subtle flavorings can be sautéed and added to further flavor a pizza. Or make a pizza topped with nothing but onion varieties if you desire.
Other vegetables: This list could go on, and on. I have listed many of the vegetable I have used as pizza toppings. I have never tried zucchini or eggplant, but I think they would make wonderful toppings. So now it is up to you to discover some of your own.
Meat Pizza: I do a meat combination pizza, but there is no reason that any single meat topping can’t make a great pizza. Pepperoni or Canadian bacon are classics. I also like pancetta, Italian sausage, chicken sausage and prosciutto.
Last time I made a meat combo pizza, I included Lingica which is a Portuguese smoke cured pork sausage heavily seasoned with paprika and garlic. My family liked it, though it may be a little overpowering for some tastes.
Mushroom Pizza: Another pizza I really like is a mushroom pizza. Oyster mushrooms are my favorite, but many varieties will work. I generally sauté the mushrooms ahead of time, but you can also top a pizza with fresh mushrooms. Just trim and discard any woody stems, and slice mushrooms. Canned mushrooms can be used as well. Shiitake mushrooms are also a good pizza mushroom, but I refused to $16 per pound for them for my last batch. Instead I found a small can of shiitakes packed in water which turned out to be too slimy for my tastes. The prepackages mushrooms in the grocery store are often the best value and work fine either fresh or sautéed.
Leftovers Pizza: When making several types of pizza at one time, the last one in the oven is usually a combination consisting of whatever random ingredients I still have on hand. To be honest, I rarely find toppings which have flavors that don’t go well with others.
Other Pizzas: Obviously, I have just scratched the surface when it comes to pizza possibilities. I have not even touched on pizzas featuring seafood, ethnic variations and nontraditional toppings.
CHEESES: A good semi-soft cheese is mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella balls are more flavorful, but also more expensive. When shopping for pizza ingredients, you need to weight the added flavor to cost ratio of each item or you may end up spending way more then you planned. If you have to go with a single cheese and are on a budget, a block of mozzarella will do nicely.
Another cheese to consider is parmesan. It is a hard cheese with a bit stronger flavor than mozzarella. I am a little more selective about which pizzas I put this cheese on. It does tend to overpower delicate flavors. When I do use parmesan cheese, I prefer shavings, but it is also fine if grated.
A cheese I really like is feta. As stated above it goes great with chicken as well as many vegetables. I have ordered double feta pizzas with no other topping on them, and loved every bite. Feta is a brined curd cheese produced in Greece. It is made from sheep milk, but can contain up to 30% goat’s milk. I actually prefer goat cheese to feta. It is a bit sweeter and more flavorful, but it is also more expensive. Because of the price difference, I usually stick with feta.
There are many good pizza cheeses that you might want to try. I mainly stick to the ones I have mentioned above, just because I know they work well.
PIZZA PANS: Any pizza pan will work, but pizza stones and cast iron pizza pans offer a few advantages, mainly superior heat retention and a more even heat distribution. They also require a little additional care. Never expose hot stones or cast iron to to cold water. Because of their absorbent nature, do not use detergent to clean these pans, or the pizzas you make may have an added ingredient you didn’t plan on. Make sure to follow the instructions on how to care for your pizza pan.
A pizza peel also comes in handy to transfer pizza from one surface to another. I sometimes assemble my pizzas directly on the peel and just slide it onto a pan when it is ready to go into the oven.
THE MAGIC OF FLOUR: Flour is not only the main ingredient of the pizza crust, it is also what keeps the dough from sticking to your working surface as well as your fingers. If you don’t believe me, try kneading it without a good dusting of flour. Flour is also what will keep the dough from sticking to the pan. As an added measure of precaution, I like to also throw a little corn meal on the pan. Corn meal is coarser than flour and gives an extra degree of protection from sticking.
I tried a couple new things during my last pizza event that nearly caused it to end in disaster. In the past, I had always stretched one ball of dough, topped it, baked it, and then moved on to the next. This last time I used less flour to begin with in the recipe, because the dough had always been a bit too elastic and would tend to snap back to its regular shape. I also stretched all the dough at the same time about an hour and a half before the first one went into the oven, and topped them all about a half hour before oven time. Sitting for that amount of time caused some of the moisture in the pizza to soak up the flour and cause the pizza to stick to the pans. I had to go back and unstick the dough and attempt to get flour under the fully topped pizzas. It worked out fine in the end, but did cause a bit of a scare.
THE PIZZA EVENT: When I made pizza a couple days ago it was for my wife’s birthday. It took all day to shop, prepare the dough, make the sauce, top the pies, bake them, eat them and then clean up the mess in the kitchen. It was a lot of work. So why do it (besides wanting to do something nice for my wife’s birthday).
Like so many things we do, it is not only the end result, but the experience that drives us to do that which may be difficult. So as I sat down that evening scraping the last little bit of spumoni ice cream from my bowl, I began to plan my next pizza event.
Eventually you may want to attempt your own crust and experiment with different cheeses and toppings. The nice thing is there are so many possibilities. You can put whatever you want into it, and you can take it where ever you want it to go. Bon Appétit.