Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Perfect Pizza

When I was growing up, Friday was the night for pizza. My father would pick up a couple of pizzas and a stromboli so my mother had a night off. As I got older, I learned how to make pizza from scratch, and I would make pizza for the family. I loved the feel of the yeast breathing life into the flour as I kneaded five pounds of flour into dough, no mean task, I assure you. There was enough pizza for a party, or for our family of nine.

To me, there are two kinds of pizza. No, not the Sicilian square and the Neapolitan round. I'm talking homemade and everything else. If you have never tried to make pizza on your own, there's no need to fear. Yes, it does involve yeast, and many people run from yeasty bread recipes as if they are being chased by the devil himself, but trust me, pizza is as easy as pie.

Why bother making your own dough when Domino's is just a phone call away? First of all, you get to control the quantity and quality of all the ingredients. Second, it tastes infinitely better than anything out of a delivery box. Third, it is satisfying to watch those you love dig into a pizza you made all by yourself--or with their help.

The ratio is simple: 3 cups of flour to an envelope (a scant three teaspoons) of yeast (regular or quick rise), a generous sprinkling of salt, a cup of warm water (give or take, depending on the humidity in your kitchen), and a drizzle of olive oil. With a food processor, preparing the dough is almost too simple to imagine. Put the dry ingredients into the processor bowl, take it for a brief spin, then slowly drizzle the water through the feed tube while the processor is running. Add the olive oil (a couple of tablespoons, if you are squeamish about guestimating). When the dough comes together, stop, wait five minutes, then give the dough another 20 second mix. Transfer the dough to a flour-dusted counter top and knead briefly. Grease a large bowl with another tablespoon of olive oil, and transfer the dough into the bowl. Turn the dough so it is covered with oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and wait. If you are using instant yeast, the dough is ready in well under an hour. If you are using regular yeast, wait two hours or longer. You will know that it is ready when it is puffy and your fingers leave an indentation (rather than just springing right back at you). This quantity of pizza will serve four people with ordinary appetites. If you have teenagers in your house, you probably will want to make two times the recipe. Don't be tempted to put the doubled ingredients into your food processor at the same time, however!

Once the dough is nicely risen, the fun begins. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. That's about as hot as a home oven gets. Then choose the size and shape of your pizza. With the above recipe, you can make one thick square pizza in an 11x16 inch jelly-roll pan, or you can make a thinner pizza in a 16 inch pizza pan, or you can divide the dough into fourths and make personal round pizzas as thin as you can roll the dough. I don't use a pizza stone personally, but there are some people who swear by them. I found I was usually swearing at mine.

Sprinkle corn meal on the pan to prevent sticking. Shape the dough in the pan and let it rise a second time while the oven heats. Add your toppings. Bake for 10-18 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your pizzas. You want your crust to be a golden brown, no matter how thick or thin. The thinner the pizza, the shorter the cooking time. Remove from the oven when the crust in golden brown and the toppings are bubbling.

Time your pizza so that people will be able to eat it hot from the oven. Of course, you probably want to make enough for left-overs. Cold pizza is a delicacy in and of itself.

Here are some ideas for toppings:
Traditional margharita: spread the dough with your favorite pizza sauce (see below for an easy recipe), bake for 6-7 minutes, remove from oven to top with fresh mozzarella cheese sliced very thin and torn fresh basil leaves. Return to over and continue baking until crust is browned (about 7 minutes for a 16-inch round pizza).

The Italian flag: drizzle the dough lightly with olive oil. Cover with thinly sliced fresh tomatoes and sprinkle the tomatoes with salt to taste, then arrange ricotta cheese and lightly cooked spinach attractively over the tomatoes. Bake for 14-16 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

White pizza with broccoli: Drizzle olive oil over the dough, sprinkle generously with shredded mozzarella cheese, and top with broccoli cooked al dente (I stir fry my broccoli with olive oil and garlic until it gets bright green). Sprinkle with red pepper flakes, if desired, and bake.

Other toppings: roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, cooked Italian sausage. Really, just about anything. Artichoke hearts, asparagus, broccoli rabe, cauliflower--almost any vegetable is at home on a pizza. Experiment with cheeses. While I love a good gooey mozzarella, any grated cheese alone or in reasonable combination can be enlisted.

Quick pizza sauce: Pour a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil into a heavy medium saucepan over low heat. Add 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons) and red pepper flakes to taste (I usually add about a teaspoon of red pepper). Cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently and watching constantly (don't let the garlic burn). Add a 28-ounce can of good-quality chopped tomatoes in puree and a bay leaf, and bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce to low and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. Add salt to taste.

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