Well, life’s been a little crazy of late, so when stress gets the best of me, there’s really only one solution: let’s eat!
My daughter, recovering from back surgery at our home, had a few of her friends visit us over the weekend, giving me an opportunity to do some cooking, which is a pastime I have not been indulging in much of late, given our empty nest and my crazy hours. So the mood seemed just right for a little pizza-mind.
Pizza has a long and noble history, dating back to the round flat breads baked in ancient Greece, seasoned with olive oil and herbs. With the addition of mozzarella cheese (first made from water buffallo milk) and the tomato (an import from the Americas, initially thought to be poisonous), the tomato and cheese pie which we now know today evolved in Naples, Italy, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Its popularity increased greatly after WWII, after U.S. and European troops occupying Italy first experienced its delights, and has evolved far beyond its humble beginnings as a simple peasant food.
Homemade pizza is surprisingly easy to make, and well worth the small effort involved–especially when compared to the high-priced greasy salt-licks sold by commercial chains–or worse, their cardboard cousins lining the freezer aisles at your local supermarket.
While commercial crusts can be had, they often suffer from some of the same liabilities, so it’s best to make one from scratch. The dough is quite simple, typically involving only flour, water, salt, yeast, and a little olive oil. My combo is 4 1/2 cups of flour (usually 3/4 white, 1/4 whole wheat) about 1-1 1/2 cups of warm water (flours vary on how much they absorb), 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tbsp of salt, and a packet of rapid-rise yeast dissolved in the warm water. I often add some herbs (oregano or sweet basil, and sometimes crushed garlic) to the mix for a little extra flavor and color as well. You can kneed these together by hand, but a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook is a big help. You want a dough that is moist to the touch but not sticky. Cover it in a bowl, place in a nice warm spot in the kitchen, and let it rise for about 2 hours, until it at least doubles. One rise is sufficient. When it’s ready, punch it down, knead it again (you can add a little more flour if it’s too sticky), and divide into three parts with a knife. Each of these will make a pie about 9 inches across.
While your dough is rising, it’s time to tackle the red sauce. None of that bottled or canned bilge, right? Go with the real thing–it’s very easy.
There are endless variations on red sauces. Mine has evolved over the years, and is a variation on the puttanesca–a potent sauce made with garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, capers, anchovies, olives, and oregano. This sauce, by legend, was first made by Italian prostitutes (puttana is Italian for “prostitute”, as it could purportedly be made quickly between clients–these fine ladies had tricks in the kitchen as well as in the bedroom). My variation drops the olives, adds sauteed onions, and sometimes meat, especially sausage–although I also often make a straight puttanesca, which is spectacular as a meatless meal served over angle-hair pasta.
Start with a nice heavy 4 quart sauce pan, and place some olive oil in the bottom–2-4 tablespoons. We are fortunate to live near a good Italian deli which stuffs their own sausages, although decent ones can be had at most supermarkets as well (fresh, not frozen, of course). I pierce the sausage casings to facilitate cooking off some of their fat, and saute them slowly until nicely brown, then pour off the excess fat and place the sausages on paper towels to cool.
Coarsely chop a large onion and saute it in the oil-fat mixture until translucent and browned, then add garlic. Garlic is the food of the gods, so I add lots–at least 3 big cloves, crushed–but should only be cooked a minute or two as it burns easily and becomes bitter.
Now it’s time for the tomatoes. In season, I like fresh Italian plum tomatos, blanched to remove their skins, then coarsely chopped. Plum tomatoes liquify well with cooking, and fresh ones make a pungent sauce that’s incomparable–but our season for these here in the Northwest is short, so I’m settling for their canned cousins. I add the tomatoes (1 large can) to the onion-garlic saute, and then add the herbs: black and hot red pepper, fennel, oregano, sweet basil, capers, and anchovy paste.
The sausages are sliced and added at this time as well. I cook this mixture down for 45 minutes to an hour to reduce the liquid and make a rich, thick tomato saute.
Finally, I add a large can of tomato puree, and slowly simmer these together to blend flavors and bring it up to temperature. If heaven smells this good, I’m ready to die.
Now back to the pizzas: Each of the three sections is formed into a ball, then pressed flat on a large cutting board dusted with flour. I’d like to tell you that I’ve mastered the art of spinning the dough in the air–but my experience with this command performance is not impressive, generally ending with a lump of dough on the floor, flour everywhere, and the guffaws of family and friends. So I roll it out, rotating the dough and letting it rest a bit to relax the gluten, and finally pushing and stretching the dough out to the edge by hand at the end to create a lip. Keep the board dusted with flour so the dough will slide off easily when it heads for the oven.
The sauce is then ladled onto the dough, followed by a generous helping of mozarella, any toppings you may wish (sauteed onions and bell peppers, or caramelized onions are a favorite), and finally the accent cheeses: Romano and Parmesan.
The oven is preheated to 425-450 degrees, with one important addition: a brick. The use of a brick or stone allows the crust to breathe rather than steam as it cooks, making it far crisper. A cookie sheet is an alternative, but just doesn’t quite measure up–and the pie tends to stick to it, making its extraction a real chore.
I generally cook the pies about 13-15 minutes, until the top is bubbling and the crust edges are starting to brown. A large wooden paddle (also called a peel) really makes life easier when removing the pie from the oven, avoiding burns and the tragedy of a glorious pizza face down on the floor: heaven for the dogs, hell for the hungry waiting crowds and the cook.
So there you have it–give it a try, it’s a great summer dinner for friends and family.