12 January 2008

Closing-In-On-Perfection Pizza

For my mom.

Every so often I'd like to share some tried and true recipes that we use. These are ones that we've found to be so good that I don't search for a bigger/better version, anymore. (Well, technically my husband doesn't want me experimenting anymore, but is that really possible for a chef-at-heart?)

I've been making homemade pizza every week for a couple years now. I haven't perfected it, but it's getting close. My husband likes it better than any pizza joint in town. But I think as far as quick-and-easy goes, I've gone as far up the road of perfection as possible. In order to progress any further, I need to jump off the rise-once recipe jet plane and live on the 24-hr think-ahead recipe barge. Just by my comparisons, I'm sure you can see why I haven't quite made the leap yet. But it's coming. I can feel a growing desire for the basking-in-a-Divine-beam-of-light-as-angels-sing-Handel's-Messiah-perfect pizza. The desire is almost strong enough. Almost, but not quite. In the interim, I thought I would share with you our current pizza of deliciousness.

Two recipes are important for great pizza. The dough is obviously a huge deal. But I think the sauce is the most valuable player. Mr. Sauce can make or break the team. Boring or bland and you've got an okay pizza as long as the other parts are pulling their weight. But get a magnificent sauce? Oooh, baby. That's the ticket for greatness. That's the panache you need to bring your little Italian pie to the forefront of specialness. Fortunately for you, I've found the recipe.

Exquisite Pizza Sauce is a gem I found at Allrecipes.com. It truly is exquisite. And simple. Did I mention that the sauce can be ready to go in five minutes? It has an amazing, complicated flavor that is perfect. There is one caveat, though. It does not, I repeat, does not keep well. The basic recipe is tomato paste, water and seasonings. If you put the extras into the fridge, you are left the next morning with a perfect gelatinous mold of your bowl. It never recovers it's smooth sauce qualities, even with added water and heat. In general, one batch of sauce is good for one batch of the dough I use. It also works well for a marinara dip. (i.e.-breadsticks, mozzarella sticks, calzones, etc.)

Exquisite Pizza Sauce recipe tweaks: Reduce honey from 2 Tb to 1 Tb, omit cayenne and pepper flakes if you don't like heat. I've used the anchovy paste and it is good, but I rarely have it and the sauce is still great without it. "Salt to taste" is about 1/2 tsp. It says to let the flavors blend for 30 minutes, but don't forget that you can add the pizza assembling time, the baking time and the resting time and by the time you eat, it will have been over thirty minutes.

The other recipe I use is also from Allrecipes.com: Pizza Dough III. This dough works well for our family. I double it and get three 12" pizzas. We usually have a few pieces left over. Alternatively, I will make one batch, shape it up, then add olive oil and garlic salt, bake it, spread with a bit o' butter and serve the "foccaccia" with soup or pasta. The other day I topped it with carmelized onions and garlic and it was positively addictive. It was all I could do to be polite and not shove it down my throat a la a starving person.

Pizza Dough III recipe tweaks: Increase flour to 3 cups. I don't know if it was a typo or what, but 2 cups leaves you with a sticky goop, not dough. It calls for bread flour and I have used it, but I also have used all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour with great results. Bake the pizza at 450 for 8-15 minutes.

Get yourself a pizza stone. A pizza stone is a clay baking stone that absorbs the moisture in the dough and gives the pizza its great crisp bottom. After finding the best sauce, the stone is the next great improvement to pizza making. It adds an authentic texture to homemade pizzas. You can use a cookie sheet with no sides to transfer the pizza to the stone, but it is so much funner (yeah, yeah, "more fun", I know)to have a pizza peel. It is one of those giant wooden spatula things like they use at pizza parlours. They are so much more fun, I promise. (I got mine here.)

Parchment paper is not necessary but is incredibly useful. You can put cornmeal under your pizza while you make it so it won't stick to the counter, but parchment is so much cleaner and slippery-er, letting you slide the whole thing into place on the baking stone with great ease. Believe me, I used cornmeal for about a year before I discovered the heaven-sent parchment paper. I'll never go back. Never!

HOMEMADE PIZZA - For ingredient amounts, use the Pizza Dough III recipe, with the above tweaks.
  1. Turn oven to 450 F. It takes a while for the baking stone to be fully pre-heated, so turn it on immediately.
  2. Put the yeast into warm water and let it sit while you get the other ingredients ready.
  3. Dump all the flour, salt and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer.
  4. Add the oil to the water and yeast, give it a stir and then dump the yeast mixture in with the flour.
  5. Using a kneading hook, let the machine work the dough until it is nice and smooth. You may have to pull the dough down the hook once or twice to ensure all the dough is being worked.
  6. When it is done, with oiled hands, remove it from the dough hook and shape it into a nice ball.
  7. Drop it into an oiled bowl, pick it up, turn it over and then put it back in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and sit in a nice, warm spot for about thirty minutes or until doubled in size.

  8. Dump all the ingredients for Exquisite Pizza Sauce into a bowl, noting my tweaks above, and stir. Voila! Pizza sauce!
  9. Grate mozzarella (about 12 oz or so, depending on how cheesy you like it) and prep any toppings.
  10. When the dough is ready, remove it from the bowl and place it on a sheet of parchment paper on the counter. This dough only rises once, so you want to make sure you handle it gently.
  11. Use your hands to press and shape it into a circle. Twelve inches will give you a nice, thick crust; sixteen is good if you like it thin. You can use a rolling pin if you want but it will really press the air out of the dough. Not only that, but the hand-molded method is much more "artisanal" looking and beautiful in my opinion.

  12. Add your sauce, cheese and toppings.

  13. Using a pizza peel, transfer the pizza (parchment and all) to the stone in the oven. (If you are making more than one pizza, once one is in the oven, start making the next one.)
  14. Bake until the cheese becomes golden brown in a few spots. This is normally about 8-10 minutes for plain cheese; 10-15 for more toppings.
  15. Let it "rest" for a few minutes so the cheese can set up and handle slicing without pouring off the sides.
The whole process takes our family about 2 hours, from turning on the oven to bringing the third pizza to the table. For one pizza it is between 1 and 1.5 hours, depending on how experienced you are.

In conclusion, I thought I would give you a list of our favorite toppings. Don't be limited to these, though. Use your imagination.
  • steamed broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, sauteed onions (pictured above, front left)
  • extra cheese, minced garlic, dusting of italian seasoning (pictured above, back right)
  • grilled chicken, red pepper
  • zucchini, tomato and fresh basil*
  • canadian bacon, pineapple, black olive
  • black olive, mushroom, green pepper
Don't be intimidated. Once you've tried it, you'll see how do-able it is. Happy pizza-ing!

*put on when the pizza comes out of the oven, or else it turns brown.

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