I love hot weather, and I love baking. These two are not always compatible. One of the only good things about the lovely summer ending is that, with cooler temperatures, it’s okay to turn on my oven again. Perfect timing, too: It’s National Pizza Month, and homemade pizza is easy and delicious.
It all started around the year 1000 as a snack for women in Italy who needed something to eat while waiting for their bread to bake in a town’s communal oven. They put fresh tomato slices on scraps of dough and pizza was born. Cheese wasn’t added until 1889 when a baker who was commissioned to make pizza for a queen added white mozzarella to the traditional red tomato, plus some green basil, in order to salute the colors of the Italian flag. Pizza, which means “pie” in Italian, came to America from Italy with the World War II soldiers who wanted to share this “discovery” with their families.
Now we eat it for a quick dinner, on the road and at get-togethers with friends. Leftovers make a good midnight snack or next-day breakfast. Some like it plain; others pile on all kinds of vegetables, meats, even fruits. Pepperoni is the No. 1 topping — Americans consume more than 300 million pounds of it on pizzas each year. The crust can be thin or thick, crisp or chewy. You can even make a “mock” version on an English muffin or a tortilla.
Although you can get delicious take-out pizzas with a myriad of gourmet toppings, making homemade pizza is an opportunity to get back to what pizza is supposed to be: fresh ingredients on homemade bread. Although pizza has changed over the years from simple peasant food to multi-pound extravaganza, when you make your own, you have a chance to come full circle, back to pure, simple ingredients.
Here are a few very basic recipes, but feel free to get creative. Your crust is a blank canvas waiting for culinary art (My favorite is black olives and blue cheese, which I call the “Black & Blue.”). You might also try mixing ingredients directly into the dough, such as chopped fresh basil, thyme, oregano, parsley or chives, or sun-dried tomato bits. Just use the freshest ingredients you can find. If you can’t decide on just one combination, divide your dough into several small pies, and make different combinations. A pizza stone is great to bake on, but you can also use an upside-down cookie sheet. Get your kids in the act, too. They are more likely to eat something they created with their own little hands. You just might start a new family tradition.
One of the benefits of making your own dough is the absence of additives, stabilizers and the like. This recipe from Eating Well magazine uses Rapid-Rise yeast, which requires only a 10-minute resting time for the dough, instead of the usual 1- to 2-hour rise. The dough can also be made ahead, punched down, and stored overnight in a large plastic bag in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before using. You can get eight 6-inch crusts from each batch.
4 to 4 ¼ cups all-purpose white flour
2 packages Rapid-Rise yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons olive oil
In a large mixing bowl, stir together 3 cups flour, the yeast, salt and sugar. In a small saucepan, combine 1 3/4 cups water and the olive oil. Heat until hot to the touch, 125 to 130 degrees. With a wooden spoon, gradually stir the oil and water mixture into the flour mixture. Beat until well-mixed. Gradually add enough of the remaining flour to make a firm, soft dough. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead for 8 to 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic; let rest 10 minutes in a draft-free place.
Simple pizza sauce
If you want the familiar red sauce as a base for your pizza, here’s an easy one from chef John Ash, author of “From the Earth to the Table.” Makes about 4 cups sauce.
4 cups canned plum tomatoes in heavy puree
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
¼ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped Salt and fresh ground black pepper
In a food processor, pulse tomatoes briefly 2 or 3 times to chop. Set aside. Heat olive oil in a skillet; saute garlic and chili flakes over medium heat until garlic is softened but not brown. Add tomatoes and basil, bring to a simmer, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes until lightly thickened. Salt and pepper to taste, then store in the refrigerator, covered, up to 7 days until ready to use.
Pizza alla Napolitana
A golden crust topped with garden-ripe tomatoes and basil, flavored with basil, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. This is the oldest pizza recipe and still one of the best. Recipe from” Pizza” by James McNair; makes 4 to 6 main-course servings.
Basic Pizza Dough of choice, at room temperature
About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds vine-ripened Italian plum tomatoes, peeled and sliced, or two 28 oz. cans Italian plum tomatoes, well drained, seeded and chopped
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced or minced
1/2 cup whole fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 500 F. Put your pizza stone or inverted cookie sheet in oven to preheat. Roll out or stretch dough to desired thickness or thinness. Place dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan. Brush dough all over with olive oil, then top with tomatoes, leaving a half-inch border around edges. Sprinkle with the garlic, and salt to taste. Drizzle evenly with olive oil. Put pizza on preheated baking surface in oven; bake until crust is golden brown and puffy, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and top with fresh basil. Slice and serve warm.
Pizza with blue cheese and caramelized onions
This makes enough topping for a 16-inch pizza or two 10-inch pizzas. Recipe from “From the Earth to the Table” by John Ash.
Basic Pizza Dough*
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ pounds thinly sliced yellow onions
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
3/4 pound Gorgonzola, or other creamy blue cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup fresh sage leaves
Preheat oven to 475 F. Shape dough into rounds and set aside. In a deep, heavy-bottomed pan, place olive oil and onions. Slowly saute over low heat until onions are golden brown, stirring regularly to prevent burning, about 20 minutes to completely brown onions. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter onions evenly over top of prepared pizza dough. Scatter cheese and sage leaves on top. Bake pizza on top rack of oven for about 20 minutes or until dough is puffed, golden and cooked through. Serve warm or at room temperature.
*The author incorporated 2 tablespoons minced sun-dried tomatoes and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, parsley or chives into the pizza dough before rolling out the dough.