Pizza is the one thing I’ve been willing to turn the oven on for this summer (ok, that’s not entirely true; there was this and this and this). But you have to turn it up really high, like 450-500ºF. So it needs to be worth it. And pizza is one of the few things that is worth it.
It’s the ultimate in flexible cooking. In the instance of the pizza above, I had some leftover pesto, so that went on with the tomato sauce, cheese and arugula (make sure you put the arugula on right at the end and cook just until wilted and really pile it on — it shrinks up a lot). If you don’t have any tomato sauce, you can toss on olive oil or tomatoes (roasted or not). Avocado is so good on pizza; try it, please. My guacamole pizza is so easy: olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and avocado, finished with cilantro and lime zest. Figs, nuts, dried fruit…really, the possibilities are endless. Olives are sort of essential in my opinion. And pretty much any kind of cheese is good on pizza; don’t just stick with the usual suspects.
Having said all that, don’t overload your pizza with too many ingredients because that makes it harder to cook the crust properly (not to mention transferring the uncooked pizza into the oven). Think 3-5 ingredients. That way you can really taste them. Of course, if you make enough dough, everyone can top their pizza however they like.
Nowadays, making pizza doesn’t even require that you make the dough, although it’s super-easy*. You can buy pre-made dough pretty inexpensively (whole wheat, regular, even herbed) at both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, which can make the pizza-making process much more of a spontaneous event. Just make sure you let the dough sit out for at least an hour before you starting rolling/stretching; cold dough is not terribly cooperative.
Pizza Dough (bread machine version)
Makes 2 12″ pizzas
3/4 cup cold water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 cups bread flour (you can substitute up to half with whole wheat flour)
1-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon fresh herbs like basil, thyme or oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried), optional
Put the ingredients in the bread machine mixing bowl in the order they appear above, making a small well in the flour before adding the yeast. Set on the dough cycle and go read a book, run or whatever for 1.5 hours. There will be pizza dough waiting for you when you get back.
Pizza Dough (by hand)
Replace the cold water with lukewarm. Stir dry ingredients, including yeast, in a large bowl. Add water and olive oil and combine into what will hopefully resemble a ball. Once it’s pretty well together, dump it out on a floured work surface (I just use my *clean* counter) and, with floured hands, knead for a few minutes to get that gluten to start working its magic. Lightly oil the bowl you mixed the ingredients in, drop in the dough and roll it around to coat all surfaces in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for a couple hours or until double in size.
Once that’s happened, punch down your giant blob of dough to release the air and scoop it back out onto the work surface. Divide into two equal pieces (or four if you want to make “personal” pizzas), shape each into balls and let it sit for another 20-30 minutes under the plastic wrap.
Rolling Out the Dough
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface using a rolling pin. I don’t worry too much about making a perfect circle; I just like to get the surface very even and thin. I actually like the sort of random shapes I end up with sometimes. If you’re feeling daring, oil up your hands and stretch the dough by hand into a disk and then use your fist to gently coax the dough out into a larger, thinner circle.
Cooking your Pizza
Now for *how* to cook it. I love my pizza stone, but I’ve also had good results with a basic sheet pan. To prevent sticking, I use cornmeal on the stone and oil with the pan. If you’re using a stone, preheat the oven with the stone on the floor of the oven (use the bottom rack if you have an electric stove) for 30 minutes or so (don’t heat the sheet pan if that’s what you’re using). I first cook the pizza on the bottom of the oven, then move it up to the top rack and broil for the last couple minutes (you want to make sure the bottom is well-cooked before you do this). I find it much easier to precook the crust for about 6 minutes (make sure to poke the dough all over with a fork or you’ll end up with some very puffy bread) and then add the toppings, but if you have a pizza peel (which would be handy, but makes me nervous), you can compose the pizza on that and then slide it onto the stone/pan.
Oven temperatures vary widely, so while 450ºF works well for me, you may need to crank your oven up to 500ºF. Just experiment. The best way to tell when the pizza is done is to just keep an eye on it, and lift up a corner of the bottom to check how it’s browning.