The Zen of homemade pizza: Losing yourself in the doing


Some people do woodworking; some paint; some garden. I cook.

I find pleasure in the craft. Truly. Nearly every day, I look forward to working on my granite countertop using my collection of tools and my magnificent range.

That’s why I make pizza. I get to use my ginormous rolling pin, my ceramic baking stone (a gift from my mother) and my biggest, baddest knife to cut wedges from a crispy crust. Trust me, homemade pizza does not save time or money. Rather, it challenges. Every time. I still can’t shape a perfectly round dough circle, my crust thickness varies from edge to edge and I am prone to over-top. Transferring the topped pizza to the oven proves nerve-wracking. Still, I enjoy all aspects of the process; friends and family appreciate the outcome.

My No. 1 motivator: Stocking the ingredients for the dough. I order special pizza flour online, keep packets of yeast in the fridge and heads of garlic in the crisper. Sometimes, I even keep dough in the freezer. The dough that follows keeps overnight in the fridge too. I just need to allow time for it to warm up before rolling out the crust.

I am convinced that the key to my latest crust success lies in the flour. For the past year or so, I have been using the pizza professional’s flour of choice: the super finely ground 00 (double zero). It’s amazing — the lower gluten content makes dough so relaxed it’s a piece of cake to roll. I like to flavor the dough with fresh garlic and a sprinkling of herbs.

Once the dough is made (it takes less than 5 minutes in a food processor), I start dreaming of toppings. Lately, I cannot get enough white pizza. Tomato-less, thin crust pies satisfy in a different way from their deep-dish Chicago brethren. I top them with small dollops of rich ricotta or mascarpone and a modicum of shredded cheese. A bonus: They cook superfast. We eat one while the other is in the oven.

If you are serious about making pizza at home, invest in a ceramic pizza stone. Like commercial stone ovens, the hot pizza stone actually draws moisture from the crust for added crispness and golden goodness. A good pizza stone will cost at least $30, but will give you years of enjoyment for everything from homemade pizza and calzones to better crusts when heating frozen pizza. I also use it when baking free-form yeast breads or reheating loaves from the local bakery.

Speaking of hot, don’t be afraid to turn up the heat on the oven. Seriously. Five hundred degrees (or more) helps achieve professional results. I’ve made the recipes that follow in my deluxe gas range and in an apartment-size electric stove. Armed with the pizza stone and a 550-degree oven, the results from even an ordinary stove are phenomenal.

The white pizza with caramelized red onions and mushrooms is stunning in its simplicity. I serve it with a salad of sliced tomatoes and herbs. The spicy sausage combination can be made into a pizza, but for fun, I fold it in half for a calzone to be enjoyed with a knife and fork alongside a green salad. Then, it’s back to the kitchen for more fun.

———

GARLIC AND HERB PIZZA DOUGH

Prep: 10 minutes

Rise: 1 to 2 hours (or overnight)

Makes: 2 large or 3 medium thin pizza crusts

Use an instant-read thermometer to measure the water temperature.

2 cups (10 ounces total) flour, preferably 00 flour (or all-purpose flour)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon each: salt, dried basil

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

2/3 cup warm (105 to 115 degrees) water

1 teaspoon (1/2 envelope) active dry yeast

Pinch sugar

1. Put flour, garlic, salt and herbs into a food processor fitted with the metal blade or into a mixer bowl fitted with a dough hook. Pulse several times to mix well.

2. Mix water, yeast and sugar in small bowl; let stand until foamy. Add to flour. Process or mix just long enough for the mixture to form a ball. (If it is sticky, add a couple of tablespoons of flour and mix until incorporated.)

3. Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, turn to coat the top with oil. Cover with a clean cloth. Let rise in a warm place until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours (Or, refrigerate overnight covered with plastic wrap. Let it come to room temperature before using.)

4. Punch down dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead several times to expel air before using.

Creamy white pizzas with caramelized red onions and mushrooms

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 2 pizzas, serving 2 to 4

If your pizza stone is smaller than 15 inches, make 3 pizzas. When the first pizza is in the oven, start assembling the second. Bake the pizzas one at a time for the best results.

1 garlic and herb pizza dough, see recipe (or 1 pound purchased refrigerated pizza dough)

Olive oil

1 large (8 ounces) red onion, halved, very thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 pound assorted fresh mushroom caps (such as button, cremini and shiitake), thinly sliced, about 4 cups

2 small cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/8 teaspoon dried

Cornmeal

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, chilled

1 cup coarsely shredded fontina cheese

Chopped fresh basil and chives

1. Make pizza dough through step 4. Divide dough in half. Roll each into a ball. Let stand covered with a towel on a well-floured work surface.

2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion. Cook, stirring until onions are golden and soft, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar; cook to caramelize, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add sliced mushrooms and 1 tablespoon olive oil to skillet. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms are golden, about 6 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in onions and thyme. Let cool.

3. Put a pizza stone or a heavy duty baking sheet on the middle oven rack. Heat oven to 550 degrees. Have all ingredients nearby. Sprinkle a baking sheet or a peel with cornmeal.

4. Put one dough ball on a floured surface. Use a floured rolling pin to gently roll the dough ball into a 12-inch round. Place on prepared baking sheet or peel.

5. Brush lightly with oil. Top with half of the onion mixture, leaving a 1-inch border at the edge. Dollop small bits of half of the mascarpone over all. (It will melt in the oven and spread.) Sprinkle with half of the shredded cheese. Gently slide the pizza onto the hot pizza stone. Bake until edge is golden brown and crispy, 5 to 7 minutes. Carefully transfer the cooked pizza to a cutting board or another baking sheet. Assemble and bake the other pizza.

6. Serve pizzas as soon as they come out of the oven sprinkled with basil and chives.

WHITE CALZONES WITH SAUSAGE, ONION AND ROASTED RED PEPPERS

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 2 calzones, serving 2 to 4

If you have a large enough pizza stone, you can bake both calzones at the same time.

1 garlic and herb pizza dough, see recipe (or 1 pound purchased refrigerated pizza dough)

1/2 pound raw spicy Italian sausage, removed from casing

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 medium red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded, chopped (you can use bottled), about ½ cup

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup finely sliced fresh basil leaves, optional

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or mozzarella cheese

1. Make pizza dough through step 4. Divide dough in half. Roll each into a ball. Let stand covered with a towel on a well-floured work surface.

2. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage and onion. Cook and stir, breaking sausage up into small pieces, until sausage is golden, about 12 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Let cool.

3. Mix ricotta, diced red pepper, salt and pepper in small bowl. Add basil if using.

4. Put a pizza stone or heavy-duty baking sheet on the middle oven rack. Heat oven to 550 degrees or 525 degrees on convection setting. Have all ingredients nearby. Sprinkle a baking sheet or peel with cornmeal.

5. Put one dough ball on a floured surface. Use a floured rolling pin to gently roll ball into a 12-inch round. Place dough circle onto the prepared baking sheet or peel.

6. Spread half of the ricotta mixture over one half of the dough circle. Top ricotta with half of the sausage mixture and half of the shredded cheese. Fold other half of dough over to make a half-moon shape. Use your fingers to crimp and roll the dough edges together to seal in the filling. Repeat to make a second calzone.

7. Carefully slide calzones onto heated pizza stone. Cook until top crust is golden and crisp, about 8 minutes. Carefully transfer the cooked calzones to a cutting board or serving plate. Serve right away.


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