I’ve always been a little disappointed in homemade pizza.
Let’s face it, unless you have your own wood-fired oven, which I most certainly don’t, it’s hard to make anything approaching a real Neapolitan-style pie, with that charred, chewy-crisp crust, perfectly puffed around the perimeter and thin (but never gooey) in the middle. I sometimes make grilled pizza in summer, but that requires a certain amount of dexterity and last-minute maneuvering ~ not ideal for a chilly spring weeknight.
The other night I found a solution. It was easy, really: I finally stopped comparing my pizza to pizzeria pizza. And wouldn’t you know, on my next try, I made what might be my best homemade pizza ever. I used a no-knead crust from Nancy Baggett’s book, Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads. The recipe, which required only a bit of vigorous stirring and a slow rise, first in the fridge and then at room temperature, produced a yeasty, light and delicately crisped crust.
A good crust is essential. But it is only half the story.
Toppings ~ how many, how much ~ can make or (literally) break a pizza. It is tempting pile on “the works” ~ sauce, meat(s), vegetables, cheese(s). But then nothing cooks properly and you end up with a swamp in the middle of your crust. You don’t always hear me say this, but in this case restraint is your friend. Here are some tips for properly topping your pizza:
* Sauce: I use diced or crushed tomatoes rather than tomato sauce, which (to me) tastes overcooked when baked on a pizza. In summer I peel, seed and grate fresh plum tomatoes. But for the rest of the year I rely on good canned tomatoes. Pour them into a bowl and mash them up a bit with a fork or a potato masher. Toss in a crushed garlic clove or two and a few torn basil leaves. Season with a little salt and stir in a couple of tablespoons of good extra-virgin olive oil. Let it sit on your countertop for awhile to let the flavors mingle. Spoon the sauce directly on top of the unbaked pizza crust. You don’t need a lot; just a thin layer and a few pieces of tomato here and there. Be sure to leave an inch or so around the perimeter ~ you don’t want sauce all the way to the edge of your pizza.
* Cheese: This can be tricky. You want fresh mozzarella, but not the kind that is so moist and milky that it will leak all over your pizza and make a soggy mess. You also don’t want the tough, mass produced kind that tastes like the plastic shrink-wrapped packaging it comes in. Look for fresh mozzarella wrapped tightly in plastic wrap rather than submerged in whey in a container. Slice the mozzarella thinly and distribute it on top of the sauce. I pull apart the slices for more even distribution. You only need about 4 ounces for a large (13- to 14-inch) pizza, 2 to 3 ounces for a medium (11-inch) one. For an additional layer of flavor, scatter on a small handful of shredded pecorino or another robust cheese. I’m fond of cacio di Roma, a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese that has an appealing tang. Crumbled feta is another good one.
* Meat: Totally optional, but if you opt in, go easy. A scattering of crumbled or sliced cooked sausage or some thinly sliced pepperoni. You can also scatter on a little diced cooked pancetta. If you’re using prosciutto, don’t put it on the pizza until you have pulled the pie from the oven. Immediately lay a couple of thin slices of prosciutto on top of the hot pizza, where the residual heat will warm and soften the prosciutto, releasing its fragrance and flavor.
* Greens: Occasionally I put cooked greens such as broccoli di rape on my pizza. For more tender greens, say, spinach or arugula, I scatter those on top of the pizza as soon as it comes out of the oven (as with the prosciutto). The heat is just enough to barely wilt them. A drizzle of olive oil over the greens is a nice touch.
* Other stuff: I love to accessorize pizza with salty and savory things ~ olives, anchovies, roasted peppers, roasted mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes. But not all on the same pizza. Choose a couple and use a judicious amount.
* The egg: Eggs seem to be the new bacon; they are on everything, including pizza. This is nothing new to Italians. When I was little we used to go to a pizzeria in Rome where I would almost always order a quattro stagioni (four seasons) pizza that had a perfectly cooked egg on it (in the ‘spring’ quadrant, though it sometimes ran over into the other seasons). An egg on your pizza is a lovely flourish as long as it is cooked properly, which is to say not too much. When the pizza is about 5 minutes from being done, pull it out of the oven and break the egg right on top. Season the egg with a little salt and pepper and place the pizza back in the oven for 4 to 5 minutes, until the whites are set but the yolk is still runny.
Here’s a recipe for the pizza I made the other night, which includes some but not all of the above elements. Improvise as you like but remember to use restraint. Or not.
What do you put on your pizza? Please share your favorite ingredients and tips in the comments section below.
I’ve become a no-knead pizza dough convert. It’s easy and will accommodate pretty much any schedule. You can leave it to rise in the fridge overnight, or on the countertop all day. The longer you let the dough rise, the better ~ the long rise time develops the yeasty flavor that is ideal for pizza. I made two medium pizzas with the dough and topped them both with sauce, mozzarella and cacio di Roma, a few strips of prosciutto and a handful of arugula. I put an egg on one and left one eggless, and we all agreed that the egg-topped pizza was better. The dough for this recipe is slightly adapted from Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads, by Nancy Baggett (2009 John Wiley & Sons).
- For the dough:
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus more as needed
- 1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon instant, fast-rising or bread machine yeast
- Scant 1 1/2 cups ice water, plus more if needed
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing over dough and pans
- For the pizzas:
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups diced or crushed tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic, lightly crushed
- Sea salt
- Basil leaves (optional)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- About 6 ounces thinly sliced mozzarella
- About 1/4 cup shredded cacio di Roma, crumbled feta or cheese of choice (optional)
- 2 eggs
- 6 thin slices of prosciutto di Parma (make sure there is fat around the edges)
- Handful of baby arugula leaves
Make the dough: In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, salt and yeast with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula. Vigorously stir in the water, scraping down the sides of the bowl, just until thoroughly blended. Stir in the olive oil until evenly incorporated. If the mixture is too dry to stir, add just enough water to facilitate mixing. The dough should be sticky but firm. If the dough is soft, stir in more flour to firm it. The dough will be shaggy rather than smooth. Brush or dab the top with olive oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. If you have the time, let the dough rise in the refrigerator for 3 to 10 hours (I left mine in there for 12 hours). Then let it rise at cool room temperature for 4 to 12 hours. If you don’t have time to refrigerate the dough, just let it rise at cool room temperature for 4 to 12 hours.
When the dough has risen (doubled in volume and bubbly) stir it to deflate it. Divide it in half using oiled kitchen shears or an oiled knife. Use each half to make a pizza: Place the dough portion on a lightly oiled 11- or 12-inch pizza pan and drizzle a little olive oil over it. Press and stretch the dough to the edge of the pan ~ you may need to oil your fingers a bit to keep them from sticking to the dough. Push the dough outward to slightly build up and thicken the edges. Set the dough aside to rise for 25 to 45 minutes. You can tent it with oiled foil to prevent it from drying out, but I skipped this step; I found the dough was sufficiently oiled that it didn’t need to be covered.
While the dough is rising, place a rack in the lowest slot of the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place a rimless baking sheet (or a rimmed baking sheet upside down) on the lowest rack. If you have a pizza stone you can use that.
In a small bowl, stir together the tomatoes, garlic, a pinch of salt and a couple of torn basil leaves. Drizzle in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and stir well. Let this sit at room temperature to let the flavors mingle.
Make the pizzas: When the dough in the pans has risen (puffed up slightly), spread the sauce to within 1/2 inch of the edge all around ~ you may not need all the sauce (I usually put whatever is leftover in pasta sauce). Arrange the cheeses evenly over the top, leaving a space in the center for the egg. Bake the pizzas for about 8 minutes, until the cheese is just melted. Remove the pans from the oven. Break the eggs into the center of the pizzas and season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Return the pizzas to the oven for 5 minutes, or until the whites of the eggs are opaque and the yolks are still a little jiggly.
Remove the pans from the oven and arrange the prosciutto slices on the hot pizza. Scatter a small handful of arugula leaves on top and drizzle a few drops of olive oil over them. Serve immediately.