Perfect pizza is easy, cheap to make

Published 11:55 pm Friday, October 10, 2008

I decided to break down and try to make a really great pizza dough! That is what makes the difference between a good and a great pizza. Having the right tools to make a pizza is also important. I went to Williams-Sonoma and bought a pizza peel and a baking stone, neither of which is expensive but it does make a difference. The peel is a big paddle that you use to shove the pizza in the oven. My first pizza did not make it on the baking stone and I realized I had too many ingredients on the pizza.

What makes a good crust is a long, slow fermentation, preferably overnight in the refrigerator, to unlock hidden depths of flavor. It may seem a contradiction to require anything long and slow in a recipe touted as easy. But all that flavor development occurs in the refrigerator, so you can mix it up to three days ahead and then forget about it. Before baking, you just need to let the dough warm up at room temperature for about 1½ hours. This dough is easy to shape, and I use a stretching method, that creates a thin center and a thicker edge. This pizza needs little in the way of toppings. But toppings are only limited by your imagination! Because tomato sauce is such a traditional favorite, I have included a recipe for one made from canned crushed tomatoes. It is a simple no-cook sauce flavored with whatever herbs you have.

A hot oven is the key to getting a crisp crust. While the baking stone in a super hot oven is the best way to deliver a crackly crust, the pizza can be baked on a baking sheet with good results. One taste of this foolproof dough will have you reluctant to resort to take-out pizza again. By making the dough ahead and stashing it in the fridge or freezer, you can easily pull together a pizza with amazing speed. I have used this dough recipe several times now and it is really easy and delicious.

Pizza Dough

Yields 4 individual pizzas

Make the dough at least a day before you use it.

3½ cups unbleached bread flour; more as needed

2 tsp. granulated sugar or honey

1½ tsp. table salt (or 2 ½ tsp. kosher salt)

1¼ tsp. instant yeast

1½ Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil; more as needed

Semolina flour (optional) can use cornmeal or plain flour

Combine the flour, sugar or honey, salt, yeast, and olive oil in a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Add 11 fl.oz. (1¼ cups plus 2 Tbs.) cool (60 degrees to 65 degrees F) water. With a large spoon or the paddle attachment of the electric mixer on low speed, mix until the dough comes together in a coarse ball, two to three minutes by hand or one to two minutes in the mixer. Let the dough rest, uncovered for five minutes.

Knead the dough: If using an electric mixer, switch to the dough hook. Knead the dough for two to three minutes, either by hand on a lightly floured work surface or with the mixer’s dough hook on medium-low speed. As you knead, add more flour or water as needed to produce a ball of dough that is smooth, supple, and fairly tacky but not sticky. When poked with a clean finger, the dough should peel off like a Post-it note, leaving only a slight residue.

Chill the dough: Lightly oil the dough in a bowl that’s twice the size of the dough. Roll the dough in the bowl to coat it with the oil, cover the top of the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least eight hours and up to three days. It will rise slowly in the refrigerator but will stop growing once completely chilled.

To freeze the dough: After kneading the dough, divide it into four pieces for pizza. Freeze each ball in its own zip lock bag. Before using, thaw completely overnight in the fridge or at room temperature for two to three hours. Then treat the dough exactly as you would the dough kept overnight.

Some quick easy steps for making the pizza:

Let the dough warm up. Leave it out for one to two hours divided into its four pieces. Put a little olive oil on each piece as it is warming up. The olive oil does make a difference.

If you have a baking stone put it in the middle of the oven and turn the oven up to 500 degrees F. Heat for at least 25 minutes. Dust some bread flour on the peel. Get your toppings ready.

Shape the dough. With floured hands, transfer one of the dough balls to the floured work surface. Sprinkle the ball with some flour and gently press it with your fingertips into a round disk and rest it on the back of your hand and knuckles. Gently stretch the dough so that it is thin in the middle and fuller on the edge.

Top the pizza. Lay the shaped pizza on the floured peel and add the sauce, leaving ½ inch of the outer rim sauce free.

Carefully slide the pizza onto the baking stone. It will take only five to seven minutes to bake. Try and turn after three minutes. Remove the pizza with the peel and let rest before turning onto a pan to slice. You are ready to make another pizza.

Some pizza topping ideas:

Smoked Cheese Pizza: Make as you would a Margherita pizza, but use smoked Gouda for half of the fresh or low-moisture mozzarella. Do not use the smoked cheese exclusively, because it will overpower the other toppings.

White Pizza: Instead of using tomato sauce, make a topping of ½ cup whole-milk ricotta, 1/3 cup low-moisture mozzarella or provolone, 1 Tbs. olive oil, ¼ tsp. dried or 2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano, ¼ tsp. dried or 1 tsp. fresh thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.

No-Cook Tomato Sauce for Pizzas

Yields: 3 ½ cups

28-oz. can crushed or ground tomatoes

2 Tbs. red-wine vinegar or lemon juice

Kosher salt or table salt and freshly ground black pepper

Optional Ingredients:

1 tsp. dried (or 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh) oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme, or parsley

3-5 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

Whisk the tomatoes, vinegar or lemon juice, and any optional ingredients together in a bowl. Add just enough water to thin the sauce so that it is easy to spread. Use thinner sauce for pizza and thicker sauce for calzones. Season with salt and pepper.

The sauce can be refrigerated for a week or frozen for up to six months.

Top with your favorites and buon appetito.