I love to make pizza. There’s little as satisfying as kneading dough and having it scent the house with its yeasty goodness during the day as it rises, and to play around with flavor combinations for the topping, and then to share it with family and friends.
I rarely use tomato sauce (homemade or not) and NEVER the tasteless rubbery stuff that melts well and passes for cheese. I believe in using the best ingredients or doing without and getting creative with what I do have on hand. And by best I mean fresh and organic and recently picked, as much as possible, and carefully made with as little processing as possible otherwise. I like cheese on pizza, but if I have no great cheese in the house and feel the pinch of pocketbook or the distance between home & natural foods cooperative (3 miles), I will still make pizza. If I have superb cheese, I will definitely make pizza. But rarely the same one twice, except for the winter squash, Italian (versus Dutch) fontina, rosemary wonder that I will write about in the fall, during squash season. Potatoes, onions, Parmesan, lemons, herbs such as mint & parsley & thyme & basil, a bit of garlic….olives…sausage or bacon…well, with some of those things on hand, as well as flour, yeast, salt and olive oil, dinner begins to gather itself…
Take this weekend: I felt the pizza-making/pizza-eating craving set in while I was planting some sixty hot pepper plants in their cozy tunnels. It was mid-afternoon, already well past the time I like to make the dough–I tend to start it in the morning to give it plenty of time to find its depth of flavor and texture, but no matter. (My daughter sent me an article from today’s New York Times about making pizza dough by letting it rise overnight.) I still had a bike ride ahead but was determined to make pizza from scratch. At 4:00 I threw together a bowl of simple dough and announced that dinner would be a wee bit late. Then I looked about the pantry and the refrigerator and the garden for inspiration.
That morning I had been to the opening of the outdoor season for our local farmer’s market to pick up six quarts of chicken broth I had ordered from my favorite chicken grower–Bay makes the freshest, most amazing stock to order (saves me time, is a good price and is every bit as tasty as anything I can make). I picked up some ground lamb for kefte and lamb chops for my mother’s birthday while I was there. I also wanted to buy some fresh bread from the remarkable grower/baker/accordion player whose CSA kept any blues at bay this winter with his levain. I then moseyed over to the cheese stands, where I bought from the makers Twig Farm’s Old Goat, Scholten Farm’s Weybridge and Blue Ledge Farm’s chevre. I even bought a new pottery cooking pot ( a second) from the local potter. Finally I made my way past the vegetable farmers’ stands, admiring but not buying as I had everything in my own garden that they offered—until I reached the Elmer Farm Stand, that is. These young farmers, only a few years into the market, offer surpises almost every market: dried turtle beans and sunflower oil at the end of the season, and in the middle, a rainbow array of heirloom beets and carrots. Today, arranged artfully in a wooden crate tipped on its side, lay a dozen baby zucchini with blossoms still attached, so fresh looking it was as though the farmer had just run them in from the field.
I couldn’t resist. I bought two.
And then later that afternoon when pizza thoughts started to rise, I had forgotten about those two flowers—until I started searching about for possible toppings. I had three great Italian cheeses left over from earlier in the week. Fresh herbs from the garden further fueled pizza longings: parsley, mint, basil, marjoram, oregano and lemon thyme as well as baby arugula. The last of last season’s garlic and a lemon in the fruit drawer called out for a quick saute and a slice. And then the zucchini with flowers…hmmm…I had planned to stuff them with the fresh chevre and cook them quickly (sear them, really) in olive oil. Why not add them to the mix?
And indeed, along with a salad of baby garden greens, they made a splendid meal:
RECIPE for One Large or Two Small Spring Pizzas
3-4 cups Unbleached White Flour (I use King Arthur’s)
1/2 cup Semolina flour or whole wheat flour (optional)
1 TB dry yeast
2 TB olive oil (I use Monini for my every-day cooking)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup Warm water (on the hot side of warm)
1. At least two hours (the more the better) before serving, mix yeast, water and one cup of the flour together in a large bowl.
Some people let this sponge rest for 10 minutes or so; I rarely do.
2. Add the olive oil and salt and mix well.
3. Add flour, cup by cup (or half-cup by half-cup) until you can no longer mix it with a wooden spoon and it begins to form a sticky mass. At this point I start kneading it with my hands right in the bowl, adding a bit more flour until it loses stickiness.
4. Turn it out onto a floured board or surface (I have a marble surface) and knead for 10-15 minutes, adding more flour if needed, until it becomes truly smooth and elastic. I find that it’s tough to rough up pizza dough, so don’t be timid with it.
5. Oil the mixing bowl, place the dough ball in it, roll it around to cover it with he oil, and cover the top of the bowl with a tight film of plastic wrap. Some people use a dampened dish towel, but I have found plastic to do a better job at enhancing the rise. Leave it in a warm spot for as many hours as you can. If you leave it a long time, it will lose its ball shape and swell up into the bowl in an almost-bubbly look.
7. At least an hour before cooking, slide a baking stone (if you have it) onto the middle rack of the oven and preheat the oven at 450 degrees (some prefer an even hotter oven).
8. Choose your toppings according to your palate and larder. I’m intentionally vague here, for this is what cooking is all about–discovering what goes well with what according to your taste.
The one I just made, pictured here, was topped by freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, Italian provolone, and sliced fresh mozzarella di bufala (I splurge on a ball of this heavenly stuff a couple of times a month); lemon sliced and sauteed with a whole garlic clove (which I then minced and sprinkled on the pizza); a big, big handful of chopped fresh herbs and arugula; sliced baby zucchini and whole zucchini flowers stuffed with fresh chevre–briefly seared in olive oil. Sometimes I add some dried pepper flakes (from my Thai peppers).
9. Twenty minutes before popping into the oven, place a sheet of parchment paper a little bigger than the size of the pizza onto a pizza peel or cutting board. Stretch and shape the pizza dough with your fingers (not a rolling pin) until it is the size and shape and thickness you like. Brush the top lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with the cheeses, top with the toppings and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes, checking frequently. Ta-da!