Pizza should be a joyous event rather than a greasy carb fix when you can't be bothered to cook. If you've never tried to start with flour and water, now is the time to meet the best pizza this side of Naples!
'Let's order pizza in'
NO - don't let us order pizza in, not after you've tried to make it at home. Once you've tried, you'll feel bad about every time you called Domino's. Pizza should be an event rather than a late evening stopgap when you can't even be bothered to heat up a tin of beans. Pizza should be celebrated. And above all – pizza should be eaten hot!
Let me explain.
What is the most important thing about pizza?
Well, duh – toppings, right? WRONG. The most important thing is the pizza crust. It should be tasty, crisp, slightly charred underneath and topped according to the principle ‘less is more’.
What the rest of the world has completely forgotten is the fact that pizza is poor man’s food. It’s bread. It’s scraping a bit of flour to make plain dough, roll it out to stretch – both in the literal and in the figurative sense – further; and top with what little you have. Tomatoes, always plentiful and ripe in the Italian south, some cheese made at home because you keep a cow (or a buffalo?), herbs and a scrap of ham if it’s fortuitously available.
Once taken out of Naples, pizza became a pie (?), a treat (but in a wrong way), a carbfest, cheesefest and abomination with stuffed crust and pineapple on top. I’m not necessarily saying evolution of ethnic dishes is wrong – some so-called Chinese stir fries born in America are actually gorgeous, as are some not-so-Indian curries. But to go from peasant food to one of the main contributors to child obesity is a bit wrong.
How to make pizza dough?
To get the dough right is incredibly easy. The recipe won’t make much difference: I’ve tried Peter Reinhart’s, Heston Blumenthal’s and others. At the end of the day it’s flour (00 helps, but not obligatory), water, salt and yeast to make it up to firm but pliable dough. It should knead easily, it is usually forgiving if you add a little too much water or oil, and you can certainly do it by hand if you don’t own a mixer.
Dough can be prepared a couple of hours or so before cooking but it makes everything even easier if you make the dough the night before. Use less yeast and more salt than you’d think was needed, shape a ball and leave it overnight at room temperature.
The next morning you might think it’s a disaster because the dough had gone bonkers in the night and is threatening to escape the bowl – calm down. It will last easily up to 24 hours. Contrarywise – if it did nothing much at all in the night, leave it in peace until it’s time to cook; it will expand nicely unless your yeast, flour or water was off. *wink*
The long and slow fermentation almost turns it into a sourdough pizza dough considering how little yeast goes into it. I have, incidentally, made and compared sourdough and yeasted pizza side by side and I can report there was no discernible difference in taste or texture.
Simple topping is the key
My favourite, as below, is (in that order): tomato sauce, basil, cheese, ham, olives and fresh tomatoes. I like to add a little bit of Parmesan and smoked salt if I have some on top of the sauce, for a subtle but distinct umami kick. The ingredients are less important than the crust, but it doesn’t mean they should be rubbish.
Homemade tomato sauce
Tomato sauce – without the shade of the question of the doubt – is best made at home. Open a jar and knock yourself out but since you have gone to the trouble of making the dough, how can cooking down a tin of chopped tomatoes be a chore? Look up my tomato sauce recipe – or just simmer some passata with salt and pepper for half an hour to reduce it. That’s all it takes.
What cheese to put on a pizza?
Cheese can be mozzarella but not necessarily. Italians also use taleggio or its cousin cremona, both creamier and runnier in a nice way than mozzarella. And the latter really should not be the expensive, buffalo kind. Mozzarella di bufala is gorgeous and I’m not too stingy to use it but it’s really wet in the middle and it makes the pizza soggy. So unless you insist on the buffalo stuff and want to drain and squeeze it really well, use good quality cow’s milk cheese meant for cooking with.
Best toppings on pizza – less is more
And the rest of the toppings is, in my view, just a decoration and flavouring. A pack of sliced ham or prosciutto will cover six pizzas. A handful of olives will decorate them amply. A couple of crisp rashers of pancetta? Why not. Several air-thin salami or pepperoni slices, maybe artichokes, maybe a spoonful of beef ragu. And if you are not a meat eater, experiment with various cheeses and it won’t be unorthodox: see quattro staggioni.
How to bake pizza at home?
Finally – no go if you don’t have a wood fired oven? Now here’s the trick: I first learnt about it from Pizza Pilgrims, brothers James and Thom Elliot. I read about it a good few years ago and it was a revelation. Indeed, nothing will reproduce a wood oven - bar a smoking hot pan and a roasting hot grill. No wood oven involved, it’s an absolutely ace method.
I use a large cast iron skillet but in the past an ordinary large frying pan served me well too. Don’t fret if your pan is not grill-proof: after the hob stage of charring the underside, you can slide the pizza – very carefully – onto a baking tray and slip it underneath the grill.
The only downside of the home pizza experience I can think of is that there are less likely to be any leftovers for the next morning’s breakfast. But should there be any – they will be amazing.