Pizza. In many ways, it is the perfect food.
It contains all the main food groups. It’s almost as delicious cold as it is hot, but not really. It is equally loved by the snootiest of gourmands (“I’d like one with wood-grilled octopus and burrata, please”) and the most average of joes (“Gimme a slice with pepperoni”). Kids adore it, adults crave it and college students basically live on it.
According to one survey, more than half of all millennials have taken a picture of pizza and posted it online.
Beginning with three basic ingredients – crust, sauce and cheese – pizzas have developed a near-infinite number of variations.
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And I don’t just mean the now-familiar Thai-duck pizza, the Canadian-bacon-and-pineapple pizza or even the Brussels-sprouts-and-pancetta pizza. I’m talking about pizza with smoked reindeer meat, which you can get in Iceland. I’m talking about kangaroo-and-emu pizza, which of course is available in Australia. I’m talking about baked beans pizza, which is a British thing.
Actually, baked beans pizza sounds kind of good. And I wouldn’t turn up my nose at smoked reindeer pizza, but I wouldn’t go to Iceland to try it.
Pizza is available on practically every corner, and a phone call or app brings it to your house in a half-hour or less. So why would you even think of making it yourself?
For one, homemade pizza is better than nine-tenths of the stuff that is commercially available. And it is almost certainly going to surpass anything that is delivered to your door. The time it takes for delivery and the aroma of a cardboard box take their toll on even the best of pizzas.
You can customize a homemade pizza to be exactly the way you like it, and it is less expensive than store-bought pizza.
If you don’t make the crust yourself, it is faster, too.
But try making the crust yourself. You can buy pre-made crusts that are just fine – and some that are better than fine – and many pizzerias will sell you their dough, which is better still. But there is something special about a crust you made yourself. Call it a pride of craftsmanship.
Though the crust I make is simple, it has a nice, robust flavor that complements the toppings rather than competes with them. It makes the perfect backdrop for everything that is to come.
Particularly the sauce. The crust may be the part of a pizza that you notice the most, but the heart of a pizza is its sauce.
Some people like their sauce sweet. I don’t. Some like it spiced with a lot of herbs. I don’t. Some go the other way and want it bland, the better to focus on the toppings.
A few years ago, my wife and I experimented to try to create the best homemade pizza sauce we could make. The one we came up with is, to our taste, just right. It has enough flavor to stand up to cheese and crust and toppings, but it does not overwhelm.
One of the secrets of our sauce is stolen directly from Mario Batali, who makes his out of nothing but Pomi brand strained tomatoes right out of the box. That feels a little bit like cheating (they charge money for that?), but the Pomi strained tomatoes do make an excellent beginning.
So I start with the boxed strained tomatoes and add a bit of oregano, garlic and crushed red pepper. But the other two ingredients make our sauce truly stand out.
The first is shredded Parmesan cheese stirred right into the sauce, which gives it extra heft and a shock of salt that is very much needed. And the other is a single anchovy fillet.
I know that many people roll their eyes and make little gagging sounds at the very thought of anchovies, but this sauce does not leave even a hint of anchovy flavor. You won’t even know it is there. Even so, it adds an essential complexity to the sauce that really brings it to life.
Once you have the crust and the sauce, all you need is the cheese. I have a tip about the cheese, too. This one comes from my favorite pizza at pretty much my favorite restaurant: Put the cheese under the sauce.
Self-proclaimed pizza aficionados will object. I don’t care. It’s better this way. The cheese keeps the sauce from making the crust soggy, and the sauce keeps the cheese from browning or burning.
Basic pizza dough
Makes 2 pizzas (Serves 4)
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse, via Food Network
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, around 110 degrees
Pinch granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating bowl
2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
In a large bowl, mix yeast, water and sugar, and stir well to combine. Set aside until foamy, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the salt, olive oil and 1 1/4 cups of the flour, and mix well to thoroughly combine. Add another 1 1/4 cups flour and mix well with your hands, working to incorporate the flour little by little. The dough should be slightly sticky to the touch.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5 to 7 minutes, adding additional flour as necessary to form a smooth and elastic dough that is not sticky. Transfer to a lightly oiled 2- or 3-quart bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Divide dough into 2 equal portions and form into balls. Use immediately or wrap individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one day.
Best pizza sauce
Makes 1 1/4 cups
Recipe by Mary Anne Pikrone.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 anchovy fillet
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup Pomi brand (or similar) strained tomatoes or tomato purée
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch crushed red pepper
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Heat oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Add anchovy and cook, stirring frequently, until it dissolves. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Do not allow the garlic to burn.
Add strained tomatoes, oregano, crushed red pepper and cheese. Raise the heat to medium and simmer 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasonings and add salt or pepper if needed.
Assemble the pizza
1 ball basic pizza dough, or a pre-made crust
4 to 6 ounces mozzarella cheese
1 recipe best pizza sauce
Toppings of your choice
Preheat oven to 500 degrees and place a pizza stone or upside-down baking sheet on the bottom rack. If the pizza dough has just been made, cover with a damp towel and allow to rest 15 minutes.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out pizza dough into a circle 12 to 14 inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer dough to a pizza peel or the back of a cookie sheet that has either been sprinkled with cornmeal or covered with a piece of parchment paper. If using parchment paper, trim with scissors until it is just barely bigger than the dough.
Use a cheese slicer or vegetable peeler to slice the cheese very thin. Completely cover the dough with a single layer of cheese, leaving only a small border of dough near the edge. Ladle about 1 cup of the sauce in a spiral pattern over the dough and use the bottom of the ladle to spread it evenly across the pizza; use more sauce if necessary to cover the cheese. Top sparingly with the toppings of your choice.
Slide the dough onto the preheated pizza stone or baking sheet and bake until crispy and golden brown, about 12 to 18 minutes, depending on the toppings and the thickness of the crust. Remove from the oven with a metal peel or spatula, discard the parchment paper (if using) and serve immediately.
Per serving (no toppings): 367 calories; 24 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 52 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 679 mg sodium; 1,035 mg calcium.