Friday, January 27, 2012

"Mommy" Pizza

Once a week, my wife makes home made pizza for the kids, so she can solve the problem of entertaining them while she cooks dinner on days when I'm away at work. Her recipe relies on common store-bought ingredients, but somehow manages to get just about the best results you can get without buying a much more expensive specialty oven. This is "Mommy's" Pizza. She won't let me take over and make it often, so this time, I had to make sure to document it!

A good pizza always starts with a good bread. My wife tried a few different kinds of pizza dough, including one I made fresh with the bread machine, and was never completely happy until she found a specific brand of frozen dough. This dough is frozen solid as a rock, so she starts around lunch time by taking the dough out of the freezer, and putting each of the two dough balls in a bowl with a light coating of olive oil to thaw and begin to rise. The two balls of dough are enough to make two large square pizzas, each about the size of your average residential baking sheet. Yes, it's store bough frozen dough, but it is actually a very good quality product. When handled correctly, it stretches into paper thin sheets that won't break too easily. A great balance of strength and flexibility.

Take two standard home baking sheets and give them a light coating of olive oil to help keep the crust from sticking, then start stretching out one of the dough balls. No one in the family, not even me, has ever developed the touch and skill to do the pizza toss, which is part of why we make square pies instead of round ones- but if you get your hands under the dough, stretch it out, and let gravity help out, you can quickly get the dough ball stretched into a thin sheet large enough that the edges drape over the sides of the baking sheet. When we lay the dough on the sheet, we just let the excess hang over- we'll use this later to make the crust. Since there are two balls of dough, we get to do it twice.

Next comes the tomato sauce. For this pizza, we use plain, generic tomato sauce from a can. The trick to properly saucing a pizza is to use just enough to coat the bottom crust, but not so much that it will weigh the crust down and make it soggy. One small 8oz can of sauce is enough for both pizzas - about 4oz of sauce per pizza. Try not to let the sauce pool in one spot, spread it around as you pour it on, then swirl and gently spread it into a thin layer with the back of a spoon or ladle, being careful not to snag, tear, or otherwise pierce the crust. Also be careful not to press down  or you'll risk bonding the crust semi-permanently to the baking tray. Just lightly float your ladle around, barely making contact, and you'll be ok.

Next up are the seasonings. No pizza sauce is complete without a healthy dose of dried oregano. Where there is tomato, there must be basil as well, so a little basil will join the oregano as well. Top it off with a touch of black pepper, and a light dusting of grated parmesan cheese, and you are in business. If you like a little heat, I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to toss on a little bit of chili flakes as well. You don't need a huge amount of herbs, but you'll want to put on enough that you get a nice waft of that herbal smell when it hits the tomato sauce. Let your nose be your guide- when it smells good, it is good.

Every pizza needs some mozzarella cheese! Pile on a healthy layer of shredded mozzarella. We use the pre-shredded, pre-packaged kind- again not exactly the epitome of fresh ingredients, but it works, and it melts in that way that's just right for a pizza- on some levels its as good as, or better than the fresh stuff in it's own way. It takes about 2 cups of cheese per pizza- enough to get a good layer of cheese, but not so sloppy or heavy that it threatens to unbalance the crust and put its structure at risk.

While thin crust is great- it's nice to have something a little more substantial to hold onto when you pick up a slice. Since we have a good amount of dough draping over the edge of the pan on all sides, we can easily make a crust that's substantial enough to have a little doughy chew, while still being in reasonable proportion to the whole pie/slice. Simply start rolling up the excess dough, and draping it like a rope around  the edge of the pizza. Just carefully work your way around the entire pan. Th corners are the tough part- the dough tends to bunch up there. I typically get one or two corners to look nice, and the rest are a little rough- but it doesn't really matter- it's still good so just do the best you can and it will all work out. If you want to add any other toppings, now is the time- just remember that less can be more- the last thing you want to do is overload your pizza.

At this point, you should have your oven pre-heated to 450 degrees. Don't even think about putting your pizzas in until the oven is fully heated, or they will not cook evenly. Place one pizza on each rack (one above the other), close the oven, and set your timer for 7 minutes. When the bell goes off, switch the position of the pies- move the top one to the lower rack, and the lower one to the top rack, and let them bake another 7 minutes. Every oven is different, so you may have to adjust your timing a little to get the pizza just right- 7 and 7 is what usually works for our oven.

When the pizzas come out, the cheese should be completely melted, and should look like it has merged with that thin layer of tomato sauce. The crust should be a light golden color and fully cooked. Get out your pizza wheel and start slicing. The bottom crust will be nice and thin. It will not have that crispy, cracker-like quality  you get from thin brick oven pizza- you need an 800 degree wood fired brick oven to do that. It will be firm and be both slightly chewy and slightly crunchy at the same time. The cheese will be in a nice even layer, and may have a few spots that have begun to brown and develop a little crispiness in a very good way.

Despite being made entirely out of common, pre-packaged and pre-processed grocery items, a little effort and a little care go a long way towards transforming these mundane ingredients into something special. Many respects to my non-Italian wife for teaching this Italian a thing or two about pizza, and establishing a fun in-home pizza night tradition for the kids.

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