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Pizza perfected. September 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I am happy to tell you all that I’ve finally figured out the secret to making great pizza in a home oven. Our friend Ben and I love pizza. We could eat pizza several nights a week, and for at least a couple of lunches, too. But we figure one pizza night a week (and lunch from the leftovers) is probably plenty, at least as far as our waistlines are concerned.

We used to go out for pizza night, but it seemed just crazy to get a salad that was way more pitiful than the bountiful creations I could toss together at home, have to put up with pizza-restaurant atmosphere, and then have to pay quite a bit for the privilege, especially if you’re adding a glass of wine and a glass of Black & Tan to the bill. Besides which, we always wanted to add more toppings than we could afford.

Okay, you ask, why didn’t you just order pizza to go and do the rest at home? Legitimate question, but we had a few problems. The first is that, unless you’re one of those barbarians who eats cold pizza for breakfast, you’ll know that pizza is at its best five minutes from the oven, when it’s still crispy but the cheese has had a chance to set. You have to be where it’s cooked to get that perfect pizza texture. And next, our friend Ben and I have different tastes in pizza. My favorite is the Pizza Hut pan pizza style, with a delightfully crunchy (but not hard or dry) crust, while Ben prefers a thinner, crispy Neapolitan crust. What to do?!!

We have friends who make pizzas on their outdoor grills, and boy are they good. But our friend Mary makes her yeasted whole-wheat pizza dough from scratch, which strikes me as way too much work for pizza, and our friend Delilah buys frozen whole-wheat bread dough for her crusts, which still requires thawing, rising, punching down, rising, and rolling out on a floured board, along with all the extra cleanup. My goal was a quick and simple pizza that I could make in my gas oven, indoors, and that still tasted fantastic.

Aaaaarrrgghhh. With the best will in the world, my first few attempts left a lot to be desired. Even though I had a pizza “stone”—a ceramic disc with ridges that raised the crust so hot air could get under it and crisp it up—my pizzas were pretty soggy, with the crusts falling apart under the mountain of toppings. Ugh. Back to the restaurant!

But no, I refused to give up. And finally, finally, I discovered the trick to making a pizza in a conventional oven, with a store-bought crust, that our friend Ben and I both love. It’s so easy, too. And while the pizza’s baking, you have time to make the salad of your dreams to go with it, light the candles, and pour the wine. Life is good!

Here’s all it takes: Buy your pizza crust in the refrigerated cheese section of your grocery store. (I’m still looking for whole wheat, but meanwhile have settled for white.) Buy a package of shredded whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella while you’re over there. When it’s time to make pizza, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Put the crust, holey side up (one side tends to be smooth, the other has lots of little air holes), on the pizza stone. (You can now buy pizza stones in any grocery for less than $20. Trust me, it’s worth it!) Now, time for the secret: Spread some extra-virgin olive oil over the crust. This promotes crunchiness while keeping the other ingredients from soaking into the crust and turning it into a soggy mess.

Okay, it’s time for the second secret. Ready? Spread a thin layer of pesto over the olive-oil-topped crust. This will give you a fantastic flavor punch that will instantly take your pizza from good to great. Next, add your pizza sauce. Sometimes I’ll use my home-canned tomato sauce, but since I really love to use that on spaghetti, I’ll often just buy a jar of pizza sauce at the grocery. Not any jar, though: It’s just amazing how many brands, both in jars and cans, add the dreaded corn syrup or sugar to their sauces. After looking at dozens of sauces, I finally found one that didn’t: Ragu Homemade Style Pizza Sauce. Sheesh. I love the rich flavor tomato sauce adds to a pizza, so I add it liberally on top of the pesto, enough for tons of flavor but not enough to ooze out when you’re eating a hot slice.

Next, the cheese. In my numerous failed attempts at pizza making, I added tons of cheese. Our friend Ben and I love cheese. The more cheese, the better, right? Wrong. I discovered that the key to great pizza was to add enough cheese to completely cover the pizza, patting it down into the sauce, but not a bit more. One of the small bags of shredded mozzarella is perfect for topping a large pizza crust. The pizza will be cheesy without being overwhelmed by the cheese. I used to add all kinds of cheeses, too, but have found that sticking to shredded mozzarella ends up making the best pizza. Save that feta or whatever for your salad.

Now, a critical part: the herbs. In case you think the pesto would add enough herb flavor, let me just say: forget that. Pizzas can take as much herb seasoning as you can bear to add. I top the cheese with a liberal sprinkling of Greek or Mexican oregano, thyme, and dried basil (yes, more basil!), and a more modest sprinkling of dried marjoram and rosemary, again patting everything in.

Finally, it’s time for the toppings. I add diced sweet onion, minced mushrooms, sliced black olives, and diced red and orange or yellow peppers for a sublime pizza. You can add anything you love. Add enough to cover but not overwhelm your pizza. You want the pizza to be flat, not domed, when you put it in the oven. (Note: I used to add an extra step here, sauteeing the mushrooms and onions before topping the pizza. But if you mince the mushrooms and dice the onion very small, I’ve found that this step is unnecessary.)

Now for the last things. First, the cooking time. When I started trying to make pizza at home, I cooked it at too low a temperature for too long a time. The result was gummy, yucky pizza. Now, I cook it at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, or just until the cheese melts. Then I put the pizza on top of the (unheated) stove for 5 minutes to “set.” I think this is a critical stage—setting lets the pizza cheese and toppings firm up, while keeping the crust crunchy but tender. I have a pizza wheel, which will typically come with your pizza stone or cost practically nothing if purchased separately, and I use it to slice the pizza cleanly into 6-8 pie slices.

Voila! Light those candles, pour your beverage of choice, dress the salad, and serve up the pizza of your dreams. Despite our disparate tastes in pizza crusts, our friend Ben and I both love this pizza: It’s crispy enough for Ben and crunchy enough for me. And it couldn’t be easier to make. If you’re truly time-pressed, you can buy pre-sliced olives and mushrooms and/or a pack of pre-sliced pepperoni. You can pick up diced onions and pepper strips in the salad section of the grocery, or simply raid your store’s salad bar to pick up all the pre-sliced toppings you need. No excuses!

Finally, a homemade pizza we all can love! Too bad I can’t think of a good excuse to make it every day.

           ‘Til next time,




1. Cinj - September 23, 2008

We like to make our own home made pizzas too. Cheesehead makes them super yummy. We have even started venturing into making our own pizza sauces. His trick for crispier crust is putting them in the oven to cook a bit before the toppings are added. Maybe I’ll have to post my pizza sauce recipe, later though since we are heading out to the garden center now.

Kids and I prefer Pizza Hut’s thick crusts too when it comes to restaurants, but Cheesehead likes mom and pop restaurant’s thin crusts better.

Hmmm, maybe those thin crusts are a guy thing. Yes, sauce recipe, please!!!

2. nancybond - September 23, 2008

We love our pizza here – I’m going to try your method!

Go for it, Nancy!!!

3. Curmudgeon - September 23, 2008

I learned the olive oil trick from my dad. In the summers when the tomatoes were coming in from our garden he’d make amazing pizzas just in our oven, no stone or anything–he’d get the crusts from this little mom and pop Italian bakery. Those pizzas were so yummy. The olive oil trick works wonderfully every time. And I also bake just the crust for 5 minutes before adding anything else. One of the local pizza joints here in Seattle does a specialty pizza in Dec. We shamelessly copied them and now make it at home. It’s a sweeter pizza so no tomato sauce–fresh pears, walnuts, prosciutto and gorgonzola.

Yum, Curmudgeon! That sounds good. And now you’re making me think: I wonder what the Shibaguyz’ OMG Peach Salsa would taste like on an olive-oiled pizza crust with queso fresco or bufalo mozzarella, maybe some slivered hazelnuts, and… oh, yow. ‘Honeycrisp’ apple slivers? Dried apricots? Crystallized ginger chunks? Minced sweet onion?! Oh, my…

4. Daphne Gould - September 23, 2008

Oh dear. I’ve just been called a barbarian. I do agree pizza is best fresh out of the oven, but there is something to be said for cold cheese pizza on a hot afternoon, though with the toppings you mentioned the pizza has to be hot. I also put a very sharp cheddar on my pizza, not mozzarella. Cheese in my house has to be grated fresh. I hate the pregrated stuff. And I make my whole wheat crust from scratch, which I don’t find to be a lot of work thanks to my mixer that kneads. Grating the cheddar is more work. As my son would say, “You’re weird Mom”.

Yum, that sounds good, Daphne! (Except for the cold pizza part.) So when are you inviting us over?!!

5. deb - September 24, 2008

Silence, I used some of my giant batch of pesto on a pesto and mozzarella pizza. You are right it is really good.

Yum! Between pasta and pizza, you may find that your “giant batch” disappears in no time!

6. Cinj - September 24, 2008

I finally got that recipe up. Sorry it took so long, it’s been a busy day. You’ve got to try it some time!

Thanks, Cinj! I absolutely will try it ASAP!!!

7. entangled - September 24, 2008

I’m a barbarian as well. Just finished last night’s pizza, for breakfast, straight from the fridge. About a year ago, there was a recipe in the NY Times for fried pizza, which sounds scary but is actually very good. I made it a couple of times, and now I’m thinking I need to make it again very soon. With lots of fresh herbs.

Cold pizza no, fried pizza oh my. Recipe, please!

8. Winnipeg - September 24, 2008

Pizza Place has a long history as the first pizza restaurant in the city of Winnipeg which then went on to be a chain that was well known for the consistent high quality of its product
The pizza was soggy , cold and just plain mush – ukh
It was tomato paste mush , not cooked and not hot.
I guess anyone is entitled to have a bad day / pizza
I phoned the restaurant in question – they could care less
I called another in the chain
They promised to inform the “independent owner” of that location
No call for several days
I called this pembina highway location simply asking for the “owner”
I was hung up on
When i called back to ask if this was not rude to hang up on people without saying goodbye I was then hung up on again
In the end owner number one returned the call with plenty of excuses
You be the judge as they say as to the consistency of quality and level of service afforded

Yuck! Talk about a good reason to make pizza at home!

9. entangled - September 25, 2008

Here’s the recipe for fried pizza. I’m hoping this comment system allows HTML links, but if not, just go to nytimes.com and search for “fried pizza”.

NY Times Fried Pizza

If you try it, let me know what you think!

Yum, the link came through, and thanks! But of course, reading the recipe caused me to wonder about heating the olive oil hot enough to fry the dough. I thought you weren’t supposed to heat olive oil to that point, that for whatever reason it was a bad idea. (It burned?) Maybe it doesn’t need to be as hot as I think.Who knows? Guess I’ll have to try it and see for myself!

10. entangled - September 26, 2008

I also wondered about the issue of frying in olive oil, but when I fried the pizza I didn’t notice anything obviously wrong. A bit of internet researching this morning didn’t clarify things much – the answer seems to be “it depends on your olive oil”.

Ha! I should have guessed. Thanks for checking!

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