Musings on Making Pizza

The finished pizza

I have to admit that I like pizza a lot. Well, I guess most of us do. I like cheese, and I liked cooked cheese even more, and I like vegetables, so pizza is up there as a mealtime favourite. We don’t eat it frequently, perhaps once month or less often.

These days I make it myself: we don’t order it from a restaurant or pizzeria, although we’ve had it from them when we went out for dinner (back in the pre-pandemic days). Nothing against anyone else’s pizza, but I like the process of making it, so I seldom buy it pre-made.

A pre-mixed pizza dough kit.

Over the past five-and-some decades, I’ve had pizzas in many places I’ve travelled to, including cities famous for their versions of it, like New York and Chicago. I’ve had “authentic” Italian-style pizza at many restaurants, too, here and in other cities. I’ve even had frozen, grocery-store pizzas.

I’ve had it on various dough shells, on flatbreads, on naan, and on bagels. I’ve had it with homemade and store-bought doughs. 

I still think my own production is better than many, if not most I’ve encountered. It’s a relatively easy meal to prepare, and it usually lasts us two nights, so it’s also inexpensive. My method takes a little longer to prepare than some recipes suggest, but I think it’s worth the wait. It’s even better when I have the time to prepare the dough, but I’m going to describe another option here: buying a pre-made pizza shell.

Pre-made pizza shell, one of several brands available locally.

The best pizza is always made with fresh dough, but I’ll admit to a certain laziness: fresh dough takes time to prepare, rise, and roll. Since we often decide to have pizza while we’re shopping rather than planning it in advance, I seldom have the time to make my own dough, even though we tend to eat late (7-8 p.m. most nights). Instead, I opt to buy a pre-made pizza shell, preferably thin crust, at a local grocery store. You can also buy packaged dough mix, frozen dough, or ready-to-heat dough mixes. The prepared shells are adequate for me.

But simply because the crust is premade, doesn’t mean I treat the rest as an instant product. I put time and effort into every step along the way, and have worked out this method over many years of practice and experimentation. The proof of my success is that Susan likes my pizza, too.

Mise en place: getting ready to chop and cut.

I have steps that warm the pizza and the toppings in several stages without cooking it until the end. Keep in mind that we don’t eat mammals, so ingredients like sausage or bacon are never part of our meals, but you can add them as you see fit, at whatever stage you wish. They tend to add oil and grease to the pizza, so be frugal in their application.

Here’s what I do:

1. Put a rack at the top level and warm the oven to 220C (425F). You can use the time until it’s hot to prepare the other ingredients. I like to lay everything out (mise en place) before I begin, so I’m not always running back and forth to find the ingredients. It also gives anything taken from the fridge time to warm up.

Keep a close eye on your pizza as you make it because it can overheat quickly when at the top.

Minced onion, pepper, and zucchini done in a simple handheld chopper.

2. Prepare the sauce first. I use a stock pizza sauce as a base, then add some concentrated tomato paste or cherry tomato sauce, crushed garlic, basil (fresh if available), dried oregano, red wine, olive oil, and crushed black pepper. I let it marinate on the countertop before using (it should be at room temperature when using).  The sauce should be thick, but thinner than tomato paste, not lumpy, and easy to stir.

I also like to use sundried tomato paste or finely-cut sundried tomatoes in the sauce because they have that unique taste, but I ran out of them so didn’t use them this time. I may also add cumin, powdered coriander seed, or smoked paprika to it from time to time. Season your sauce to your own taste.

Mushrooms and a Roma tomato cut in thicker slices for the final topping stage.

3. Chop all the vegetables and topping ingredients next. I prefer my onions and peppers finely chopped or better yet minced so they cook faster. I use about 1/4 sweet onion and 1/4 red pepper, one Roma tomato, plus about five to six white or cremini mushrooms, all depending on size. You want enough to cover the shell, but not so thickly that it doesn’t cook properly. If you chop too much, save the rest to use in scrambled eggs, a stir fry, or a pico de gallo salsa. You can also use a red or white onion, but I find yellow cooking onions and shallots are a bit too pungent for this dish.

I cut a Roma tomato in half, then thinly slice the halves so only one tomato is used per pizza. I also cut mushrooms in half, then slice them somewhat thicker than the tomato. Fresh basil leaves can be used whole or torn in half. We freeze some from our garden every year that I use on our pizza and my homemade pasta.

When I add pineapple, I slice it about 8-10mm thick (too thin and the flavour doesn’t come through; too thick and it doesn’t cook). The whole faux debate on whether pineapple belongs on pizza is merely internet piffle: add what you want. A pizza is essentially an open-faced, grilled cheese sandwich. All veggies or other topping ingredients should be at room temperature when being added, otherwise, they take too long to cook and don’t lose moisture fast enough.

4. Brush the top and bottom of the pizza shell with a light coating of olive oil. The bottom oiling is so it doesn’t stick to the pan, but don’t bother if it’s to be cooked on a rack alone or on a pizza stone. Make sure the edges are oiled, however. The oil will help keep the shell from dehydrating during the process, too. Olive oil flavours the cooked crust, so you can use a herb-infused olive oil here, too. In the past, I’ve also experimented with lightly scoring the top so the oil seeps into the dough a little deeper.

5. Heat the shell in the oven for about two to three minutes to warm it up. I put the shell on a thin (aluminum) pizza pan with holes for air circulation on the top rack. If you prefer a stone, then you should warm it up first, but not to the full cooking temperature. You want to warm the shell, not bake it (yet) and get the oil to spread. I prefer a pan because it catches the drips and runoff cheese (and it’s easier to clean than a stone).

Shell sprinkled with shredded mozzarella cheese.

6. Remove the warm shell and sprinkle the top with shredded cheese (usually it’s just plain mozzarella, but sometimes I use a cheddar/mozzarella mix). You want the cheese on the shell BEFORE you spread the sauce on it (see below). Make sure it is evenly, but thinly covered. You can also use thinly-sliced cheese but shredded is easier to use. 

7. Put the shell in the oven to melt the cheese. This makes a layer of fat and oil the sauce can’t penetrate, so the crust doesn’t get soggy. This is important if you have leftovers like we do: the next day it is still relatively crisp. However, even if you plan to eat it all, it makes the crust more enjoyable. Usually, this takes two to four minutes, but will take more time if the pizza is on a shelf in mid-oven.

These times are estimates because it depends on your oven’s actual temperatures (my gas oven is relatively accurate as measured by an independent thermometer) and the height of the top rack in yours. Like I said earlier: watch your pizza carefully to ensure it doesn’t overheat or burn.

The sauce is spread over the melted cheese.

8. Remove the shell from the oven, then spread the sauce on top of the melted cheese. The sauce should be at room temperature. If the cheese is too hot or liquid for the sauce to spread easily, let it sit for a minute or two and cool off before applying the sauce. Make sure the edges get lightly basted, too.

9. Put the pizza back in the oven and heat until the sauce steams. This sheds some of its excess moisture. This takes another two to four minutes, but I try to err on the side of less time in the oven. You want it to warm up, not cook it, so it shouldn’t be hot. Remember: each time you warm the pizza, you cook the shell a little more, making it tougher.

Minced onion, pepper, and zucchini added over the sauce. Yes, there are small sections of pineapple there, too.

10. Remove the pizza and put a thin layer of the chopped or minced onion and pepper over the sauce. This is where I usually add sliced, well-drained pineapple if available. But it can be also added with the final toppings (see below).

You can also sprinkle a very little shredded cheese on the top of this layer before the next step. I tend to prefer some parmesan here, but mozzarella also works. Not much, mind you, because you’re going to add more for the last step.

11. Heat the pizza again until the veggies visibly start to dehydrate and even steam a little (or until the extra cheese melts, if you tossed on some in the previous step): another two to four minutes. Keep in mind: warm, not cook them.

Sliced Roma tomato and mushrooms added as the final vegetables.

12. Remove the pizza and add your sliced Roma tomatoes (Romas are meatier, with less liquid than other types) and top them with the sliced mushrooms. You can reverse this order of ingredients according to your own preference, but I find the final layer of cheese adheres better to the mushrooms than the tomato slices.

At times, I have also added the pineapple at the last stage, instead of earlier. Having the pineapple at the topmost helps the heat warm it and possibly even caramelize it a bit.

13. Heat the pizza again until the latest veggies start to dehydrate or slightly steam. This should take another two to four minutes (if you prefer your veggies a little underdone, you can skip this stage).

The final layer of cheeses and some basil leaves added. The larger pieces are sliced mozzarella.

14. Remove the pizza and add the final cheese topping. I prefer shredded or sliced old cheddar and sliced mozzarella. Fresca is preferred but because it’s wetter, is a bit harder to slice. I usually use packaged pizza mozzarella, but I’ve found the generic brick mozzarella or bags of shredded mozzarella are not as flavourful for the topping. Sprinkle lightly with grated parmesan reggiano or asiago cheese (or a mix) for extra flavour. If you can, grate a piece of parmesan yourself: the flavour is much richer than from the sort of finely-grated parmesan sold in stores. But at least use grated, not the powdered parmesan.

A few fresh basil leaves can be added here, too. The leaves shown here are purple (Thai) basil, plucked from our garden last year and frozen. I actually prefer the French basil for its fuller flavour. Unfortunately, we finished our homegrown supply some time ago, and this is all we had left to use. Dried basil, the sort you buy in the herbs and spices section, isn’t really as tasty and not suitable as a topping. You can buy a basil paste in most grocery stores, which is okay as an additive, but best used in the sauce rather than on the cheese.

Served with condiments, this pizza makes two meals for us.

15. Cook the final pizza until the cheese melts and browns at the edges, and you can see the steam rising from the interior. This takes about five to ten minutes, depending on how thick the toppings are and how well-cooked you like your cheese. If the toppings are too thick, the cheese will melt and brown before the lower layer is fully cooked. I like my onions and peppers a little underdone, so I’m okay with that. And I like well-cooked cheese.

Let it sit for a minute or two before cutting, so the cheese has a little time to congeal which makes it easier to cut (I didn’t wait quite enough time, as you can see in the above photo). Use the cooling time to pour the wine or milk you’re having with the dinner (PLEASE don’t tell me you have a soft drink with a meal!).

Pineapple is optional, but I like the added sweetness. Canned pineapple works, but it isn’t nearly as good as fresh.

Doing it in stages helps the layers cook evenly, and shed moisture so the final pizza isn’t watery. The crust will be crisp and chewy, even a bit stiff, and is best eaten with a knife and fork. The thinner the shell, the more it hardens, so you may want to combine or even skip steps to keep it from becoming leathery. If you want to try my method, you should consider starting with a thicker or even deep-dish pizza shell and see how it works for you. or better yet, make your own dough!

And if you apply thinner layers of topping, you can heat do all the vegetables in one warming, rather than several. It’s a bit of trial-and-error to make sure it comes out as expected. I sometimes overdo the warming myself, but it always tastes good even when it gives your jaws more of a workout.

A single pizza shell done like this, served with a few olives, maybe some pickled hot peppers, coleslaw, or marinated artichoke hearts, provides us with a meal for two days.

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