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The Thing About Pizza Is... 

A different take on the crust

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The thing about pizza is, everybody likes it. We all have our preferences about styles (obviously NYC pizza being the absolute best -- end of discussion), but unless you have celiac disease or one of those limp-wristed cheese issues, you can't really fuss too much when a homemade pie is on the menu.

I like delivery for sick days/lazy/hungover days, but when the crowd is coming over and a crowd-pleaser is required, said crowd's ravenous snarls are quickly quelled by some hot ’za. Harmony reigns. (Until the no-meat people throw their usual spanner in the sausage works.) At any rate, homemade pizza is a standby when my brother's band rages through town, eating wildly and leaving mixtapes in their wake.

I have never had any problem with normal pizza dough recipes -- basic yeast-risen dough -- and I still don't. Once you have a good recipe and a very hot oven it's hard to screw up. I mean, you can cover anything from baloney to vinyl tiling in cheese and someone will enjoy it.

The other day, however, sitting round the family kitchen table and musing about food, as is our wont, the light-bulb hanging around above my father's head went on. "Naan!" he exclaimed.

He has this new recipe for naan -- he's been on an Indian kick -- and it is particularly luscious, due to the unusual inclusion of milk and a little sugar in the dough. It's tender, unobtrusively doughy, with a rich sweet flavor that delicately avoids greasiness or flakiness. In short, Pop pointed out, ideal for pizza crust.

Another useful facet of homemade pizza is its ability to absorb Stuff In The Fridge. That little bit of pesto? Trowel it on. Those leftover Brussels sprouts? Roast ’em for a few minutes with garlic. Chard stems? Mince and fry with more garlic. Leftover cheese cubes and blue cheese crumbles? Half a jar of olives from last week's caponata? Limp scallions? Toss ’em all on! It's economical and clears out precious fridge space.

Toppings for pizza are fairly obvious; I have used all of the above, but I also enjoy roasted garlic cloves, pre-cooked (as in, before you put it on the pizza) crumbled sausage and/or bacon, peppers, mushrooms, onions, basil leaves, pineapple, jalapenos ... Oh for Pete's sake, you know what you like on pizza.

I make my own pizza sauce while the dough is rising. Unlike bolognaise, on pizza the sauce is but one component, so you don't need to simmer for hours to get a profound flavor. That said, homemade is as usual better than Store Crap.

Here's how I make my sauce, assuming tomatoes are not in season, which locally is most of the time. The recipe makes about two and a half cups of sauce. If you need more, add another can of tomatoes. Freeze what's left for spaghetti and meatballs.

Jada's Pretty Easy Tom Sauce

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

As much garlic as you can be bothered to peel (at least 5 cloves) put through press

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes, NOT drained (I like Muir Glen -- don't get the kind with basil or other doodads added)

1 small can tomato paste

1 t. salt (taste at the end, I usually add more)

1 t. sugar

2 t. dried oregano

2 T. balsamic vinegar

If you have it around, a bay leaf or/and a teaspoon dried basil

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

Water as needed

In a heavy medium-size pan that's not too shallow, heat up a quarter cup fat (bacon grease, olive oil) over med. heat.

Add onions, stir continuously for five minutes to slightly caramelize.

Add garlic and stir for a minute, until the garlic doesn't smell so sharp.

Add all other ingredients, bring to a simmer and lower heat slightly.

Simmer for at least 45 minutes, stirring every few minutes. (You can also turn it down really low and ignore it for 20 minutes at a stretch but it takes hours to cook down.)

If it gets too thick, add a little water.

It's done when it looks like tomato sauce.

Taste and adjust seasoning.

At the risk of being obtuse, take out the bay leaf.

Meanwhile: You have been making *La Dough! *

Actually the dough takes 4 to 6 hours to rise so you should do it earlier (that leaves you time to excavate the fridge for toppings).

This recipe is has been altered by Mr. Darius Brotman. It appears in its faulty original form in The Dance of the Spices, by Laxmi Hiremath.

Yummy Naan and/or Pizza Crust

4 cups unbleached flour

2 t. baking powder

1 t. salt

1 t. active dry yeast

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 large beaten egg

3 T. vegetable oil

1/2 cup warm milk

Cornmeal for the peel or baking sheet

In a food processor or with elbow grease, lightly mix the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and yeast. Add the egg, yogurt and milk and pulse until crumbly. With the machine running or arm flailing, gradually add the milk in a steady stream until the dough comes together in a ball. If you must add a little more liquid, add a tablespoon or two of warm water. Avoid over-processing.

Place the dough on a work surface; oil your hands and knead for 7 minutes. Dough should be soft, not sticky or stiff. Form into a smooth ball. Put in bowl, cover bowl loosely with a rag and put it on top of the fridge for 4-6 hrs.

If you are making naan you are supposed to divide it into 12 bits, flatten ’em and let them rise again. But we won't do that for pizza. We can't spend all day on this.

So now we have dough and sauce. Before I mention cheese, let me say -- Pizza Needs A Very Hot Oven. A pizza stone -- or terra cotta tiles on a cooking sheet, even -- are best for cooking on, but a cookie sheet will do (the crust won't be as crispy). Place stone or tiles in the oven to preheat. Turn your oven up to 500, and preheat it at least 40 minutes (30 if you are using a cookie sheet).

Sprinkle your peel liberally with cornmeal so the pie will slide off easily. (The peel's the flat wooden thing pizza gets put in an oven with -- if you don't have one, try a thin cutting board.) On your work surface, roll out half your dough to 1/4 inch thick. Place on peel. Shape however you like, maintaining even thickness. Add 1/2 cup sauce or so and spread it to 1/2 in. from the dough's edge.

Now cheese. Don't give into your squalling internal miser and buy solely cheap-o bulk mozzarella. I like quattro formaggio: a strong cheese in the pizza's center, encircled by three circles of different cheeses of decreasing strength. For example: from the center out, Brie, Gruyere, Gouda, fresh mozzarella. Or chevre, aged cheddar, fontina, mozzarella. Blops of ricotta on the top are always frosting on the cake. But whatever you choose use in greater part milder cheeses that melt well, like mozzarella (fresh if available), gouda or fontina. Stronger cheeses tend to melt less well and the choosy consumer demands ooze.

I like to finish the cheese layer with a handful of slivered raw garlic, and proceed to toppings of choice. Dot at will.

If you have a well-cornmealed peel it should be easy to quickly and gently slide the pizza onto the hot stone/baking sheet with a few gentle jerks. Give it a jiggle before you try to ensure it isn't sticking. Try to hold the peel as horizontal as possible; you are sliding it off, not sliding it down. If a swodge of onion falls off, ignore it; the important thing is to get the oven closed and save the precious heat.

Cook 10 minutes or so. You can assemble the second one while it's baking. Cool for five minutes on a rack for crispiest crust before eating or you'll regret it.

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About The Author

Jada Calypso Brotman

Bio:
Jada Brotman grew up in Arcata before moving to the U.K. and then New York City, where she cut a wide swath in the world of cheese. Insert joke here. She returned to the home of her fathers four years ago, and now works as a journalist and seasons her crepe pans in downtown Arcata.

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