Julie O'Hara is a freelance writer and recipe developer who covers food and travel for national and regional publications and on her blog, A Mingling of Tastes. She lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her husband and makes pizza almost every Friday night.
It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the last thing on my mind was food. I would have been content to pick at leftovers for dinner.
But when my husband's uncle walked through the door with a stack of large pizza boxes, I was on his heels along with about a dozen family members who appeared simultaneously in the cozy Connecticut kitchen with renewed appetites. Despite two days of cooking and eating, every single one of us had room for pizza.
Pizza's appeal is understandable: It's inexpensive, goes well with beer and sporting events and is just a phone call — or a click — away. It's available in the wee hours for students who are too busy "studying" to leave their dorm rooms. It's customizable, providing a cheesy, doughy common ground where carnivores, vegetarians and picky eaters can be sated, if not with a shared pie, then at least with a shared tab from Domino's.
So if a large two-topping with breadsticks and a free two-liter of Pepsi makes such a fine meal, why I am tossing around recipes for pizza with avocado and grape-gorgonzola pizzettes? Because getting creative with unconventional ingredients means infinite ways to enjoy one of the world's most appealing foods.
It was only a few years ago that I realized the possibilities beyond cheese and pepperoni in my own kitchen. The concept of gourmet pizza can be traced to a diminutive Austrian chef who opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1982. There, celebrities fawned over each other and — if they weren't on a master cleanse diet that day — also fawned over the food.
The Austrian, Wolfgang Puck, hired Ed LaDou, a chef whose creativity with novel California ingredients made a splash on the food scene and on pizza. LaDou went on to consult on the original menu for California Pizza Kitchen, the chain that helped bring gourmet pizza to the masses. LaDou's barbecue chicken pizza is still California Pizza Kitchen's most popular pie and a mainstay in grocers' freezers across the country.
Along with the joys of working in a cubicle and dealing with unscrupulous landlords, I discovered gourmet pizza post-college. My now-husband and I loved to go for pizza at Figs, a small restaurant in Boston's Beacon Hill with a wood-fired oven and a 40-minute wait for a table.
Their prosciutto and fig pizza with feta cheese opened my eyes to pizza's potential. Since eating there every Friday night was hardly practical, I started making pizza in my tiny apartment kitchen-slash-bedroom.
I devised a dough recipe that I've tweaked over the years to suit my taste. My ideal crust is thin, but not cracker-like, dusted with cornmeal and full of flavor from honey and some whole-wheat flour. Thanks to a food processor, the dough is ready to begin its first rise in about 10 minutes.
My gourmet creations started as an alternative to expensive restaurant meals, but soon became my pies of choice for every occasion and the standard by which all pizza experiences were judged.
Why order a pizza with barely recognizable fried eggplant when I could make my own with fresh roasted vegetables? Why confine pizza to dinner when it makes a perfect weekend breakfast topped with runny eggs and Canadian bacon? Why stick to red sauce when you can have the candy-like flavor of roasted garlic?
Why indeed. Homemade pizza can be a canvas on which to try new flavor combinations and ingredients. After all, it's just pizza. It's easy as pie.
One day, after years of avoiding Papa John, Mama Celeste and their entire extended family, life circumstances and a really good coupon led my husband and me to call out for pizza. We got classic pepperoni with perfectly tender-crisp crust, and it was good. Papa John finally found his way back into my eating life, and I have made my peace with him.
I realized that it's pointless to compare good takeout pizza with my homemade pizza because they are two entirely different breeds. Fast-food pizza isn't made for Serrano ham and piquillo peppers, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a place at my table every once in awhile.
If you aren't well acquainted with yeast, pizza is the best introduction to bread baking. Since you will be making the crust yourself, you won't have to settle for the "enriched," or processed, white flour used in commercial pizza dough. Instead, create better flavor and add more nutrients by experimenting with whole grain flours. That way, your homemade pizza can qualify as a healthy, everyday meal instead of an occasional treat. It's also the perfect vehicle for cooking outside your comfort zone by trying new cheeses and toppings that can change with the seasons.
Lest you become completely smitten with your gourmet creations, always remember that the best pizza is the one shared with people you love in a warm kitchen, whether you make it yourself or leave it to Little Caesar.
I didn't intend to serve this as a tapa (although it could be), but rather to combine some of my favorite tapas ingredients such as Serrano ham, olives and Manchego cheese into a pizza. The avocado may not be traditional, but its richness works beautifully with the other strong flavors. Piquillos are a type of roasted red pepper from Spain with a sweet-spicy flavor. You can find them in specialty stores, online at tienda.com or sold by the Goya brand in many supermarkets. Baking the dough on a pizza stone creates a crisp crust just like you would get at a pizzeria that uses a very hot stone or clay oven. Pizza stones are inexpensive and available at most kitchen stores.
Makes 1 (14-inch) pizza
1/2 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon more for dough
4 ounces Manchego cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler or grated (about 1 cup)
6 thin slices Serrano ham, torn into 2-inch pieces (substitute prosciutto or smoked ham if unavailable)
10 piquillo peppers, sliced into 3 or 4 pieces each (substitute roasted red bell peppers if unavailable)
1/3 cup Spanish or Greek olives, roughly chopped
3/4 large avocado, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Place a pizza stone in the center of the oven and preheat to 500 degrees.
Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon cornmeal onto a large sheet of parchment paper, place the dough on top and pat it into an oval. Lightly dust dough and rolling pin with flour and roll dough out into a round shape, roughly 14 inches wide. Spread remaining tablespoon of olive oil over the dough and sprinkle remaining cornmeal around the edges.
Top the pizza with the Manchego, Serrano ham, sautéed onion, piquillo peppers and olives. Transfer the pizza to the oven by lifting the parchment paper and placing the paper directly onto the pizza stone. Bake for 10 minutes or until the crust starts to brown. Arrange sliced avocado on the pizza, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
I've figured out how to bake the eggs in the oven and still get a perfectly runny yolk by cracking them onto the pizzas during baking and switching to the broiler; however, broilers vary widely, and this is only practical if you're cooking two pizzas at a time. Instead, you can cook the pizzas as usual, fry the eggs in a skillet exactly as you like them, and slide them onto the pizzas when they come out of the oven. Baking these individual pizzas on baking sheets instead of a pizza stone allows you to fit all four in the oven at one time.
Makes 4 (7-inch) individual pizzas
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for dough
About 40 thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Position oven racks as close to the oven's center as possible and preheat to 500 degrees. Have 2 large baking sheets on hand.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the asparagus, season with salt and pepper, and cook until just tender, about 5 to 8 minutes.
Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon cornmeal on a large piece of parchment paper and roll out 2 of the balls of dough into rounds, roughly 7 inches wide. Transfer, along with the parchment paper, to a baking sheet. Repeat with the other 2 balls of dough.
Spread a thin layer of olive oil, about 2 teaspoons, over each pizza and sprinkle the edges with more cornmeal. Top each pizza with a layer of Canadian bacon, a layer of tomato slices and the asparagus. If I'm cracking the eggs directly onto the pizza, I leave a space in the center and form a rough "perimeter" with the asparagus along the edge of the pizzas. Bake pizzas for 10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.
Preheat a skillet and as soon as you pull the pizzas out of the oven, cook the eggs, either sunny-side-up or over easy. A runny yolk is delicious over this pizza, but if salmonella is a concern, cook accordingly. Top each pizza with an egg, sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
To cook eggs in the oven:
Gently crack each egg into a small ramekin or bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake the pizzas for 6 minutes. Switch on the broiler to low heat. Pull out the baking sheet, hold a ramekin just above the pizza and gently tip the egg onto the pie, taking care to keep the yolk intact. Repeat with the other egg. Broil about 6 to 8 inches away from the heat source for 3 minutes, or until white is just set. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
These mini pizzas made with a biscuit cutter are perfect as cocktail party nibbles, as appetizers or as part of a small plates menu. The basic formula — a flavorful sauteed topping, cheese and an herb garnish — is wide open to variation. I've included a few suggestions. While good, I don't think a smattering of cornmeal is essential on these little pizzas, so you can eliminate a bit of fuss and leave it out if you wish.
Makes 24 (3-inch) pizzettes
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for brushing dough
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 rounded cups red seedless grapes, halved
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 500 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add the grapes and cook for 7 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until onion and grapes are soft. Add balsamic vinegar and simmer, stirring often, until vinegar has evaporated almost completely (when you tilt the pan, no liquid should run along the bottom). Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, sprinkle with flour and roll into a 14- to 16-inch round. Flour a 3-inch biscuit cutter and cut as many circles out of the dough as you can. Transfer circles to the prepared baking sheets, quickly gather the scraps, re-roll and cut more circles.
Drizzle or brush the pizzettes with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal if using. Top each pizzette with a teaspoon of grape compote. At this point, you could chill the pizzettes, covered with plastic wrap, for a few hours, then take them straight from the refrigerator to the oven, adding an extra minute or so to the baking time.
Bake the pizzettes for 10 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. As soon as they come out of the oven, sprinkle with Gorgonzola and top with a basil leaf. Sometimes I add the cheese before baking, but it retains its texture and strong flavor better if you wait until after. Serve immediately.
Other Ideas for Pizzettes
Sweet onion and blueberry compote with white wine vinegar; crumbled goat cheese and thyme.
Sliced mixed mushrooms sauteed with scallions, garlic and a few dashes of soy sauce; grated Fontina cheese and chives.
Sauteed diced eggplant or zucchini, tomatoes and onion with a dash of red wine vinegar; crumbled feta cheese and mint.
Fontina is an Italian cheese that melts beautifully and has a mellow earthiness that complements mushrooms. A whole head may sound like a lot of garlic, but roasting it takes away the bite and leaves behind rich, sweet flavor. Once you've made roasted garlic, you will want to use it for everything — toast, sandwiches, pasta, ice cream.
Makes 1 (14-inch) pizza
1 whole head garlic
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, plus two tablespoons
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the stem end of the garlic head, exposing the tops of the cloves inside the papery skin. Leave the root end intact. Drizzle about 1 teaspoon of oil over the cloves and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap the garlic in foil, creating a loosely sealed packet. Roast for 45 minutes or until cloves are lightly browned and the consistency of a very soft paste. Set aside to cool. Garlic may be roasted 1 day ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
Place a pizza stone in the center of the oven and increase temperature to 500 degrees.
Heat 1/2 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft and lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove to a bowl.
Add another 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the skillet, then add the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. When mushrooms release their water, increase the heat so the water evaporates more quickly. Cook until soft and lightly browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add to bowl with the onions.
Add a bit more oil to the skillet and heat to medium low. Add the spinach in handfuls, letting it reduce in volume before adding more. Cook until wilted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Sprinkle some cornmeal onto a large sheet of parchment paper, place the dough on top and pat it into an oval. Lightly dust dough and rolling pin with flour and roll out into a round shape, roughly 14 inches wide. Spread about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the dough and sprinkle more cornmeal around the edges.
Squeeze the soft garlic cloves out of their skins and spread over the dough. Top with the cheese and the onion-mushroom mixture. Lift the spinach out of the skillet with a slotted spatula, give it a squeeze to release as much water as possible, and spread it over the pizza. Transfer the pizza to the oven by lifting the parchment paper and placing the paper directly onto the pizza stone. Bake for 10 minutes or until the crust starts to brown. Slice and serve.
This recipe makes enough for 2 thin crust pizzas, each one serving 3 to 4 people, depending on what else you are serving. I love the flavor and the extra nutritional value of whole wheat flour, but this recipe may be made using only all-purpose or any combination of all-purpose and whole wheat, in case you want to dial down the whole grain flavor a bit.
Makes 2 (14-inch) pizzas, 8 (7-inch) individual pizzas or 48 (3-inch) pizzettes
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface
1 teaspoon coarse salt (such as kosher or sea salt)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for coating the bowl
1 tablespoon honey
Pour the water into a small bowl, add the sugar, then gently stir in the yeast. Let it sit for 5 to 8 minutes in a non-drafty place or until the yeast forms a foamy layer on the surface of the water. If no foam forms after 8 minutes, the yeast has not proofed and the dough will not rise. Repeat with a new packet of yeast, checking the expiration date for freshness and making sure the water is lukewarm, not hot.
Meanwhile, add the flours and salt to a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the olive oil, honey and yeast mixture. Process until the dough comes together, forming a ball, about 1 minute. The dough should be sticky, but not wet. If it feels wet, add some flour, 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse to combine.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, knead 5 or 6 times with floured hands and form into a ball. Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil. Place the ball of dough in the bowl seam side down, cover with plastic wrap and drape a dry kitchen towel on top. Let it sit in a warm, non-drafty place until the dough roughly doubles in bulk, about 1 hour.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 30 seconds. Divide the dough into two equal balls. Let them rise for the second time on a cutting board, covered with a kitchen towel, for an hour and a half, then proceed with the pizza. At this point, you may also refrigerate the dough in a Ziploc bag to use within 24 hours, or freeze it to use within 3 months.
Another option, especially if you are making the dough before bed or in the morning before work, is to let it rise for the second time in the refrigerator, well covered with a dry kitchen towel, for at least 8 hours. Then you can knead it for a few seconds, transfer it to a Ziploc bag, and keep it for use that day or freeze it. Always bring the dough to room temperature before rolling it out.