the toppings

A hobby says a lot about a person. If your hobby is rebuilding engines or needlepoint you take on projects that span weeks or months and probably have a lot of patience. When you cook for pleasure the results aren’t exactly instantaneous, but they’re fast in the scheme of things. Cookies-in-an-hour is the sort of motivation that got me cooking in grade school. I’m willing to put in the time it takes to master a new technique, but I also take some pleasure in eating most of my trial-and-error edibles along the way.

If you cook in a restaurant your food generally needs to taste the same day-to-day. Unless the menu changes daily your guests expect a dish they like enough to order a second time to taste the same as it did the first time. Luckily I mostly cook at home where my resistance to following recipes doesn’t have a downside. This also means that even though I make a lot of pizza, I almost never make the same pizza twice.

Is there a better motivator than nearly immediate gratification, or pizza, or both?

It takes an hour to make my pizza dough. Actually it takes five minutes to make the dough and the rest of the hour for it to rise. While the dough rises I preheat the oven and prep sauce and  toppings. And, making pizza is simple enough that I can chat with others or watch a movie I know well enough to only look up at the good parts.

If I’m honest I have to admit that I don’t have a favorite food or cuisine. Favorites are straightjackets. I might have a current favorite-ish cuisine, but I’m pretty fickle when it comes to my culinary dance card. What I’m cooking now is probably not what I was making last month.

sauce Collage

In a back-to-the-wall situation – to sate an asker’s appetite for an answer – I’ll say that my favorite food to make for myself is pizza. This is true, but it’s also a bit of a ruse because I can put all sorts of things on a pizza crust. Sometimes my pizza is more, and sometimes less, pizza-ish.

Ask my husband about the weight gain of my luggage between outbound and return flights. I buy a lot of things in jars, especially when I travel. Jars are heavy. But, the stuff in jars often turns into pizza toppings – especially if I’m making pizza as an hors d’oeuvre. Spreads with olives or truffles, savory jams and pickled produce, nut butters and dried fruit have all found their way onto my pizza. The anchovies in the picture above came home in my luggage.

My pizza habit is enabled by my husband. He worked at a Pizza Inn when he was in high school. That stint only stoked his love of thin crisp-chewy crust topped with tomatoes and pepperoni (which is at the top of his last-meal menu, to be chased by a big corner piece of a white Safeway sheet cake frosted with white icing). He and I might be separated-at-birth pizza twins. When I was in high school my favorite after-school snack was a doctored-up half of of a Gino’s Pepperoni Pizza. I’d cut a frozen pizza in half with kitchen shears, slather the top with Ragu sauce, and top that with whatever cheese we had on hand. I ate the other half the next day. And yes, I’m looking back in horror.

The clincher on my pizza-twin theory is the little anchovy. We both like anchovies. This is important. Nothing turns pizza into an umami bomb like a tin of anchovies. Nothing makes sharing a pizza harder than a difference of opinion on small salty fish as a topping.

If I’m any judge of the average eater (and I think I am, having taught such eaters to cook for 15+ years) I’ll hazard a guess that about 75 percent of you just made a face when I introduced anchovies to my prattle. When I taught, and anchovies were an essential ingredient, I saw those faces. I’d tell the people with those faces that without anchovies puttanesca sauce was just not the same; that it was too blah blah blah to warrant its sex-worker moniker. The faces smiled politely, but the eyes held on to the horror.

pre cooked pepperoni

I always asked the anchovy-haters to raise their hands. While the hands were up I’d ask everyone who had actually tasted an anchovy to lower their hands. Very few hands went down, sometimes none. This wasn’t a double-blind study, but it was something I did a fair number of times, and it led me to a conclusion based on something-less-than-big-data-but-still-data. Eighty-Five to Ninety percent of anchovy haters have never tasted an anchovy. It’s human nature to fear the unknown. It’s why we prefer not to put our hands into dark damp holes in basement walls. It’s why a lot of us are ‘scairt of conservatives or liberals, but generally not both.

People hate anchovies based on a blend of fear and principle. It’s mostly fear, but no one wants to be a coward so principle gets some credit. When I got people to actually taste puttanesca sauce made with anchovies most of them liked it. I suspect they continued to omit anchovies when they made the sauce at home, but then it was habit, not fear. Or, maybe it was fear that they’d be seen buying anchovies…

Back to pizza, specifically the one I made last night for dinner. I made a sauce with sundried tomatoes, peppadews (a jar of which was in my pantry), almonds, olive oil, garlic, and anchovies. It wasn’t exactly Romesco, but it was a pizza-ish Romesco-inspired sauce. Jackie Mason had a comedy routine where he said that in LA everyone says they live in Beverly Hills, or if not Beverly Hills, they say they’re Beverly Hills-adjacent. So if it helps, think of this sauce as Romesco-adjacent.

The sauce contains enough olive oil  to create a barrier which helps keep the crust from getting soggy. If a sauce doesn’t have much oil I brush the crust with olive oil first.

I topped the pizza with sliced baby Marzano tomatoes, Manchego cheese, par-cooked pepperoni, and my special mushrooms.

Why Marzano tomatoes and Manchego? They taste good and I had them on hand. The alliteration is a pleasant coincidence.

The par-cooked pepperoni is more than tasty happenstance. I’ve blotted yellow grease off the top of a lot of pizzas. One day it occurred to me to de-fat the pepperoni by putting it in the oven for a few minutes on top of a couple of layers of paper towels. When I pull the pepperoni from the oven the paper towels are fat-heavy. The pepperoni is not only lighter, it’s begun to crisp, which adds flavor to the pizza.

crust w toppings Collage

My special mushrooms started as slices of portobello that I dried. I have a new dehydrator and I’m drying things like a fiend. The process removes water and concentrates flavor. You do not need to buy a dehydrator to make my pizza/mushrooms. You can cook the mushrooms in the oven or sauté them. If you dry the mushrooms you also need to rehydrate them. I used a combination of vegetable stock and marsala wine which, upon reflection, did make them rather special.

Before I sauce the crust I make little 1/4-inch slits every few inches, evenly spread out. This keeps bubbles from forming. It also helps vent steam.

Good pizza assembly is like dressing in San Francisco; it’s all about layering. The sauce goes on first, followed by a little less than half the grated Manchego cheese. As I add the ingredients I try to space them so that none is on top of another in a way that the bottom item is completely covered. This leaves small gaps between ingredients right down to the sauce. The gaps allow steam to escape. Toppings are moist, and they give off steam when they get hot. Steam makes crust soggy.

That first layer of cheese helps create a barrier between crust and steam as well. If there’s a ton of cheese on top of all the toppings it will create a barrier when it melts. That barrier will hold the steam in, and you’ll have wilted toppings and a soggy crust. I like my toppings to caramelize, and they need exposure to dry heat for that to happen. If what you really want is a lot of melted cheese ignore this. If you want crisp-on-the-bottom crust and roasty-cooked toppings don’t go crazy with the cheese.

I make pizza in a preheated 375 F oven – on convection bake. I have a cast iron pizza stone (which has the distinct advantage of not easily cracking) and I preheat the oven 45 minutes in advance. I like thin crust, and if you look at the crust in the picture it’s not just thin, it’s also flecked with little black dots. It’s my basic pizza crust, but I added a half teaspoon of ground  black pepper to the dry ingredients on a whim. I really am a compulsive tweaker.

Rehydrating my home-dried portobellos.

Pizza cognoscenti suggest the need for an extremely hot oven – 500F or hotter. Actually, they more than suggest, they stress the absolute necessity of extreme heat. Except me. I don’t stress such a high temperature, because I rarely use one.

I set my oven between 375 F and 425 F. The more toppings I use lower the heat. I do this so that the toppings cook through without overcooking the crust. This seems counter-intuitive at first, but it’s logical if you think about it. It’s analogous to grilling steak. If the steak is thick use lower heat, so that the outside isn’t burned before the inside reaches the desired temperature.

It took about 10 minutes to make the pizza. I set the timer for 8 minutes just in case. It also took about 10 minutes for me to eat my half. I really do love a little thin-crust immediate gratification.

pizza plated

Tip: if you don’t have a pizza stone use the slotted top to the broiler pan that came with your oven. It’s that heavy-ish metal thing in the bottom drawer where you keep kitchen stuff you don’t use but don’t want to throw away.