Pre--Passover pizza

This is probably not the week to prepare elaborate pizzas, so keep it simple.

Tomatos 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tomatos 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With Passover coming soon, now is the perfect time to bake pizza. Why, you might ask? Because it’s time to clear the pantry of flour to make room for the Passover foods. Pizza is ideal when you want a satisfying meal that’s delicious and fun to eat. Some experts make pizza-baking appear complicated, but it is actually simple to make. Pizza dough resembles basic bread dough but pizza is easier to bake than most breads because it doesn’t need to rise after you shape it. You can put it directly into the oven, where it will puff from the heat.
Chefs have come up with all sorts of creative takes on the pizza theme, from curry-chicken pizza to barbecue chicken pizza to smoked salmon with cream cheese pizza. But this is probably not the week to prepare elaborate pizzas. It’s best to keep the toppings simple. The kids will like them better anyway, and so will most adults. On my first visit to Rome, I loved the pizzas that were topped with a single ingredient – eggplant pizza, zucchini pizza and pepper pizza. These pizzas were thin and flavorful and were not laden with heavy toppings that tend to make the crust soggy.
Pizza doesn’t even have to have tomato sauce. It can be delicious with just a thin layer of vegetables, a little olive oil and, if you like, a sprinkling of cheese.
Vincenzo Buonassisi, author of Le Livre de la Pizza, gives examples of these basic Italian pizzas. The oldest pizza, he notes, was probably with garlic and olive oil. This “simple but remarkably good” pizza is topped only with drizzle of olive oil, some very thin slices of garlic, a little salt and pepper and sometimes a pinch of oregano or rosemary. These flavorings can be added before or after the pizza dough is baked; the garlic taste will be slightly mellowed if it’s added before the pizza goes into the oven.
According to Buonassisi, the pizza that is considered the most classic is Napoli pizza, covered with thin strips of ripe seeded tomatoes, thin slices of garlic and a pinch of oregano or a few small basil leaves. Before baking, the topping and dough are drizzled with olive oil. He comments that this is a relatively recent pizza that evolved from the original.
To make zucchini pizza, Buonassisi recommends topping the dough with small pieces of mozzarella cheese and then with lightly sauteed zucchini rounds seasoned with salt and chopped parsley. The topping for pepper pizza is made simply by sauteing pepper strips with sliced onions and drizzling the pizza with a little olive oil. Mushroom pizza is topped with mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and then mixed with chopped garlic and parsley. For onion pizza, the dough is covered with a layer of chopped fresh onions, sprinkled generously with grated pecorino, provolone or Parmesan cheese and drizzled with olive oil; after baking, the pizza is sprinkled with freshly ground pepper. Tomato pulp can be spread on the dough for any of these pizzas before the vegetable is added.
MARY ANN Esposito, author of Ciao Italia, also likes simple pizza toppings. One of her pizzas is topped before baking with only two ingredients – bits of Gorgonzola cheese and small pieces of oil-packed sun dried tomatoes. For the crust she uses a potato dough, with mashed potatoes and potato cooking water added to the yeast dough.
Pizza dough is very flexible. You can make it with allpurpose flour, whole wheat flour or a mixture of them in any proportions you like.
Some bakers prefer to let their dough rise several times. Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfields, author of The California Pizza Kitchen Cookbook, recommend allowing the dough to rise three times. “First, let it rise at room temperature until it doubles in bulk; then punch down the dough ball and put it in the refrigerator. When it has risen again, divide it in smaller pieces to make each pizza and let those rise at room temperature until they double... At this point, the dough should be soft, puffy, slightly warm to touch.”
Baker Suzanne Dunaway, author of Rome, at Home, has a much more relaxed approach. She lets her dough rise only once. She notes that you can let it rise at room temperature for about an hour, or in the refrigerator for three hours or up to overnight, and it will be ready to use. The dough can even be frozen. Dunaway needs no equipment for shaping the pizza; she simply stretches the dough on a baking sheet with her hands.
The experts may disagree, but you can also bake your pizza in advance. Who hasn’t reheated pizza from the pizzeria? Heat it briefly in the oven or toaster oven – not the microwave – at medium-high temperature just until warm and you can enjoy your pizza a second time.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
This recipe is from Rome, at Home. Author Dunaway writes: “This is the simplest, tastiest, most user-friendly pizza dough you will ever encounter. It may be frozen up to 6 months... I like my dough stretched very thin and topped with very little, like Roman pizza.”
Adding oil to the dough makes it crisper. If you don’t have high-gluten bread flour, substitute any bread flour.
Makes two thin 33- x 43-cm. (13- x 17-inch) pizzas or one thick one
Basic pizza dough: 1 to 11⁄2 tsp. active dry yeast 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1⁄2 cup unbleached high-gluten bread flour (found at health food stores) 1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon salt 1 1⁄2 cups lukewarm water (29º to 35ºC or 85º to 95ºF)
2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced thin and drained through a strainer 1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 2 cups chopped fresh mozzarella, preferably made with water buffalo milk, drained of any water 2⁄3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
To prepare the dough: Put the yeast, flours, salt and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for a few seconds. Add the water and blend just until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Do not overmix, or the dough may heat up too much, which will kill the yeast. The dough will be barely tacky but not sticky to the touch.
Dip your fingers in a little olive oil, lift the dough from the bowl and shape it into a ball.
Put the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap; or place in a large resealable plastic bag and refrigerate until needed. The dough will rise in a bowl in about an hour or in the refrigerator in about 3 hours or overnight and be ready for use.
To make the pizza:
Preheat the oven to 274ºC (525ºF) or as hot as your oven allows. Divide the dough between 2 oiled baking sheets for thin pizza, using one sheet for thick, flattening the dough with the palm of your hand. Let rest for 15 minutes. Begin stretching the dough gently toward the edges of the pan by pressing and pushing outward with the flat of your hands. Go slowly. Try not to tear the dough, but if you do, take a little piece of dough from the edge and use it to patch the hole. Stretch to 6 mm. (1⁄4 inch) thick (or about 1 cm. or 1⁄2 inch thick if you are making a thicker pizza).
For the topping:
With the back of a large spoon, spread a thin layer of the drained tomatoes to cover the dough completely to the edges. Pour the olive oil in a thin stream over the pizza. Bake the pizza for 6 to 7 minutes, remove from the oven and sprinkle with the cheese and basil. Continue to bake for 3 minutes or until the crust is brown.
This bright-red, parve topping is based on a recipe in my book Fresh from France: Vegetable Creations. You can make it with or without tomato.
Makes 6 to 8 servings (2 pizzas)
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 2 sweet red peppers (about 350 gr. or 3⁄4 pound), cut in 6-mm (1⁄4-inch) dice 2 garlic cloves, chopped 1 fresh hot pepper (optional), finely chopped 700 gr. (11⁄2 pounds) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (optional) Salt and freshly ground pepper Basic Pizza Dough (see recipe above)
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a deep skillet over low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add sweet peppers, garlic and hot pepper and cook, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until peppers soften. If you like, add tomatoes and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until mixture is thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Oil 2 baking sheets. Knead the dough briefly, divide it in two and put each part on a baking sheet. With oiled hands, pat dough out in two 25-cm. (10-inch) rounds, with a rim slightly higher than the center.
Spread topping over dough, using half of it for each pizza and leaving a border of about 1 cm. (1⁄2 inch) around the edges. Brush edge of dough with oil and sprinkle remaining oil over topping.
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Let pizzas rise while oven is heating, about 15 minutes.
Bake about 15 to 20 minutes or until dough is golden brown and firm but not hard. Serve hot.