Pizza has certainly been a favorite food of mine for many years. I have been digging into pizza from a very early age, long before pizza chains descended on Indian cities, long before I moved to graduate school in NYC, where pizza is not just food, it is a food group. All credit for the early pizza nights goes to my ever-creative mother. Living in a relatively small town with ultra-conservative food tastes never deterred her in the least. In the years of growing up in Kolhapur, I attended perhaps a couple hundred different social events, but they all had exactly the *same* menu- Kolhapuri tambda rassa (red mutton curry), pandhra rassa (white mutton stew), dry-fried mutton, dahi kanda (onion-yogurt relish), thick chapatis and jeera (cumin) rice; gulab jamuns for dessert. I kid you not. If you served anything else, there was the danger of armed revolt. In the midst of this rather bleak culinary landscape, my mother served baked vegetables and baked corn at her dinner parties, and jelly-custard (Brown and Polson brand, anyone remember that one?), set in pretty little bowls for dessert. She procured macaroni and spaghetti and cooked the pasta in a tomato-Amul cheese sauce (a recipe that started with my grandmother, believe it or not...it must be in the genes. I can only hope). She made sweet corn soup and stir-fried noodles long before "Indian-Chinese" cuisine came into vogue. She hosted burger nights, with mincemeat burgers tucked into pav-bhaji buns, garnished with cabbage and carrot shreds. And she made pizza. We enjoyed Maharashtrian food and other Indian cuisines as much as anyone else, but we also got a chance to try something new every so often.
Aai's pizza started off as "bread pizza" with the sauce spread on regular sliced bread and sprinkled with Amul cheese. Later, as an enterprising local store-owner started to carry a more extensive inventory, she would buy pizza bases, small 6-inch discs of par-baked bread. No matter what, the pizza would always be pan-baked on the stove to a crispy and golden finish, because my parents only had one tiny electric oven and it was stored away to be used strictly for birthday cakes.
Coming back to pizza. For the home cook, a pizza base represents a blank canvas on which to experiment with an assortment of sauces, a potpourri of toppings and wild combinations of sauces and toppings. Our other favorites sauce, apart from the tomato sauce that follows, is classis basil pesto. I have a long list of pizzas on the to-make list as well- caramelized onion and sage, and one that I ate in a wonderful pizzeria in NYC- ricotta, paper-thin slices of potato and walnuts, all drizzled with fragrant olive oil. But the humble and messy tomato sauce that follows remains the firm favorite in our home.
Aai's Pizza Sauce
1 medium onion, chopped fine
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bell pepper (green/red/yellow), chopped fine
2 cups tomato puree (fresh or canned)
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 t red chilli powder (or to taste)
1 T ketchup or 1 t sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat the oil in a saucepan.
2. Saute the garlic and onion until fragrant and transluscent (not browned).
3. Stir in the pepper and fry for 3-4 minutes.
4. Add the tomato, chilli powder and sugar. Simmer for 15-25 minutes, uncovered or partially covered, or until the sauce is thick (the time will depend on how watery the tomatoes were to begin with).
5. Season with salt and pepper and let it cool to room temperature. A thick sauce is of utmost importance, IMHO, because a watery sauce will make the crust soggy.
Next comes the dough. Since I have the privilege of living in a home with a full-size oven, and having access to yeast, I make the dough myself. I use a food processor to make the dough but it is by no means necessary. You can make the dough by hand: use a bowl and a wooden spoon for the initial mixing, and then place the dough on a floured surface and knead with your hands. I have used Bittman's recipe for many years with consistently good results. I feel that pizza dough is very forgiving and a good way for newbies to get into baking. It is certainly the first bread that I started baking on a regular basis.
Pizza Dough(Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman)
1. Take 1/4 C warm (not hot!) water in a small bowl. Add 1/2 t sugar and 1 t active dry yeast to it. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes or until the yeast become active and the solution starts to froth. (If you use instant or bread machine yeast, this proofing step can be skipped and you can add the yeast directly to step 2.
2. In the food processor bowl fitted with a dough blade, add 2 C plain flour, 1 C whole-wheat flour, 1 t salt and the yeast solution. Pulse to combine.
3. With the motor running, add about 1 C water and 1-2 T olive oil (I use two glugs), until the dough comes together as a slightly sticky, elastic ball (add more water or a little more flour as required to achieve this).
4. Take the dough ball out, knead it on a floured surface for a minute, then place in an oiled bowl. Cover with damp cloth or plastic wrap, and let it rise for 1-2 hours. Left-over pizza dough can be frozen for future use.
Assembling and Baking:
Preheat the oven (with pizza stone inside) to 475 degrees for 20-25 minutes (you want the oven and the stone to get very very hot). A pizza stone is a flat stone/ unglazed ceramic tile that helps in creating a crisp crunchy pizza crust.
As the oven pre-heats, make the pizza base. Sprinkle some cornmeal (coarsely ground corn) or semolina (rava) on a pizza peel (a paddle used to transfer the base onto the hot stone). Divide the dough into two portions for two large pizzas (serving 2-3 each) or into 4-6 portions for individual-sized pizzas. Start stretching the dough on the pizza peel either by hand or using a rolling pin with gentle pressure. Periodically, you may have to let the dough "rest" for a few minutes to let it become more pliable.
Note: If you do not own a pizza stone and pizza peel, you can make the pizza on a regular rectangular or circular baking sheet. Lightly oil the sheet with olive oil. Place dough on the baking sheet and press down as above to make the pizza base.
Spread pizza sauce on the pizza base, leaving the edges unsauced. It is better to go easy with the sauce so that the pizza does not get soggy. I often serve some sauce on the side as a dipping sauce, rather than drowning the pizza with it. Sprinkle with toppings of your choice ad then with bits/ slices of mozzarella. I don't like the dry and rubbery pre-shredded mozzarella from the supermarket and always seek out fresh balls of mozzarella that look like the one here.
For beginner pizza-makers, smaller pizzas are much easier to make and transfer to the pizza stone etc. This time I tried making a larger one and it worked fine, but was more difficult to transfer to and from the oven. We topped half the pizza with onions, red peppers and olives and topped the other half with onions and slices of Morningstar fake "chicken" wings (the latter is a guilty and occasional pleasure for us).
Transfer the pizza from the peel to the pizza stone gently (shaking the peel back and forth gently to release the pizza and slide it onto the stone). If you made the pizza on a baking sheet, simply place the sheet in the oven. Bake for 10-15 mins, or until the crust is crispy and golden, and the cheese is browning and bubbling.
Cut into wedges and dig in! Jars of dried oregano and red pepper flakes can be offered at the table to enhance the pizzeria experience.
Have a great week ahead, everyone!