The Zen of Homemade Pizza

I have a confession to make: I love Chef Boyardee Pizza Kits. They come in a box that contains pizza crust mix, pizza sauce (with or without pepperoni), and some Parmesan cheese. All for just $2.37! You just add some warm water to the pizza crust mix, mix it up, let it rise, put the dough in a pan, add the sauce, sprinkle on the cheese, and in 16-20 minutes you have pizza!

Look, I don’t like the pizza kits because of their kick-ass taste. I like them because they remind me of my childhood. My mom loved buying the kits, because they meant that she’d have the night off in the kitchen. As kids, my sister and I loved them because they were fun to make. And that’s really the gist of it: making pizza at home is fun! Buy one of those kits sometimes – they’re fun to put together… and when you’re done, you have pizza!

Another reason I love the kits so much is that they kicked off my love of homemade pizza. I used to make pizza at home a lot. New York pizzas. Chicago pizzas. Pizzas that creatively used leftovers. Pizzas that cost me $50 in ingredients. You name it, I did it. Especially after I turned 21 and found an awesome recipe for Sam Adams Pizza Crust (2 c flour, 1 c whole wheat flour, 1 T baking powder, 12 oz Samuel Adams Boston Lager).

Even if you don’t buy a kit or become a home pizza baking fanatic, pizza is easy to make at home and cheap, too! Just remember to follow the path of Zen:

THE CRUST

The crust is the most important part of the pizza. Seriously. Don’t skimp on this step, as having a good crust is the heart of a good pizza.

A good crust is made up of flour, yeast, sugar or honey, olive oil, salt and warm water. If you’re the kind of person that normally has those things on hand… congratulations! You have the stuff to make pizza dough! If your cupboards are bare, look for “pizza crust mix” at the grocery store (it’s usually with the flours or near the spaghetti sauce). Bagged pizza crust mix is cheap, has everything you need, and is ready to go – just add warm water. Cost: around 59¢.

With most basic crust recipes, you mix the ingredients together, add a wee bit of oil to the dough ball (to keep it from sticking to the bowl) and then cover it with plastic wrap. It’s important that you only add exactly as much liquid as the recipe or package directions call for. Pizza dough will be very dry at first, but the more you stir it with a fork, the more it will come together. It will seem like you need to add some additional water – do not do this. Keep stirring – the beautiful ball of dough will come.

You then let the dough rest for 5-20 minutes. Here’s the Zen on resting: it’s vital. Without it, your crust will be dense and chewy… and not in a good way. The Chef Boyardee kits say to rest for “at least 5 minutes, but up to 20 minutes”. I always go for the full 20 minutes, and you should too.

You need to rest the dough “in a warm place”. Alton Brown of Good Eats suggests wrapping the dough bowl in a heating pad. This is good, as is an oven set to 90F and the door cracked. Lisa and I have a perfect solution for this: we have a slide-in oven-range combo. The oven vents heat through the top of the range, so when the oven’s preheating, I just put a ceramic plate on top of one of the stainless steel burner covers. The oven heats the covers, which heats the plate, which keeps the dough warm.

Lastly, know that the dough is a living thing. It has a gentle structure and living creatures (yeast) inside. It’s not something to be played with mercilessly like the Stretch Armstrong you had as a kid. Be gentle with it. Work the dough, don’t kill it. Love it. Don’t whack it with a rolling pin as if it were a snake loose in your kitchen!

THE SAUCE

Pizza sauce is not spaghetti sauce. Sure, you could use Prego or Ragu on your pizza if that’s all you have. But pizza sauce is thicker than spaghetti sauce. You can buy a small can of pizza sauce at the grocery store for around 79¢, but if you have the ingredients, make some yourself:

1 15oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 of a small can of tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Basil
1/2 teaspoon Garlic powder
1 teaspoon Onion powder

Just throw all of the above ingredients into a pot and cook over low heat for around 30 minutes (allow to cool before putting on a pizza, of course). You can always substitute fresh ingredients for any of the powders listed above. Put a small amount of olive oil in a pot and cook some fresh garlic and\or onions for a few minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients. You can always add anything you like to the base recipe. I’m a big fan of adding a “slug” of red or Marsala wine to my sauce, along with red pepper flakes. But that’s just me. You can do whatever you like.

What you should not do, however, is add too much sauce to the pizza. For an average 12″ pizza, one cup (8 ounces) is plenty of sauce. Trust your Zen Master on this. It won’t look like it’s enough. There will be “splotchy areas” on your pizza that look like they don’t have enough sauce… but trust me – unless you’re one of those “extra sauce” types, one cup of sauce will do. Use the back of a spoon (or, better yet, the back of a one cup ladle) to spread the sauce over your pizza. And resist the urge to add more sauce. It’s fine, grasshopper. It really is.

THE TOPPINGS

Most people have the urge to cram as many toppings onto their pizza as they can. It’s a natural inclination, I think. After all, pizza with nothing on it is pretty good. Pizza with two toppings is even better. Wouldn’t pizza with 12 toppings be the best?

No, it won’t. A major part of the Zen of Homemade Pizza is that you should only use two (or, at most three) toppings per pie. For one thing, adding lots of toppings (especially meats) makes homemade pizza expensive, especially if you’re only making one pie. For another thing, adding too many toppings makes the pizza fall part as you try to eat it, and you really don’t want hot pizza all over your shirt, do you?

No, wise travelers. The true path consists of two or three carefully chosen toppings. Pepperoni is a fine traditional choice. So are mushrooms. Or olives. Or onions. Or red peppers. Or green peppers. Combine the flavors of just two of these toppings, and you will do fine.

Although I am a huge Italian sausage fan – my all-time “go to” pizza is Italian sausage and mushrooms – I rarely put Italian sausage on a pizza at home, or ground beef, for that matter. And that’s because you have to cook those ingredients before putting them on a pizza. Why mess up a pan just to cook some Italian sausage for a pizza when pepperoni fills the need for an meat but doesn’t require cooking?

Lastly, you might want to check out the deli section at your local grocery store for cheaper alternatives to meat toppings. If you’re the only one making a meat pizza, it can be cheaper to buy a few slices of ham, salami or pepperoni at the deli counter than buying a package from the meat case. Just a thought, grasshoppers.

THE CHEESE

Everyone agrees: cheese is a vital part of the Zen of Pizza. Here’s the problem, though: no one can agree on which type of cheese is best. In one corner, you have the “food snobs”, who think that pizza can only have authentic buffalo-milk mozzarella handmade in Italy by Alpine virgins. In the other corner, you have the “blue collar” types that argue that while yes, handmade Italian cheese is good, commercial mozzarella cheese has been used in the United States for so long that it is the true standard of American pizza.

In my Zen moment, I’ve gotta go with the blue collar guys here. I love cheese. I love fancy imported cheeses. Hell, I’ve gone so far over to the Dark Side that I even eat the Stilton rind. I like cheese, OK? But yes: plain old shredded mozzarella has been put on pizzas for so long that it is standard. If it’s not as delicious as the “good stuff”, it’s far cheaper and available almost anywhere.

As far as Parmesan goes… well, that’s up to you. I actually prefer the good stuff in this case, but only for adding to the finished product. If I’m going to sprinkle some on my pizza before baking, than almost any old stuff will do. Most grocery stores have at least one additional brand of Parmesan in a can. It’s usually imported from Italy by a company in Brooklyn or New Jersey. It’s not nearly as good as the real thing, but it’s a sight better than Kraft.

BAKING

Pizza generally requires a hot oven. The average temperature mentioned in online recipes for home baking is 425F (218C). Most commercial pizza ovens are twice as hot as that; I found one recipe for wood-fired ovens that called for pizza to be cooked for “2 minutes at 850 °F–905 °F (454C – 485C), turning the pie every 30 seconds or so”. So get your oven hot and ready. Preheating is essential for good pizza making.

There are a million contraptions available for baking a pizza: teflon pans, telfon pans with air holes in them, pizza stones, dedicated pizza ovens… you name it. But my personal favorite is the $3 aluminum pizza pan you can buy at most grocery stores. Not the disposable kind, the actual reusable pan. Why? It just works. You have to baby Teflon, but aluminum will just sit there and take it.

Of course, some people swear by pizza stones, which are basically a rock you put in a cold oven, heat to the right temperature, then put the pizza on it to bake. I’ve had homemade pizza cooked on a stone before, and it is pretty good. But pizza stones are an unnecessary indulgence for the Zen of Pizza. Instead, buy a large unglazed tile from your local Lowe’s or Home Depot for $4 and use that instead of a $25 stone from Bed Bath & Beyond.

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