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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making Pizza with the Grandchildren, a New Pizza Stone, and the Last Garden Tomatoes

After years of reading about the wonders of a "pizza stone," I finally picked one up in an after Christmas sale and we tried it out last night, we being my two grandsons, ages 4 and 2 1/2, and me.

I did some exploring to find more information about using and caring for a pizza stone (my "kit" included lots of utensils but absolutely no instructions) and came up with lots of crust suggestions along with some wonderful sounding bread recipes that I'll be trying later in the week. The crust we ended up with was basic and not as healthy as I might have liked since I had just finished the last of my whole wheat flour and had only unbleached to work with. The following recipe was just enough for two 12 to 14 inch pizzas.

Quick and easy pizza crust

2 t dry yeast
1/4 c warm water
4 t sugar
2 T canola oil
1 t salt
3/4 c cool water
3 c unbleached white flour
2 T gluten (may not need if you have bread flour instead of regular unbleached)
cornmeal (see NOTE)

Stir yeast into warm water and add sugar. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes until it is rising and foamy. Meanwhile, combine oil, salt, cool water, gluten, and half the flour. Stir in the yeast mixture and add the remaining flour. Beat and then turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead until a smooth ball is formed. Brush lightly with a little oil or soft butter so surface is completely covered. Put a towel over the bowl and set the dough aside in a warm place for an hour or so, until doubled.

When you are ready to start making the pizza, put the pizza stone in the cold oven, on a rack in the middle of the oven, and turn to 500 degrees. It should preheat for about 15 minutes or so, depending on your oven. (Some instructions talk about up to an hour of preheating, but this does not seem at all necessary.) Divide the dough in half, punch each down and let sit for about 10 minutes or so. Roll each half into a 12 to 13 inch circle and place on a cornmeal covered pizza peel or baking sheet with no rim. Spread with sauce and add toppings.

Open the oven, sprinkle the pizza stone quickly with just a little cornmeal and then slide the pizza onto the stone. Bake for about 5 to 7 minutes or until cheese is bubbly. Carefully remove the pizza from the oven with a pizza peel or by sliding it back onto a baking sheet.

If you are making more than one pizza, wait about 5 minutes before putting the second one in, giving the oven and the stone time to return to full heat.

NOTE: This cornmeal is really just to keep the pizza from sticking to the surface of the pizza peel and stone, so you can use the cheapest brand available for this. Save your really good stone-ground cornmeal for times when it will be an integral part of the recipe!

Pizza sauce
While there are all kinds of recipes for this part of the pizza, my favorite is just whatever spaghetti sauce your family prefers, with some fresh garlic and dried herbs (I use oregano, marjoram, basil, and rosemary) stirred in. The key with a thin crust pizza like this is to spread the sauce sparingly to avoid sogginess.

Toppings
We used what we had on hand for vegetarian offerings: chopped peppers, black olives, chopped onion, sliced Roma tomatoes (see below), and lightly steamed broccoli flowerettes. Then we covered with grated Mozzarella cheese (I ended up using about 6 ounces on the two pizzas). We served the pizza with red pepper flakes and freshly grated Parmesan.

My "helpers"
Pizza is a great learning to cook food, and my grandchildren have all helped me make mini-pizzas using split pitas. They all have also used the rolling pin, having made cinnamon rolls and Christmas rolled out cookies at Grandma's house too, so rolling this "big" crust made the preparation even more fun. Both boys took turns rolling and then I applied the finishing touches before putting the crusts on to the pan.

I ladled out the amount of sauce I wanted into two little puddles on each crust and then handed each boy a small rubber scraper so they could spread the sauce over their half of each one. (These scrapers are about an inch wide by 2 inches high and have very short handles, just right for small hands. I think I found them in a dollar store.) All of the toppings had been prepared ahead of time and were placed in small bowls from which the boys could take their preferred toppings to spread evenly over the sauce. They were able to "take orders" for toppings from the adults, which added to the fun. For now, I handled the cheese, having found that getting this spread evenly is not yet within their skill level. Then it was time to set the table while the pizzas cooked. We had leftover broccoli, so the boys snacked on that with some yoghurt and dill dip while they waited.

The End of Garden Tomatoes
Finally, one other highlight. Here, almost in the middle of January, the tomatoes that we used to top the pizza were still from last year's garden! I had quite a few small green Romas and cherry tomatoes that I had picked just before the last frost, thinking to make green tomato mincemeat. I put them in my cool dark garage and found that they kept ripening slowly, so I enjoyed a few now and then, monitoring the rest for signs of decay--probably about a quarter to a third didn't make it--and bringing up to the kitchen those with the most color. Yes, the flavor of these last stragglers has been at the level of subpar winter tomatoes in the store, but it has been a great experiment, and they tasted fine on the pizza, especially knowing where they had been grown--you can't get more local than these.

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