A taste of Italy – classic pizzas
As I often travel abroad alone when working, a pizza is a convenient but tasty solution to grabbing something quickly to eat whilst on the move. Indeed its history, as Nicola mentioned in a recent post, began as humble street food in the back streets of Naples. The essence of Italian pizzas is ‘less is more’. In my view the best pizzas are thin based, cooked in a traditional wood burning oven, lipsticked with a rich, deep-red tomato sauce, and topped simply with fresh ingredients. Whilst I think some of the enormous americanised cheese-filled crust experiences available in the UK have their moment (usually after 2 a.m.), they don’t come close to the authentic Italian.
The following recipe for the base and sauce is adapted in its large part from Jamie Oliver’s Italy book. That said, I have halved the quantities as the original leaves you with enough to feed any pets and the neighbours.
- 400g strong white bread flour (type ‘OO’) (it will be fine with plain white flour if you don’t have this)
- 100g fine ground semolina flour (or more of the above if not)
- ½ level tablespoon salt
- 1 x 7g sachet of dried yeast
- ½ tablespoon of golden caster sugar
- around 325ml / ½ pint of lukewarm water
To start with, the above list of ingredients is very flexible. You can use any plain flour, and likewise, pretty much any sugar. I have made the dough using very cold water in winter too without seemingly any detrimental effect! Essentially we’re making a dough that whilst needing to be a little elastic, will ultimately be rolled as flat as possible. There’s no place for any bread making anxiety here.
- Put the yeast in a jug with the water and stir in before leaving for a few minutes.
- Place all the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl, making a well in the middle.
- Pour in the yeast mixture and pull together until you have a large ball of bread dough. If it’s too sticky, add more flour, or vice-versa some water.
- The dough should be easy to manipulate and so begin to knead vigorously for 10 minutes or so.
- Put back in the mixing bowl, before covering with clingfilm and place in the fridge.
The sauce is key, and we need to create a real depth of flavour. If time is on your side then the best way to do this would be by roasting a dozen or so tomatoes in the oven with some garlic, olive oil, chopped onion and balsamic vinegar (almost as if you were making a ketchup). Strain through a sieve before returning to a pan and adding fresh basil, more olive oil and some tomato puree before seasoning to finish. As it seems we have less free time (or more things to do?) then the following will still produce excellent results.
- extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic; peeled and finely chopped
- a bunch of fresh basil leaves
- about 400ml of tomato passata
- salt & pepper
- Heat the oil in a saucepan before adding the garlic and cook gently (don’t burn the garlic as it will create a bitter taste).
- Add half of the basil before adding the passata, salt & pepper.
- Reduce on a gentle heat for a good 20 minutes or so to deepen the flavour.
If you’re not happy with it then add some tomato puree, or more garlic. If you like a bit of heat then why not add some chilli? There are no strict rules or amounts here – make it to your own preference and taste regularly during the cooking process.
At this point the dough should have risen in the fridge. Pull off about a tennis ball-sized piece before placing on a well-floured surface. Cover in flour before flattening out with the palm of your hand. Return the dough to your hand before beginning to spin the dough on your fingertip like the Royal Variety plate spinners of the 80s. Hip movement is essential here to fully gyrate and create the perfect pizza shape. Put some Kool & The Gang (Hollywood Swinging) on in the background to help.
Or maybe not…!
Whilst I have seen such dough acrobatics in pizzerias, the easiest solution is to use a rolling pin. For me, the more rustic the better. We’re not after a perfect circle and the less uniform the shape, the more texture and flavour you can add. When the base is as thin as you dare make it, transfer to a pizza stone (or a baking tray will suffice just as well) and paint with the tomato sauce.
Its quite a nice thing to invite some friends or family round and prepare the bases to this point, before allowing them to choose their own toppings. But clearly you know best for them, so here’s some ideas instead! As I said before, less is more. Leaving space allows you to enjoy some of the basic pizza with sauce (an entire pizza like this is called a Marinara in Italy).
- (My personal favourite) Pepperoni, buffalo mozzarella (splash out a bit and get the best stuff) with fresh basil (after the pizza has cooked)
- Parma ham, mozzarella and an egg
- (I think this is often called a Savoyarde in France) Lardons (or cubes of pancetta), onions, sliced pre-boiled waxy potatoes, reblochon cheese, a little crème fraiche
- Tuna, onions and grated emmental cheese
- Prosciutto ham, mozzarella covered in a rocket salad (after the pizza has cooked).
To cook, pre-heat the oven as high as it will go (about 250C on my one). From now on, its about logistics. The above recipe should give you enough dough to make four good-sized pizzas. I tend to start each one on the baking tray before transfering it directly onto the oven shelf once the base is firm. This way you get a good crispy coloured bottom to the pizza. Its probably impossible for you to have all four ready at the same time, but a smooth operation should see things done in 20-30 minutes. Each pizza will take about 8-10 minutes to but keep an eye on them rather than refering to timings.
Once out of the oven, drizzle a little olive oil over the pizza and a few twists of black pepper.
We’d love to hear what you think about this recipe, or your own tips? Why not make your own garlic bread by simply covering the pizza base in garlic oil and chopped parsley?
Appetite truly whetted, I’m away to the kitchen….