Last week three friends, all fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers, came up to windy, beautiful Blowing Rock, braving frozen water pipes, broken furnaces, and quite a bit of my cooking. The best thing on the menu: pizza four ways. Each one of us designed a pizza – the idea being that at the end of the night we’d have a competition (competition being one of the themes of the weekend…) – but at the end of the night, they were all so good that it was sort of a draw.
It actually brought to mind an alternate definition of competition my friend Becca wrote about in a recent blog post: true competition lies not in winning at another’s expense, but in “striving together” for the benefit of all: “if people run together, everyone runs faster.”
I know what you’re thinking: Becca is talking about social justice and youth music education, and I’m talking about baking pizzas, but you know, maybe that’s just because you haven’t tried these pizzas.
The Dough, adapted from the pizza dough recipe from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone:
Make a “sponge” by mixing 1/2 cup lukewarm water (see my rule of thumb, below, for activating yeast with water), 4 teaspoons active dry yeast, and 1/2 cup wheat flour in a large mixing bowl
Let it rise about half an hour then add 2 tablespoons milk, 4 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt and 3.5 cups all-purpose flour
Gradually add about a cup of lukewarm water, mixing it in till it’s a dough-y consistency. Knead into a dough, cover in olive oil (this helps keep a crust from forming), and place it in a covered bowl in a draft-free space (I like a clean linen closet or an oven, turned off). Let it rise about an hour or so then punch it down – if you have time to let it rise again, do so, but if not just go ahead and shape the dough into four rounds.
I like to bake the crusts just a bit before topping them. Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees F (if you can) and bake them till they just start to get crispy.
Pizza No. 1: Vegetable and Ricotta
Chop up whatever veggies you have around (eg, carrots, onions, peppers, tomatoes, spinach) and roast them in balsamic vinaigrette at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Top the pizza with the veggies and plenty of ricotta. After baking, top the pizza with thinly sliced avocado.
Pizza No. 2: Spinach and Mushroom
Saute some chopped garlic in butter and olive oil; add sliced mushrooms, then spinach till it’s just wilted; season with basil, thyme, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Top the pizza with this mixture, shredded Parmesan and Monterey Jack, and thinly sliced tomatoes.
Pizza No. 3: Eggplant and Tomato
Saute sliced garlic and eggplant julienne in butter and olive oil. Make a quick tomato sauce: grate two halved tomatoes (grate everything but the skins) and cook with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add several whole leaves of basil, some dried thyme, a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, a teaspoon of sugar, black pepper to taste, and a teaspoon of salt. Cook till the sauce reduces, adding salt as necessary (you’ll need more than you think to offset the sweetness of the tomato, but don’t add it too soon or it’ll reduce to be too salty). Spread the sauce on the pizza and add another tomato, roughly chopped; add a layer of grated Parmesan, the eggplant and garlic mixture, and another layer of cheese on top.
Pizza No. 4: Onion-Pecan Confit and Goat Cheese
Slice an onion thinly and saute in several tablespoons of butter. After several minutes, add about a tablespoon of sugar and stir occasionally on medium-low heat. Once they start to carmelize, add a cup of red wine, a quarter cup of chopped pecans, salt and pepper to taste, and a half teaspoon of dried or fresh thyme. Cook until the onions are well carmelized and the liquid is reduced to nearly nothing. Spread a thin layer of fig jam on the crust, add the onion mixture, and top with grated Parmesan and generous dollops of goat cheese.
After the pizzas are topped, bake them at 500 degrees F till the crusts are crispy (sorry can’t be more specific…guess I’m still on Morocco-cooking-time, wherein you just check on whatever you’re baking every five to ten minutes or so). I generally aim to take my pizzas out after the crust browns and before the toppings do…