Pizza!

Watching Masterchef the other evening, I heard a Michelin-starred chef state that the whole idea of eating out is that you get to eat something better than you could ever make at home. That’s the whole idea of eating out for me, but it can be a double-edged sword – sadly we can’t go out for pizza any more, not even to the best restaurants; we are always disappointed because we unavoidably compare what we are given with what we make at home. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, the truth is that nothing can compare with a fresh, home-made pizza.

There is a secret ingredient to a great pizza, that ingredient is time. Time for your dough to develop its flavour, time for your tomato sauce to mature, and the shortest possible time in the oven. Master the use of time and, like me, you will never be able to go out for a pizza again, and you certainly will never order in.

The best thing about making your own pizza is that you can make it faster than you think. Spend a little time getting your dough and sauce ready the day before, then ten minutes rolling your dough and assembling your toppings, ten more minutes in the oven and it is ready to eat. That’s faster than the time it takes for a takeaway to be delivered, and probably faster than the time between ordering and eating in a restaurant. It costs next to nothing as well.


RECIPE (Makes 2 thin and crispy pizzas, double or treble everything to make more)

For the dough:

125g strong white flour

125g ’00’ flour

1/4 tsp dried yeast

1 tsp fine sea salt

160ml tepid water

Olive oil, for kneading

For the tomato sauce:

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

A good pinch of Maldon sea salt

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 tsp caster sugar

30g basil leaves, shredded

A drizzle of the best extra-virgin olive oil


METHOD

The evening before you plan to eat, make your dough.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, using your fingers in a claw, making sure everything is well combined. Make a well in the centre and add the water, slowly, again using your fingers in a claw bringing the water and dry ingredients together. When all the water is added and you have pulled everything together you should have a slightly sticky dough which pulls itself away from the sides of the bowl, leaving it clean. If you need to add a little more or less water then do so, but be careful not to make your mixture too wet.

Lightly oil a clean, dry work surface with good olive oil, turn the dough out onto it and gently massage the dough using your fingers and palms for around 20 seconds to end up with a fairly smooth ball. Now leave it for ten minutes; when you come back to it you will see that it has already softened and become more silky. Gently knead it again for twenty seconds, using your fingers and palms, shape it into a ball and leave again for ten minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl.

Come back to your dough after ten minutes, give it a final twenty second knead, shape into a ball, place in your oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Put it in a cold place overnight and leave it. The time it now spends gently rising gives the flavour of the yeast the chance to permeate through the dough.

The same evening, make your tomato sauce.

Sieve the tinned tomatoes, pushing the liquid through until you are left with the tomato pulp and a little liquid. Approximately half the volume of the tin will be left in the sieve, the other half (the liquid) you can leave, covered, in the fridge for a week or so and use in a stock, or you can indulge yourself in a Bloody Mary or two…

Combine the rest of the ingredients (except the basil, put this in about an hour before you plan to use it otherwise it can become bitter) and stir thoroughly. Cover and leave overnight, chilled or not doesn’t matter. You can now forget about it for the rest of the night, and your finished sauce should look like the picture below:

IMG_0311 The following morning, check on your dough, it should have risen to at least twice its original size, probably more, and will be soft and pillowy. Using your fingers, and leaving it in the bowl (just to avoid making a mess) gently push the dough back in on itself, expelling the air and shaping it back into a ball. The professionals call this ‘knocking back’ or ‘punching down’ but that sounds too violent to me; I think bread should be treated tenderly and it will reward you. Cover again, and leave it in your kitchen to rise again until around an hour before you intend to eat.

When you reach that time, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (regular plain flour is fine, no need to use the ’00’ flour at this stage), push it down again using your fingers, and divide the dough into two equal balls. Place on a lightly floured piece of baking parchment, dust the top of each ball lightly with flour and loosely cover with either a clean, dry tea towel or a piece of cling film. If using cling film gently drape it over or it is likely to stick.

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When the time comes to start cooking, pre-heat your oven to the hottest temperature it will reach (mine reaches an indicated 250C, and if I use it on fan – which I do – it will reach a real temperature of around 270C). Put two baking trays in the oven to heat up with it, and give it plenty of time to get properly and thoroughly hot.

Now roll out your dough. On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll it out as thinly as you can. We go down to less than the thickness of a twenty-pence piece; don’t be scared of going so thin, it makes the base lovely and crunchy and, because it has had around 24 hours to develop, the dough will be strong enough to hold. If you do get a little tearing just pinch the holes together and it will be fine. If you roll it thinly enough your dough will be big enough to completely fill a standard-sized baking tray. Don’t worry about trying to make it perfectly round, we shape ours into an approximate rectangle. The whole idea is to get a pizza that tastes terrific even if it looks a bit ‘rustic’ – this is home cooking after all.

Now transfer your rolled dough to a piece of baking parchment or a silicon sheet which has been lightly dusted with fine semolina. Flatten it out and thinly spread a layer of the tomato sauce that you made the night before all over the pizza base. Be careful not to apply too much sauce, it is there for flavour and too much will prevent your pizza base from getting really crispy.

Now finish with whatever toppings you like on your pizza – my favourite is torn mozzarella, thinly sliced shallot, a tin of tuna in oil (drained and flaked), thinly sliced hot jalapeno chillies and sweet piquante peppers, topped with a grating of cheddar cheese and a good grinding of whole white peppercorns. When it comes out I like a thin drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a scattering of rocket leaves and it leaves me very full indeed. My wife is more spartan and likes hers cooked just as a pizza base with the tomato sauce, and when it comes out she shaves fresh parmesan onto it and scatters rocket leaves over the top. Whatever toppings you prefer, the base and sauce will lift it to a whole new dimension.

This bit will take two people: remove your pre-heated baking tray from the oven – using oven gloves as it will be fiercely hot. Gently and carefully slide the pizza, on its parchment, onto the hot baking tray; we do this by having one person holding the edge of the hot baking tray level with the surface on which the pizza is sitting while the other person gently slides it on to the tray. Cook in the hottest part of your oven for 5-10 minutes – keep an eye on it as it cooks quickly. If your pizza looks like mine below then I want to come to your house!

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Both the dough and sauce are easily scaled up, just exactly double or treble the ingredients, nothing else changes. If you don’t manage to prepare your dough and sauce the previous evening, don’t despair. Just give them as much time as you can and they will still taste great – your dough will need a minimum of two hours to develop enough strength and it will be fine to use, you just won’t get the same depth of flavour.

I also make my own mozzarella – but that’s a subject for another day…

Spaghetti with Spicy Prawns and Rocket

Some meals you just can’t help going back to again and again, in our house this is one of them. It’s a Sunday evening staple because it is quick and easy to make, and despite having only a few ingredients the flavours are rich and complex, and utterly delicious.

The star of the show should be the prawns. Frozen king prawns are fine, but take the time to shop around, discover which ones you like (we have found that some – and I’m not talking about cheap ones – have a faint whiff of the sewer about them) and be prepared to pay a little extra. It is definitely worth it.

You can make this with whole prawns, but pulling off the heads and tails gets quite messy. Be prepared to experiment with how ‘saucy’ you like this to be, you can make the sauce thick and sticky by reducing it a little more, or you can leave it loose and sloppy which is how we like it.

This recipe can easily be doubled or even trebled, but be careful about your spicing. If serving 4, I recommend leaving the sauce ingredients as they are, and if cooking for 6 increase the sauce ingredients by half – if you are not keen on chilli heat leave the chilli quantity as it is, and always test, test, test. As a rule of thumb, 100g of pasta will serve one person, but the more people eating the less you tend to need.

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RECIPE (Serves 2, easily doubled or trebled)

225g spaghetti

1 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, deseeded and very finely sliced

1 level tsp dried chilli flakes

225g raw peeled jumbo king prawns

100ml vermouth

4 tsp home-made sun-dried tomato paste OR 2 tbsp shop-bought sun-dried tomato paste

1 lemon, zest and juice  – zest finely grated with a microplane is best

Rocket, to serve


METHOD

First, do all your prep: crush the garlic, prepare the fresh chilli, zest and juice the lemon, drain the prawns if necessary, measure out the rest of your ingredients, boil the kettle and get a large pan onto boil for your pasta.

*NOTE: Use a lot of water to cook your pasta, we use two kettles full of water for two people and get it to a good rolling boil before putting the pasta in. The addition of the pasta will reduce the temperature so keep the heat high to get it back to the boil as quickly as possible, this will prevent the risk of your pasta getting sticky by cooking too slowly.

The Italians say that your pasta water should be as salty as the Mediterranean. I don’t live by the Med so I find that hard to judge, but a decent pinch of fine sea salt will add that little bit of flavour that pasta needs, so do your final seasoning with the sauce.

Get your spaghetti cooking, you will want it to be al dente as it will cook on slightly in the sauce, so set your timer accordingly. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and saute the garlic and chilli (both fresh and dry) for 15-30 seconds until aromatic. Be sure not to burn the garlic. Add the prawns and saute them until they just start to turn pink – this will only be a minute or so. Retrieve the prawns from the pan using tongs or a spider (a large open-mesh spoon, used a lot in oriental and wok cooking) and set aside.

Add the vermouth, and your choice of sun-dried tomato paste, to the garlic and chilli in the pan, bring to a simmer and reduce the sauce as desired.

When the pasta is ready, drain it, add the prawns back to the sauce in the frying pan and then add the spaghetti to the sauce as well. Toss thoroughly so the pasta is thoroughly coated, then drizzle with the lemon zest and lemon juice and stir it through.

Serve with a large bowl of rocket. There is no need to dress the rocket, if you mix it through the pasta in your eating bowl it will wilt slightly and add a lovely peppery crunch.

*TIP: Never run out of fresh chillies – they freeze extremely well, so buy them and freeze them whole. When you come to use them, prepare them while still frozen; it makes them easier to de-seed and chop, and it does not diminish their heat. I have a massive bag of all kinds of chillies in my freezer and they can be a life-saver.

Sun-Dried Tomato Paste

I try to make as many things from scratch as possible, partly because I like to know exactly what I’m eating (I am very distrustful of processed food after extensive reading into the subject) but mainly because I like the challenge, I like to experiment and, well… why not?

Sun-dried tomato paste is widely available in UK supermarkets, and the type that we keep in our pantry is very good indeed – if a little expensive. I use it as an ingredient in many Italian dishes, and often use anything from a teaspoon to a tablespoon to augment the flavour of a tomato-based sauce, so it is something we get through a lot of.

Stuck with an hour to spare one afternoon I decided to start making dinner early, and on a whim I filled that hour experimenting with my own sun-dried tomato paste. The results were spectacularly good, yielding a more intense flavour than shop-bought, and it is so quick and easy to make.

Sometimes life is too short to muck around making everything from scratch, and sometimes life is too short not to. Sometimes, all you’ve got time for is a bowl of pasta with something stirred through it – stir a tablespoon or two of this through a pan of fusilli, add a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan, a dribble of good extra-virgin olive oil and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley and I’m sure you’ll be eternally thankful that you did muck around making this from scratch.


RECIPE 

2 x 280g jars of sun-dried tomatoes in oil

8 fat garlic cloves

3 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp sea salt


METHOD

Drain the jars of sun-dried tomatoes in a sieve, put into a bowl and cover with just-boiled water. Stir for a minute then drain again. This softens the tomatoes up so they will blitz more easily, and cleans off the remainder of the oil.

Peel and crush the garlic, put into a food processor with the tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and sea salt, then blitz until it is a smooth puree. You may need to add a little oil if the paste is too stiff, and you will very likely need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times to get everything. You can also do this in a blender, or if you’re really keen a pestle and mortar will do the job.

Decant into a sterilised jar, top off with a little more oil (do not mix it in, the idea is that it sits over the paste and protects it from the atmosphere) and refrigerate. This will happily keep for two weeks or more, and quantities can easily be doubled or trebled.

*To Sterilise Glass Jars: Heat oven to 140C/120C fan/gas 1, then turn it off and keep the door closed. There is no point in wasting energy! Wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water then rinse well. Place the jars on a baking sheet and put them in the oven to dry completely. If using Kilner jars then boil the rubber seals, as the dry heat of the oven will make them perish.

Crumpets!

Who doesn’t love a good crumpet? Why go to all the trouble of making your own though, when you can easily pick up a decent pack of 6 ready-made crumpets for under a pound? One simple reason: there is a world of difference between a decent shop-bought crumpet and a crumpet that you have made yourself.

Home made, they are light, fluffy, and taste divine. You also know exactly what you have put into it, so you know exactly what you are putting in to your body: no preservatives, no flavour agents, no chemical additives. It is also a very satisfying thing to do, and extremely easy.

RECIPE (Makes 12)

400ml warm milk

100ml tepid water

1 tbsp dried fast action yeast

1 tsp caster sugar

300g strong white flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp fine sea salt

Vegetable oil, for greasing


METHOD

Warm the milk and water gently until it is around blood temperature – too cool and your yeast will act slowly, too hot and you run the risk of killing the yeast. Whisk the yeast and sugar into the warmed liquid until completely dissolved, then leave in a warm place for 15 minutes or until it starts to froth slightly.

Meanwhile, sieve the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and, when it is ready, pour the milk mixture into it. Whisk from the centre outward until the flour and milk are fully combined, with a consistency like double cream. Cover with a damp tea towel and set aside for a further 45-60 minutes until the batter mixture is bubbling.

*NOTE: Make sure you use a very large bowl, the batter mixture will expand significantly as the bicarb and yeast start to do their work. If you can, leave the batter to sit for up to two hours, if you leave it for longer then the holes in your crumpets will be more defined and it will taste better as well.

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You will need a large frying pan or skillet to cook your crumpets, as well as four muffin rings (or large cookie cutters).

Lightly grease the inside of your muffin rings with vegetable oil, and apply a thin film of oil to your pan.  Place the empty, greased rings in the pan and set over a medium-high heat; when hot, add 4 tbsp of the batter to each muffin ring and cook for 5 mins without disturbing them. You will see the holes start to develop as they cook, the top of the batter will start to dry out and the holes will firm up. After 5 mins, wriggle the muffin rings off each crumpet using a pair of tongs, then turn them over and cook for a further minute. The base of the crumpets should be smooth and lightly browned and, once cooked, the other side should be holey and also lightly browned.

*NOTE: Make sure you don’t over fill the crumpet rings. If you put too much batter in, the middle of the crumpet will still be liquid after 5 minutes and when you turn them over that liquid will fill in your holes and you will be left with a crumpet that looks more like a muffin. The picture below shows the crumpets after about two minutes of cooking – as you can see, the holes are starting to develop.

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To make the remaining crumpets, re-grease the muffin rings, and the pan if necessary, and reheat the rings. Refill the muffin rings with the crumpet batter and continue.

You can make these in advance, and when you are ready to serve just lightly toast them to warm them through. I like these buttered so heavily that the butter runs down my chin…