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
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 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:
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.
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!
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…