What’s an easy weeknight dinner option? Pizza. What is the one food that even picky kids will eat? Pizza. What is one cooking project that I haven’t truly conquered? Pizza.
On the surface, pizza-making seemed so simple, but it was using fresh dough that put me off. I felt unsure about rising and kneading it, I never could seem to stretch it thin enough, and I hadn’t had much success getting it evenly cooked. Throw in the fact that I have a pizza snob in the house with definite opinions about how a pizza should be and I had a recipe for pizza paralysis.
A few weeks ago, though, I attended a Minnesota Food Bloggers event at Kitchen in the Market, where local chef and cookbook author Zoe Francois schooled us all on pizza-making. Her no-knead technique was extremely simple and after the demo, we each had a chance to play around with our own ball of dough. I was surprised how easy this dough was to shape.
At the end of the event, each attendee received a copy of Zoe’s pizza cookbook, Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day, along with a bag of flour and some packets of yeast. There was really no excuse not to try this at home.
In addition to numerous crust and sauce recipes, Artisan Pizza offers an in-depth discussion about various types of flour, cheeses and meats used for pizzas and flatbreads. It includes a ton of troubleshooting tips for making the perfect pie at home.
The cookbook inspired me and made me hungry, so much so that an ultra-ambitious dinner plan started hatching in my brain.
Over the course of the next week I would make several dough recipes – Dough for Throwing, Master Recipe, Cornmeal Olive Oil Dough, and Brioche Dough. I would prepare the tomato, pesto and white sauce recipes included in the cookbook. For most of the dinners that week, we would eat: Traditional pizza! Chicago deep dish pizza! Italian torta! Calzones! And fruit galettes for dessert! All of my dinner chips were placed on the pizza bet.
(Looking back at this now, it makes me giggle. After being in a complete cooking slump for the past few months, suddenly I was going bonkers on pizza prep?? But this is what I do.)
Once I decided to tackle this mission, I was all in. First thing on Saturday morning, I mixed up a batch of the Dough for Throwing. At the farmers market I picked up local basil, spinach, arugula, asparagus, morel mushrooms and ramps. I hauled up my pizza stone, pizza peel, Danish dough whisk and mixing container from the basement. I went to the grocery store and bought Italian sausage, soppressata, prosciutto; fresh mozzarella, shredded mozzarella, gorgonzola, feta, goat cheeses; crimini mushrooms, red and yellow peppers, onions, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, fresh oregano and crushed tomatoes.
(OK, so I went a little overboard on the groceries.)
By the time I returned from the trip to the grocery store, it was already after 5:00 pm. I set to work browning sausage, caramelizing onions, roasting peppers, sauteing mushrooms, making homemade tomato, pesto and bechamel sauces.
I wrestled with the dough, trying to hand stretch it and toss it. Some pizzas eventually made it to the plate after 8, but they were not the most beautiful pies. I was completely exhausted and a little disappointed.
My husband gently pointed out that I didn’t need to make everything from scratch myself. I didn’t have to have every ingredient under the sun on hand. Practice making simple pizzas until you get the hang of it. Walk before you run.
The next day, I went back at it – cranking out the Margheritas like there was no mañana. I got better at working with the dough. Leaving it out for a longer period to rest allowed the gluten to relax and helped make it easier to stretch and shape (a tip from the book that I’d neglected to read).
My son requested a pizza that looked like the book cover, and this was the result. Not as thin a crust as I’d like, but it was an improvement over the previous evening.
My pizza odyssey continued over the next several days, with the kids even getting into the act.
I prepared the White Pizza with Spinach from the APin5 cookbook, made with a layer of bechamel sauce, ricotta, mozzarella and local spinach sauteed in minced garlic and olive oil. It was very rich and decadent, a nice change from the minimalist Margherita pies.
I tried making a calzone for the first time and stuffed it with Italian sausage, spinach, mushrooms, caramelized onions, ricotta, mozzarella and red sauce.I made a morel mushroom and ramp pizza with the farmers market produce. With a layer of white sauce topped by a layer of basil pesto, then sauteed ramps and morels, the pizza was a rich and flavorful starter, and the crust was the thinnest and crispiest yet.
By the fifth day, a fine layer of flour dust had settled all over my kitchen. I couldn’t stand the thought of eating pizza again. I assembled calzones with the remaining dough and ingredients, baked them off and froze them for lunch at a future date.
What did I learn from this pizzathon? It’s best to start simple. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
I enjoyed all of the recipes that I tried from the cookbook and appreciated all of the explanation surrounding ingredients and preparation.
I’d recommend on cooking day letting the shaped dough ball sit out for as long as you can spare – an hour is great – so it can warm up and loosen up. Likewise, I found that the longer you can heat up your oven and baking stone, the better.
One of the things that I liked most about the Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook is that you can make so many of the items ahead of time – you can prep the dough, sauces and other ingredients over the weekend to have on hand for quick meals throughout the week. If you don’t want to eat pizza or flatbread several times in a week, you can always freeze some of the dough to use another time or halve the recipe.
I also liked that this was a food that my kids will actually eat and want to help prepare with me. Pizza making is fun!
But, the biggest win? This cookbook lit a fire under me and inspired me to get back into the kitchen again. I’m no longer afraid to make pizzas from scratch. Thanks Zoe and Jeff!
Disclosure: I received a free copy of the Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook. but was not asked to write a review. All expressed opinions are my own.
What are YOUR favorite pizza toppings? Any seasonal ingredient combinations you’d recommend? Please share below.