Homemade pizza is one of the larger letdowns of cooking. Even if you
follow the directions for the crust perfectly, spend $30 on artisanal
cheeses, and make your own tomato sauce, the process never seems worth
the bother when you can order-in a pizza twice as good.
I have made some horrendous pizzas in my day, starting when I was around 7, and discovered that I could take an English muffin, cover it with ketchup and dried oregano, top it with a slice of American cheese, and stick it in the oven for a few minutes. (Seriously, God bless my father for eating these monstrosities without visibly gagging. He always waited until I left the room, proud as punch, before he raided the refrigerator for some real food.)
Then there was the pizza my neighbors and I invented while drunk one time. We took self-rising flour, beer, milk, eggs, and water (pretty much all the liquid in Hillary’s apartment), and made a slightly disturbing biscuit-like crust. Then we dumped Ragu on top of that, along with all the leftover vegetables we could find — tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic. We were so proud of ourselves that we repeated the experiment a few times, never quite understanding how disgusting the pizza actually was, with its soggy middle, the store-bought pasta sauce, the “mozzarella” that comes pre-shredded in a plastic bag. We were 19 and living alone and feeding ourselves for the first time. Our pride clouded the signals between our taste buds and our brains, apparently.
Since then I’ve occasionally tried making pizza, but it was always so disappointing. The recipe for a thin crust turned out more like focaccia and the tomato sauce never seemed interesting enough. But surely someone holds the answer. I thought maybe Wolfgang Puck would be the one to show me the way. After all, he has created an empire of frozen pizzas and pizzas in airports. His 2004 cookbook Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy has a pizza section – surely he’s the man to ask.
The first step seemed to be to go out and buy a pizza stone. Puck doesn’t say why — he just insists that you need one. When I asked the helpful man at Bloomingdale’s why, he explained that it wasn’t just about keeping your oven hot enough (although that’s an added bonus – if you keep the stone in the bottom of your oven even when you’re not making pizza, it helps distribute the heat evenly). The stone sucks out any excess water from the crust, which is how you get really thin pizza crust instead of fluffy focaccia.
Armed with a pizza stone, I set out on my Puck-led task. There are three versions of the pizza dough recipe, depending on whether you wanted to make it with a stand mixer, a food processor, or by hand. I decided, being without a stand mixer and also being a control freak, to make the dough by hand. It’s a straightforward yeast dough recipe, and making it by hand, in my warped world view, allows you to better notice and control variables, like the humidity of the weather, etc.
The recipe makes four 8-inch pizzas, so I made two with Puck’s Roasted Garlic and Wild Mushroom topping (to which I added blue cheese, because when you have the opportunity to add blue cheese to something, you probably should take it) and two with Prosciutto and Arugula. Now with the oven at 500 degrees, pizza stone in place, and apartment feeling like a goddamn sauna, I was ready. I loaded a rimless baking sheet with the pizza and tossed it onto the pizza stone. Or I tried. One corner folded over a little, cheese spilled onto the pizza stone, and my apartment immediately filled with smoke.
Then my friend had a moment of genius. “While this one is baking, why don’t we stick the next one in the freezer for a few minutes so it’ll be easier to throw?” We tried that, and it worked. Half an hour later, with all the fans running to chase out the heat and smoke, we were ready to try the pizza. The wild mushroom pizza was good, but it still had that tiny nag of “We could have ordered this and then we’d be able to eat it without sweating and breathing burnt cheese fumes.”
Then came the prosciutto and arugula pizza. The crust was absolutely perfect and crisp. The combination of the fontina, prosciutto, arugula, and vinegar was so good we had a moment of prayer to Cerridwen, the sow goddess, to thank her for allowing us to use her kin on our pizza. There was not even a glimmer of disappointment — it was perfection. • 23 September 2008
Pizza with Prosciutto and Arugula
From Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy
Makes 4 small pizzas
1 recipe pizza dough
2 cups grated fontina cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
2 cups baby arugula
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
6 ounces prosciutto, cut or torn into strips
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
1. Place a pizza stone on the middle rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
2. Roll or press out the dough. Brush the dough lightly with olive oil, then sprinkle on the fontina and mozzarella cheeses.
3. Using a lightly floured baker’s peel or a rimless flat baking tray, slide the pizza onto the baking stone and bake it until the crust is nicely browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Remember that the oven is very hot and be careful as you place the pizza in the oven and again as you take it out. Toss the arugula with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Transfer the pizza to a firm surface and arrange the prosciutto, arugula, and parmesan on top. Cut the pizza into slices with a pizza cutter or a very sharp knife. Serve immediately.