Technically, you can turn anything into pizza. That’s what I used to believe, anyway.
When I was in middle school, I used to pride myself on being able to make pizza out of any starch we had around the house. I don’t know exactly how this began, but when I got home from school I was always ravenous and my parents wouldn’t be home for hours. Back then they used to call us “latchkey kids” as if children were somehow neglected if our parents both worked and we had to unlock the front door ourselves. I didn’t feel neglected or lonely. I felt driven to produce the next best pizza. My mom would indulge me by keeping a steady supply of mozzarella cheese and jarred pizza sauce in the house. I can’t even say for sure what kind of bread product was my first. There were the predictable bagel, English muffin, and French bread pizzas, but evidently we didn’t always have those bread products available. I remember branching out to Saltines.
There’s a reason you don’t hear about Saltine pizzas. They practically melt into crackery ooze when you cook them, making them unwieldy, and despite my steadfast belief that anything tastes good with pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese, the Saltine pizza kept proving otherwise. I liked the fact that it made a pre-cut pizza, and I was pretty sure no one had ever thought of cracker pizza before. Feeling innovative, I made it several times before I admitted to myself that it might be clever, but it wasn’t good.
The procedure for most of these pizzas involved first laying out my chosen bread products on a microwave safe plate. These were then covered in pizza sauce, topped with cheese which I grated myself if I were in the mood, or sliced. Some bread products, like English muffins and bagels don’t like the microwave, so those had to go in the toaster oven. Sometimes we had pepperoni around the house. I zapped or cooked it until it bubbled and voila! Pizza!
Once a pizza overturned onto my hand as I removed it from the microwave. It seems like a funny accident, but melted cheese is kind of like kitchen napalm, sticking to the skin and keeps burning it. Knowing my first aid I ran my hand under cold water and called my mom. She had to leave work early to get me to the doctor. I managed to give myself a second-degree burn, but that didn’t stop my pizza experimentation.
After that, my pizza-making continued pretty much without incident. I once thought I was super clever to make pizza out of leftover spaghetti. I spread it out on a plate, added a little additional sauce, covered it in cheese, and cooked it. The result wasn’t pizza because in my definition pizza must be eaten without utensils, but it wasn’t too bad either.
By the time I had my own kitchen, supermarkets sold ready-made pizza crusts. Over the years, I’ve tried quite a few of these slabs, but am always disappointed. None of them taste anything like pizza shop crust and the texture is like stale whole wheat bread. They aren’t particularly low in fat, they often contain all kinds of preservatives, and they generally have little, if any whole grains. My rule of eating is, if it’s not particularly healthy, it has to taste good, and vice versa.
Sometimes I used Pillsbury dough in those crazy pop-open tubes, which is conveniently rolled, but turns out just like school lunchroom pizza. I ate lunchroom pizza for years. Every Friday I seemed to suffer from amnesia or bizarrely unfounded optimism, that the orange-sauced and plastic-cheesed rectangle on my Styrofoam tray was going to taste like pizza. To this day I can’t eat rectangular-shaped pizza. I am convinced that making a pizza in a rectangle contributes to its poor taste and texture, but this doesn’t seem logical. It might be that the rectangular slice just brings back sense memories so powerful that they override the sense data coming in. In any case, the Pillsbury dough, which was tasty around pigs in a blanket and cooked up plain as rolls, tasted horrible as a vehicle for pizza toppings. It tasted like Pillsbury rolls. Plus, the texture was like a thinner, lighter version of the bricks we got in the lunch line.
Supermarkets sometimes sell pre-made blobs of dough. These are slightly less disappointing. Some even taste vaguely like pizza shop dough. The texture problem is not as profound as with the ready-made crusts, but stretching it out reasonably thinly requires allowing the ball to come to room temperature and then laborious, careful stretching. And then, alas, the home oven is no pizza shop oven so the crust comes out just acceptable.
Perhaps I should lay out my biases, the ideal to which I’m comparing these home-attempts. I only eat New York style pizza, the thin crispy crust kind, and only from restaurants that more or less know how to make that happen. I know that in other parts of the country, people eat something that is completely different, like deep dish pizza. To me, that’s just wrong. As are most pizza chains, which serve consistently bad tasting pizza. In college we lived on Dominoes, which weren’t glaringly bad at 2 a.m., but in the light of day, they just fell measurably short both in taste and texture. I remember I used to love Pizza Hut as a kid when my parents refused to take me there. I think I just liked the idea of the pizza buffet. As I got older I noticed their slices have a weirdly sweet sauce and peculiar texture, perhaps due to all that oil and corn meal which the pizza seems to be cooked on top of. I also can’t stand, on principle, the idea of cheese inside the crust, sold by some chains.
The dough blob from the grocery store is not a bad option, but it’s not particularly healthful, often containing all kinds of additives you wouldn’t put in your crust if you were making it at home. The “wheat” ones at our grocery store contain white flour as their first ingredient and don’t provide any more fiber per serving than the white dough, which suggests that they are wheat-colored and perhaps wheat-flavored but not actually made of wheat.
For a long time I made “flat bread pizza” which was a whole wheat flatbread (like a tortilla, but bigger) with pizza toppings. Our grocery store has a brand that is made of whole wheat flour and water and no preservatives, which is clearly a healthy option. The taste is not pizza dough, but really not bad. What suffers is the texture. It’s utterly flat and floppy. It’s not bad in a pinch, and makes a quick, and healthy (depending how much cheese you use), dinner. But, after years, I finally admitted it’s not really pizza.
Thus began our recent experiments in homemade dough. Our first attempt was a 100% whole wheat recipe adapted from Wolfgang Puck to which we added to it a tablespoon of gluten, (and idea from another recipe online) hoping it would rise. At one point the recipe suggested making balls of dough and letting them rise under a damp towel. They looked like two AA-cup boobs under a terry cloth t-shirt, and later, they still hadn’t developed beyond an A-cup. The cooked result was sour tasting and hard as a rock. I think part of the problem was that we didn’t let the yeast activate enough so I can’t say for sure that this recipe couldn’t work. But instead of just making that change, I decided that since most of the recipes use at least half white flour, I’d change almost half of mine to white, too. Plus I added a second tablespoon of gluten and gave the dough a warmer place and longer time to rise. So, it’s quite possible that the other recipe might be passable. It’s just that it came out so badly, and the new one so consistently good, that I’m sticking with the new one.
I knew things were looking up already with the new recipe when the A-cups turned into size D. The Half-Whole-Wheat Pizza dough, has a little nutty wheat flavor, a little doughy flavor, and little neutral flavor, and a nice crispy light texture even in my home oven using a metal pizza pan rather than a pizza stone. It’s not like the pizza shop my dad used to take me to, but it’s pretty darn good, and healthier than pizza shop pizza or ready-crust pizza-like dinner. It’s also cheaper and I can put any topping on that my little heart desires. When it’s basil season again, I’ll be making a pesto pie and then, look out!
Half-Whole Wheat Pizza Dough (Makes two approx 14 inch pizzas)
- 1 package dry active yeast (approx. ¼ ounce)
- ¼ cup warm tap water
- 1 TBS honey
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1-¾ cups white flour
- 2 TBS vital wheat gluten
- 1-1-¼ cup cool water*
- 1 TBS olive oil
- pinch salt
- In a larger bowl than you think you’d need, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Stir in the honey and let sit for 10 minutes until quite foamy. (If it doesn’t foam, the yeast is dead and you have to start again with new yeast.)
- Add the wheat and white flours and the gluten to the food processor
- Stir the olive oil and salt into the cool water.
- With the processor running, very slowly pour a stream of the oil and water mixture through the feed tube. Next do the same with the yeast mixture.
- Continue processing just until the dough forms a ball on the blade. *If it seems too dry to form a blob, slowly add up to 1/4 cup more water. I find that dry winter days the dough needs more water, occasionally almost 1/2 cup more. It won’t look like the smooth finished dough yet.
- Transfer the dough ball to an oiled bowl and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and then a towel on top. Place the bowl in a warm area without drafts. I like to put it on top of the stove after the oven has been heated and is turned off, so that just a bit of heat wafts up. Allow the dough to rise for at least an hour. It should double in size.
- Punch down the dough and then knead it for one minute on a lightly floured surface.
- Divide the dough in half and roll into two tight balls.
- Place the dough balls on a tray and cover with a damp towel. Allow the dough to rest for about three hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator.
To cook the pizza
- Preheat the oven to 475º F
- Stretch the pizza dough to fit your pizza tray
- Add your favorite toppings
- Brush the edge of the crust with olive oil
- Cook pizzas, one at a time for about 12 minutes, until cheese begins to brown