As kooky as it sounds, one of my ultimate comfort foods is a well-made, NY-style pizza. There’s something about gooey, melty cheese atop a layer of crispy dough that meets all my taste buds in just the right spots.
Strangely, I don’t go out of my way to get pizza often. I prefer to satisfy my pizza cravings in the kitchen because homemade is a great alternative to the mass-produced, drenched-in-oil stuff you get from most pizza chains—and keep in mind the pickings are slim in Irvine; this isn’t NYC or Chicago where independently-owned pizza joints line every street corner. Plus, sometimes you just have these miscellaneous items in your fridge that you wouldn’t know what to do with otherwise. (Case in point: what else would you do with an eggplant besides fry it, grill it, or make it into a dip? Slice it and put it on a pizza… duh.)
After several rounds of trial and error and experimenting, I’ve finally gotten the process down to a tee. By no means do I claim to be a master chef, but I know I do have some tips under my belt that my seasoned pizza-crafting soul has picked up from firsthand experience.
So without further adieu, this is my guide to making simple, delicious, fresh pizza.
Let’s get started. You’ll need…
- pizza dough - I’m not going to teach you how to make and knead dough because 1.) I’m too impatient to do it myself, and 2.) this is a simple pizza recipe, for goodness sake. I just buy the pre-made stuff at Trader Joe’s. It costs about $1.50, if you’re curious. I always go for the whole wheat kind because it’s great to my taste buds and health.
- 1 ball fresh mozzarella - I insist on using fresh ingredients at home. You can opt for the shredded stuff (it’s definitely cheaper and has a later expiration date), but there’s something about slicing up fresh cheese that distinguishes a homemade pizza from the stuff you get from a store, in my opinion.
- garlic - as many cloves as you want! I typically use about 4-5. Yes, I’m a garlic monster.
- olive oil, because it makes everything tasty
- salt and black pepper, to taste
- optional toppings: some of my favorites include spicy sausage, zucchini, mushrooms, pine nuts, eggplant, prosciutto, arugula, and tomato, but I definitely advocate exploring different combos and ingredients—let me know your favorites!
- optional: some type of sauce - some common examples include pesto, alfredo, or marinara. But honestly? Sauce is superfluous in my book. Sometimes I just pile on the cheese sans sauce, à la Cheeseboard.
- optional garnishes: fresh basil, crushed red pepper flakes, other cheeses (in my opinion, goat, parmesan, and feta cheese go well on pizzas)
Before you do anything, I recommend taking the dough out the fridge and allowing it sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes while you prep the rest of your ingredients. I’ve discovered that the dough is easier to spread out after it’s been left at room temperature for a bit.
Here’s my unbaked crust, pizza sauce, and olive oil mixed with some salt, black pepper, and dried Italian herbs to taste. Before I spread the dough out, I sprayed my cookie sheet with butter (but I really recommend olive oil) to prevent the dough from sticking and pressed it flat with my fingers. Oh, I also sprinkled some flax seed on the dough just for fun.
For this particular pizza, I’m using eggplant, tomato, and basil for garnish for no better reason other than the sheer fact that I happened to find them sitting around in my fridge at the time. I also unearthed a small can of tomato paste that was buried in the depths of my chaotic pantry, so I decided to whip up a simple marinara sauce, too.
It’s pizza, folks, not rocket science: let’s keep it real.
Here’s my crust again, this time brushed with olive oil and topped with a few pieces of chopped garlic. I’m a huge garlic fanatic so I make it a point to sneak the ingredient into nearly everything I make. Garlic shows up three times on my pizza: it’s mixed into the marinara sauce (sneaky sneaky), atop the dough before it precooks in the oven (more on this soon), and on my pizza along with the toppings. Three cheers for post-meal garlic breath!
Check out this fresh basil and garlic-infused marinara sauce. Yum!
A tip about the dough: I recommend giving it a head start in the oven at about 350 F for five minutes or so. This is because I hate soggy or soft crust. Pre-baking the dough a bit will ensure that the bottom layer is crispy and well-baked.
A tip about toppings: To simplify things and honor each ingredient’s unique flavor, I try to limit my toppings to three. And no, cheese and garlic don’t count: I consider those essentials. Fresh basil doesn’t really count either; that’s garnish, in my book.
A tip about dough and toppings: Another fact I learned about piling on too many ingredients is that often times your crust will end up soggy as a result. The solution? Hone in on the flavors you want to stand out and put those on your pizza. Save the rest of the stuff for another dish. Less is more. Think about how classic and great a margherita pizza is if you doubt that last statement.
Here’s my 3/4-finished pizza topped with fresh mozzarella. If any readers have mastered the art of slicing mozzarella into perfect circles, please enlighten me. This looks like I took a pair of scissors and hacked away at my mozzarella ball. But I figure it doesn’t matter because it’s all going to melt into an undistinguishable layer of messy, oozy goodness anyways.
After this, I topped the pizza with my eggplant slices and reserved my basil and tomato for last.
A tip about fresh basil: Basil leaves are so delicate that they will almost automatically brown and wilt when they come into direct contact with heat. To preserve the crispness and freshness of this herb, I almost never cook it.
A tip about tomatoes: I usually put them on during the last five minutes or so of the pizza baking process. This is because tomatoes cook relatively quickly and I like my tomatoes somewhat fresh—but to each her own!
A tip about aesthetics in cooking: I try to incorporate as many colors as possible in my dishes because, let’s face it: food is, in large part, a matter of visual aesthetics and design—just something to consider!
Bake the pizza for about 10-15 minutes at 350 F or until the cheese is completely melted. Play it by eye.
After the pizza is baked through, top it with your garnish of choice (in this case, fresh basil and black pepper.) And there you have it: a convenient, scrumptious, healthy (if you use the right ingredients), fresh, and very affordable meal!
My only regret is that I didn’t finish baking the pizza until nightfall.
A tip about food photography: It looks best in natural light.