This week, I fancied a crack at making one of my favourite things, pizza.
Whether it’s a good shop-bought version, or a homemade labour of love, there’s something so enticing about that wonderfully crisp base loaded with bubbling cheese and exciting toppings.
It can be the thinnest Neapolitan-style original, with the scantest of garnish – just a simple smear of tomato, fresh basil and mozzarella, cooked to puffed, charred perfection in just minutes in the most ferocious heat, or it can be the unctuous delight of a Chicago-style deep-pan pizza pie, thick and doughy, brimming indecently with copious toppings.
I also adore cold pizza, which I think is something I’ve retained from countless holidays in France. Most village bakeries will have a tray of square pieces of cold cheese and tomato pizza with occasional black olives, and these make great picnic nibbles or on-the-hoof snacks. I’m always upset the morning after having pizza if there isn’t at least one slice left to enjoy cold for lunch.
I remember many visits as a student in Bordeaux to a wonderfully ramshackle place out by the airport where a wonderfully sweary old Italian, in full cartoon mode (cigarette permanently in corner-of-mouth, floury string vest and wild expressive gesturing) would produce the most heavenly slices that got my friend and I through many weeks of frugal living; hot for supper or cold the morning after – it’s also a good hangover cure!
Making pizza fairly regularly, I fancied trying something a little different this time, a Calzone. Originating in Naples, it’s a folded pizza, which allows for a slightly more substantial filling.
Most flat pizza toppings can be Calzonified, and I wanted to try a combination I’d had a few years ago.
Eschewing the tomato-based fillings, it’s a classic amalgamation of cheeses, olives and artichokes, which I bolstered further with fresh spinach and a little béchamel sauce. Of course, you should take this recipe as a simple stepping-off point. There is a world of toppings and fillings you can choose from.
There’s something magical in the simplicity of the holy tomato/mozzarella/basil trinity, but a rich tomato sauce can provide a palette upon which you can paint an almost infinite tableau of flavours.
Cured meats, chicken, spicy meatballs, for instance. Shellfish like prawns and mussels work wonderfully. Or go veggie, and add peppers, aubergines, courgettes. The olive is a great friend to the pizza, as we shall see. Try different cheeses – maybe a spot of creamy blue dolcelatte, or the tang of a soft goat cheese? Herbs like rosemary, oregano and thyme go great on pizzas, and you could even try going full French, and cracking an egg over the pizza a few minutes before removing it from the oven.
One of my favourites is a simple tomato, cheese and ham pizza with a runny-yolked egg plopped right in the centre. Bliss!
The important thing with pizza is, of course, the heat factor. Commercial pizza ovens go up as high as 270º, which is way above the safe level for domestic ovens, but this helps to ensure that the dough rises and sets quickly, giving a crisp base that won’t wilt under the weight and moisture of all that tomato and cheese. We can do all we can by whacking the oven up as high as it will go, and investing in a pizza stone. This provides a super-hot base which starts working on the dough right away.
I remember learning this recipe in the first term at Leith’s School Of Food & Wine, back when I was just starting out as a chef, and was struck by how easy and enjoyable a dough it is to make.
It’s a great one for the kids to help with, and you can have smashing floury fun rolling and stretching the dough, and allowing the family to all choose their favourite toppings before baking them and sharing for a wonderfully satisfying homemade supper.
As an alternative to unwrapping a factory made version, this recipe is second-to-none, and well worth making time for.
For the Dough:
250g ‘00’ flour
250g strong white flour
10g fresh yeast
½ tsp unrefined golden caster
320ml warm water
A splash of olive oil
1 tsp Maldon salt
A little semolina flour, for cooking
For the Filling:
½ medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
125g soft ricotta cheese
150g mozzarella, finely diced
50g Reggiano parmesan, grated
200g fresh spinach, roughly chopped
80g Green pitted olives
120g grilled artichoke hearts in olive oil, drained and roughly chopped
70g béchamel sauce (shop-bought is fine)
2 tsp fresh curly parsley, finely chopped
A little fresh rocket
Pizza stone or heavy baking tray
Make the filling first; sweat the onion and garlic in a little olive oil for about 30 minutes, until soft and translucent. Remove from the heat and cool.
In a bowl, combine the cheeses, spinach, olives and artichoke hearts and season well. Add the onion mixture and stir. Chill until required.
Now for the dough; cream together the yeast and sugar and leave for 1 minute. Add the warm water. Sift the flour and salt into a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the yeast water.
Bring together to a soft dough, and transfer to a floured surface. Knead, adding flour if necessary, for 10 minutes. Put the dough into a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a damp cloth, or oiled cling film, and leave in a warm place for 2-3 hours, until well-risen, almost doubled in size. It will be delightfully warm and fluffy.
As the dough rises, turn the oven to its highest possible setting, and slide in your pizza stone or heavy baking tray.
Allow it to heat for at least half an hour – this ensures a fast, crisp bake. Dust a clean, wide work surface with a little ‘00’ flour and put the ball of dough on to it.
Flatten it gently, knocking out the air as you go. Gently tease it out into a rough circle about 8 inches wide. Brush one half of the dough with a little warm water.
Spoon the filling carefully onto the dry side of the dough and fold over, sealing the edges. Crimp or roll the edges with your fingers and cut a couple of small holes in the top, to allow excess steam to escape.
Dust the hot tray or stone with semolina flour, and place back in the oven for a few minutes to heat through fully. Then, slide the calzone quickly and carefully onto the hot surface and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until crisp and deeply golden.
Serve with some lightly-dressed rocket for contrast and added savoury bite.