The first pizza I ever ate would have made a true Italian (or New Yorker, for that matter) go nearly apoplectic with righteous indignation. It had a 6-inch round, thick crust, the tomato sauce bore a closer resemblance to ketchup and it was topped with onions, green peppers and copious amounts of processed cheese. Olive oil, mozzarella, basil – these were just alien names, not ingredients. This was more than a decade ago when people in Bombay didn’t have access to ‘imported’ ingredients and restaurants serving thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas were an anomaly. That pizza was nowhere close to authentic but my sister and I loved it. My mom even came up with a recipe based solely on instinct (this was before the times of Google or even the internet) and the pizza ‘baked’ in a cast iron pan over the stove became a regular at our house.
I know that the ‘best’ pizza is a topic that sparks much passionate debate and emotion. Petitions are filed to register the definition of an authentic Pizza Napoletana, long journeys are undertaken in search of the perfect pie, attempts are made to compile ‘best pizza’ lists that are quickly shredded apart by disgruntled readers, entire blogs are dedicated to the topic, kitchen experiments are conducted to replicate the perfect pizza at home – the dough, water quality, cast iron pans, the broiler method, oven transformations – everything is tested and analyzed; an innocent remark may have even caused a president lost votes. When I’d read that the fifth Project Food Blog* challenge was to put your own spin on pizza, initially I’d thought that it was easier than the previous challenges. But my research (that’s what I call reading endless stories about food) had intimidated me. What could I possibly contribute that hadn’t already been done before?
And then I came across Chris Bianco’s pizza philosphy – according to Bianco, there are no pizza masters and no “world’s best pizza,” just your own personal expression. And I agree with him; food is such a personal thing that every ‘expert’ opinion is subjective. And as much as I would like to turn my nose up at the bland butter chicken I encounter when abroad, and an Italian would shake his fist at barbecue sauce on pizza, I think that we sometimes take ourselves too seriously. While I might never go back to the pizza from my childhood after eating the real thing, I still remember the simple joy it gave me and how connected I felt to a country I’d never seen. So I decided to spin my pizza around the world. An Indian pizza with a naan crust, tandoori sauce and gently spiced paneer seemed an obvious choice, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I also wanted to stick to the essence of a true pizza – something comforting and rustic that you eat hot from the oven with your friends, plates and cutlery optional. Soon I’d whipped up a pizza party spanning two days and four meals.
Breakfast – Pizza Shakshuka:
Pizza for breakfast! A fabulous idea that requires no further explanation. Digging through my list of bookmarked recipes (a list that like an alien has been steadily mutating out of control), I came across one for shakshuka – an Israeli dish of eggs poached in a tomato sauce. And of course, I decided to turn it into a pizza. I wanted to stay true to the pizza crust (mainly because I was eager to try making one at home) and turned to the master baker Peter Reinhart. His pizza dough is relatively simple to work with and all the flavor comes from its long, slow fermentation. I layered the crust with a spicy tomato sauce spiked with jalapeños, cumin and paprika. Eggs were carefully cracked over the sauce, some feta cheese was crumbled and I took further liberty by adding thin strips of pancetta. The crust came out golden from the oven and the spicy sauce tangoed with the eggs, cheese and ham in my mouth – I don’t think breakfast can get any better.
Lunch – Pizza Hachapuri:
Emboldened by my Israeli breakfast pizza success, for lunch I traveled further north to Georgia. A classic Georgian dish is the hachapuri (or khachapuri), leavened bread filled with a mixture of cheese and egg and baked. I adapted the recipe from Nigella Lawson’s celebratory book Feast, a recipe she got from Nana, a grandmotherly purveyor at a Georgian cafe. I used a mixture of feta and mozzarella for a cheese sauce and added caramelized onions and proscuitto as toppings for my hachapuri pizza. Steam arose as I cut into the soft, chewy bread, the cheese oozed out, and the sweet onions were the perfect mate to the salty proscuitto. Thanks Nana!
Dinner – Pizza Margherita:
With all the attention Mr. Shakshuka and Mrs. Hachapuri were getting in my kitchen, Ms. Margherita was starting to feel a little left out. So what if she was authentic? I decided to let her join our party. (Plus, I wanted to prove that you could make a ‘proper’ pizza at home.) The step-by-step photos at the bottom should help you produce a pretty nifty homemade crust. I also wanted to give you the (now not so) secret trick to
the best my favorite tomato sauce: slow-roasting the tomatoes and garlic at a low heat for a couple of hours concentrates their flavor and mellows the garlic giving you a thick, intensely flavorful sauce. Add fresh basil and bubbling cheese… and I’m going to let this picture do the talking.
Dessert – Almond, Apple and Pear Pizza:
I couldn’t have a party without dessert, could I? With a nod to fall, I used pears and apples in a pizza version of my recent French tart. Store-bought puff pastry as the crust, an almond-cinnamon ‘sauce’, and thin slices of fruit topping that get cooked down to delicious perfection. I couldn’t have hoped for a better end.
Whichever branch of the pizza philosophy you subscribe to, try and make your own at home. It may or may not be authentic, it may or may not have the perfect crust, but if you use the best ingredients you can find, give it some loving attention, and show restraint when adding your toppings, you will have a pizza that will be good. Really good. And it will be homemade. That’s all your family and friends will care about.
This is my very sweet roommate, whose breakfast I interrupted so we could try our hand at flipping the pizza dough – as you can see, a wasted attempt, but so much fun! Gently pressing out the dough proved to be the most successful method.
*P.S. PFB voting is now open. Thank you to everyone for your loving support. Your thoughtful comments make my day. Thank you also to my roommate for being the best model there is. (And to that buzzing bee(/wasp?) on Picture 3 for not stinging me. He is a photo-shoot regular.)
- Almond, Apple and Pear Pizza – click here for printable recipe
Pizza almond ‘sauce’ adapted from Baking: From my Home to Yours – Dorie Greenspan