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Hooray! Celebrate Cheese Pizza Day!

Hooray! Celebrate Cheese Pizza Day!
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BY STEVE NUBIE

Sometimes there’s nothing like the taste of a gooey, cheesy, stringy, melty Cheese pizza!

For many of us our introduction to pizza was a cheese pizza. No pepperoni or onions or hot peppers and certainly no anchovies.  Cheese pizza is still a favorite of my grandkids and I’ve fallen in love with it all over again.  We’re going to explore a basic pizza crust recipe that’s easy to make and then some variations on Cheese pizza.  Some are classics and others blend some surprising cheeses in a new way.  But first, a bit of history.

Yes, pizza is an Italian invention but the first pizzas were much different than what we enjoy today. They were essentially variations on a flat bread that were usually dressed with some olive oil, onions and/or olives and sometimes topped with sardines or anchovies.  Tomatoes and tomato sauce were never used except by the poorest people, and if cheese showed up it was a garnish of grated parmesan at most.  And then something changed.

Queen Margherita was the Italian Queen of Savoy and on a visit to Naples during the anniversary of her coronation, a local chef decided to make a special dish in her honor. It was a humble flat bread but he decided to top it with ingredients that evoked the colors of the Italian flag:  Red, white and green.  To do so, he topped a round of flat bread with a red tomato sauce, covered it with white mozzarella cheese and topped it all with leaves of green basil.  He named it “Pizza Margherita” in her honor and the first cheese pizza was born.  Or at least that’s the legend.

U.S. soldiers returning from Italy following World War II brought with them both a taste and the tradition of the pizza we know today and made it significantly popular. For years, the classic and basic cheese recipe was the norm, but slowly other toppings began to find their way onto pizzas.  We’re going to skip the exotic toppings and think about 3 basic ingredients:

  1. The crust or dough
  2. The sauce
  3. The cheese

pizza slice2

Here’s the basic recipe for a pizza crust. There’s not much in the way of variations and this recipe is tried and true.

The dough

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour, plus more for rolling
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water, 110 degrees F.
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons for oiling the pizza pan

DIRECTIONS:

There are 3 ways you can approach mixing and kneading your pizza dough.

  1. Put all of the ingredients in a Kitchenaid Mix-Master and knead the dough with the dough hook for about 15 minutes.
  2. If you have a bread machine it might have a pizza dough cycle.  Add the ingredients to the pan with the liquids first followed by the salt and sugar then the flower and finally the yeast.  Select the pizza dough cycle and let her rip.
  3. Knead it by hand.  Mix it in a bowl first with some oil on your hands and then turn it out onto a floured surface and knead it for 5 to 10 minutes until it’s well blended and somewhat elastic.

Regardless of the method you use, let the dough rest and rise for 10 minutes and then roll it out with a rolling pin on a floured surface. You can make it as thin or thick as you like.  You can stretch it (carefully) to fit the pan or baking sheet.  Remember to oil the pan or baking sheet before putting the dough on top.  I’ll roll the dough onto a rolling pin and unroll it onto the pan or baking sheet to make handling easier. You could also sprinkle some corn meal over the oil on the pan or baking sheet.  This will give you a nice texture as the bottom gets crisp.

The sauce 

This can be very simple or you can get a bit ambitious. Quite frankly, some tomato sauce right from the can will work fine.  You could also use a canned or jarred spaghetti sauce.  I wouldn’t bother with the canned pizza sauce.  It’s expensive and is basically spaghetti sauce.  You could also make your own sauce from canned tomatoes.

INGREDIENTS:

1 28-ounce can of Pomodoro tomatoes

2 cloves of garlic

1 teaspoon of fresh or dried oregano

½ teaspoons of salt

DIRECTIONS:

Chop the garlic and salt and oregano in a food processor. Add the tomatoes and blend until it’s a liquid.

The key with any sauce regardless of the method is that less is more. You want to spoon the sauce onto the dough so that a circular motion will reveal the crust through the sauce.  It’s tempting to load up the sauce but that will give you a soggy crust.  If that’s what you like, go for it.  I like my crust to be a little crisp.

The cheese 

Now it’s time for the main event. This is obviously what a cheese pizza is all about.  Mozzarella is the cheese of choice but we’ll get into some blends and variations in a moment.  You can buy the mozzarella pre-shredded or shred it yourself.  You could also layer slices of mozzarella on your pizza.  How you do it and how much you use is up to you.  In my mind there’s no such thing as too much cheese.

Herb toppings

If you like you can top your cheese pizza with fresh or dried oregano or basil or a combination. Go lightly on any herb.  You don’t want it to overwhelm the overall flavor. If you like, you can add just about any other topping.  Personally, I like thin slices of vine-ripened tomatoes and chopped herbs, but  you can keep it simple and stick with the cheese. .

The perfect finish 

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Make sure the oven has reached that temperature before putting the pizza in the oven.  This will get you the best crust and a nice, melty cheese.  Place it on the center rack and set the time for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes take a peek.  It will probably need some more time so work in 5 minute increments.  You want a browned crust and a little bit of browning on the cheese.

When it looks the way you like it, take it out and let it rest for a couple of minutes and then slice either into squares or traditional pizza triangles.   Hopefully you’ll get some of those nice, stringy pulls as you lift a slice.

Taste carefully and make sure it’s not too hot. We’ve all had those pizza blisters on the roofs of our mouths.   Over time you can estimate more accurately how long your average size pizza will take to bake in the oven, but at the outset it’s better to check the progress periodically.  Once a pizza is burnt you can’t do much to save it.

Variations on the cheese theme 

There are a variety of cheeses that melt wonderfully on a pizza and you can either substitute them for mozzarella or combine them. They all tend to be white cheeses and could be one or a blend of the following:

  • Swiss
  • Parmesan wedge
  • Romano wedge
  • Asiago
  • White Monterey Jack
  • Crème Cheese

You can mix them up in a food processor or dice and blend them by hand or simply try a different variety as your primary topping. I’ll often make little pizzas with my kids and grandkids and it’s fun to see how each chooses to top their pizza.  That’s what I did on September 5th and I hope you have the chance to try it too.

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Steve Nubie
Steve Nubie has been writing professionally for 38 years. He is a published author with 10 books to his credit, has written for CBS Entertainment for the Twilight Zone series, and has written hundreds of articles for magazines and the Internet. He has served as Chief Creative officer in the marketing and advertising industry, was an Executive career-coach, is a chef and has traveled extensively living in Asia for two years, and London for two years.