This has become one of my go-to meals on nights Eli is in class. The dough uses a quick-rise process (cheater's pizza dough, if you will), so it only takes about 45 minutes. The whole deal takes a little over an hour from start to finish and requires very little handling, so it's perfect for nights I have Lili all to myself. She will play contentedly on her blanket or in her high chair for the few minutes it takes to get the dough going and prep the sauce. As soon as she's in bed for the night, I pop the pizza into the oven. Fifteen minutes later, I'm on the couch with my feet propped up, savoring a slice with a glass of chardonnay or pinot grigio.
I don't generally drink wine with my pizza, but Margherita feels elegant enough to be accompanied by a glass of something white and chilled. I think it's the simple ingredients - diced tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic, real parmesan (not the powdery stuff) that make it special. You can certainly tinker with the recipe, as I did, finding your own preferred ratio of tomatoes, herbs and seasonings, basil and cheese. I like a splash of balsamic vinegar in my sauce, for example. There's a lot of room for improvisation. But there are definitely a few ground rules, too.
First, don't over-knead the dough. After it has risen, just give it a couple of folds, massage it back into a ball, and then gently and patiently stretch it into the shape you want. Don't be rough with it, or you'll end up with a tough crust.
Second, don't overdo the mozzarella. Some people load their pizza with so much cheese it obscures everything else. Because this margherita involves two cheeses, one applied before baking and one afterward, a good rule of thumb is that you should be able to see the sauce between the bits of cheese. Trust me on this. I'm a cheese lover, but in this case, less is more.
Finally, don't pulverize the sauce too much. You want it to be chunky. Macerate the tomatoes a bit, but you're looking to get a sauce comprised of smallish chunks and juice, not a purée. Again, be gentle.
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
For the crust:
1/2 cup warm (not lukewarm but not hot) water
1-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
Cornmeal for the pan
For the sauce:
15-16 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 clove garlic, pressed, pulverized or very finely minced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or pizza seasoning
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar, any kind
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup freshly grated or shredded parmesan
small handful fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade or torn into small pieces by hand
In the bowl of a stand mixer, sprinkle the yeast onto the surface of the hot water and let stand for five minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 200° for five minutes, then shut it off, but do not open the oven door.
With the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the flour and salt and mix on medium for just a minute or so, until the dough becomes a shaggy-looking mass. Switch from the paddle to the dough hook, and mix on medium until the dough has formed into a smooth ball, about five minutes:
Place the dough into a medium-sized oven-safe bowl that has been greased lightly with olive oil (this will prevent the dough from sticking to the bowl), and cover it tightly with plastic wrap. Quickly place it in the warm oven. Leave the dough to rise in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until it has doubled in size:
While the dough is rising, mix the sauce ingredients together in a smaller bowl and use a potato masher or a pastry blender to macerate the tomatoes a bit. Set aside to let the flavors marry while the dough finishes rising:
Prep a round pizza pan or an oblong cookie sheet or jellyroll pan by sprinkling it with coarse-ground cornmeal. This will both give the crust a nice texture and keep it from sticking to the pan.
When the dough has doubled in size, remove it from the oven, and turn it up to the highest available temperature (450°-500°).
Fold the dough a couple of times, massage it into a ball, then stretch it out roughly into the shape you want. Don't worry about making it perfect - it won't be. Drizzle the crust with a bit of olive oil, then spread on the sauce.
Sprinkle on the mozzarella. Like I said, be conservative.
Bake 10-12 minutes, until the cheese is brown and bubbly and the crust is golden. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle on the basil and parmesan cheese.
Give it a few minutes before cutting; the basil will wilt and the parmesan will melt a little. This is what you're after.
For a printable copy of this recipe, click here.