What is pizza?
You will find plenty of learned disagreement on this topic. Including what kind of cheese to use, what sort of sauce, what other toppings, and even the etymology of the word pizza. Naples may be the geographical source of pizza, but it was a peasant dish before it was a city food: and the pizza that we’re mostly used to eating is as much – or more – American as Italian.
The best pizza you can buy in Edinburgh is sold at Mamma’s in the Grassmarket.
But if you make your own bread, which I do, what is pizza becomes a much simpler question:
It began as a means of using up leftover dough and grew into a means of making a full meal out of bread, cheese, and a few vegetables.
No matter how good an eye you have for quantities of flour, you can never make exactly the same weight of bread. (The French government after the Revolution solemnly ruled it a “scientific heresy” that bakers could make bread of the same weight using the same quantity of flour, which is why in France for many years bread was priced by the gramme weight, not the unit.) Anyone making a batch of bread will nearly always have some bits of dough leftover. The traditional British thing to do is to add more fat and some sugar and maybe some dried fruit and spices and make up sweet yeast-leavened cakes, indigestible and delicious.
But the traditional Italian thing seems to have been to spread it into a flat layer, add some kind of sharp sauce, some fresh soft cheese, whatever other herbs or vegetables (or fish, or meat) there might be available, bake it up fast, and eat it hot.
You can of course make pizza dough specially (and it will be good even though you almost certainly don’t have the right kind of oven – ignore Tony Naylor’s Guardianista ravings: homemade pizza will be tastier than anything you can buy from a fast food pizza place, unless maybe Mamma’s). And once you get the hang of it, you don’t really need pizza recipes.
There are three rules to delicious pizza:
- Use good dough to make the base.
Prebought prebaked pizza bases: waste of money. Buy one of those flour-with-instant-yeast-added bags if you’re worried you can’t make bread – they’re all but foolproof.
- Only add cheese, sauce, and other toppings that you yourself actually like.
Yes, Mozzarella is “authentic” – if you live in Naples. Pizza is essentially a peasant food – it’s meant to be constructed out of what you can get easily.
- Don’t add too much of anything, and don’t go wild adding too many different things.
Cheese and a sauce: one or two more vegetables thinly sliced: maybe some fresh herbs if you’ve got them.
Spread out the dough – don’t worry if it’s not as thin as an expert would get it: cover all but to the edges with a thin layer of the sauce (thin, otherwise you have a scalding mouthful of hot sauce in your future): cover with grated cheese (or very thin slices of cheese): add your other toppings as a scattered array, not a layer: bake in a hot oven until the base is baked (the edges will be browned): and that’s it. You have achieved pizza.
It won’t pass an EU authentication standards board. But it cannot fail to be (if you follow the three basic rules) tastier and cheaper than anything you can buy. The most terrible thing about learning how to make your own pizza: you discover what a hellish markup there is on any commercial pizza.
I can and I have made pizza out of: edible flowers mixed with cheese (that was particularly good, if hard to duplicate); pesto and goats cheese; vegan pesto and tomato to share with a dairy-free friend; and even – either of which are probably worse than anything you’ll try – a pizza for two small children who refused all the possible toppings until we went with oven chips and baked beans, and my own personal favourite total heresy – Branston pickle for the sauce and strong cheddar for the topping, with wholegrain mustard.
Yes I went there. And it was good.
Which is the main thing, after all. *munches pizza*