Why make pizza?

Because it's fun and you can personalize it to your liking

Homemade fresh tomato and sun-dried tomato  pizza is pictured.
Homemade fresh tomato and sun-dried tomato pizza is pictured.

In 1923, a New York Times reporter asked English mountain climber George Mallory why he was trying to climb Mount Everest. His answer has been called the three most famous words in mountaineering: "Because it's there."

Though he died on the same mountain a year later, his words live on. They are more than a mere reason to climb the world's highest mountain, they have become a sort of philosophy, a rationale for the need to keep challenging oneself throughout life.

Which brings us to pizza.

I recently told an editor that I would be writing about making homemade pizza. Her response, in words almost as eternal as Mallory's, was: "Ugh. Why would I want to make a pizza when I can just go to J & G's?"

Had I been thinking in philosophical terms, I would have said, "because it's there." Instead, I muttered something about the soul-satisfying joy of creation, about the wholesomeness of making your own food, about connecting with a simpler, less-stressed way of life, even about saving money by doing it yourself.

The fact of the matter is, making your own pizza is fun. It's a blast. And you can personalize the flavors to suit your own taste.

Homemade pizza, of course, is made up of two distinct parts, the dough and the toppings. You could make a tomato sauce, too, if you choose, but for this exercise I decided to make white pizzas. They're a little hipper than the standard slice of pepperoni and cheese, and they engender a sense of purity. The ingredients are laid bare; they must mingle sociably with each other and then must harmonize with the crust.

It all begins with the crust. No pizza can be truly great if it does not have a great crust — even commercially made pizzas depend almost entirely on the quality of their crusts. A random perusal of the cookbook Canal House Cooks Every Day by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton yielded a recipe that is a delicious neutral canvas for any topping you would care to add.

This crust is easy to work with and even easier to make. It yields enough dough to make four 10-inch pizzas, so if you're ambitious you could make a different topping for everyone in the family.

It doesn't take much (a bit of yeast, some olive oil, four cups of bread flour, and some salt), but it does take time. This is a dough, and like all doughs it needs time to rise, in this case a total of three hours or so. You don't have to attend to it while it is rising, except at one point, after two hours, to cut it into portions and shape it. So that will give you plenty of opportunity to do other things and still have time to make a topping or several.

Of the toppings I tried, most of them also suggested by Canal House Cooks Every Day, my personal favorite would have to be the escarole, fontina, and black olive pizza. This topping is so simple, the hardest part is finding the escarole (try larger grocery stores or produce stands). The bitter edge of the escarole — it's a salad green — plays off the complex creaminess of the fontina cheese, with the olives serving as a salty punctuation every few bites.

Inspired by a form of culinary ecumenism, I decided to make my own Asian mixture to place atop a pizza, and was delighted by the results. First, I briefly sautéed sliced shiitake mushrooms and button mushrooms (I thought of it as a mushroom pizza with Asian accents), and removed them from the pan. Next, I flavored some oil with minced ginger and garlic, in which I then sautéed sliced onions and baby bok choy. The mushrooms came back to the pan with soy sauce and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil.

A bit of heat would be excellent in this topping, too, in the form of crushed red pepper or sriracha sauce.

For a genuinely Italian flair, I went with a topping of clams cooked in olive oil and garlic. It was like spaghetti con vongole, but with pizza taking the place of the pasta. Peelings of parmigiano-reggiano cheese completed the pizza that would be as at home in Naples as it is in Boston.

To be perfectly frank, I did not have high hopes for the potato and onion pizza, and it wasn't the onions that gave me pause. Nor did I fear that the potatoes would not be cooked enough — you slice them paper-thin with a mandoline. The perceived problem was just the concept of piling potatoes on top of a pizza crust. It just sounded like too much starch.

And it probably is. However, all the starch happened to have a superb flavor, due to the brief marination in olive oil, the onions, and the mighty punch of a pinch of red pepper flakes. The pepper flakes aren't there just for the heat, they also bring a distinct taste that brings out the best in the potatoes, onions, and crust.

I also made the book's prosciutto, lemon, and green olive pizza, and it is possible the whole recipe is just an excuse to put prosciutto on a pizza. I'm strangely comfortable with that.

Finally, because I can only try so many white pizzas before I start craving some tomatoes, I decided to make a topping that used tomatoes but was not actually a tomato sauce. Because large tomatoes are so weak at this time of the year, I got a carton of small tomatoes, quartered them, and sautéed them with olive oil and garlic. For a double kick of tomato, I added a couple of chopped sun-dried tomatoes, and then a few capers just for fun.

It's the fun that is important, the challenge of baking your own crust or creating your own toppings. Don't do it just because, like Everest, it is there.

Do it because it tastes so good.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.


Pizza Dough

1 (¼-ounce) packet active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for crust

4 cups bread flour, plus more for kneading

2 teaspoons salt, plus more from crust


Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup warm water in a small bowl. Stir in 1¼ cups water and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.

Pulse the flour and salt together in a food processor. Pour the yeast mixture through the feed hole in the lid while the processor is running and process until the dough comes together in a sticky ball, about 1 minute. Turn the dough out on a floured work surface and briefly knead into a smooth ball. Put the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large bowl. Roll the dough around in the bowl until coated all over with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces on a lightly floured surface and shape each into a ball. Place the balls at least 5 inches apart, loosely cover them with a clean, damp kitchen towel, and let rise until nearly doubled in size, 30-60 minutes.

Place a pizza stone or a large cast-iron skillet on the upper rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 500°. Working with 1 ball at a time, stretch the dough into a 10-inch round on a floured surface, letting it relax if resistant. Lay the dough out on a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel or a rimless cookie sheet. Prick the surface with a fork, brush with some olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Arrange the pizza toppings of your choice over the dough. Slide the pizza off the peel onto the hot pizza stone or cast-iron skillet in the oven. Bake until the crust is puffed and golden around the edges and the topping is bubbling hot, 6-8 minutes. Use the peel or cookie sheet to remove the pizza from the oven.

Yield: 4 (10-inch) pizzas

Source: Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

Prosciutto, Lemon, and Green Olive Pizza

3 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn

8 slices lemon, paper thin

6-8 green olives, pitted and halved

Leaves from 1 sprig rosemary

1 pinch crushed red pepper or Aleppo pepper

3 slices prosciutto

Extra-virgin olive oil

Arrange mozzarella and lemon slices on the prepared pizza dough. Scatter olives and rosemary leaves on top and sprinkle with red or Aleppo pepper. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling, 6-8 minutes. Remove pizza from oven and drape proscuitto over it while still hot. Drizzle with olive oil and cut into wedges.

Yield: 1 (10-inch) pizza

Source: Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

Asian Pizza

3 tablespoons oil, preferably peanut, divided

2 mushrooms, sliced

¼ medium onion, sliced

3 shiitake mushroom caps, sliced

1 clove garlic (medium), minced

½ inch ginger, peeled and minced

½ baby bok choy, chopped

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Heat 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the white mushrooms and onion, season with salt and pepper, and sauté 2-3 minutes until fragrant and beginning to soften. Add shiitakes and continue sautéing until frangrant and tender, another 2-3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the same skillet if needed, and cook garlic and ginger for 1 minute. Add bok choy and sauté 1 minute. Return mushrooms and onion to pan and sauté 1 minute. Stir in soy sauce and sesame oil, and remove from heat.

Spread topping on prepared pizza dough and bake until crust is golden, 6-8 minutes.

Yield: 1 (10-inch) pizza

Source: Daniel Neman

Escarole, Fontina, and Black Olive Pizza

¼ head escarole

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Salt to taste

¼ cup grated fontina cheese

Small handful pitted, black, oil-cured olives

Rinse escarole and coarsely chop the wet leaves. Heat olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the wet leaves, season to taste with salt, and cook, stirring often, until they are limp, 2-3 minutes. Drain the escarole and scatter the leaves, cheese, and olives over the prepared pizza dough. Bake until the cheese is melted, 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven, drizzle lightly with olive oil, and cut into wedges

Yield: 1 (10-inch) pizza

Source: Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton


Double Tomato Pizza

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup halved or quartered cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes or campari tomatoes

½ teaspoon minced garlic

Salt to taste

2 sundried tomatoes, torn into pieces

½ teaspoon capers, optional

Heat oil in a pan over medium heat, and add fresh tomatoes, garlic, and salt to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes begin to break down, 10-15 minutes. Add sun-dried tomatoes and cook another 2 minutes.

Spread topping on prepared pizza dough and bake until crust is golden, 6-8 minutes. If desired, sprinkle with capers before serving.

Yield: 1 (10-inch) pizza

Source: Daniel Neman


Potato and Onion Pizza

2 Yukon Gold potatoes

Pinch salt

1 small onion, sliced lengthwise

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing and drizzling

Pinch red pepper flakes

Thinly slice the potatoes with a mandoline (if you don't have a mandoline, slice them as thinly and evenly as you possibly can). Wash the slices in several changes of cold water until the water runs clear. Drain the potatoes, toss with a generous pinch of salt, and transfer to a colander to drain and soften for 10 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl, add the onion and olive oil, season to taste with salt, and toss with your hands until the potatoes and onions are well coated with oil. Set aside for 5 minutes.

Arrange the potatoes in overlapping circles over the prepared pizza dough, tucking slices of onion in between. Sprinkle with a big pinch of red pepper flakes, then brush the edges of the dough with more olive oil. Bake 6-8 minutes and lightly drizzle with olive oil before serving.

Yield: 1 (10-inch) pizza

Source: Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

White Clam Pizza

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing and drizzling

2 thinly sliced cloves garlic

Pinch red pepper flakes

¼ cup canned baby clams, drained (reserve the juice)

Salt to taste

1 ounce parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Heat oil, garlic, and pepper flakes in a small skillet over medium heat until it begins to sizzle, about 2 minutes. Stir in clams and a splash of the juice, and season with salt to taste. Set aside.

Using a vegetable peeler, make long shards of cheese . Scatter the cheese over the prepared pizza dough, then spoon the seasoned clams evenly over the top. Brush the edges of the dough with a little more olive oil. Bake until the cheese is melted and the clams are bubbling, 6-8 minutes. Lightly drizzle with more olive oil before serving.

Yield: 1 (10-ounce) pizza

Source: Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton