We have been eating a lot of pizza lately. Not that pizza doesn't in the normal course of things make regular appearances on our table.... It's a perfect meal for two (just add a salad) and there is usually a left over piece or two for one lucky person at lunch the next day. Pizza is also a great blank canvas upon which to improvise a quick meal from whatever you happen to have in the house. But the reason we have been enjoying it more in recent days is because I have a new toy.... I mean tool. For my birthday this year, I was given a pizza peel and for the past few weeks I have been happily putting it through its paces.
I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have always thought that using a peel would be tricky....that it would take lots of practice to master the particular flick of the wrist necessary for depositing the uncooked pizza intact onto the hot stone. I was pretty sure that my pizzas would end up looking like accidental calzones or strombolis. So for years I have been perfectly happy with my "peel-less" method: Build the pizza in a pizza pan (or on a baking sheet) and place the pan directly onto the hot stone. When the crust is set (this usually takes less than five minutes), slide the pizza off of the pan and on to the stone. This works very well—producing a lovely crisp crust. I highly recommend it if you don't have a peel. The chief drawback to this method is that if you aren't fast your oven temperature will drop dramatically while you are sliding the pizza off of the pan.
As I have worked with my new peel, I have been so pleased to discover that it is remarkably easy to use: Start by generously flouring the peel (see note)—you don't want gobs of flour, but you want the surface to be well-dusted (I actually rub the flour lightly into the peel). Before you put the round of dough onto the peel, make sure that all of the ingredients are on hand and ready to go. You only have a small window (a minute or two) of time before the dough starts to stick to the peel. When you place the rolled out dough onto the peel, gently slide the peel back and forth to make sure the dough isn't sticking. Quickly layer the toppings onto the pizza. Open the oven (which should have been preheating—with the stone—for at least a half hour at 450° to 500°) and hold the paddle just above the stone. In one quick motion, move the peel forward just slightly and then jerk it back, laying the pizza onto the hot stone as you pull the peel out of the oven. Close the oven door and bake the pizza until the crust is golden brown on the bottom (take a peek, using the peel to lift it up) and the toppings are bubbling. This should take about 8 to 12 minutes.
So far I haven't had any disasters...or even any ugly pizzas. In fact, I think my pizzas are better now. The crust bakes more quickly than it did when I used a pizza pan so the toppings don't get quite so dark. I don't know why the fact that my pizzas are now better should surprise me. Obviously the peel and stone are the implements of choice for serious pizza cooks everywhere for a reason. I also don't know why I waited so long to learn how to use a peel. If you love to make pizzas at home, the peel and stone are both worthwhile investments.
A few nights ago we enjoyed a pizza topped with one of my favorite combinations of autumn vegetables: winter squash and mushrooms. The mushrooms are simply sliced and sautéed. The squash can be sliced or diced before it is quickly roasted—if you like you can give the squash a start in a sauté pan before transferring it to the oven. The finished squash should be tender and lightly golden. To build the pizza, give the crust a light smear of herb (rosemary...or maybe sage) and garlic oil, followed by a handful of a nice melting cheese (I had Dubliner on hand), the cooked vegetables, some crumbled goat cheese and more of the melting cheese. Slide the pizza onto the stone. While the pizza bakes, dress some greens with a nice olive oil and some lemon or vinegar and you are done.
Butternut Squash & Mushroom Pizza10 to 12 oz. butternut squash (half of a small to medium squash)—see note
1 or 2 cloves garlic
pinch of pepper flakes
1 to 2 t. minced rosemary
6 to 8 oz. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 ball of pizza dough (see below), rested
3 oz. Fontina, Gruyère, low-moisture mozzarella or any good melting cheese, coarsely grated
2 oz. Goat Cheese, crumbled (or, simply use another couple of ounces of the melting cheese)
Halve the squash and scoop out the seed and fiber from the cavity. Set aside any extra squash for another use (see note). Peel the remaining squash. Cut the squash into a half-inch dice. Over medium-high heat, warm some olive oil in an oven-proof sauté pan that is large enough to hold the squash in a single layer. Add the squash.
Sauté until the squash is beginning to color. Season with salt and pepper and transfer the pan to a 375° oven. Roast the squash until tender—about 20 minutes. (If you prefer, you may simply slice the squash cross-wise into ¼-inch slices, toss with olive oil, salt & pepper and spread on a baking sheet. Roast in a 450° oven until tender and beginning to brown—about 20 minutes.)
While the squash roasts, peel and mince the garlic. Stir the garlic, along with the pepper flakes and the rosemary, into 1 1/2 T. of olive oil. Set aside.
Sauté the mushrooms: When sautéing mushrooms, do not over-crowd the pan. If necessary, sauté in batches. Heat a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add oil to coat the pan, then add the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper.
Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan, baking sheet or pizza peel that has been dusted with flour or semolina. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim. Quickly spread a thin layer of the seasoned oil over the crust. Scatter with half of the Fontina. Arrange the roasted squash in an even layer on top of the cheese. Scatter the mushrooms evenly over the squash. Crumble the goat cheese over all and top with the remaining Fontina.
If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 450° to 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes).
If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling—about 8 to 12 minutes.
When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.
Note: It is unlikely that you will find a butternut squash that only weighs 10 to 12 oz. If you do, use the whole squash. For a larger squash, use only what you need, saving the remainder for another use (e.g.—roast with butter and honey/brown sugar for a side vegetable, or roast and scoop and purée for soup or baked goods).
1 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 package (2 1/4 t.) active dry yeast
2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 T. olive oil
1 t. salt
Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast. Let soften for a minute or two. Add 1 1/2 cups of the flour and whisk until smooth. Add the oil, salt and another cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two pieces (for 12”-pizzas) and roll into balls. Cover with a towel and let rest for 10-20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked or frozen.
(Crust recipe adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)
Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 1 ½ c. bread flour and 1 to 1 ½ c. whole wheat flour (the new “white” whole wheat flour is a good choice).
Printable Recipe (for "one ball")
Note (5 January 2017): Since writing this post I have switched from dusting the peel with plain flour to using semolina flour. While regular flour works fine, it isn't nearly as effective as semolina. The coarser semolina acts like little ball bearings, allowing the crust to slide freely on the peel. Furthermore, the semolina is not absorbed into the dough the way that all-purpose (or bread) flour is. This gives you a much wider window of time in which to build the pizza. I think I can say that I have never had a crust stick to the peel when I'm using semolina flour. I keep a bag on hand, just so I can use it for my pizza peel.