Perfect Pizza

Pizza is one of my favourite foods, but takeaways and ready made versions are so often a disappointment; soggy crusts, synthetic flavouring, stodgy dough. It is possible to make really good pizza at home-even if you don’t have a Jamie Oliver wood-fired oven in the garden. I have spent a good few months working on this method-it is not a short-cut method. This recipe is not as quick as cooking a pizza from the freezer, but is worth every minute. What it will get you is a bubbly, crispy crust, slightly charred with a perfect doughy texture. I subscribe to the traditional Neapolitan tradition of a very thin pizza base, which works better with this cooking method. Don’t worry if you like a thicker base-it will just need a bit of extra cooking time in the oven.

I believe the base of a pizza to be more important than the topping. Without a wonderful base, a good topping is wasted. Therefore, after much experimentation, I have discovered that fresh yeast is the preferred option with this recipe; please don’t moan that you can’t get hold of it- most supermarkets sell it on their bakery counters and it’s as cheap as chips! 50 grams costs about 16p and will keep for a week or so if you wrap it up well and keep it in the fridge. If you want to get ahead, you can make the base a day before and let it rise in the fridge-this actually gives a greater depth of flavour to the dough, but only works if you are organised, which I am not often!

I am a real purist and always prefer a simple mozzarella and tomato topping, but a pizza should be a versatile as vessel as possible, so feel free to use anything you like, but not pineapple-I draw the line at pineapple!

Makes 4 pizzas

For the base

500g Strong Bread Flour

15g Fresh Yeast

10g Salt

320ml Water-room temperature

Fine semolina

For the topping

350g Passata

1 tbs Balsamic Vinegar

½ tsp Brown Sugar

1 tsp Tomato Puree

2 balls Buffalo Mozzarella

Fresh basil leaves, olive oil and seasoning to taste

Optional-olives, salami, artichokes, cooked ham, spinach etc.

Special Equipment

A large and very sturdy (ie thick) baking tray that you don’t mind using just for pizzas or a large cast iron frying pan.

First prepare your base. Shift the flour into a large bowl and add the yeast. Rub the yeast into the flour until you cannot feel any more lumps. Now add your salt and mix in. Add the water and use a plastic spatular to combine. Once the mixture is very roughly combined, get your hands in and start to bring all the bits of dough together. The mixture will seem very wet at this point, but don’t worry, it will come together, just keep at it. You will need a plastic scraper to keep it moving at first.

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Tip the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface. Knead the dough well, at points folding the dough over itself to trap air. Do not add any more flour, however tempted you are; more flour will make a heavy and stodgy base. Keep working the dough and it after about 10 minutes, you should have a smooth and bouncy ball of dough.

Lightly oil a bowl, place the dough in the bowl and cover with a clean tea towel or cling film or a shower hat( see Kitchen Tip #2). Put the bowl in a warm and draft free place for about an hour, or until it has approximately doubled in size.

While the dough is rising, make the tomato sauce. Put the passata, balsamic vinegar, tomato puree and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently. Season with salt and pepper and leave to simmer gently for at least 20 minutes to cook out the tomatoes in the passata. Taste and add a tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper if needed.

After the dough has risen, use your spatular to move it out of the bowl and onto a lightly floured surface. Do this very carefully to keep as much air in as possible. Divide the dough into four sections and leave to rest for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, put your grill on its highest setting and turn your baking tray or frying pan upside down and place it underneath the grill. Close the door if you have one. Leave it for at least 15 minutes. This is essential so that when the pizza is placed on the tray and put under the grill, the base of the pizza cooks at the same time as the top. You will need very good oven gloves for this.

Sprinkle a little semolina onto your work top and using the tips of your fingers, carefully push out each ball of dough to form the pizza bases. If the dough feels like it might tear or is unyielding and tight, leave it to sit for five minutes and it should be more pliable. Do not worry about forming perfect circles, the dough will take its own rustic shape as you push it out. Try and use the backs of your hands more than your fingertips, as these are more likely to pierce the dough. If you do get holes, don’t worry-you can patch them.

When you are ready to cook, you will need to work quickly, so make sure you have everything close to hand. Take the baking tray out from under the grill, lift one of the bases onto it (you should see it immediately bubble in places and hear it sizzle slightly), spread with the tomato sauce and top with torn buffalo mozzarella and any other toppings. Put the tray straight back under the grill and close the door if you have one. Cooking should take no more than a few minutes, but this will vary according to size, shape and topping, so keep your eyes on it and do not leave it for a second.

When the cheese has melted and the crust is bubbled and brown, remove from under the grill; the pizza should slide off easily. If you have a thicker base, put the tray into the oven for 5-10 minutes to finish cooking.

Put the tray back under the grill for a few minutes, then remove and repeat the process with the other pizzas.

Garnish with torn basil and a drizzle of very good Extra Virgin olive oil if you wish. You will have burnt a finger and have a very red face from the heat of the grill, but this will be the best pizza you have ever eaten at home!

Garlic Bread

Follow the method above up to shaping the dough and then cook the base without any topping.

When cooked, brush liberally with a mixture of 100g of melted butter, 1/2 crushed garlic clove and 1 tsp of finely chopped parsley-heavenly!

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