Round up a bunch of congenial people, add the makings of America’s favorite fun food, mix them up, and you’ve got a pizza party, a taste celebration made all the better by a generous helping of savory herbs. Pizza parties appeal to dainty nibblers and heavy eaters, to fans of simple fare as well as to partisans of sophisticated cuisine. Kids of all ages delight in getting their hands on the dough and love to make their own personal pizzas. Many like to help prepare toppings, such as plucking herb leaves and brushing mushrooms. Making pizza inspires even the most adamant “I-never-cook-anything” people to flights of fancy. Pizza parties are wonderful entertainment for everyone, whether you’re assembling the ingredients yourself or watching someone else do it. And everyone reaps the rewards.
The role that herbs can play in pizza is not exactly news to traditional pizza makers. Italians have been lavish with herbs on their pizza and focaccia for centuries. Persians and Egyptians have their versions of hearth-baked flat breads that carry abundant and varied herbs. Focaccia is made from the same dough as pizza, but it is shaped into a rectangle and is thicker, up to about 2 inches, with a dimpled surface that catches the sauces and light toppings. It is cooked at a lower temperature and for a longer period of time.
Below are a selection of unusual pizza and focaccia recipes, all based on a sure-fire basic dough recipe that lends itself to all kinds of variations. A few simple tools, a good hot oven, and a little time are all you need to produce the best pizzas you ever tasted, but because it’s more fun making them in a group, I’ve included suggestions for planning a pizza party. You might even like to plant a Piece of Pizza Pie Herb Garden so you can gather a wide array of pizza herbs in one fun little bed.
Better than bought
With a few ingredients and implements, home cooks can make pizza that’s better than pizza from any restaurant except those with wood-fired ovens. Ingredients can be as simple or extravagant as you wish, but six are essential: flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, herbs, and water. Baking stones, pizza paddles, and bakers’ peels help you make a good product great. They are inexpensive and will last a lifetime.
I learned to make pizza and focaccia on bricks in a traditional Italian hearth oven when I lived in Tuscany in the 1970s, and I’ve made hundreds of pizzas since then in all kinds of home and commercial ovens. The only ones unsuited for pizza are convection ovens. Even with the fan off, too much heat circulates above the pizza, sealing the top of the crust and drying out the toppings. For an ideal crust, bready and light inside, crisp without, pizza needs a good shot of bottom heat to start the dough rising as soon as possible after it goes into the oven.
In home ovens, this heat is best provided by placing a ceramic baking surface–pizza stones at least 1/2 inch thick, baking tiles, or kiln shelf tiles–on the lowest rack. Any of these will give your pizza a texture close to that of traditional hearth-baked pizzas. Heavy baking sheets and black steel pizza pans are nearly as good. Kits of baking tiles with metal underliners are sold in some cookware stores, but I prefer kiln shelf tiles (available at potters’ supply stores) because they come in different sizes, can be tailored to different ovens, and are very sturdy. The cost of stones, baking tiles, or kiln shelf tiles to cover roughly 20 by 16 inches in a home oven is about $25.
In paving your oven rack with stones or tiles, you must allow enough space for the heat to circulate so that the pizzas cook evenly. For an oven that measures about 24 by 19 inches, this means leaving 11/2 to 2 inches uncovered at the sides and back of the oven; the stones can be placed right to the edge of the shelf at the front of the oven. In smaller ovens, 1 inch of side and back space is sufficient.
The stones should be thoroughly heated before you put in the pizza. Heavy kiln shelves generally take thirty minutes to heat; lighter baking tiles, about fifteen minutes. If your stone comes with directions for preheating, follow them.
Inevitably, cheese or other pizza toppings will ooze onto your stones. The spill may set off the smoke alarm as it heats up, but it does no harm and just contributes to the stones’ patina. After the stones have cooled completely, you can scrape off the crusted material with a pastry board scraper or (carefully) with a chef’s knife. Scrub the stones with warm water and a plastic or metal scrubber. Do not use soap; it can permeate the porous surface and give your pizza a soapy taste. Let the stones dry thoroughly before storing.
Wooden pizza paddles and aluminum bakers’ peels (about $15 each) are used to transfer the pizza to and from the oven. A cookie sheet can be substituted and a wide metal spatula used to guide baked pizzas from the oven, but they are not as efficient. Metal peels are good for loosening stuck pizzas from the stones and more durable than wooden paddles as a surface for cutting pizzas, but if you can afford to buy only one, choose a wooden paddle rather than a metal peel. Common sizes of paddles and peels are 12 by 14 and 16 by 18 inches. Large paddles allow you to make large pizzas, but they are difficult to maneuver in a home oven. When selecting a metal peel, be sure that the wooden handle is firmly attached to the plate. Wash paddles and peels as you would stones and tiles.
The “secret” Italian ingredient
The Italian admonition Abbia pazienza, “Have patience,” is nowhere more applicable than in making pizza. The crust is the foundation, the elemental satisfaction of pizza, and it takes time to rise to perfection. For the finest light and puffy crust, porous with large air pockets that give an authentic rustic texture, start making the dough a day ahead and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight. If the urge for pizza strikes after lunch, you can start the dough then and still have a very acceptable and tasty crust by dinnertime. It can be ready in as little as two hours if allowed to rise in a warm place.
Less patience is needed to mix and knead the dough–about fifteen minutes by hand, only five in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Shaping, topping, and baking the pizza take only a few minutes for each step. You’ll need a little pazienza, twenty to thirty minutes’ worth, while the dough rests before shaping, but you can use the time to prepare toppings, salad, or other courses. Baked in an oven that reaches 550°F, pizza will be done in 5 to 10 minutes, depending on its size and the number baking at the same time. Focaccia, baked at 425°F, takes 20 to 25 minutes.
I tell my students that making two or three batches of dough at home will teach them all they need to know about their oven, kitchen equipment, and ingredients. It’s particularly important to find an unbleached flour and a yeast that work for you. I find those sold in bulk in health-food stores give me the best results.
What’s on top
For many Americans, toppings are the really important part of pizza. My preference follows Italian lines: toppings, moderately applied, merely embellish the crust. This means using a light hand with cheeses, sauces, and meats while giving greater emphasis to herbs. Herbs can tweak the palate in unexpected ways that are quite pleasurable for most people. For example, an onion, gorgonzola, and tarragon pizza elicits interested questions and comments as well as murmurs of satisfaction.
Toppings can be the pizza maker’s personal expression and can range from simple to elaborate, depending on time and inclination. Sliced Italian Fontina cheese, minced garlic, olive oil, and a few leaves of chopped fresh parsley or marjoram are classic ingredients for a simple white pizza. Pizza povera, poor pizza, is even simpler: garlic, olive oil, and either fresh herbs or dried herbs softened in olive oil.
As in painting, a well-prepared surface is a prerequisite for success. Brushing the crust with oil before adding other ingredients prevents sogginess. Olive oil in which chopped garlic has been steeped makes a flavorful brushing medium.
Next, sprinkle on tender herbs such as fresh basil, marjoram, and oregano; if they are placed on top of other ingredients, they lose flavor and may burn. Sage and rosemary can stand more heat for a longer time. Generally, fresh herbs are best used as garnishes added after baking. Tomato sauce, if you are using it, should be smoothed on now, topped by an appealing arrangement of the vegetables, meats, or shellfish you have chosen. I add a pinch of salt to bring out their flavors, unless the ingredients have already been salted. Because prosciutto, pepperoni, and other cured meats dry out in a hot oven, I add them about halfway through the baking when turning the pizza. Steamed small mussels (about 11/2 inches long) and clams (about 1 inch in diameter) in their lower shells are placed on the crust after brushing with olive oil and before baking for a delectable Italian-style seafood pizza.
Cheese toppings on pizza should be molten, bubbling, and just gilded. However, low-moisture cheeses such as American mozzarella, Monterey Jack, cheddar, and Parmesan can become brown and tough at high temperatures even when the crust is perfectly done. To prevent overcooking, I add them about halfway through the baking. Soft cheeses such as Italian mozzarella, chèvre, Taleggio, and Fontina contain more moisture so they can be placed on pizza before it is put in the oven.
Let the good times roll
For pizza parties, I prepare enough dough for one 9-inch pizza per person and lots of topping ingredients, then let my guests invent pizza alla capricciosa. I’m always surprised and gratified by other peoples’ food combinations and have enjoyed many concoctions that I would never have thought to put together. When children are among the chefs, I limit the guest list to six. If your family and friends like to pace themselves for long, continual tasting dinners, or if you have two ovens, ten to twelve guests can be fun. So that everyone gets to sample a variety of pizzas and still feel the satisfaction of dinner, I provide antipasti and salads on the table as well as beverages.
You don’t need a mammoth kitchen to host a pizza party; mine is galley style, only 8 by 11 feet, though I do have adjacent counter space. You will need a work surface to hold portions of prepared dough, topping ingredients, and flour, semolina, or cornmeal for dusting paddles, as well as space to rest the paddle on which the pizza is formed. The average oven can hold two 9- or 10-inch pizzas, so prepare the second as soon as the first goes in the oven. By the time the second is ready to bake, the first is ready to be repositioned on the baking stone, making room for the second.
A selection of two to four cheeses–mozzarella, Fontina, Monterey Jack, feta, soft goat cheeses, Parmesan–appropriately sliced, crumbled, or grated is nearly indispensable. Pesto makes a good topping, especially when studded with halved cherry tomatoes. Provide a variety of vegetables: fresh tomatoes in season; sliced sweet onions, uncooked, grilled, or sautéed; grilled or roasted eggplant; roasted peppers; fresh peppers, sweet or hot; sautéed mushrooms; sautéed hearts of artichoke or fennel; red cabbage and red onions braised with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Tomato sauce is always popular, but for a change, I like to make roasted sweet pepper sauce in early autumn when peppers are abundant.
Prosciutto or ham, cured or fresh sausage, pancetta, and seafood sausage are the best meat choices. Steamed or quickly sautéed mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid are very good, but finfish release too much moisture into the dough to work well as toppings. For condiments and garnishes, choose anchovies, olives–and herbs. Plenty of herbs, chopped garlic, and a flavorful olive oil bring the ingredients into harmony.
Every pizza party I’ve given has been filled with good-natured fun, good food, and happy pizza makers. Enjoying the excitement and concentration of the kids, especially first-timers to the rites of dough, tools, and oven, is reason enough to organize a party. I hope you’ll make pizza parties a tradition at your house.