After half a lifetime spent piling as much onto a pizza as the laws of physics will permit, I have finally come to the conclusion that the Italians have it right after all, and that the ridiculous excess of American pizza is really an insult to the basic form. Pizza, in order to be any good at all, needs to be as minimalist as possible, so that you can taste the mellow yeastiness of the crust, the peppery fruitiness of the oil, the mineral tang of the salt, and the individual characteristics of the very few and elemental toppings you do choose to add. Tons of cheese only dull your palate, sweet and pasty tomato sauces only make the whole experience insipid, and too many toppings not only clash and drown each other out, but also weigh down and wet the dough so much that you will never get a properly crisp crust.
There are therefore two secrets to really spectacular and satisfying pizza: Keep It Simple, Stupid, and do not even bother if you’re not going to use a baking stone. I know it seems like the height of yuppified self-indulgence to buy a baking stone, but you absolutely need the porous ceramic texture to wick away the extra moisture and sear the crust to a crackly, caramelized golden-brown. A mediocre batch of dough can be saved by baking on a ripping-hot stone, but even the most perfectly kneaded and risen dough will become a spongy, disappointing mess if you bake it on a regular cookie sheet. There’s no point in going to all the trouble (and potential heartache) of working with yeast if you’re going to handicap yourself from the start, so you really owe it to yourself to spring the $20 at Williams Sonoma or Bloodbath and Beyond, or even the $3 at Home Despot for unglazed quarry tiles instead (Thanks, Alton Brown!) .
As you can see above, dinner tonight featured my absolute favorite pizza: a white pizza with nothing but olive oil, salt, and thinly sliced onions and garlic. The oil keeps the dough moist and rich, and the onions and garlic turn sweet and wonderful in the high heat, needing only a sprinkle of salt to round everything out. While I do make the dough from scratch on occasion (and, in a particularly industrious phase, even kept a sourdough starter going for months at a time, from which I made weekly batches of baguettes or focaccia), lately I’ve had neither the time nor the energy to make my own, so I procure the dough from the neighborhood pizzerias or from the refrigerator case at Trader Joe’s. If you have the time and inclination, I highly recommend Alton’s recipe, which, if not fast, is practically foolproof and incredibly flavorful.
Pizza Bianca with Red Onion and Garlic
Makes 2 oblong pizzas, approximately 12 inches by 6 inches
1/2 lb pizza dough, purchased from your friendly neighborhood pizzeria
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, thinly slices
1/4 cup good olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
A baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles
A pizza peel or cookie sheet (turned upside-down if it has a rim), for transferring the pizzas to and from the oven
Coarsely ground cornmeal for dusting the peel or cookie sheet
Move the oven rack to lower third of the oven and position the baking stone on the rack. Preheat the oven at 550 F for at least 20 minutes, to allow the stone to get really hot.
Meanwhile, mix the topping ingredients in a bowl and allow to marinate. Divide the dough into two equal portions and shape into balls, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest until the oven is ready.
When the oven and the stone are blistering hot, sprinkle the peel or upside-down cookie sheet generously with the cornmeal, to prevent the dough from sticking when you transfer it to the oven. Stretch out the first ball of dough into a long, thin rectangle, approximately a foot long and six inches wide, by pressing, pinching, and even letting it hang down from your fingertips to let gravity do the work. (If the dough immediately shrinks back, cover with plastic again and let it relax for several minutes before trying again.) The thinner you get it at this point, the crispier the end product will be, but don’t worry about the precise thickness. If the dough tears, just pinch it back together.
When the dough is thin enough for your liking, lay it onto the cornmeal-dusted peel or sheet, and spread with half the topping mixture, making sure to leave a lip of at least half an inch all around to prevent the toppings from sliding off during the transfer. Gently shake the peel or sheet to be sure the pizza isn’t sticking, and then slide the pizzas off the peel/sheet onto the heated stone in the oven with a few quick jerks.
Bake for 10 minutes, or until the dough is a dark golden brown and the onions and garlic are beginning to caramelize, then remove to a cooling rack for a few minutes before eating.
Repeat with the remaining half of the dough and topping mixture.
Notes: If you must have cheese, I’d suggest doing what we did with this batch: Add paper-thin slivers or a fine grating of cheese at the absolute last minute, after the pizza is already out of the oven. (We used Manchego, which was lovely.) If you want the cheese to brown, don’t put it on the pizzas before they go in the oven; add it in the last few minutes of baking, once the dough has already set and is starting to turn golden. This will ensure that the crust stays crisp and the cheese doesn’t burn or turn oily.