Guys, I have a confession…
When I was a kid, I hated pizza. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the strong spices in the delivery tomato sauce. Maybe it was that I was slightly lactose intolerant. Maybe I just liked being difficult… At any rate, I was the bane of kids’ birthday parties for a long time, until I hit college and realized that pizza is the most reliable source of free food – one of my favorite things! Since then, I have learned that pizza is much more diverse than the simple red sauce-mozzarella-pepperoni slices you find in dorms. In Italy, pizza is really all about the crust, with a light swirl of fresh tomato sauce and cheese. But in the US, pizza toppings run the gamut and really offer an opportunity for creativity, for taking advantage of local and in-season ingredients, and for using up odds and ends left over in the fridge (my favorite). I have come to appreciate pizza in many of its forms, although I still won’t eat it cold, and I think warm pineapple is weird. What can I say? I’m still a work in progress!
Pizza is a great easy option for recipe development, because, like pasta sauce, you can layer pretty much anything on the strong base and it will probably taste good. In this case, the base is really just dough and cheese. This is an example of one of my tenets – CONFINE. From that strong and restricted base, the choices to be made are as follows:
The dough – This is possibly the most important part, and also the part I can’t help you with (yet). I am still struggling to get a dough recipe that produces the results I like – thin, but not a cracker and not floppy, with big, toasty air bubbles in the outer crust. Stay tuned for that (and send me your suggestions!), but until then, you can buy great premade dough at your local pizza shop, or in the dairy section of your supermarket.
To sauce, or not to sauce? – A lot of people think of pizza as defined by tomato sauce, but there are a lot of benefits to white pizza. Tomato sauce is a really strong flavor and will affect what other toppings you combine with it. I think sausage, pepperoni (also a sausage), and ground meat go great with tomato sauce because they can stand up to the strong flavor. But vegetables can get lost, and some of the crazier toppings (raisins?) would probably really clash with tomato sauce. On the other hand, white sauce options, including pesto or the garlic oil I use below, can complement a variety of other flavors while still letting the other toppings shine. Plus they’re a lot less work than whipping up a tomato sauce!
Cheese – While mozzarella is the classic pizza topping, almost any cheese can be incorporated, and I often like to use at least two types of cheese per pizza. The most important thing to remember is that if you want that gooey stretchy bite of cheese from your pizza, you need at least one really melty cheese – mozzarella, fontina, provolone, and gruyere are all great examples. Parmesan or pecorino romano grated on right before baking provides a sharp bite and helps brown the crust a bit. I’ve also really enjoyed pizzas that have ricotta or goat cheese dolloped on top, and I bet blue cheese would work with some topping combinations.
For this particular pizza, I went with mozzarella and parmesan, because that’s what I had in my fridge.
Toppings – Literally anything. Since anything goes, it’s really important to consider BALANCE in in the chosen pizza toppings. In addition to not piling too many ingredients on there (we don’t want any weighed down, floppy slices), you don’t want your overall pizza flavor to swing too far in any one direction. My other strong recommendation is to cook everything before you put it on the pizza. This accomplishes two goals. (1) A lot of food releases liquid when it’s cooking, and you don’t want to end up with a floppy crust (no soggy bottoms!). (2) Pizza cooks hot and fast. There’s a good chance that your crust will be cooked before your toppings are, which is a safety hazard when it comes to raw meat, and just unpleasant for the vegetables.
Here are some other unusual options: Deli meat. Rotisserie chicken. Thinly sliced red or white potatoes. Thinly sliced zucchini. Sliced peaches. Chopped figs (with blue cheese… omnomnom). Pistachios. Honey. Balsamic vinegar.
For this pizza, I know I love broccoli on pizza, so I did that again here. I also had some leftover butternut squash in my fridge, so I coated that with a spice mix I’ve enjoyed with butternut squash in the past (COMBINE) and those became my toppings. Simple!
Final thoughts – Pizza stones are cheap and totally worth it to get that extra crispy crust. I leave mine in the bottom of my oven all the time so I don’t have to remember to put it in before preheating – it even helps even out the temperature of my oven! If you don’t have a pizza peel, a flipped over sheet pan will get the job done.
Butternut Squash and Broccoli Pizza
Makes 4 personal pizzas
- 2 pounds prepared pizza dough, homemade or store-bought
- 1.25 pounds butternut squash, thinly sliced
- 1.5 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
- 2 Tbsp + ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 medium head broccoli, cut into thin florets
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/3 Thai green chile
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 4 Tbsp grated parmesan
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced ¼ inch thick
- Flour and cornmeal
- Take pizza dough out of fridge 30 min before baking to bring to room temperature
- Place pizza stone on bottom rack of oven (if using)
- Preheat oven to 450°F
- Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil
- Toss butternut squash, 2 Tbsp oil, salt, pepper, and Chinese five spice powder, then spread in a thin layer on baking sheet and bake 20 minutes or until softened and slightly browned
- Steam broccoli until bright green and just tender
- In a small saucepan, combine ¼ cup oil, garlic, chile and infuse over medium-low heat for 15 minutes – garlic should become fragrant but not burnt
- Raise oven temperature to 500°F (if possible)
- Take ¼ of pizza dough and form into an 8-10 inch round on a floured surface using a combination of rolling, pressing, and tossing
- Cover pizza peel or a baking sheet with a good layer of cornmeal and lay on pizza crust
- Give a good jiggle to make sure crust is not sticking to the surface
- Brush the garlic oil all over the crust
- Lay on a thin layer of squash and broccoli
- Sprinkle on 1 Tbsp parmesan all over pizza
- Distribute ¼ pound sliced mozzarella
- Transfer to pizza stone (or leave on baking sheet) and bake for 12 minutes until cheese is bubbly and crust is browned
- Remove from oven and finish with scallions and a pinch of kosher salt
I just love broccoli as a pizza topping, and at this point I’ve gotten pretty good at making consistently pleasing pizzas. The vegetables were soft but not mushy. The broccoli got a bit charred on the tips. The cheese was brown and bubbly. The crust was super garlicy.
This lost a star because I wish the oil was spicier – I guess the Thai chile didn’t do it, so in the future I would probably use ~1/4 tsp red pepper flake instead. Also, the butternut squash was sweet (predictably), but the broccoli swung a bit more sweet than I was expecting. Maybe next time, a cheese with more personality, like goat cheese, would help balance it out.