Having just shared with you my favorite recipe for pizza dough, it seems only natural that I should then share with you what currently holds court as my most favorite pizza. As you may have guessed, it involves a lot of vegetables.
I have no idea if this is actually true, but a friend of mine who hails from a long line of Italian descendants once told me that, in Italy, one is more likely to spot a great deal of vegetables on a pizza than a great deal of meat. Toppings are sparse, he told me, and slices are not meant to be weighted down with a heavy pile of cheeses and meats. Again, I have no idea if this is actually true, but I was intrigued to hear it. Not being Italian, and having never been to Italy, I can only venture a guess as to what the Italian pizza-eating experience is like, and I would never judge what someone did or did not want on a pizza. I am Indian, for heavens sake. My people put mutton and peas on pizza. That right there disqualifies me from passing judgment on any and all matters related to pizza toppings.
What I feel I can do, however, is at least make a valid statement concerning what I think is the best way to handle and cook pizza dough. In my mind there are two very important steps that one can follow and be almost guaranteed a flawless pizza experience.
1) Hand stretching dough, though it takes marginally more time than using a rolling pin, produces a light and bubbly crust with plenty of stretch and chew. The heat from your hands helps the dough to relax, and you don’t end up toughening the dough and forcing out all the air like you do when you flatten out a disc of dough with a rolling pin. Take the extra four minutes and hand stretch your dough. You won’t regret it.
2) Bake your pizza on the lowest oven rack possible, at the highest temperature possible. You don’t need a pizza stone to get a great crunch on your pizza dough, but you do need to create a bit of auxiliary heat under your pizza. Placing a heavy baking sheet in the oven, on the lowest rack possible, while your oven preheats, will help crisp up the bottom crust of your pizza. The heat from the hot pan will work its way up through the crust of your pizza while the cheese on top melts and the top crust browns. Ever make a pizza with crisp edges and a soft and gummy middle? Using a preheated pan in the lower portion of your oven will solve that problem.
This particular pizza, while featuring a bit of meat, is heavy on vegetables without being heavy itself. It is also extremely satisfying. Thin slices of Italian chicken sausage add a slightly salty bite, and the fresh slices of fennel give the pizza a fresh crunch. In bypassing red sauce all together, the gentle taste of the toppings really have a chance to stand out against the mellow flavor of the garlic and olive oil base. Authentic? I have no idea. But delicious? Definitely.
Pizza with Chicken Sausage, Fennel, and Spinach
pizza dough for 1 pizza
2 cloves of garlic, minced and then smashed into a paste with a pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
6 ounces Italian chicken sausage
1/2 bulb of fennel, sliced into thin ribs
8 ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese
4 ounces chopped fresh spinach
Preheat oven to 500 degrees F, or as high as your oven will go. Set an oven rack on the lowest level or second lowest level (the heat zones of every oven are different, so, to exercise caution, start with baking your first pizza on the second lowest level of your oven then, if your pizza does not get sufficiently crisped on the bottom, you’ll know to move your oven rack one level lower the next time you bake pizza), and place a heavy baking sheet on the rack to preheat along with the oven.
In a very small bowl, combine smashed garlic with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and set aside.
Slice chicken sausage into small coins or, if you are using bulk chicken sausage, break it up into small, nickel-sized pieces. Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a medium pan and briefly cook chicken sausage in oil until sausage just begins to brown slightly. Remove from heat and set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, using your hands, shape pizza dough into a 14-inch round. The more you handle the dough, the more the heat of your hands will warm the dough and make it more pliable.
Place the shaped dough on a piece of parchment paper. Place parchment paper and dough on a rimless baking sheet or a rimmed baking sheet that has been overturned.
Spoon garlic and olive oil mixture over the surface of the pizza dough. Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper to taste. Top with cheese, then add the sliced fennel and browned sausage.
Slide the uncooked pizza, still on the parchment paper, from the rimless baking sheet to the preheated baking sheet in the oven. Bake pizza for 8 to 12 minutes, until the crust is puffed and browned at the edges and the cheese has melted and just started to turn slightly brown in places.
Remove pizza from oven and sprinkle with chopped spinach. The spinach will wilt ever so slightly.