- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

On this side of the Atlantic, everybody thinks that pizza comes with a sharp-tasting tomato sauce underneath its bubbling cheese. But, strictly speaking, that’s not authentic Italian pizza.

Although Italians and other Europeans have been flattening, topping, and baking scraps of bread dough for centuries to make flatbread snacks, the first true pizzas that were anything close to what we know today simply included sliced vine-ripened tomatoes along with mozzarella cheese and fresh basil leaves - what came to be known in 1889 as the pizza Margherita, named for the Italian queen, who was partial to it.

Such a recipe reflected the absolute ease of a classic pizza: Just roll out some yeast-leavened bread dough, moisten and flavor it with a little olive oil, and scatter on the toppings. With the right, flavorful ingredients, who even needs a sauce?

That’s the spirit behind my recipe for Pizza with Prosciutto and Arugula. The pizza dough is baked with just a light brushing of extra-virgin olive oil and a combination of fontina and mozzarella cheeses, then, browned and bubbling-hot from the oven. It’s topped with a simple salad of peppery-tasting baby arugula leaves, prosciutto strips and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. How much simpler could it get?

With such a straightforward approach, you can really get creative if you want. Feel free to vary the combination of cheeses you bake on top of the pizza, including some cheddar or goat cheese or crumbled bleu cheese if you like. Try topping the hot-from-the-oven pizza with crisscrossed anchovy fillets and a scattering of cured black olives to make a pizza similar to those enjoyed in the south of France. If you like, replace the arugula salad with Caesar salad. Or just drape it with sliced tomatoes and a julienne of fresh basil leaves, to make the classic Margherita. And, if you can’t resist some kind of sauce, just spread the rolled-out dough with your favorite pesto sauce - 1 tablespoon per pizza is enough - before adding the cheeses and baking.

Whatever topping you choose, to get the best results, keep a few pointers in mind. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to make the dough, which you can also prepare the night before, shape into balls, and leave in the refrigerator. And I highly recommend that you get a pizza stone or ceramic baker’s tiles to heat on the middle rack of your oven while you shape the pizzas. These ensure that you get the intense, dry, radiant heat closer to that of authentic pizzeria ovens, resulting in pizzas that bake faster and form crispier crusts.

The results will be so good; you’ll never even notice that your pizza doesn’t have a sauce!

PIZZA WITH PROSCIUTTO AND ARUGULA

Makes 4 small 8-inch (20-cm) pizzas

PIZZA DOUGH

2 1/2 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast

1 cup warm water, 105-115 degrees (40-45 C)

1 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra

3 cups (750 ml) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

TOPPING

2 cups (500 ml) shredded fontina cheese

2 cups (500 ml) shredded mozzarella cheese

2 cups (500 ml) baby arugula leaves

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

6 ounces (185 g) prosciutto, cut or torn into strips

1 cup (250 ml) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

First, make the Pizza Dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Stir in the honey. Let sit 2 to 3 minutes, until cloudy. Stir in the olive oil.

If using a stand mixer, combine the flour and salt and add all at once to the yeast mixture. Mix with the paddle attachment just until combined. Then, knead with the dough hook at low speed for 2 minutes; increase to medium speed and knead until the dough clusters around the hook, about 5 minutes, steadying the machine if it moves. Turn out onto a clean work surface and knead by hand until smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes.

If using a food processor with the stainless-steel blade, put the flour and salt in the work bowl. Pulse a couple of times. With the machine running, pour in the yeast mixture and process until the dough forms a ball that rides on the blade. Turn out onto a clean work surface and knead by hand until smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the dough to a clean, lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave in a warm spot to rise for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Divide the dough into 4 balls, shaping each by pulling down on the sides and tucking each pull underneath, working round and round 4 or 5 times. Then, on an unfloured surface, roll the ball under your palm until smooth and firm, about 1 minute. Put the balls on a tray, cover with a damp towel, and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. (260 C).

Meanwhile, place a dough ball on a lightly floured surface. While turning it, press down on the center with the heel of your hand, gradually spreading forming a circle about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. With your fingertips, pinch a raised rim. Repeat with the remaining balls. Brush with a little olive oil.

Sprinkle the pizzas evenly with fontina and mozzarella. Using a lightly floured pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet, carefully slide each pizza onto the baking stone, being cautious with the very hot oven. Bake until the crust is nicely browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Carefully remove with the peel or baking sheet and transfer to a cutting board.

In a mixing bowl, toss the arugula with olive oil and vinegar; arrange on top of the pizzas with the prosciutto. Sprinkle with Parmesan. With a pizza cutter or large, sharp knife, cut each pizza into 4 slices. Serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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