Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Pizza Margherita

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 Pizza Margherita Pizza is going to be on the menu one day soon, and I'm hoping I'll be able to do it while we've still got fresh tomatoes and basil in the garden.
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Pizza Margherita

That brief breath of autumn that tantalized us last week has slipped back to the Arctic from whence it came, and our local forecast for the weekend - in rude defiance of the autumn equinox on Saturday afternoon - is headed back for the middle 90s again.

That pretty much knocks out my hopeful plan to make the first pizza of the season over the weekend. No way I'm cranking the oven up to 550F when the air conditioning is already struggling to keep ahead of the outdoor air.

Nevertheless, pizza is going to be on the menu one day soon, and I'm hoping I'll be able to do it while we've still got fresh tomatoes and basil in the garden: I've got my taste buds set for a classic Pizza Margherita.

Created in the 1880s and patriotically named after Margherita of Savoy, the first Queen of unified Italy, pizza Margherita's simple ingredients - ripe tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella cheese - were chosen to represent the red, green and white colors of the then-new Italian flag. It's no coincidence that these ingredients, baked on a well-constructed pizza round, also bring together the ultimate in classic Italian flavors.

While I'm waiting for the weather to cool, I thought this would be a good time to review the "perfect pizza" recipe that I last discussed about three years ago. Worked out here and on our FoodLovers Discussion Group forum, it's based on a modern French baguette technique rather than a classic pizza method. The fundamentals aren't much different - the perfect baguette and the perfect pizza dough both rely on utter simplicity, made with good flour, water, yeast and salt and nothing more.

Here's the procedure as I last went through it, a small batch that makes a pizza just big enough for two. Or, okay, for one, if you're really hungry. I invite your suggestions, comments and questions, of course. I've posted this column in the FoodLovers forum, where you're welcome to join the online conversation:


(Serves two)

6 ounces (180g) white bread flour or all-purpose flour or a combination
1/2 teaspoon (3g) salt
1/2 teaspoon instant dry yeast
4 ounces cool water (room temperature)

4 to 6 ounces fresh, whole-milk mozzarella
1 or 2 large, fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons good olive oil
6 to 8 fresh basil leaves


1. Put the flour, the salt and the dry yeast into a bowl and stir in the water, a little at a time, mixing until the resulting dough forms a rough ball. Put it on a lightly floured bread board or counter top and knead it vigorously for 5 minutes or more until it's smooth. You want this to be a fairly "wet" dough, so if you prefer you can use a mixer, but for a pizza this small it's easy enough to work by hand.

2. Lightly oil a bowl and put the dough in it to rise. Cover with a dish towel or piece of plastic wrap. Let it rise in a cool place until it's a full 2 1/2 times its original size, perhaps 3 hours.

3. If you have a pizza stone - and I recommend one for both pizza and bread - put it in your oven on a lower shelf and crank up the heat as high as it will go. On our gas oven that's a notch above 550F (close to 300C). Give it plenty of time, at least a half-hour, to preheat thoroughly.

4. Form the pizza. Contrary to old-fashioned bread-making advice, do not punch down the risen dough. Simply turn the bowl over and let the dough fall out onto a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle it with a little flour, pick it up, and let it stretch out naturally as you handle it. Drape it over the backs of your hands and gently pull and stretch it into a large circle. Don't press or handle the dough any more than necessary. It's not necessary to obsess about this, but the more you can avoid "de-gassing" it, the better bread it will be.

5. Put a sheet of parchment paper on a bread board or pizza "peel." Gently place the pizza round on the paper, nudging it into a rough circle. Geometrical perfection is not important, and don't worry about crimping up the edges. Remember, the less handling, the better.

5. Put on your toppings. Slice the mozzarella into rounds and put them down first, then slices of fresh, juicy tomato, and drizzle on a little olive oil. Don't overload this delicate pizza with toppings.

6. Slide the parchment paper with the pizza on to the stone (or use a pizza pan or cookie sheet if you don't have a stone). After about three minutes, gently lift an edge of the partially cooked pizza (take care, it's hot in there) and pull out the paper, leaving the pie directly on the stone to finish. Check again after a couple of minutes and turn the pie if it seems to be browning faster on one side. Bake until the edges are puffy and dark golden-brown - timing will vary depending on oven temperature, edge thickness and toppings, but at this high heat it shouldn't need more than 6 to 8 minutes. Carefully remove it from the oven, garnish with the basil leaves, serve while it's sizzling.

MATCHING WINE: It's hard to go wrong with a cold beer with pizza, but the stereotypical wine match, Chianti, makes a fine companion too, as will just about any fruity, high-acid red.

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