Buongiorno! I’m making pizza for the day that’s in it*. From scratch too, because I don’t get frozen pizza (?), or deep-pan pizza (??), or microwave pizza (!!!), or hotdog and pineapple pizza (???), or Tesco Everyday Value Pizza Bases (????) that seem to have more in common with a giant digestive biscuit than any bread dough from the real world.
Or how about chicken tikka pizza, or chocolate and marshmallow pizza, or them lads with the “deep crust” that come in a cardboard box on a scooter via a phone app (?????????) and have all the consistency of a rubber mat on mescaline?
I also don’t get how pizza must always come with a tomato sauce, or has to be perfectly round. It doesn’t even have to have cheese. It can be a funny-shaped white pizza.
Yes, I’m talking about pizza bianca (or occasionally bianco): a thin pizza dough on which is spread a pick-and-mix of ingredients that could be straight from an Italian deli counter.
1. The toppings
When it comes to a pizza bianco’s star ingredients, think anchovies, artichokes, olives, mushrooms, prosciutto, pancetta, and one or more cheeses – gorgonzola, goat’s cheese, buffalo mozzarella, ricotta…
Or something more minimalist, more in the simple style of focaccia – brushed with garlic, olive oil, herbs, a little cheese, freshly ground black or white pepper and sea salt.
Once cooked, a pizza bianca often likes to be dressed with a flutter of fresh parsley or basil or oregano or lemon thyme, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. A flutter, a sprinkle, a drizzle, a dab – you may have noticed the lack of exact quantities here, because improvisation is the name of this particular game.
A white pizza also likes a white sauce (where the tomato sauce would usually go, directly on the dough base). Perhaps a concoction made from slow-roasted garlic, onions and cream; or grilled aubergine puree; or a cream cheese mixture loosened up with a spoonful or two of natural yoghurt (try mixing in a teaspoon of cornflour to stop it all splitting). The cream cheese sauce goes particularly well with a topping of smoked salmon (or smoked trout), capers and – after baking – a good scattering of rocket leaves or fresh dill.
Many of these white pizza toppings are, well, white. But a word of warning: cottage cheese doesn’t quite work, chicken is a no-no, I haven’t tried cauliflower or parsnips yet, and grated Parmesan doesn’t necessarily “go with everything”.
And, again thinking of the day that’s in it*, a white pizza can also be green: think wilted spinach leaves or shaved asparagus and shallots with ricotta; recently picked sage leaves, walnuts and goat’s cheese; or toppings upon a fresh pesto sauce made from basil or rocket; perhaps even something involving courgettes (zucchini). The courgettes need to be wafer thin though. Try using a vegetable peeler.
So far I’ve been reeling off piles of ingredients, but don’t overdo it. A pizza bianca’s beauty lies in its exquisite simplicity. Without the bold, acidic base of a tomato sauce, it can showcase just three or four good ingredients, particularly ones with delicate flavours. Or two or three strong flavours that can compete with each other on equal terms, such as, er, Roquefort cheese and poached pear and walnut pizza anybody? No, that last one was a joke.
2. Pizza Defined
So how did I become a fan of the pizza bianca? Astute readers may think it was from my recent Italian travels (to learn why Italy didn’t end up in my Ghost Flight book despite all that travel and research, check out my separate “Moss Reid’s Places” blog).
No, it was long before that, and all down to Bernadette O’Shea’s groundbreaking book from two decades ago. Pizza Defined remains one of my all-time favourite cookbooks. It truly is a definitive guide to making pizzas, it redefined Irish cuisine, and many of its pizza recipes have a fine local twist.
Imagine: Clonakilty black pudding with leek, mascarpone and pine nuts. Or a bacon and cabbage pizza (OK, a Parma ham and cabbage pizza) with cheese, pine nuts again and truffle oil. You’d almost think pine trees in Ireland didn’t have nuts until Pizza Defined came along.
The original 1997 hardback edition was an elegant production, and it’s now back in print as a slightly less elegant paperback. Read, cook, enjoy.
3. Finally, the dough
But what about the pizza’s base, I hear you say? I won’t go into too much detail about how to make the dough, except to say that:
- This one doesn’t need oil – just flour, water, yeast and salt
- Use “strong” white flour, also called “00” (zero-zero) bread flour
- Dust your baking tray with semolina for an extra crunchy nuttiness to the crust
- Pre-heat the oven to its highest temperature
- Use a pizza stone if you have one
- As you put the dough in to cook, throw about a cup’s worth of water into the bottom of the oven to generate steam
- I reckon the dough should be a good deal “wetter” than a usual tomato pizza’s
For standard bread dough I use a roughly 6:10 ratio of water to flour, or six parts water to ten parts flour by weight. This ends up as about 150 cc of water to 250 g of flour for a reasonable amount of dough (to make about six buns, or one loaf, or three or four tomato pizzas).
For a pizza bianca dough, though, I go for a much wetter mix, at least 7:10 or seven parts water to ten parts flour, or 175 ccs of water to 250 g of flour.
Such a wet mix can be hard to handle, so normally I’d warn beginners to steer clear. But for a pizza bianca, the “no-knead, overnight” method works really well. Indeed, the no-knead method is one of the New York Times’s most popular recipes of all time and is dead simple.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, yeast and cold water (and salt if you are using it), cover with that shower cap that you took from the London hotel last summer, and leave nature to do its work overnight or at least twelve hours. Eighteen is even better, because making dough is an extreme form of slow cooking. Your dough needs time to grow, because it involves living organisms.
OK, OK, sometimes I do use a packet of McDougalls “Fast Action Dried Yeast”, and slightly warm water, and a food mixer with a dough hook, to produce a dough that will be ready after two or three hours of proving. But with time and patience you’ll always get a much better taste and texture.
A sourdough starter is well worth while if you can wait a week, a sponge-and-dough method is a sort of half-way house that gives great results, and sometimes after kneading the dough I’d even leave it for two or three days in the fridge to mature and to develop all those complex flavours, before letting it warm up and wake up again on the kitchen table.
(* “The day that’s in it”? Ireland’s famous victory over Italy in Lille tonight)