Sometimes the simplest ingredients, combined in the simplest of ways, have the power to stop time, erase your woes, and transport you to a place of nirvana-like bliss. Such is the power of the margherita pizza. Fresh tomato sauce, chewy mozzarella cheese, a sprinkling of basil on a crispy crust? Don't be surprised if you start levitating.
I am not a strict purist when it comes to Margherita pizza. I like the crust to be crispy, but still with a little chew. When tomatoes are in season and so very ripe, I'll use them over the traditional San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. I also really like a clove of garlic and a few basil leaves in my sauce. Slices of fresh mozzarella, buffalo or otherwise, are a must.
If you've never made your own pizza sauce before, this recipe will convince you otherwise -- if you can even call it a recipe. All you do is blend ripe tomatoes in a food processor or blender until they're good and saucy. To prevent an overly watery sauce (and the subsequently soggy pizza crust), I usually squeeze the tomatoes of excess liquid before blending or strain the sauce afterwards to make it thicker.
No need to cook this sauce ahead of time, either. Spread thinly on the crust, it will cook just enough in the oven to perk up its flavors.
Classic Margherita Pizza
Makes two 10-inch pizzas
1 pound pizza dough, storebought or homemade
1 pound (2 large) ripe summer tomatoes or 1 (16-ounce) can whole or diced tomatoes
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup loosely packed basil, sliced into ribbons
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, sliced
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 550 F or as hot as it can go. Place a baking stone or baking sheet in the oven as it heats.
Divide the dough in half and shape each half into 10-inch rounds (see note below). Set aside.
Cut the tomatoes into wedges and trim away the stem area. Gently squeeze the wedges over a bowl to remove the excess juices and seeds. Combine the tomatoes with the garlic and half of the basil in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process until the tomatoes break down into a sauce, scraping down the sides as needed. If desired, strain to make a thicker sauce.
Spread a light layer of the sauce over one of the rounds of pizza. Top with half of the slices of mozzarella. Leave some space between the pieces of mozzarella.
Transfer the pizzas to the preheated baking stone or baking sheet. Bake for 5-10 minutes -- exact cooking time will vary depending on your oven temperature. Pizzas are finished when the crust is deep brown with charred spots and the cheese is bubbling.
Top and bake the second pizza. Sprinkle each pizza with basil as it comes out of the oven. Let them cool briefly before slicing and serving.
--Shaping pizza rounds on parchment: I find it easiest to shape pizzas on a piece of parchment paper. Place the ball of dough in the middle of the parchment and use the heel of your hand to press the dough flat. Work from the middle out to shape it into a flat round. The dough will stick to the parchment; if it starts to shrink back, wait a few minutes to let it relax and continue shaping. Cover with toppings. Bake on the parchment, removing the parchment halfway through cooking once the parchment loosens from the pizza.
--Shaping pizza rounds without parchment: Dust your work surface with flour and shape the pizza into rounds using the heels of your hands as described above. Check frequently to make sure the dough is not sticking to the work surface and use more flour as needed. If it shrinks back, wait a few minutes to let it relax and continue shaping. Once it is shaped, scatter some cornmeal on top of a pizza peel or the back of a baking sheet and transfer the pizza round on top. Cover with toppings and slide the dough onto the preheated baking stone or baking sheet to bake.
(Emma Christiansen is a writer for TheKitchn.com, a nationally known blog for people who love food and home cooking. Submit any comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)