Project Pizza: homemade skillet pizza with tomato-basil pesto sauce

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In beginning this blog, I think it’s only fitting for my first food topic to be on something new and uncharted for me. In this case: Homemade Pizza. I’ve often considered attempting this one, but always back down with excuses like: ‘but it’s so easy to order one!’, and ‘besides, how could my first try ever live up to the pizzeria standards my taste buds have come to expect?’.
All fears and excuses aside, though, I knew it had to happen someday – and that someday was now. With bunches of fresh tomatoes from the garden, and a brand new (pre-seasoned) cast iron skillet waiting to be broken in, it took only seconds for my master plan to resolve in my mind.
First up: roasted tomato-basil pesto.
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Roasted Tomato-Basil Pesto
1 1/2 cups sun dried or oven-dried tomatoes (grape/cherry variety)*
1 large bulb (yes, whole head) of garlic, roasted**
1/2 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
3/4 cup packed-down fresh basil leaves
1 cup grated Parmesan, fresh if you have it
extra virgin olive oil (it doesn’t have to be too fancy, but try not to use the cheap stuff here)
salt and pepper to taste
(Note: I meant to use a dash of balsamic vinegar, but forgot entirely – whoops!)
*For the tomatoes:
I took a bunch of cherry and grape tomatoes from the garden and sliced them in half (length-wise for the grape), then laid them on a baking sheet skin-side down. Now, I did this two ways on a couple pans, though either way would work fine on its own. First was to turn the oven down to it’s lowest temp (185-200 degrees F. usually) and bake them, rotating every half hour to an hour, until they start to look shriveled and gummy. Method 2 was to toss the sliced tomatoes in olive oil, salt, pepper, and finely minced garlic before spreading them on the pan and roasting at 300f. for a couple hours, rotating every half hour, until shriveled and turning brown around the edges. Either way is fine, or you can just use store bought sun-dried tomatoes – if they’re dry packed soak them in olive oil for a bit, if they come packed in oil use it in your pesto for the added flavor.


**For the garlic:
To roast a head of garlic, take the entire head and cut off the top end with a sharp knife, exposing all the cloves inside. Drizzle with a healthy dose of olive oil, wrap in aluminum foil (pinching it shut at the top) and bake on a baking pan (or in a muffin tray) at 400f. for 30-40 minutes. They’ll be super hot when they come out, so be sure to let them cool, and then you can pretty much just squeeze the cloves out of their shells like butter!

On to the pesto:
Add all ingredients except oil and salt/pepper to your food processor, and pulse it a few times. Then turn it on high and let it blend while drizzling olive oil in, slowly. Watch the texture/consistency until it looks right. I made mine pretty thick, but you may want yours thinner, and more sauce-like. You might have to stop from time to time to scrape down the edges of your food processor. Once you’re close to the consistency you’re looking for, do a taste test and add salt and pepper as needed.
This stuff has pretty intense flavor – if I were using it as a straight-up pesto I think I’d thin it out with a bit more oil, but as it is it can be added to sauces/marinades/doughs/whatever to add some punch. I used it as the base of my pizza sauce.
Pizza Sauce
1/4 cup tomato-basil pesto
1/4 homemade or store-bought pasta sauce (yeah, I used the stuff from the jar)
1 big handful of green olives (mine were marinated in garlic and herbs, but whatever kind you like is fine)
Blend all the ingredients in the food processor until smooth.
Pizza Crust – this always seems like the scary part, for me. How to get a good crust.
(adapted from HappinessInAPot, and using the skillet method from Vaughn Tan’s article in The Atlantic)
ingredients (enough for 1 crust, but if you wanted to double it and save half the dough in the fridge I’m sure it would last at least a few days):
1 1/8 tsp instant or rapid-rise yeast (or about 1/2 of one of those small packets)
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 TBSP honey
1 cup all-purpose flour (though I’m sure you could substitute)
1/4 cup bread flour or whole wheat flour
1 TBSP olive oil (plus a little for greasing a bowl)
1/2 tsp salt
optional, for flavoring the crust: crushed red pepper flakes, grated parmesan or other cheese (asiago would be nice!), ranch dressing powder, cajun spice seasoning, etc.

In a cup or bowl, stir honey into warm water until thoroughly combined. Pour over dry yeast, and let it sit until it starts to get foamy on top (about 5-10 minutes). Once it’s good and foamy add the salt and olive oil, stir.
In a seperate bowl mix together the different flours. Add maybe 2/3 of the flour to the yeast mixture, and stir until it starts to come together, adding more flour as needed. Once the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and holds together in a ball, turn it out onto a floured work surface and knead, adding flour as you go, until you have a very elastic but not sticky dough. You may or may not need all the flour – if you don’t use it all, save the extra for dusting your cutting board with later.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap for about an hour while it rises. Once it’s doubled in size it’s ready to use.
When the dough is almost done rising, get all your ingredients sliced and ready on a plate so you can top quickly.
Preheat your oven to 450f.
Give the dough one good punch in the middle to de-gas it, then peal it out of the bowl (it shouldn’t stick with the oil) and lay it down on a lightly floured surface (only let the flour touch the one side of the dough – this will be the bottom). Stretch the dough by lifting it and rotating in the air, holding on to the edges and letting the weight of the dough pull itself. Or, if you’re brave, you can try throwing it in the air like the pros – I did this several times and managed not to let the dough land on the floor, but I can’t say I recommend it. Stretch the dough to about 10-12 inches round (my skillet is 12”, so that’s what I went for, but it might be safe to go a little smaller than that). Lay the dough flat on a lightly floured cutting board (or pizza peel if you have one) and go around the edges making sure they’re raised up a bit so as to make a nice crust.
Before you start topping, turn the heat on high under your dry, un-greased skillet. Any oven-safe skillet should work, but cast iron is best if you have it. The article says to pre-heat the skillet for 8-10 minutes, but depending on what skillet you use, and if you have gas or electric, that may be too long. Mine was perfect between 6-8 minutes. If you feel like it’s pretty blazing hot before the 8 minute mark, I would say stop there so you don’t get a blackened crust.
While the skillet is heating up, top your pizza.
First the sauce (I only needed about 1/4 cup of what I’d made): spread with the back of a spoon or spatula right up the edge of your raised crust. I’m always surprised when I see the pros making pizza at how little sauce it looks like on the dough, but it always turns out to be plenty once it comes out of the oven. If you over-sauce it, it may get soupy, so be careful.
After the sauce add whatever toppings you’d like – in my case this was sliced heirloom tomatoes (again, from the garden), fresh mazzerella cheese, and fresh torn-up basil leaves. A ‘margarita’ or caprese-style pizza.
Brush the outer rim of crust with olive oil, and if you’re using any crust seasonings (garlic, cheese, cajun spices, etc.) sprinkle and lightly press them onto the crust now.

Alright, now comes the tricky part. Give your cutting board a jiggle to make sure the dough slides easily on the floured surface. Then lift the cutting board and carefully (a second pair of hands would have been awesome here) transfer the pizza into your blazing hot skillet. Immediately turn off the heat on the skillet, and place it in the oven for 7-8 minutes.
Once the time is up, reach in and turn the skillets handle so it’s pointing the opposite direction, just to make sure it’s baking evenly, and turn your oven from bake to broil. I turned on the oven light at this point so I could keep an eye on it and make sure things didn’t get too burnt. You want to see the cheese getting brown and bubbly, but be careful not to char the crust. I had mine under the broiler for about 2-3 minutes.
Remove from the oven (carefully!) and let it rest for a couple minutes before sliding out onto a cutting board or plate.

If you’re wondering why it looks so deformed, it’s because I botched sliding it into the skillet. Toppings were slipping everywhere and the dough was getting caught on things – this is why it’s so important to flour your cutting board, and would be useful to have help guiding the pie into the pan.
Luckily for me, though, looks aren’t everything.
Just as I was finishing admiring my cast-iron skillet’s inaugural pizza, The Boyfriend came home with stomach a’rumbling. We cut the pie into quarters, and for the first few bites there was nothing but guttural noises of approval. Then, as our composure returned, he said to me: “wow – this is better than Anthony’s” – very high praise, indeed! The man loves Anthony’s Pizza so much, he’s gotten to know the owner and half the delivery guys who work there. Ha! I thought, Project Pizza, a success!
Although I was a little astonished by his compliment at first, this pizza really was amazing. The flavor was incredible, which is something I’ve always found a little lacking in similarly topped pies. The intensity of the tomatoes, I’m sure, can be attributed to the pesto.
The entire pizza was gone in record time, leaving us in a haze of tasty satisfaction, basking in the magical after-glow of a good slice.
This method for the crust was so simple and worked so well I’m sure I’ll use it again. I can hardly wait to play around with different topping combinations – anything I want, however I want it! That’s the way pizza should be.

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Molto saporito!

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2 Responses to Project Pizza: homemade skillet pizza with tomato-basil pesto sauce

  1. Bridget January 7, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    Yum! you have so many delicious recipes

  2. Willow January 8, 2012 at 2:16 am #


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