There are few foods in life more satisfying than a hot pizza pie with a crisp, hearty crust, topped with gooey cheese and delicious, meaty toppings. When I met my husband, he was living the single high-life in a bachelor pad in Toronto. After late nights at work, he was almost single-handedly being sustained by pizza meals from the local pizza shop under his condominium building. I’m not talking about him eating pizza two or three days a week — he was literally eating pizza every night largely because that was the only shop that was open where he could grab a quick slice or two after getting home at late hours after work. Between his pizza-dominated meals (and the occasional handout meals from generous couples in neighbouring condos and a friend’s mother’s frozen chicken pot pies), he became quite fond of eating pizza. 3 years later, amazingly, he still loves pizza pies today as much as he did then. The only difference now is that instead of eating fast-food type pizza from the local shop, he now enjoys restaurant-quality pizza baked at home — by yours truly — on a pizza stone. The high-bake temperature of the stone caramelises the natural sugars in the dough and produces all sorts of lovely natural flavours and a crispy crust reminiscent of restaurant-style pizzas baked in wood burning ovens.
I’ve been using my pizza stone for years and cannot fathom the possibility of ever returning to baking pizzas on plain old pizza pans or baking sheets. I feel that it is my moral imperative to convert the population at large from using baking sheets to making authentic pizza-parlour quality pizzas at home on a nifty little pizza stone. I’ve managed to convince a few friends already, as well as my brother-in-law and I am successfully converting my sisters one by one! Pizza stones don’t require much care but there a few cardinal rules (listed below) that need to be followed when using a pizza stone to ensure that they last for years to come.
This particular barbeque chicken pizza is one that my sister and brother-in-law treated us to at a fabulous Italian restaurant in Michigan on our last visit to their home. We loved it so much that we just had to recreate it at home! It’s the perfect marriage of barbeque chicken and a perfectly stone-baked pizza pie!
Pizza stones range in price from $10 all the way up to $70. I can tell you from experience that you don’t require an expensive stone to produce superior quality pizza. The stone I currently use is one that I picked up from a local housewares store called Benix and retails for less than $14.
A pizza peel (also referred to as a pizza paddle) is a tool used to slide pizza (as well as loaves of bread and other baked goods) into and out of an oven. It is usually made of wood, bamboo or even stainless steel (with a wooden handle) with a flat carrying surface, similar to a shovel’s blade, for holding the pizza. There is a handle extending from one side of that surface which allows you to reach far into the oven without burning your hands. Wooden pizza peels should never be submerged in water but rather cleaned with a paper towel dampened with plain water (never with soap). When you purchase a pizza peel, ensure that the front edge is tapered (thinner) to ensure that you can remove the pizza from the stone with ease. The stainless steel variety of pizza peel, while quite durable, is less preferred, in my humble opinion, to wood, for the reason that if you are frequently taking it in and out of the oven, it does not become hot enough to burn your hands like metal can if the surface is accidentally touched. Surprisingly, pizza peels can be as expensive as pizza stones, but if you shop around, you should be able to find one that retails for less than $20. This particular one that I own was given to me by my sister who purchased it in Hershey, Pennsylvania (presumably to thank me for introducing her to pizza-stone pizza)!
What is a Pizza Stone? A pizza stone is a piece of ceramic used to evenly distribute oven heat to pizzas or other baked goods. The stone essentially mimics the effect of cooking a pizza in a masonry (stone or brick) oven. The brick ovens, used in pizza parlours, reach 800°F whereas modern home ovens usually don’t heat above 550°F. Adding a pizza stone to your home oven will heat the stone to over 750°F and can yield the same mouth-watering crispy crust that you love at your favourite pizza place, in your own home. The stone is porous in nature which allows it to extract moisture from the pizza, resulting in a crisp crust. Often, people use large terra cotta tiles which are unglazed, from their local hardware shop, as a substitute for a commercially-produced pizza stone. Terra cotta tiles are inexpensive and are easily replaced should they crack. However, make sure that you don’t use a glazed tile as they contain lead, which is very hazardous to your health. The use of pizza stones is not restricted to pizzas: you can bake French bread, bagels, and many other types of bread on them.
Using a Pizza Stone: To prevent fracturing of the stone by thermal shock, the pizza stone should be placed in a cold oven and heated for at least 45 minutes. If you place your cold pizza stone into a hot oven it will not be able to withstand the thermal shock and will likely shatter. Once you are done using the stone, it should be allowed to cool down slowly inside the oven after the oven has been switched off. It is important to note that once the stone has reached the required temperature it will be extremely hot. You are essentially working with a fire brick so it will be far too hot to handle with a conventional oven glove. You will need to remove your cooked pizza from the hot stone with care. Using a pizza peel (a pizza paddle) will allow you to transfer the pizza to and from the pizza stone with ease. If you do not own a pizza peel, you can use tongs to slide the cooked pizza on to a flat plate or a baking sheet that does not have a ‘lip’ or edge.
Cleaning and Caring for your Pizza Stone: Because they are porous, pizza stones will absorb any fluid with which they come into contact, including dish-washing detergent. Any form of detergent or soap will seep into the material and it will make an unwelcome addition to your next pizza. Pizza stones should be cleaned with a dry brush and wiped down with a paper towel dampened with ONLY plain water. Use a knife or a fork to take off the larger pieces of pizza stuck to your stone. Over time, your stone will darken as oil absorbs into it, creating a non-stick patina (a dark film) which is perfectly natural and actually improves the flavour of breads baked on the stone. When your pizza stone is not in use, it can be kept on the bottom rack of your oven. My pizza stone is always kept in my oven even when I’m baking other things on the middle rack and never causes any problems regarding temperature retention or fluctuations. The ever-presence of my pizza stone at the bottom of my oven never has any adverse effects on my baked dishes.
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PREPARING THE DOUGH
As you gather your ingredients, allow your yeast to ferment and bubble along with the warm water and sugar. The yeast I use is instant, but I always test it beforehand in a small bowl to ensure that it is of optimal freshness. There is nothing sadder than using yeast that is beyond its prime and only realizing that after you’ve combined all your ingredients and have waited for your dough to proof for an hour!
Allow the ingredients to combine on low speed before increasing the mixer to medium speed for 10 minutes to knead. If you find that the dough is too sticky, add flour, one tablespoon at a time to the mixer, to get the right consistency. The dough should be slightly tacky but not wet. Once the mixer kneads the dough for 10 minutes, the dough will become smooth and elastic.
After greasing the bowl, cover it with a tea towel or a silicone airtight cover as I tend to use and place it in a warm draft-free place to proof (rise). I always find a warm place on the stove top to place the mixer. As the oven preheats, some of the burners on the stove top tend to get warmer so that is the ideal place to leave your dough to proof. If the surface is too hot, it may kill your yeast, so place a tea towel or trivet on the stove before you place the mixing bowl down on it.
PREPARING THE PIZZA SAUCE
When you’ve already committed to making the effort to give your family delicious home-made pizza, why then would you stop short at the pizza sauce? Skip the canned pizza sauce and create this 30-minute zesty pizza sauce. It is fresh and bright with the flavour of tomatoes and cooks while your dough is rising. You can use any tomatoes you have on hand and have fun adding whatever herbs or spices you prefer. The leftover sauce can be frozen for up to a month to use at a later time, so you can’t go wrong with making your own sauce at home. When you start making your own pizza sauce, canned sauce will never be the same again!
GRILLING THE CHICKEN
ASSEMBLING THE PIZZAS
Any artisan pizza maker worth his salt will tell you that taking a rolling pin to a perfectly puffed ball of dough is egregious – a cardinal sin, in fact! Dough is meant to be tossed and hand-stretched. The end result need not be a perfectly round pizza pie, but beautifully marred with imperfect and rustic edges. If you’re not partial to tossing the dough about (give it a try for kicks if you haven’t tried it!) then you can simply lay the dough on the surface of the peel and use one hand to hold the dough down with a light hand as you use the other hand to stretch the dough out gently. If the dough tears, simply pinch the sides of the tear together to repair it. If you can’t bear the thought of having to pull and stretch the dough by hand, then by all means, have a go at it with a rolling pin — just don’t tell me about it! Have fun with it — the experience should be light and amusing and is the perfect dinner time activity to get the kids involved in.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to saucing the dough. Use as much or as little as you’d like but be careful not to add so much that the dough becomes soggy and difficult to slide of the pizza peel. Artfully place your ingredients around the pizza pie. Constructing these pies is actually quite fun and also socially engaging. My husband and I often have friends and family over for pizza parties where each guest can dress their personal pizza with over a dozen different varieties of toppings (chicken, sausage, ground beef, every type of veggie and even fruit!) as well as a plethora of beautiful cheeses (gorgonzola, goat, feta, fresh mozzarella and more)! Constructing the pizza pie ‘masterpieces’ makes for lively dinner conversation and the pies bake up quickly so they are ready for your hungry guests in minutes!
Spicy Barbeque Chicken Pizza
1 (.25 ounce/8gms/11ml/2 teaspoon) package instant quick-rise yeast
1/4 cup (63 ml) tepid/warm water (110°C or 230°F)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (250 ml) room-temperature water
3 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon honey (or sugar)
3 tablespoons (45 ml) vegetable or olive oil
7 small tomatoes (‘Roma’ is preferred but any variety will work)
2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil
1 small onion
3 cloves garlic
3 cups water
1 sprig thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1-2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed chili flakes (optional)
6-8 basil leaves
Barbeque Chicken Topping
1 large boneless skinless chicken breast
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon (15 ml) canola oil
2 teaspoons steak seasoning (such as McCormick’s or Clubhouse Montreal Steak seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon crushed chili flakes (optional)
4 basil leaves
barbeque sauce to taste
2 cups mozzarella or monterey jack cheese, shredded
semolina, as needed (to sprinkle on the pizza peel)
olive oil, as needed (to brush on the pizza crust)
Place your pizza stone on a rack in the middle of your oven. Preheat your oven to 550°F or 228°C while you prepare the dough, sauce and topping.
Prepare the chicken: Slice the chicken on a bias (with your knife at a 45° angle) and transfer to a medium-sized bowl. Mince the garlic very finely and add to the bowl. To the same bowl, add the oil, steak seasoning, crushed chili flakes (if using) and salt. Combine, cover and allow to marinate for one hour or so, while you prepare the dough and pizza sauce. After your dough and sauce are prepared, on a hot grill, grill the pieces of chicken until cooked through. You may need to add some oil to the grill to keep the chicken from sticking. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. If the pieces are too large, simply shred them with your fingers to the desired size.
Prepare the dough: In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup of warm water and sugar. Let stand until the mixture starts to foam and bubble (about 5 minutes).
In mixer bowl with a dough hook, combine the yeast mixture with 1 cup water, salt, honey (or sugar) and olive oil; stir well to combine. Start adding the flour, one cup at a time, beating well after each addition. When the dough has pulled together (add additional flour 1 tablespoon at a time if the dough is too sticky), continue to run the mixer for 10 minutes on medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic. [Note: To knead the dough by hand, simply turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes.] Remove the dough from the bowl and lightly oil the mixing bowl. Replace the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover and allow to proof (rise) in a draft-free place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour, while you prepare the pizza sauce.
Prepare the sauce: Cut the tomatoes in large chunks. Warm the oil in a large pot. Dice the onions and mince the garlic and add them to the oil. Toast the garlic for 30 seconds or so being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the tomatoes along with the water to the pot. Add the sprig of thyme, dried oregano, crushed chili flakes (if using), salt and pepper. Allow the mixture to cook on medium for 30 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture to the desired texture or consistency. Reduce the sauce to simmer and cook for 15 minutes to the desired thickness. (You may not need to simmer for the additional 15 minutes if you prefer a thinner sauce.) Remove the sauce from the burner. Allow the sauce to cool for a few minutes. Chop the basil leaves and add to the sauce. [Note: you will only use about 1/2 of the sauce for this recipe – the unused portion can be refrigerated in a jar for 2-3 days or in the freezer for 3-4 weeks.]
Assemble the pizza: Once the dough has proofed and doubled in volume, turn it out onto a clean surface and divide the dough into 4 sections. Form each dough segment into a perfectly round ball. Set aside on a plate and cover while you prepare each pizza. On a pizza peel, sprinkle some semolina. Hand-stretch one of the four segments of dough into a circle (for a thinner crust pizza, continue to stretch the dough until it is as thin as you’d like it). Brush the dough (particularly the outer crust) with olive oil. Ladle some of the home-made sauce on the pizza. Spread the sauce to about a half-inch of the edge of the dough. Artfully lay the slices of cooked chicken on top of the sauce. Chop the 4 large basil leaves and sprinkle some around the chicken (reserve the rest of the chopped basil for the other pizzas). Top with mozzarella or monterey jack cheese. Transfer the pizza from the peel to the hot pizza stone. You may have to agitate or shake the peel to slide the pizza off the surface of the peel. Allow the pizza to cook for 3-6 minutes depending on the thickness of your pizza. Remove the cooked pizza from the pizza stone using the same pizza peel. Repeat the process of creating each pizza with the remaining 3 balls of dough. Remove the pizzas, one by one, as they cook and drizzle with a good-quality barbeque sauce. When you are ready to serve, using a pizza roller/slicer, cut the pizza into 4 or 6 equal pieces.
Yields: 4 small pizzas (8-10 inches in diameter)