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Perfect pizza start with crust; then sky's the limit

Alysha Witwicki
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
After you’ve gotten making the crust down, your pizza shape, size, depth and toppings are up to you. Broccoli, anyone?

It's one food that kids and adults will always agree on: pizza.

Blame the gooey cheese, that cracker-thin (or thick and chewy) crust or a smattering of toppings that makes each pie unique. Whatever it is about pizza that we can't get enough of, embrace it. With its universal appeal, it makes the perfect food for large and small gatherings. And your home kitchen is just the place to get the party started.

The perfect pizza starts with the crust. According to pizza expert Susan Reid, chef and publications manager of King Arthur Flour's "The Baking Sheet," your dough should be fairly slack and moist, not tight or bouncy.

"A basic recipe has all-purpose flour, semolina flour, salt, olive oil, yeast and water," she said. "The more moist it is, the easier it is to roll out. Your quest is to find that sweet spot."

Before you roll out the dough, most recipes recommend oiling a large bowl and placing the dough inside it to rise, usually for about an hour. For King Arthur Flour's Now or Later pizza crust recipe, as well as sourdough recipes, the flavors develop in the refrigerator. The longer the dough sits, the tangier the crust will be.

Once you get a basic recipe down, you can experiment with different flours, for example, adding half white flour and half whole wheat. You can also add chopped herbs to the dough or grated cheese.

Before baking, your oven needs to be hot and preheated to around 450 to 475 degrees. Reid likes putting a pizza stone in her oven as it preheats for around 30 minutes. She recommends rolling out the dough on parchment paper. From there you can transfer the dough and parchment to the pizza stone to blind-bake the crust before adding sauce, cheese and toppings.

For topping inspiration, look no further than pizzarias, which can feature anything from the usual pepperoni and mushrooms to the more creative ricotta cheese, crumbled meatballs, artichoke hearts, roasted zucchini to toppings that are really "out there," from mac and cheese pizza to barbecue chicken pizza with bacon, ranch and cheddar cheese to quesadilla pizza with spicy chicken or chorizo sausage and pico de gallo.

Barbecued Chicken Pizza with Now Or Later Pizza Crust


Makes 2 (12- to 14-inch) round pizzas, about 16 slices

Now or Later pizza crust (see recipe)

1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless chicken, breasts or thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces (or use leftover roast chicken)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2 1/2 cups red onions chopped into large pieces (about 2 medium-large), divided

1 1/2 cups prepared barbecue sauce, divided

Salt and pepper to taste

3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Prepare pizza dough, refrigerating it for 4 hours or longer, as directed.

Cut chicken into 2-inch pieces. Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and saute until edges begin to brown, about 10 minutes.

Add garlic and about half the onions and saute, stirring frequently, until onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes over high heat.

Add 1/2 cup barbecue sauce and toss to coat, continuing to cook until sauce has thickened. If you use a thick sauce to begin with, this will happen immediately; if sauce is thinner, it could take 3 or 4 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Lightly grease two 12-inch or 14-inch round pizza pans; or, for thicker, Sicilian-style pizza, an 18-by-13-inch rimmed half-sheet pan. If using a pizza stone, place stone in the oven as you preheat it.

Divide your risen pizza dough in half (for 2 round pizzas); or leave it whole for one thick-crust pizza. Place dough in pan(s), gently stretching it to fit. If dough fights back, cover it and walk away for 10 minutes; this will give the gluten a chance to relax. When you return, the dough should be easier to work with.

Cover dough and let it rise 30 to 90 minutes, depending on how thick you want your crust(s). Thirty minutes before end of rising time, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Dock the crusts several times with a fork.

Bake untopped crust(s) 12 minutes. Remove from oven. To finish pizzas, spread about 1/2 cup of remaining barbecue sauce over each round crust; or spread the entire 1 cup sauce on the large rectangular crust. Sprinkle 1 1/2 cups shredded cheese atop the sauce on each pizza (or all 3 cups on the one pizza).

Top with cooked chicken mixture. For a pleasantly crisp touch, spread the uncooked onions over the chicken mixture. If you prefer onions that are completely cooked, saute them all with the chicken.

Bake pizzas in preheated oven about 12 minutes, until crust is browned and topping is bubbling.

Remove from oven and serve hot or warm. Serves 8.

Per serving (per 2 slices): 542 calories; 17 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 28 percent calories from fat); 48 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 108 mg cholesterol; 1,017 mg sodium; 47 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Now Or Later Pizza Crust

Makes enough dough for 2 (12- to 14-inch) round pizzas

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups semolina (see note)

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons to 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water

Combine all ingredients in bowl of electric mixer. Beat on high speed, using the beater blade, for 2 minutes. Switch to the dough hook, and knead 7 minutes; dough should be smooth and quite soft. You can also make the dough in a bread machine set on the dough cycle. If kneading by hand, mix the ingredients, then let the dough rest, covered, for about 30 minutes; this will give the flour a chance to absorb the water, which will make kneading easier.

Allow the dough to rise, covered, 45 minutes, then refrigerate it for 4 hours (or up to 36 hours); this step will develop the crust's flavor. It will continue to rise in the fridge, so make sure it's in a big enough bowl. Use as directed in the above recipe. Serves 8.

Note: 3 cups all-purpose flour can be used instead of the all-purpose-semolina combination.

Per serving: 202 calories; 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat; 18 percent calories from fat); 36 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 364 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza

This pizza from tasteofhome.com is delicious with its smattering of sausage, mushrooms and red pepper. And if you ever get a craving for a thick, Chicago-style pizza, this recipe doesn't disappoint.

Makes 2 round pizzas, about 16 slices

3 1/2 cups flour, divided

1/4 cup cornmeal

1 package (1/4 ounce) quick-rise yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup water

1/3 cup olive oil

6 cups (24 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, well drained

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon dried basil

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 pound bulk pizza sausage, cooked and crumbled

1/2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms

1 red bell pepper, diced

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups flour, cornmeal, yeast, sugar and salt.

In a saucepan, heat water and oil to 120 to 130 degrees. Add to dry ingredients; beat just until moistened. Add remaining flour to form a stiff dough.

Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6 to 8 minutes (or place in a stand mixer and mix with a dough hook on low for 6 minutes). Place in a large greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. After 30 minutes, preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Punch dough down; divide in half. Roll each portion into an 11-inch circle on a lightly floured baking mat. Press dough onto bottom and up side of two greased 10-inch ovenproof skillets.

Sprinkle each pizza with 2 cups mozzarella cheese. In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste and seasonings. Spoon 1 1/2 cups over each pizza. Layer each with half of the sausage, mushrooms, red pepper, 1 cup mozzarella and 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese.

Cover and bake in preheated oven 35 minutes. Uncover; bake 5 minutes longer or until lightly browned.

Per serving (per slice): 346 calories; 17 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 44 percent calories from fat); 31 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 37 mg cholesterol; 759 mg sodium; 18 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Mac and Cheese Pizza

Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki. A typical mac and cheese is creamy and just a tad runny (which could be a problem when you're trying to use it as a pizza topping). Thankfully, this homemade mac and cheese is super-thick and dense.

It holds up well in the oven without shifting on the pizza at all. For this recipe from foodnetwork.com, feel free to use fresh, homemade or store-bought pizza dough, which is widely available in many grocery stores.

Makes 2 round pizzas, about 16 slices

1/2 pound dry rotini pasta

Olive oil cooking spray

6 slices thick-cut bacon

2 tablespoons butter

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups whole milk

2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup grated mozzarella cheese

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 homemade or store-bought balls of pizza dough (about 1 pound each)

Preheat oven and a pizza stone to 450 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook rotini until al dente. Drain and coat with olive oil cooking spray, making sure noodles are coated well. Set aside.

In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, cook bacon until crispy. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings and add the butter. Add onion, garlic and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper and saute until onions wilt and become translucent, about 4 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium-low and sprinkle in the flour, stirring to coat onion and garlic. Continue to cook until you have a blond roux, about 5 minutes. Whisk in milk until you have a thick enough sauce that it coats the back of a spoon. Crumble reserved bacon and add half to the sauce. Mix in cheddar and mozzarella. Turn heat to low. Add pasta to cheese sauce and stir to coat. Cover and keep warm.

In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, Parmesan, chives and olive oil.

Lightly flour a countertop and roll out 1 ball of pizza dough to about 14 inches in diameter. Place on a sheet of parchment paper, and dock pizza with a fork. Slide onto pizza stone and bake in preheated oven 7 minutes. Remove from oven and set down. Spread half the macaroni and cheese on the pizza, being careful to leave a 1-inch border. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture on the macaroni and cheese, return to oven and bake 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes to set the macaroni and cheese. Garnish with remaining bacon. Repeat process with other pizza.

Per serving (per slice): 346 calories; 13 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 34 percent calories from fat); 42 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 32 mg cholesterol; 506 mg sodium; 15 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Pizza secrets

All you need to make pizza from scratch is time, a little patience and these helpful tips:

1. To prevent your pizza from getting soggy in the middle, make sure your oven (and pizza stone, if using) is thoroughly preheated to at least 450 degrees.

2. Other things that can cause a soggy pizza are too much sauce and cheese.

3. For a cracker-thin crust, add cornmeal to the dough batter.

4. If your dough has been sitting in the refrigerator, let it sit on the counter to warm up as you preheat your oven and prepare your toppings.

5. If your pizza crust keeps bouncing back during the rolling process, roll it out halfway and then let the dough relax for 20 minutes before rolling it out completely.

6. To prevent a dense and tough pizza crust, oil your hands to stretch and push out the dough.