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Creating your own pizza can be much healthier

August 19, 2009|By ANDRIA LISLE / Scripps Howard News Service

If pizza-making were a sport, I would definitely be relegated to the recreational leagues.

I'm happy to spend a few hours a week puttering around the kitchen, trying out new flavor combinations and drilling myself on my dough-flattening skills. Like many amateurs, I pride myself on having the proper accoutrements for making a great pizza, such as a cooking stone and a wooden paddle. And like most novices, I tend to fumble every time I try to slide the raw pizza into the oven.

The best part about turning out homemade pizzas is that even the errors taste good.

Even so, I jumped at the chance to spend an evening studying under a pro -- Gail Churinetz, a teacher of pasta and pizza workshops at the Viking Cooking School in Memphis, Tenn.

With a few tips from Churinetz, who coached me and a roomful of other home chefs through the rigors of mixing white and whole-wheat dough, then rewarded us with slices of perfect Pizza Margherita (resembling the green-red-and-white Italian flag, it's topped with fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella), I've been able to take my crusts from misshapen lumps to beautiful, cracker-thin ovals. I've learned to spotlight a few key ingredients, and make healthful, consistently delicious pizzas every time.

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Now I know to use bread flour, which has a higher gluten content, in place of some of the all-purpose flour in my dough recipe. I understand the importance of preheating my pizza stone, and I remember to dust my peel with a smattering of cornmeal to keep my crust from sticking to it before I can slide it into the oven. I have a newfound confidence in tossing my dough (Churinetz taught me the perfect wrist-spin), and to prove it, I publicly swore off Pillsbury's refrigerated pizza crusts for good.

I wasn't the only convert.

Both Lauryce McIver and Lisa Westbrook were determined to put a healthier spin on their families' favorite meal. The two women were my Viking teammates; together, we mastered the yeast-proofing process, and, in a short time, managed to turn out three gourmet pizzas, including a heart-friendly whole-wheat-and-sunflower-seed crust topped with grilled chicken and broccoli.

It wasn't a competition, but I was certainly impressed with the graceful moves of David Martin and Bob McKay, barbecue aces who signed up for the Viking class to hone their pizza-making skills.

"We just make pizzas for our friends once they're tired of eating ribs," McKay told me later. "A pizza is something you can do pretty quick, and it's a good way to get rid of leftovers."

And with toppings, it's anything goes. After all, as McKay said, "You've ruined whatever diet you were on already."

I'm trying to avoid a caloric overload, so I called a vegetarian friend, Justin Fox Burks, for advice.

A few years ago, Burks perfected a grilled flatbread pizza that's delicious topped with just-picked seasonal vegetables, roasted eggplant and feta cheese, or a Puttanesca sauce. Shunning an aerated pan, he cooks the dough directly on the grates of his gas grill then finishes off the pizza under the broiler.

"There's something about that crust coming into direct contact with the heat source," Burks said. "It's where the magic happens. Don't be afraid: You have to throw it on there with the peel, and trust that it will be fine."

In our circle of friends, Burks is known for his so-good-you-forget-you're-not-eating-meat concoctions.

"When it comes to vegetarian food, pizza is the great equalizer," he said. "People don't look at a slice of pizza the way they would if I tried to serve tofu. Plus, it's so much fun to cook with other people.

"It's one of those great meals where if you have the dough and the sauce ready to go, you're just 8 minutes away from eating."

BASIC PIZZA DOUGH



1-1/4-ounce envelope active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1-1/4 cup warm water, 105 to 110 degrees
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 cups flour
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for oiling the dough

Stir together yeast, sugar and 1/4 cup water. Let sit 5-10 minutes, until yeast mixture becomes creamy.

Combine salt and flour in work bowl of a food processor, or in the bowl of a stand mixer.

Combine yeast mixture, additional 1 cup water and olive oil. With food processor running, slowly add liquid through the feed tube and process until dough forms a satiny ball that clears the sides of the bowl, about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes. Or, use dough hook on mixer to knead dough approximately 5 minutes.

Turn dough onto lightly floured work surface; knead by hand with a few strokes to form a smooth, round ball. Place dough in lightly oiled bowl; cover with plastic wrap or slightly damp towel and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

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