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The Front Burner: No 'knead' to work hard for pizza

When it comes to weeknight dinners, some of us are not big fans of planning ahead.

Oh, we might take something out of the freezer in the morning, then figure out what to do with it later in the day. Not for us all the a.m. prep work, so the crock pot can do its thing all day.

About 4 p.m., maybe even 5 p.m., is certainly soon enough to figure out what to do with the chicken or ground beef that's been defrosting all day.

Which is why, when it comes to fixing homemade pizza, we usually don't do it this way. After all, with yeast, you have to think ahead, at least a little, to allow for those two dough risings, so you can get the crust nice and thin.

Which is why the only prep work most of us do for pizza night is make a phone call.

There are those of us, however, who aren't quite ready to give up the fun of putting together that most favorite of all American pies. Which is why we come up with alternatives to yeast-based pizza crust that you can use to whip up last-minute pizza feasts, using any and all the toppings you want, from the simplest to the most exotic.

Which is our exercise du jour …

French bread pizza

You can buy a French bread baguette and build a pizza on it (after all, Stouffer's does), but you'll have more hands-on fun (and better results, we think) when you buy refrigerated French bread dough.

We use bacon, onion and mushrooms to top this rather non-traditional pizza, but you can substitute pepperoni for the bacon. Or any other combination of ingredients, come to think of it.

1 (11-ounce) can refrigerated French bread dough (kept chilled)

About 2 teaspoons yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cups thinly sliced onions (about 2 small)

1 (8-ounce) package sliced baby bella mushrooms

3 plum tomatoes, cored, finely chopped

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese

8 bacon slices, cooked and coarsely chopped (pre-cooked bacon works well; zap in microwave until crisp)

1/4 cup chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh oregano

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly flour a work surface. Find the lengthwise seam in the French bread dough. Beginning at seam, gently unroll dough onto floured surface.

Stretch into a 13-inch circle and roll the outer 1 inch to form an edge. Sprinkle a pizza pan or baking sheet with the cornmeal. Move the dough round onto pan.

In a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high, heat olive oil. Add onions and sauté 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove to a bowl. Add mushrooms to skillet and sauté about 8 minutes, until liquid has mostly evaporated. Remove to bowl with onions.

Add tomatoes and sauté about 5 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add to bowl with onions and mushrooms.

To assemble, spread onion mixture over crust, leaving a quarter-inch border. Sprinkle evenly with cheeses and bacon. Bake 12 minutes, until crust is lightly browned. Sprinkle on parsley and oregano and bake about 3 minutes longer. Makes six servings of two wedges each.

Pesto pizza

Not that we find any fault with traditional yeast-based pizza crust, but we really love the flaky, delicate mouth feel of crusts created from puff pastry or phyllo. Hence, this recipe. And the next.

Our simple pesto pizza couldn't be easier and can serve well as a weeknight supper or as an appetizer at a dinner party. Gild it any way you like, but don't overdo it with "wet" stuff.

You can make your own pesto since the basil in your garden hasn't frozen yet. And you can use your own tomatoes. But you can also use storebought ingredients in the colder weather.

Non-stick cooking spray

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of a 17-ounce package), thawed

1/2 cup best quality prepared (or store-bought) pesto

1 cup cooked, well drained, crumbled Italian sausage (hot or sweet)

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, patted dry, finely diced, then patted dry again

Thinly sliced fresh basil, optional

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a (rimmed) baking sheet with cooking spray; dust with about 2 teaspoons cornmeal.

Unfold puff pastry sheet onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out into a 12-inch square. Crimp (using a fork) edges and place on prepared baking sheet. Spread pesto evenly over puff pastry. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella and half the parmesan. Sprinkle on garlic. Add tomatoes. Top with remaining cheese.

Bake 17 to 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and garnish with fresh basil, if desired. Makes six servings or two squares each.

'Stuffed' phyllo pizza

This pizza layers phyllo sheets with a yummy cheese mixture so the flavors permeate the whole thing. It's a bit complicated, so read the directions before plunging in.

Still, the only think-ahead work you have to do is remove the phyllo dough from the freezer in the morning and thaw it in the fridge. Even then, you can probably cheat a little by thawing it at room temperature for an hour or so.

Our topping is a version of the original Neapolitan creation, Pizza Margherita. But, since we're using phyllo, which is basically of Greek origins, we use both mozzarella and feta cheeses.

Of course, you can always add some kalamata olives and pepperoni, for additional Greco-Italo tastes.

Cooking spray

About 2 teaspoons cornmeal, for dusting

2/3 cup each, shredded (part-skim) mozzarella and finely crumbled feta cheese (reduced fat works well)

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

6 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper

1/8 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes

10 (18- by 14-inch) sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed

2 cups very thinly sliced plum tomatoes, drained well on paper towels

1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions

1/3 cup fresh basil leaves

Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, combine mozzarella, feta and parmesan cheeses, plus oregano, salt, black and red peppers.

Cut phyllo sheets in half crosswise. Keep phyllo sheets you're not using covered with wax paper and a kitchen towel to keep them from drying out.

Lightly coat a baking sheet with spray coating, then dust with some cornmeal. Place one phyllo sheet on the baking sheet. Add two more layers of phyllo sheets, lightly spray coating in between. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture.

Repeat layers (but not the spray-coating) five more times (3 phyllo sheets, 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture), then topping the whole with the last two phyllo sheets. Coat the top two sheets with cooking spray, then sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture.

Arrange tomato slices on top of the phyllo sheets. Sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture, leaving a 2-inch border. Sprinkle with scallions, and remaining cheese mixture. Bake for 17 minutes. Sprinkle basil leaves over pizza, return to oven and bake 3 to 5 minutes longer.

Makes 6 servings.

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