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Bring dads into the pizza stone age

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Why do dads like to barbecue? Does it come from some primal urge to go back to prehistoric roots as the hunter and food provider?

Maybe.

It certainly motivated me to celebrate a few Father's Days with gifts of charcoal, and then followed it up with gas grills.

But this year I'm giving my dad a different gift that is fit for a cook -- a pizza stone. Maybe I'm doing this because my dad does a little less outdoor grilling nowadays, but it's also because a great pizza is easy -- and fun -- to make.

Pizza stones are now widely available in kitchenware and department stores. Williams-Sonoma for $19 and $30. Using a stone on which to bake the pizza makes all the difference in the quality of your pizza. The stone simulates the inside of a professional pizza oven right in your own (or dad's) home. The bottom of the crust rests directly on the hearth, which eliminates any possibility of an underdone bottom and ensures even crispness.

The pizza stone, which is really a large ceramic tile, should be placed on the bottom rack of the oven and allowed to heat 30 to 60 minutes before the pizza is baked. In some ovens the bottom rack will make the stone too hot; experiment with a couple crusts before deciding which rack you want to use.

If you are using a pizza stone, sprinkle cornmeal or semolina on a piece of stiff cardboard or a wooden peel (a flat, thin wooden shovel made especially for loading the oven with pizza). Instead of placing the dough in a pan, place the formed crust on the cardboard or peel and allow it to rise or not, according to recipe directions. Add toppings. Poise the cardboard or peel over the stone. Then, with a sharp, deft backward pull, slide the pizza onto the stone. The cornmeal or semolina will provide the traction to make this easy. The heat retained by the stone accelerates the baking, so begin checking the pizza for doneness after about 15 minutes.

By the way, for best results, just provide your dad with the pizza stone and recipe. Don't get into the kitchen with him to make the pizzas -- not unless your dad taught you to drive without losing his temper even once.

Use this dough for a thin-crusted pizzeria-style pizza. If you double the recipe to make 2 pizzas, do not double the quantity of yeast.

Pizza Dough

Makes 2 round pizza crusts, 12 to 14 inches in diameter

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour plus extra for crust

2 teaspoons salt

1 1/4 cups warm (110-degree) tap water

1 envelope active dry yeast

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 (12- or 14-inch) round pizza pans (not needed if you use pizza stone)

Place flour and salt in 2-quart mixing bowl and stir well to mix. Make well in center.

Measure water and pour into small bowl. Sprinkle yeast on surface and allow to soften 3 to 4 minutes. Whisk together yeast and water, then whisk in 2 tablespoons oil. Pour mixture into well in flour and stir with rubber spatula to form soft, sticky dough

Turn dough onto floured work surface. Gently knead, folding it over on itself, and scraping it off surface with spatula or plastic scraper if very sticky. Avoid adding more flour -- that will produce a tough pizza. Knead until dough is smooth and no longer so sticky, about 5 minutes.

Rinse and dry bowl. Coat inside of bowl with 1 tablespoon oil. Form dough into a ball and place in bowl. Turn ball upside down, so top surface is oiled. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. (For advance preparation, cover and refrigerate dough several hours or even overnight.)

To form pizza crusts, generously flour work surface. Flour hands and scrape dough from bowl in one piece, without stretching or folding it, onto work surface so that what was on top in bowl is now underneath. Cut dough into 2 equal portions.

Scatter about 1 tablespoon flour over each piece of dough. Press down on it with palm of hand, being careful to keep an even disk shape. If dough is freshly made and resists slightly, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest about 5 minutes, then continue. If dough has rested a long time either in refrigerator or at room temperature, it will respond easily.

Form your right hand into a fist and begin to press dough in a circle, about 1/2 -inch in from edge, with middle joints of fingers (as though knocking on a door). Pull gently with other hand on edge of dough, opposite where it is being pressed. Continue around the crust 2 or 3 times in this manner to flatten and widen it.

Spread 2 tablespoons olive oil onto 12-inch round pizza pan. Fold crust in half and transfer to pan. Unfold dough and press it into place with palms of both hands, gently stretching from center outward. If dough resists, cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rest about 5 minutes, then resume process. When properly stretched, dough should be about 1/8 -inch thick and have a 1/2 -inch-wide border which is slightly thicker. Repeat with second piece of dough.

Set racks at lowest and highest levels of oven. Heat to 450 degrees. Top pizzas with any suggestions that follow. Bake pizzas, one on bottom rack and one on higher rack, about 20 minutes. Then switch them. When done, pizza top should be sizzling gently and bottom should be dark brown.

To serve, cut pizza into wedges with pizza wheel or serrated knife and serve immediately. If pizza has to wait, crust may become soggy and reheating may make it hard rather than crisp. Be sure that oven has heated sufficiently before baking pizza. A pizza with an underdone crust is very unappetizing.

*

Immediately before baking the pizza, place any of these toppings on the dough in the order below. Each suggestion is enough for 2 pizzas. If you wish to make 2 different pizzas, halve the ingredients.

Classic Pizza Napoletana: 2 cups chopped, well-drained canned tomatoes, 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/4 cup olive oil.

Pizza Margherita: This pizza was invented in 1889 by Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Margherita of Italy. The pizza echoes the colors of the flag of the newly united Italy: red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). It is perfect in summer when perfectly ripe fresh tomatoes and basil are in season.

You will need about 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, either round or plum. Plunge them into boiling water 30 seconds, remove and peel them. Halve the tomatoes and squeeze out seeds, then chop and drain pulp to make about 2 cups. Spread tomatoes over crust. Sprinkle 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil on top, then 1/4 cup oil. Sprinkle with 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese.

Pizza Nuda: This is really a focaccia, but it is made with the crust for Pizza Napoletana. Bake pizza crust with drizzle of oil and sprinkling of coarse salt. The result will be thin and delicate, somewhat like a flour tortilla in flavor and texture.

Alternative toppings: The following should inspire you to create your own favorite pizzas, either the thick- or thin-crusted variety. Remember though, too much of any topping makes for a wet and soggy pizza no matter how long it is baked. These toppings are for 2 pizzas.

* 2 cups coarsely shredded assorted cheeses, such as Gruyere, Fontina, Gorgonzola or Roquefort (crumbled) and Parmesan cheese, plus a drizzle of 1/4 cup olive oil

* 2 cups roasted peppers, cut into thin strips, plus a drizzle of 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 thinly sliced clove garlic and 2 to 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

* Substitute 1 cup crumbled mild goat cheese for the Parmesan above.

GRILLED PIZZA

Grilled pizza is one of the most popular items at Al Forno, Johanne Killeen and George Germon's restaurant in Providence, R.I. In their book, "Cucina Simpatica" (HarperCollins, 1991), they give detailed instructions for preparing pizza, using a partially baked pizza crust on a covered charcoal or gas grill.

To grill a thick- or thin-crusted pizza, allow dough to rise in pan. Bake it on middle rack of 450-degree oven -- without the toppings -- about 10 minutes, or until dough is set and no longer sticky. Brush oil on surface of dough and immediately turn it out onto heated grill. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until well-colored. Turn dough back over on grill and quickly place toppings on already-grilled side. Cover with lid of grill or tent of foil and cook 5 minutes longer. Serve immediately.

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