Tweaking the toppings and adding extra cheese is often the only way to make a bought pizza a truly indulgent treat. But what do you add to yours? And is pizza the only ready meal that demands a makeover?
In adherence with the – *cough*, it all happens in my kitchen – strict laboratory conditions under which the Guardian’s Supermarket Sweep taste tests are conducted, I was obliged to eat a recent lineup of margherita pizzas in their unadorned, au naturel state. But as became apparent BTL, many of us never eat plain supermarket pizza.
At Naylor Towers, for instance, it is almost unheard of for a supermarket pizza to pass through the kitchen without it being tricked-out and turned into something genuinely indulgent by the addition of extra ingredients. This is necessary to compensate for the, shall we say, more judicious application of toppings that takes place in the factories where these things are made. (Apologies if you thought it was all done in a farmhouse in Tuscany by a crack team of nonnas. It isn’t.) But, like anything in cooking – or, in this case, assembly – there is an art to transforming your supermarket pie.
If you are going to whack a load of extra cheese on there, it is wise to first remove any meat or vegetables. After you have retro-fitted the cheese, place them back on top. Otherwise, they will be hidden under a blanket of dairy, which may prevent the heat penetrating sufficiently to cook them through. What cheese you add (grated, of course) is a matter of taste, but there are some broad rules worth observing. Ignore them and you may well end up with a soggy base and/or a pizza swimming in grease:
1) You don’t need half as much cheese as you might imagine. It is going to melt and spread, remember. Don’t go overboard.
2) Hard cheeses, such as cheddar, readily sweat off fat and moisture when heated. Add too much and, well …
3) Beware “wet” cheeses such as good-quality buffalo mozzarella and, worse, burrata. Unlike a wood-fired pizza oven, where any moisture would quickly evaporate, your domestic oven is not that hot. Any watery excess will likely soak into your (limp, disintegrating) base.
Raw meat (for instance, if you want to double up on spicy ground lamb), may need to be cooked or partially cooked first, depending on how long the pizza will be in the oven and how dry you like your meat. Bacon will cook in the 10-20 minutes it takes to heat up a fresh/frozen pizza, but, sitting amid all that moisture, it won’t necessarily go crispy. Better to pan-fry it and scatter it over near the end. Indeed, generally – it is a matter of taste versus convenience, of course – I would only add cured meats to a pizza. Parma ham, salami or chorizo work on a pizza in a way in which peking duck or chunks of pork belly simply don’t. Pizzas were designed to topped with thinly sliced ingredients.
Vegetables are more problematic, which is just one of the reasons why nobody ever says: “Hey, let’s go mad and throw some extra fennel on that pizza!” Not only do they need to be finely sliced, but many vegetables also need significant prep. Unless they are softened in a little garlicky butter first, extra mushrooms and leeks end up shrivelled and dehydrated. Onions need sweating or they will emerge from the oven hot but oddly raw in texture. Likewise, bitter bell peppers with their tough, plasticky skins – to be made in any way pleasantly edible, they first need to be roasted and skinned, and who has time for that, to top a supermarket pizza? Sliced tomato, despite its water content, works reasonably well as a pizza addition – although it is hardly going to set your pulse racing in excitement.
There is far more enjoyment to be derived by titivating your pizza with what are essentially seasonings, rather than vegetables. Rubbing olive oil into the exposed rim (in Naples, cornicione) softens up the often inedible edge of a drier, breadier base. Similarly, swirling a few spoonfuls of pesto over a pizza is almost never a bad thing. Chilli is a useful addition in the right circumstances but, personally, I avoid adding anchovies. Even if you blitz them to a pulp, distributing them correctly – that is, sparingly and not in great clumps of salty, abrasiveness fishiness – is an art I have yet to master. It goes without saying that dried herbs are a foul abomination on a pizza and that any fresh ones should only be added as it is served.
So how do you jazz up your pizza? And is that the only ready meal that you augment, or are there tricks that you can share to ramp up bought-in moussaka, fish pie or lasagne?
This article was written by Tony Naylor, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th March 2015 09.35 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010