Making kitchen connections with a family pizza night

Author April Hamilton (second from right) relishes her time making fresh memories with her daughters Sara, Reilly and Emma. Photos by Collin Richie.

When my daughters were tiny, I was determined to instill the love of cooking in them.  I fantasized about them eating exotic foods and becoming built-in sous chefs. They took to it like water. Of course, we had extended chapters of PB&J and buttered noodles, but we never ordered pizza. We made it.

At our house, homemade pizza was a Friday-night ritual, and our now-grown girls don’t know life without it. Back then, my husband handled the dough while I prepped the toppings. The girls would stir the tomato sauce, grate some mozzarella and dot the pizzas with pepperoni, then run off and play until the timer chimed.

Now, it’s an all-hands-on-deck festival of hand-stretched dough, little dishes of distinct sauces and you-name-it toppings, working lots of seasonal veggies into the mix. Everyone concocts a signature creation, and once upon a time, I kept a pizza journal of the winners. Diced fresh plum tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper, roasted asparagus, mozz and asiago, roasted red onion. I wish I had recorded every combination; there are hundreds.

The pizza night experience was such a family tradition that when my oldest was in college far away, she sent us a gorgeous walnut pizza peel with a tear-inducing note: “I hope you have plenty of patio pizza parties, and I can’t wait to get in on them when I get home.” She is home now. They are all home. Our LSU junior lives close enough to bike home (quicker than waiting to turn onto Highland from East Boyd). Our joyful family pizza experience has been resurrected, and it’s anything goes with a few exceptions: homemade dough and grate your own cheese. I will not bend on this.

Fast-forward 20 years and these three 20-somethings could command a professional kitchen minus the expletives (mostly). Our kitchen fun has evolved from those early, unrealistic expectations (gingerbread village from scratch with a 3- and 1-year-old) to festive reunions with a team of five planning the menus. Cue the giggles. As I write, my college girl calls for some salmon tips. She’s one mile from home where dinner is being prepared by her two older sisters. Dad is working from home in a makeshift office. Mom is tapping on the laptop. My dream came true.


Click here to read April’s tips for cooking with kids.


Pizza Party


A few tips for a successful pizza night:

• Heat pizza stone to 500 degrees on the bottom rack of the oven.

• Lightly coat a pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet with cornmeal. Stretch your dough and lay it on top of the cornmeal, then top the pizza. Carefully slide the pizza off the peel or baking sheet and onto the hot stone. Always check to see that the pizza hasn’t glued itself to the pizza peel before attempting to slide it onto the stone. Give a gentle shake of the peel, and if the pizza seems to be stuck in any place, carefully lift up the dough and sprinkle a little more cornmeal on the peel.

• Dough can be baked on a pizza pan or cookie sheet if you don’t have a stone. Lightly oil the sheet first before laying down the dough.


QUICK PIZZA SAUCE

I like to keep this sauce on hand to make English muffin or French bread pizzas for a quick snack.
INGREDIENTS:
2 cups canned crushed or diced tomatoes in thick purée
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
½ tsp. dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Refrigerate leftovers for up to a week.

PIZZA DOUGH

This dough can be made in a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook, but the food processor works well for a single batch of dough.
INGREDIENTS:
3 cups bread flour, plus extra for shaping
1 tsp. instant yeast
1½ tsp. coarse salt
1 to 1¼ cups water
2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus extra for bowl for rising and for handling dough
Combine flour, yeast and salt in the container of a food processor and pulse a few times to blend. Turn processor on and add 1 cup water and 2 Tbsp. olive oil through feed tube. Process for about 1 minute, adding more water 1 Tbsp. at a time, until mixture forms a ball and is slightly sticky to the touch. If it is dry, add another 1 Tbsp. of water and process for 10 more seconds. If dough is too sticky, add flour 1 Tbsp. at a time. You want dough to just barely stick to your fingertip.
Knead dough for a few seconds to form a smooth, round ball. Divide dough into 3 balls. Brush a baking dish with a drizzle of olive oil and place dough balls in it. Gently roll dough around so each ball is lightly coated with oil and will not dry out. Place balls apart so they have room to rise.
Cover dish with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free area until dough doubles in size, usually about 1 hour (aha! the time it takes to make sauce, prep toppings and get the oven preheated). Alternatively, dough can rise overnight in fridge. Let it warm up to room temperature for an hour or two before shaping pizzas.
Unused dough balls can be chilled for up to 2 days or frozen, well wrapped, for 2 months.
Makes enough dough for 3 pizzas.

SPINACH AND GARLIC PIZZA

This one is the family favorite. Really, the best part about pizza night is everyone jumping in with topping ideas—have fun creating your own favorites.
For Sautéed Spinach and Garlic:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
1 (5-oz.) bag fresh baby spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
For 1 pizza, you will need 1 ball of Pizza Dough, some Quick Pizza Sauce, 4 oz. grated mozzarella, and a batch of Sautéed Spinach and Garlic. If using a pizza peel and sliding it onto a baking stone, you will also need cornmeal for the pizza peel.
For Sautéed Spinach and Garlic, heat oil and garlic in a large skillet over low heat until oil begins to shimmer, and stir a few minutes until garlic gently sizzles. When garlic is almost tender, add spinach to skillet a handful at a time along with ½ tsp. salt, stirring evenly to wilt spinach. Remove from heat and season with pepper if desired.
Sprinkle a little flour over the number of doughs you plan to use. Pick up 1 ball of dough and start stretching it into a round. When it’s about 10 inches across, lay it on the cornmeal-coated pizza peel or lightly oiled pizza pan/baking sheet.
Spoon about 13 cup Quick Pizza Sauce over dough. Sprinkle cheese over sauce. Distribute Sautéed Spinach and Garlic over cheese. Slide pizza from peel onto hot stone, or place pizza pan in oven. Bake until bottom of crust is deep golden brown and top is bubbling, about 10 minutes at 500 degrees. Remove to a cutting board and cut into 8 triangles and serve. Repeat with remaining doughs and desired toppings.
Note: In our oven, we have three racks and keep 3 pizzas rotating. When the one on the stone is done, we put the one in the pizza pan from the top or middle rack onto the stone for the last few minutes to crisp the crust. It’s our home version of the commercial Roto-Flex pizza oven.

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