I had an idea recently to take make a vegan version of the classic Neapolitan Pizza Margherita, the pie that started it all. Famously sparse and featuring the best fresh basil, sliced tomato, and fresh mozzarella with only a light layer of sauce, the Margherita requires that great attention be payed to each element. Other than that I have a deeply-ingrained aversion to using tomatoes out of season (the real thing straight off the vine in July ruins you for the beleaguered January import), I am very happy with how this turned out. Behold, my pizza Leonardo, named for Da Vinci, vegetarian and animal lover, who would buy caged birds just to set them free.
The crust is rolled a bit on either side, which looks kind of cute and works well if you have thick- and thin-crust people at your table. My friend Sybil, the contributor of the fantastic pizza dough recipe below, tossed all the crusts in her wonderfully free-form way, and I love the look of an irregularly-shaped pizza. Also, I really cannot express how much better homemade crust is than the pre-made ones you can buy at the store. Really.
In addition to the Margherita/Leonardo, I came up with several other pizza combinations, which I think worked out very well. In keeping with my theme, I named them after vegetarians-in-history as well - St. Francis and Mary Shelley. The roasted fennel and roasted garlic pizza, which features two very Italian ingredients, I named for St. Francis of Assisi, one of the patron saints of Italy as well as of animals and the environment.
As for Mary Shelley, it is often written that she was a vegetarian, though that isn't entirely clear. Her father and later her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, both were, and most importantly, the Creature in her most famous work, Frankenstein, was, saying in the novel, "My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford my sufficient nourishment." At any rate, I think she is a fitting namesake for this complex and sultry pizza with fresh rosemary, mushroom, and scallions.
Sybil's Best-Ever Pizza Dough
Makes 2 pizza crusts.
2 1/4 c. flour (white bread flour tastes great and rises really well, but you can do any mix you like. Whole wheat flours won't rise quite as much, and this recipe isn't adapted for non-wheat flours)
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. yeast (or 1 packet)
Dissolve 1 Tbsp. yeast in 1/4 c. warm water. Mix and let sit for about 10 minutes, until yeast is frothy. If your yeast doesn't get frothy, it is no longer active, and you need to toss it out and start again. Add yeast mixture to the flour and salt. Add about 2/3 c. of water, enough to moisten and form into a ball. Knead onto a floured surface for a few minutes, until smooth and elastic. Put into a greased bowl and cover with a damp kitchen towel to let it rise for a few hours. After it has risen, divide dough in two parts. Roll out on a floured surface, then put each crust on a greased pizza pan. Let the dough rise again in the pan for about 30 minutes. Top as desired and bake at 450 for about 15 minutes.
Makes enough for 2 pizzas.
1 c. whole raw cashews
Rinse cashews well, then put them in a bowl covered with fresh water. Soak for at least several hours, ideally overnight. Remove from water, place in a blender (my food processor doesn't work nearly as well as the blender), and just barely cover with water. Begin to blend, starting at a lower speed and working your way up. Blend the cashew cream until it is very smooth. You should not be able to see any particles in it at all. If your blender is ancient like mine, and has some trouble chopping the nuts, it may help to add a little bit of water to make it easier on the poor decrepit machine.
Now, add salt and lemon juice in small increments until you reach the desired flavor. Cashews are sweet, so you need enough lemon to counteract that and make it a little tangy, and enough salt to make it savory. The combination of rich, tangy and savory reads "cheese" in the mouth. As you flavor it, though, keep in mind that you're going to cook it down, which will intensify the flavor, so you don't want to over-do it with the salt or especially the lemon.
In a saucepan over medium heat, cook your cashew cream, stirring consistently to keep it from scorching on the bottom of the pan. If it does burn, you'll be able to taste that in the final product; a little bit of toasty flavor isn't such a bad thing, so don't throw out the batch, but it's best if it tastes more like a fresh mozzarella. Cook it until it holds a a peak well when you swirl it with a spatula, and sticks thickly to your spatula rather than dripping or globbing off.
When you reach the point where it doesn't seem like it's thickening any more, pull it off the heat and let it sit for a couple of minutes. It will thicken a little more as it sits. When you're ready to use it on the pizzas, use a spoon to drop little dollops onto the pizzas. It will brown, so for aesthetic reasons, you may want to poke down any of the taller points so they don't burn.
1 large can of crushed tomatoes (base the size on how many pizzas you intend to make and how much sauce you like. You can also make extra and freeze it or use it later on pasta or something)
1-2 Tbsp. tomato paste (maybe less, tomato paste can make the sauce intense pretty quickly)
Any fresh herbs you may be using on the pizzas, particularly fresh basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano
Fresh or roasted garlic
You may want to supplement with your choice of dried herbs, onion or garlic powder, etc.
In a sauce pan, combine tomatoes, tomato paste, herbs, garlic, etc. Cook together on low to med-low heat for as long as possible to blend all the flavors. You can start the sauce just before you pull the rising dough out of the fridge, then it can cook as you knead it and it rises for the second time. Be careful not to make the sauce too strong, because it will lose moisture while it's cooking on the pizza, and if you have more delicately-flavored ingredients like fresh herbs and mushrooms, it can easily overpower them. I had that problem with the Mary Shelley pizza below, and it would have been much better if the sauce had been a little less overbearing. Also, if you have a stick mixer, you could use that if you want a smoother texture, just be careful not to splatter yourself with hot tomato sauce because those will be some ugly burns.
Sliced tomato - if out of season, vine-ripened or smaller species like romas have more flavor
Select and rinse either single leaves or sprigs of fresh basil, drying them off well. Slice tomatoes thinly, then lay on a paper towel to dry them a bit. Some pizza fanatics claim that seeding the tomatoes makes the pizza better, but I disagree. The seeds have most of the tomato's acidity, and (particularly if you are working out of season or not with the best-quality, local tomatoes) I think that extra flavor is a good thing.
Why is it so important to buy local tomatoes? Conventional store-bought tomatoes are hybrids created almost solely for shelf life, so they lose most of their flavor, texture, and scent. Local tomatoes, from a farmer's market or produce vendor, aren't traveling hundreds of miles over weeks, so they can be consumed within several days of being picked, making the most valuable quality flavor. Maybe this is obvious to many of you, but I'm from tomato country, so I just thought I'd throw it out there for those who may not be as spoiled as I am.
Back to the pizza: spread a very thin layer of tomato sauce over the crust. Lay tomato slices and basil carefully on the pizza, then add dollops of cashew ricotta in the spaces. Resist the temptation to load it up with toppings, focusing instead on making each element look beautiful. Bake for 15 minutes at 450.
The St. Francis
1 bulb fresh fennel per pizza
1 bulb fresh garlic per pizza
Remove the stems and leaves and wash fennel bulb. Slice in half, then remove what you can of the hard core at the base of the bulb. Cut the fennel into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Lay them in an oiled sheet pan, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at 450 for 20ish minutes, but keep an eye on them in case your oven runs hotter or cooler than mine.
To roast the garlic, cut off the top portion of the garlic bulb so that the very top part of each garlic clove is sliced off. Obviously you want to keep as much of the garlic as possible, so the idea is just to open up each of the pockets in the bulb so that you can remove the cloves once they are roasted and are much softer than the tough, papery shell. If there are any that weren't opened up by the first cut, like the ones on the outside of the bulb, you can just open them with the tip of your knife
Roast the bulb whole at 475 for about 30 minutes, keeping an eye on it so the top doesn't burn. You can roast it at the same time as the fennel, if you're making them both for the pizza; just do the first 20-25 minutes at 450, then kick it up to 500 for the last little bit, mostly to toast the top. Let it cool a bit before trying to remove the cloves, then be careful not to squish the roasted cloves as you remove them. The papery skin of the garlic is very tough, and if you're having trouble, just use a knife to open it up a bit. I did some damage to mine trying to pinch or tear open the skin of cloves I'd missed when cutting of the top at the beginning.
Spread sauce over pizza crust. Arrange roasted fennel and garlic on pizza and add dollops of cashew ricotta. Bake for 15 minutes at 450.
The Mary Shelley
Mushrooms, cremini or your favorite, cleaned with a dry cloth and sliced
Fresh rosemary, washed and with leaves removed from stems
I like these directions: put toppings on pizza, then bake for 15 minutes at 450. Eat. Enjoy!