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Italian Neapolitan margherita pizza is the stuff of legend. Invented in Italy for political reasons (to celebrate the visit of Spanish royalty in the late 19th century), this is pizza at its simplest and most pure form. A true margherita pizza consists of only six ingredients: flour, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil. Some people also include mushrooms on it, but this is not a pizza with fifteen meat toppings piled on top. I enjoy those "meatza" pizzas as much as anyone, but the simple taste of a margherita pizza is one of those moments you can truly savor.
However, this is also one of the most difficult pizzas to make at home, because it requires a blasting hot oven and temperatures that are absolutely impossible to recreate in your home kitchen. Can your oven produce temperatures approaching one thousand degrees Fahrenheit? Neither can mine! The wood-burning stone ovens of the Italian pizzaola masters are designed to reach that temperature and bake a full-sized pizza in no more than 90 seconds. Quite simply, we can't do that at home. But the quest for delicious pizza has led to ingenuity, and several Internet pizza pioneers have devised short cuts and tricks that can help produce something close to an authentic Neapolitan pizza. It may not be absolutely authentic…but it's delicious, and that's what matters.
In order to cook fast and provide just the right level of chew to the crust, a classical margherita pizza is small and thin. It's not one of the giant monster pies of the type we usually get from pizza houses. That's why this recipe produces enough dough for two small pizzas, rather than one giant pie.
Pans needed: Cast iron pizza pan, pizza peel. Wide-bottomed bowl or deep dish with flour, to coat your dough.
Preparing the dough
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together: flour, yeast, kosher salt. Add the wet ingredients (water, olive oil) to the dry ingredients. Mix it all thoroughly to create a dough. Knead the dough for about ten minutes until it is pliable and can be stretched.
Coat the inside of a large bowl with extra virgin olive oil (1 teaspoon of oil should be enough). Add the dough to the bowl, and turn the dough over in the bowl to give it a coating of olive oil. cover the bowl with a cloth or towel, and let the dough rise for 90 minutes until it has doubled in size. (I find a longer rise of three to five hours gives even better results.) The risen dough will be enough for two pizzas of about 10 inches in diameter. Separate the ball of dough in half, and place one half back into the bowl. If you're only making one pizza, the other ball of dough can be frozen.
Making the pizza
On your countertop or board, coat the surface with flour (either bread flour or semolina flour), to dry the surface of the crust and keep the moisture in the dough. Lay out the dough onto the floured surface, press it down, and shape it into a round pie, about 10 inches across. Cover the pie with a loose wrap, such as a cloth, and let it comes to room temperature.
Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F.
As the oven is heating, prepare your ingredients. The tomatoes must be strained in order to remove excess liquid; this will keep your pizza topping from being too runny. Add about a quarter inch to half an inch of flour to the wide-bottomed bowl. This will be used to coat the surface of the dough. Have your pizza toppings ready to be added right away: mozzarella cheese sliced, basil separated into leaves, garlic and tomatoes prepared and ready to be spread onto the pie). You'll want to be ready to quickly add your ingredients to the pizza while the pan is still hot.
When the oven reaches 500 degrees F, it's time to prepare the dough. Take the disc of pizza dough, place it into the bowl of flour, and coat both sides with a thin layer of flour, flipping the disc so that both sides are covered. Place the floured dough onto your counter or pizza peel, and press down with your hands in order to spread out and flatten the dough into a round pizza shape. (The key to a well-made margherita pizza is the flat, thin crust: you must press down in the center to make it as flat as possible. You can leave the edge of the pie unflattened, to give it a raised crust along the edge.) This dough will still rise in your pan when it cooks, so you won't have a paper-thin pizza when it comes out of the oven.
This is the part where professional pizza chefs slap the dough back and forth in their hands, in order to help it spread evenly into a round, flat shape. (Most pizza cooks don't toss the dough up into the air, because this will cause it to spread too thin.) For an idea of how pizza dough is shaped, here's another YouTube video on shaping pizza dough. Spread one more tablespoon of olive oil over the top of the dough, covering the entire surface.
Put out your baking pan (preferably a cast iron pan or skillet), and pour on about one teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil. Brush the surface to coat it with oil. Place your dough onto the pan. Quickly your pizza toppings to the crust at this time: tomatoes, mozzarella, and garlic if you're including it.
The pizza will be baked in your oven in three separate stages: