Writer and satirist Calvin Trillin once opined, perhaps not altogether facetiously, that the turkey was a poor choice for Thanksgiving dinner despite its native-bird status and (likely erroneous) association with the pilgrims’ first feast. He suggested instead that since everyone knows Columbus first “discovered” America, a more appropriate choice would be something Italian.
I’d like to propose that, likewise, the Christmas meal is long overdue some re-evaluation. A turkey retread strikes me as utterly unimaginative; cross-hatched ham with all those fussy cloves is far more work than the result justifies; and goose has never really caught on in this country, despite its Tiny Tim tug on the heartstrings. No, I’m thinking pizza.
Don’t laugh; it may not be classic Currier & Ives, but it’s at least circular and thus potentially wreath-shaped. It can be created collectively but leaves room for individual expression. And it’s the food America really likes to eat. This Christmas, give yourself the gift of pizza. Here’s how.
As with most social events, a little planning is required, and you’ll want a couple of key pieces of equipment: a pizza stone and a peel. Two peels (the spade-shaped wooden paddles used to transfer pizza to the stone) would be good, in fact. Then there’s the dough decision: Neapolitan, whole wheat, sourdough, semolina … I made four kinds for my event, but frankly I wouldn’t bother again; the whole wheat was decent but predictably a little heavy, the sourdough wasn’t sour enough to count for much (though the crust did puff up impressively), and the masa harina crust, well … why not digress for a moment here.
The masa crust is very simple to make, and requires no rising. Here’s a recipe adapted from The Little Guides Pizza: 1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour, 1 cup masa harina, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt (or a little more). Mix together in a bowl, make a well and pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/3 cup water (you will probably need more water). Knead until a cohesive mass is formed. Roll out into a circle suitable for your pizza stone, pinching up the edges.
I topped it with a base layer of roasted garlic followed by a schmear of refried beans. To this I added sliced Spanish chorizo, sliced red jalapeños and crumbled queso añejo. While it was baking I sliced an avocado and added it in pinwheel fashion after the pie came out of the oven. Not bad, if I do say so myself, but lots of variations are possible, including different kinds of sausage, roasted poblanos, jack cheese …. The idea here was to have something for the guests to snack on while contemplating their own creations.
I had assembled a cornucopia of possible topping ingredients — way too many, really. The red lumpfish caviar went begging, for example, and so did the shrimp, the radicchio, the smoked salmon, the artichoke hearts. And guests had also been invited to bring along something they had always wanted to see on a pizza but had never dared ask. That netted canned tuna, a garlic-chili condiment, some tiny purple onions and dried figs.
Yes, we had plenty to choose from, including a tomato sauce I had made that morning. It’s simple: Just cook together a couple of diced onions and cloves of garlic, coarsely chop about two pounds of roma or other tomatoes — don’t bother peeling, but you can squeeze out most of the seeds — add them to the pot, cook for at least 45 minutes, taste, and if necessary, add a little sugar and maybe a squeeze of tomato paste to compensate for winter tomatoes.
But back to the dough. The best turned out to be the Neapolitan one from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, but any of a number of straightforward risen recipes would doubtless do. And here’s why two peels would be good: This recipe requires a second rise of about 20 minutes, or even more, after you’ve stretched and tossed the dough into roughly circular shape. (Don’t get too compulsive about this.) The recipe also makes enough for two pizzas, so two peels means less waiting between creations. Don’t forget to sprinkle the peel with cornmeal before forming the dough on it; this makes slipping the topped product into the oven much easier — and safer, since the oven is set to 450 degrees and the pre-heated stone is not to be touched. I only got burned once.
So, OK, nothing really looked much like a wreath when all was said and done. But here are some of the combinations we came up with, just to get your juices flowing. Yes, the tuna got used, along with a bed of chopped olives and capers, dabs of goat cheese, a lattice of roasted red-bell peppers and a healthy drizzle of olive oil. When it came out of the oven, we topped it with a scattering of chopped lemon zest and Italian parsley. Shaved fennel bulb went on top of the tomato sauce on another, bolstered by sliced rounds of a mozzarella-spicy-sausage roll, some twists of roasted red pepper and a few grindings of black pepper.
On yet another, the chili-garlic condiment served as the underpinning for a layer of ricotta topped with dried figs and thinly sliced jamon serrano that was then drizzled with lavender honey. The hot-sweet, perfumed combination was fantastic.
I kept trying to pimp the red caviar, the artichoke hearts, the ricotta salata … but everybody went purist on me and refused to give in. They did relent on the notion of sprinkling a good sea salt on most of the pizzas before serving, however.
We finished off with a quasi-dessert number built upon a layer of mascarpone cheese that was then wreathed (aha! maybe this one looked a little seasonal) in sliced red pears and scattered with walnut pieces and the little red onions, which had been braised with thyme in olive oil and vinegar. I may be forgetting something here, but it was getting late, after all, and you’re obliged to drink copious quantities of wine while doing all this. I do remember that we did a reduction of balsamic vinegar with brown sugar to use as a drizzle after removing the puffy pie from the oven. The kitchen hasn’t quite recovered, and Currier & Ives we weren’t, but a good time was had by all. And that’s the real firstname.lastname@example.org