Food: Perfect pizza

How to make your own margherita - and lose weight
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The Independent Culture
On the eve of my annual holiday I am not, as you might imagine, packing, but cooking pizza. This morning, I equipped myself for the holiday: a halter-neck swimsuit, which, I told myself, would look just that little bit better if I dropped a couple of pounds.

So we went and had lunch at Red Pepper in Maida Vale, where my resolve was tested as a gargantuan crusty wheel of pizza was wafted before me: golden at the edges, almost singed in patches, topped with chopped tomatoes and tender strips of squid, clams in their shell, fresh tuna and Dublin Bay prawns liberally spattered with a garlic paste.

I would allow myself just the one wedge, which I did. Then, in an extraordinary feat of self-deception, I consumed it, wedge by small wedge, until, faced with an empty plate, I ate some of my husband's, too.

Cooking pizza is all about the oven, the crust and the topping. And this is where Red Pepper gets off to a head start: it has a wood-fired bread oven in the basement. Even from 10 feet away, I could feel the heat - it is about 400-500C. Compare that to the average 220C of a domestic oven.

The pizzas are scooped on to a long paddle, thrust into the oven, and slipped on to the floor. In the three or so minutes that follow, the heat is such that the edge of the dough rises before your eyes, then starts to colour, darkening in a matter of 60 seconds while the mozzarella cheese turns into a mass of seething bubbles.

This speed of cooking is vital, as there is no time for the topping to dry out. In fact, you can bake a perfectly good pizza in your oven at home by pre-heating it on the highest setting for about half an hour with a baking sheet inside. I may, on occasion, have cursed the furnace-like temperament of my new fan oven, but it will cook a pizza in 7-8 minutes, which is still short enough to achieve the essential relationship between toothsome crust and succulent topping.

In his new book, Alastair Little's Italian Kitchen (Ebury Press, pounds 19.99), the author describes the pizza evening held at his cookery school as being like "a genteel version of the Sangria and Wet T-shirt evenings of a Club 18-30 holiday" - the promise of which secures my booking.

I have long admired Mr Little's pizza-making, and here he gives several recipes for pizza, focaccia and calzone - including a particularly fine pizza with potato, piled with rocket and fine shavings of truffle.

As he points out: "There are innumerable toppings, but remember the bread is the point." A good organic flour will make the world of difference. And there should be lots of flour: it is the toasted dusting of it on the base that is so characteristic of the crust.

As to the problem of the swimsuit, even though I have now lived off pizza for three days, to my amazement I have lost weight - with pizza you are invariably full before the calories kick in.

Pizza margherita, serves 4, or 8 as a starter

This is based on Alastair Little's recipe. I have changed the original make-up of 8" pizzas to two large square ones to make it easier for entertaining. For this, you will need a 12"-square piece of card to transfer the dressed pizza to the oven.

Dough

9 fl oz/250ml warm water

14 sachet of dried yeast

12 tsp caster sugar

1lb/450g strong white flour, plus extra for dusting

2 tsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

Combine the water, the yeast and the sugar in a large bowl, add half the flour and mix to a sloppy dough. Add the oil and the salt. Gradually add the rest of the flour until you have a ball of dough. Dust a work surface with flour and knead for 10 minutes until it is smooth. (You could use a mixer with a dough hook, but not a food processor, which will overheat it.) Flour a plate, halve the dough and form into two neat spheres. Place on the plate, sprinkle with flour, cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise for two hours in a warm room, longer if the room is cold.

Topping

1 x 400g tinned tomato pieces

extra virgin olive oil

a handful of basil leaves, shredded

1 buffalo mozzarella, finely diced

sea salt, black pepper

Tip the tomato pieces into a bowl, chop if they are large, add a good slug of olive oil and the shredded basil leaves. This is a basic tomato sauce for all manner of pizzas.

Preheat the oven on its maximum setting and place a baking sheet inside. Liberally cover the work surface with flour and flatten half of the dough, using the heel of your hand, then roll into a 12" (30.5cm) square. Sweep some more flour underneath it, neaten the edges with your fingers so they are slightly thicker than the inside. Slip a 12"/30.5cm piece of card under the dough.

Dress the pizza with half the tomato, leaving a 1"/2.5cm band at the edge. Scatter over half the mozzarella, season and drizzle with more olive oil - this is important to assist in cooking the top.

Slip the pizza on to the hot baking sheet and cook for 7-10 minutes until the edges are golden and crisp, with risen bubbles. While it is cooking, roll out the other half of dough and assemble the second pizza. You can start eating the first one while the second one is baking.

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