Valentines's Day can mean a lot of things to different people, with cynics and romantics differing on the ways in which you can approach the 'celebrations' of all things lurve, but at Farrow Towers we fall on to the sentimental side of the fence. A meal, needless to say, is usually a big part of proceedings, sometimes elaborately prepared with my desire to impress my lovely wife with cheffy (read 'show-offy') devotion. However, in more recent years I have toned down the Raymond Blanc meets the Swedish Chef impersonations that all too often led to meltdown, and begun to adopt a more relaxed approach to my romantic cooking, valuing time with 'The Duchess' more than time at the stove.
That is why I am suggesting what might seem on the face it a not particularly romantic dish – the good old pizza. As it happens, after a wonderful thin and crispy example in an ivy-clad medieval back street in Cefalu, Sicily, a few years ago, as the sun set and the glasses were refilled and the candlelight began infusing the scene with tender light, all to the sound of a distant Vespa…ahem, where was I? Ah yes, so, why the humble pizza for Valentines?
The bottom line is that pizza is easily prepared ahead, but for assembly, thus reducing stressful kitchen time. It can be topped with almost anything that you and your loved one desires, and from the store cupboard if necessary, which is always handy, especially now. A pizza fresh from the oven looks inviting, tastes wonderful and is made for sharing. Think feeding each other (not while the pizza is blisteringly hot though!) or eating with the kind of lascivious appetite displayed in Tom Jones (the film not the Welshman). And look, if Lady and The Tramp can make nuzzling meatballs and mutually sucking on a spaghetti noodle look romantic, a pizza has got it in the bag.
Pizza dough Ingredients
(makes two bases of about 12 inches diameter)
- 3 tsp of dried yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 400g strong bread flour (Tipo OO flour is particularly good here)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 250 ml tepid water
- Mix the flour, dried yeast and salt in a bowl, and add the water and olive oil. Mix well, with your hands to amalgamate it thoroughly into a dough.
- On a lightly oiled work surface knead the dough for 15 minutes for a satisfying work-out, or use a food processor dough hook for about 10 minutes. The dough will be a bit sticky at first but should become smoother and more elastic as you knead. Sprinkle a little flour on if it is too sticky for you.
- Once the dough is smooth and elastic, put it in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with clingfilm for proving somewhere warm (not hot) until it is about doubled in size. This should take about 1½ to 2 hours.
- Once the dough has proved, tip it out and 'knock it back' by kneading it again for a couple of minutes, then put it back in the oiled bowl, cover and leave it for another 45 minutes.
- After the second proving, lay the dough on to a lightly oiled work surface and, gently push and pull the dough outwards to form a circle. Don't worry if it isn't a nice neat circle, or it takes a bit of 'pushing'. It will spring back a little. If you can form a heart shape, so much the better! Squares, ovals, rectangles, all are just fine.
You can do the above stage in the baking sheet you are using, but if not now is the time to put the base onto your sheet.
Once the pizza is on the sheet, you are ready to top your base.
When you are ready to bake your topped pizza set the oven high, at about 220/230°C (200/210°C fan). To cook the pizza, bake for about 12-15 minutes so the base cooks through.
For tomato-based pizza sauce, reduce a tin of chopped tomatoes with fresh or dried herbs of your choice (oregano, thyme or basil work best), a little garlic and a teaspoon of olive oil. You want it reduced so that it is thick but not a paste, ready for smoothing evenly around the base, always leaving a centimetre or more for the crust to crisp too.
Topping a pizza is a chance to go your own way, and there are a plethora of options (just look online!) If you like something and think it will work with mozzarella or other cheese, then go for it. If you like ham and pineapple, good for you! Tailor it. All I would say is be wary of using Cheddar-style cheese alone – it tends to cook hard and exude oil before the base is baked. Otherwise, have fun with it. Here are a few suggestions that I like:
- Spread softened, caramelised onions over the base, leaving a clear edge, top with thin slices of cooked potato, sprinkle with chopped rosemary and a little Parmesan, lay on slices of soft bloom-rinded cheese (Taleggio is brilliant, Brie, Camembert, Tunworth etc. are good). Bake for a delicious pizza 'bianco', i.e. without tomato sauce.
- Top the base with sautéed mushrooms, Parma ham (any good ham will do well), and dot with a few slices of mozzarella cheese. Bake, then scatter with fresh basil leaves when ready to serve.
- A spread of caramelised onions, slices of fresh (or drained tinned) pear (sliced fig is wonderful but not really store cupboard candidates), and chunks or slices of blue cheese, served with fresh rocket scattered on top after baking.
- Sauté one chopped leek in a little oil until soft. Mix in a tsp of chopped thyme, 75g of cheese like Cheshire, Lancashire, Wensleydale or Caerphilly (i.e. crumbly, tangy cheeses), stir in two tsp of Dijon mustard and 2 tsp of grain mustard. When cool, spread this mixture over the pizza base and bake for 12 minutes. Finish under a grill, if liked, for extra colour.