January 12, 2011
When I was a child, my mother would occasionally make pizza bread. She'd buy a loaf of crusty bread from the supermarket bakery, cut it in half lengthwise, spoon on some pizza sauce from a can, sprinkle with some mozzarella, layer on some pepperoni and toss it in the oven. About fifteen minutes later, dinner would be served... big slices of thick bread topped with steaming-hot melted cheese.
As a kid I loved that, and it became something of a comfort food. Unfortunately, as I grew into adulthood and had more experience with how good pizza could be, the pizza bread just wasn't that impressive any more. I'd still try to recapture that childhood magic every now and then, but the results were always disappointing, and increasingly so over time. Soggy bread, ketchupy sauce and toppings prone to sliding off onto your plate (or lap) just didn't have the same charm anymore.
Recently, I started thinking about that old comfort food that I hadn't had in over a decade, and wondering if I could put together a version that was actually good, without the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia.
I'm happy to report success.
Going into the project, I knew the biggest hurdle was going to be preventing the sauce and ingredients from making the bread all soggy. I gave this a fair bit of thought and came up with three ideas. First off, I'd lightly toast the bread before topping it. This would hopefully remove enough moisture from the bread that it wouldn't become too soaked, yet not leave it dried out. I also decided to forego canned or cooked sauces, going instead for well-drained canned tomatoes and a bit of seasoning. The tomatoes would give off a bit of juice, but their being chunky should help keep the bread from getting too soggy. That just left the toppings, and it was a no-brainer to go with some of the tips included in the article on Foolproof Thin-Crust Pizza from the newest issue of Cook's Illustrated (January/February 2011): Go light on the toppings, microwave vegetables for a minute or two with a bit of olive oil and briefly poach the meats to remove excess fat while leaving the meat moist and tender. These had worked great with the Thin-Crust Pizza, so I figured they'd help in this case to keep the bread from being a limp, soaked mess.
It worked like a charm. From start to finish, the pizza took less than 40 minutes. The crust was nice and crunchy on the outside, while the bread beneath the sauce and toppings was still firm without being either dry or the least bit soggy and the sauce, cheese and toppings stayed on just fine. The childhood memories were still there, and always will be, but I'm happy to finally have a version of pizza bread I can enjoy in the here and now, as an adult.
yield = 4 main-dish servings
1 large loaf of crusty bakery bread (Italian or French would be ideal)
1 28-ounce can petite diced tomatoes
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 ounces fresh mushrooms, thinly-sliced
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces loose Italian sausage
2 ounces pitted kalamata olives, halved
3 tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Slice the bread in half lengthwise. Place the two halves on a baking sheet, place in the oven and heat to 400 degrees. When the oven reaches that temperature, remove the bread from the oven and set aside.
Drain the tomatoes in a strainer and stir a few times to release excess moisture. Set aside
Meanwhile, bring a cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the sausage in small chunks (or rolled into small balls) and cook 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.
While the sausage is cooking, add the mushrooms to a medium bowl. Add the olive oil, toss to distribute it, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and microwave 90 seconds. Set aside.
Evenly spread half of the tomatoes over each half of the bread. Sprinkle with garlic, basil and salt, then top each bread half with 3/4 cup mozzarella. Arrange the mushrooms, sausage and olives, then sprinkle evenly with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and oregano.
Place the sheet with the bread halves back in the oven and cook until the cheese is melted and bubbling and the bread crust has turned deep brown. Remove from the oven. Transfer the bread halves to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes, then place on a cutting board. Slice into four even servings, either leaving each quarter-loaf as a single piece or slicing it into smaller pieces, if you prefer. Serve.