Remembrance of pizza past

Deep-dish, gluten-free or laden with sausage, pizza is satisfying no matter how you cut it

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As someone who grew up in Chicago, I thought I knew something about pizza. For a long time, in fact, I thought it was invented there. And why not? We have every kind: deep-dish, stuffed, thin crust, wood fired. Much to my surprise, though, there seems to be a pizza preference war going on. Chicago-style vs. New York-style pizza is evidently a long-standing feud, as is folding hand-held slices and stuffing them in your mouth (a la New York) vs. knife and fork (a la Chicago.) Personally, I prefer a knife and fork most of the time, at least until I get to the crust. And besides, my favorite thing about pizza is the toppings, and a topping-heavy pizza is hard to pick up with your hands. But no matter. I love them all.

Our friend, John, recently sent us an invitation. He was going to serve his homemade deep-dish pizza. This was one invitation I would never refuse. He is a fantastic cook, and I was especially interested to see how he handled pizza for a crowd. In order to provide enough for a party of eight, he baked his pizza in deep baking sheets on a large rectangular stone to emulate a real pizza oven. My friend's Sicilian-style pizza was spectacular, and it really sparked my pizza memories.

So I thought I'd try my hand at creating my own version of the pizza classic I savored from my youth. Then, as I further indulged my remembrance of pizza past, I recalled a family favorite: a simple personal-sized version made with a cornmeal crust. This pizza is a great idea for a party where everyone gets to choose their own toppings before you slide it in the oven. The crust is sturdy enough to pick up as finger food. Best of all, everyone in the family could have what they wanted. My children's friends were always impressed that they could "build their own" when they came to our house, rather than have to settle for what usually arrived from pizza delivery.

And as I continued to revel in pizza dreams, I thought about gluten-free. Surely there could be an exceptional pizza crust for those who can't tolerate grains. I decided to experiment with a gluten-free crust made from cauliflower.

In Taos, we're lucky to have several great pizza parlors, where they've perfected their own styles of pizza. There's no point trying to duplicate them here.

But making homemade pizza is a wonderfully satisfying cooking project. The crust can be as simple as packaged pita flatbreads brushed with olive oil and topped with sliced tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella cheese. Or you can buy a perfectly acceptable pre-made dough in the refrigerator section of some grocery stores. But for a really great homemade pizza, you may want to go all out and make a dough from scratch, which is not difficult, but does require a bit of time. And while not strictly necessary, a pizza stone makes for a crispy and tender crust, while a handled pizza spatula makes sliding the whole thing into the oven a snap. But don't look at this kind of pizza as a shortcut. You'll want to give yourself time to enjoy the process as well as the pie. Make it a family affair, have a party, create a unique movie night at home, pair it with a wine tasting.

When it comes to toppings, personal preference is everything. From a complicated simmered sauce to simple fresh tomatoes and light cheese, from anchovies and caramelized onions to fresh mozzarella and figs, your pizza can reflect your creativity while pleasing everyone's palate! I happen to love thin crust with roasted vegetables and diced green chiles, but I'm just as happy with a good deep-dish with Italian sausage. And I recently discovered a unique prosciutto and asiago cheese pizza on a visit to Canada; when the chef pulled it out of the wood-burning oven, she heaped it with fresh arugula and drizzled it with balsamic glaze, creating an unforgettable salad with an edible plate.

I had a lot of fun baking up a slew of pizzas for this column. I'm happy to report that I was quite pleased with my Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. The cornmeal crust flatbreads were as tasty, versatile and sturdy as I remembered. And finally, the gluten-free cauliflower-crust pizza, with diced zucchini, olives and sautéed onions turned out exceptionally well, although you'll definitely need a knife and fork for this one.

So get in the kitchen and roll out some dough. Invite your friends or family, pass the cheese, have a glass of wine and enjoy!

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