Pizza is a staple of post-industrial America, and indeed much of the rest of the world. It’s a complete meal in a convenient package. Pizza is a food chameleon, able to transform it’s flavors from Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Sicily to Polynesia, to America and all its regional variants. With toppings that run the food gambit from tiny preserved fish to fresh tropical fruit and every imaginable topping in between, pizza is all its magnificent forms can please any palette.
With food this versatile, are their any rules or guidelines to follow? Most would argue that the crust is indeed the most important part of any pizza. Crust that’s too soft won’t be able to hold up to the toppings that are piled on. Crusts that are brittle will crumble after the first bite, although the St. Louis-style pizza crust is purposely made in this manner: without yeast, thin and crisp like a cracker. But most other pies have a softer, leavened crust that is chewy and dense, and baked in a traditional pizza oven, it has a slightly crisp outer layer. This is the type of crust we’ll be using.
The pizza featured below is truly a pie with both a top and bottom crust, but unlike a calzone or stromboli which have a folded crust, this pizza pie is more like a stuffed pizza with an added top crust. Even though this crust does have yeast in it, we won’t be letting the crusts rise before baking. The top crust will puff up a bit from “oven spring,” but the bottom crust should still be fairly thin.
As you can imagine, the pie filling is going to be quite flavorful and quite copious. We’ll be cramming a full 8 ounces of sliced cremini mushrooms, 10 ounces of fresh spinach, a whole sweet onion, and a plethora of seasoned pork sausages. All of this is going in a 10-inch deep dish pie plate. It’ll all fit because we’re going to cook some of it down, and compress the rest.
We’ll be using mild Italian sausage, diced pepperoni and diced hard salami. Since we’d end up with a substantial amount of grease inside our pie, we’ll be cooking the sausage and rendering the pepperoni and salami first. Both the mushroom and onions have plenty of water that will cook out. That will either end up inside the pie, or we can sautee those vegetables before putting them in crust, which is what we’ll be doing. The fresh spinach is also mostly water. We can eliminate much of the excess liquid by quickly blanching the spinach and squeezing it as dry as possible before adding it to the pie. Cleaning and destemming the spinach will get rid of any residual sand and dirt and keep the woody stems out of a delicious meal.
Pizza sauce adds an acidic component to pizza that perfectly offsets the fats from the cheese and meat. If you have a favorite pizza sauce, by all means use it. But the simple pizza sauce below goes together in a snap in a blender. No long simmering involved. A few leaves of fresh basil and bit of fennel seed are all the seasonings needed for this traditional and rustic pizza pie.
Rustic Pizza Pie
Simple Pizza Sauce
- 28 ounces San Marzano tomatoes with their liquid
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
- 1½ tablespoons fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons fresh grated parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon fresh ground black peper
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Let stand at room temperature until you are ready to use it. Refrigerate any leftovers.
The Crust (this makes one stuffed pie and a 16-inch thin crust pizza)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1⅛ cups warm water
- 1 tablespoon instant yeast
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Combine the flour and salt in the large workbowl of a food processor fitted with the dough blade. Combine the water, yeast, sugar and olive oil in a measuring cup and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar. Let stand until the yeast blooms, about 3-4 minutes. With the food processor running, pour the yeast and water mixture through the feed tube in an even steady stream. Let the food processor run until the dough comes together in a ball. Let the food processor run for an additional minute once the dough ball forms. Turn out the dough on a clean, smooth surface and knead it into a ball shape. If the dough is sticky, dust it with flour. Place the dough in a greased bowl, coating both sides. Cover and let stand for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile prepare the filling.
- 10 ounces fresh spinach, cleaned, destemmed, chopped, blanched and squeezed dry
- 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, long stems removed, sliced
- 8 ounces shredded cheese either mozzarella, provolone, or a combination of the two
- 3 ounces diced hard salami
- 3 ounces diced pepperoni
- ½ pound bulk mild Italian sausage, if you can only find links, remove the casings before browning
- 1 medium – large sweet onion, sliced in thin wedges from top to bottom, not half rings
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 3-4 fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly
- salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Brown the sausage in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. After the sausage is mostly browned, add the pepperoni and salami, sautéing to render some of the fat, about 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and onions to the pan and sautée until most of the liquid has evaporated, this will take several minutes. After the liquid has evaporated, add the fennel seeds and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and set aside. Preheat the oven to 425°F placing the rack in the lower third of the oven.
Punch down the dough. Form the dough back into a ball and divide it in half. One half will be used for the pie, the other half can be made into a New York style or other thin crust pizza. It can also be frozen or refrigerated for later use. Lightly spray a 10-inch deep dish pie plate with cooking spray. Using the dough for the pie, cut this dough into ⅓ and ⅔ portions. Using a bakers pin, roll the ⅔ portion into a circle about 14 inches in diameter. Ease the dough into the prepared pie plate pressing it up the sides. Make sure there is a bit of dough hanging over the edges. Layer the toppings into the bottom crust: spinach, meat filling, fresh basil, 1-cup pizza sauce, cheese. Roll the final ⅓ of the crust into a thin 10-inch circle and place this on top of the pie rolling the bottom crust over the top and pressing to seal. You can moisten the edge of the top crust with water to help seal it. Brush the top crust with a beaten egg white for a glossy finish, but this isn’t necessary. Slash the top crust with several cuts to help release steam.
Bake the pie in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. If the top is browning too much, lay a piece of aluminum foil over it for the last few minutes. After it’s done baking, remove the pizza and allow it to sit for at least 15 minutes, 30 would be better. Carefully slice the pie into wedges. Some liquid will still be inside the pie, so be prepared for the potential mess.