Perfect Vegan Pizza Crust

Some weeks ago, Fridays officially became Pizza Night in our house. We got the idea from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The book is a must-read for any food and farm lover, or anyone with a hankering for simpler times that turn out not to be so simple after all.

Kingsolver's family moved to a farm and committed for a year to consume only home-grown and local foods. The book is packed with anecdotes about too many zucchinis, wild-harvesting morels and even coming to terms with slaughtering their own poultry. While I wasn't terribly interested in the poultry stories, what did interest me was their general approach to food. The family's passion for food shines through clearly in the book and it's a passion I not only adore but share.

Their weekly family menu was based on seasonal items, or on what they had put up in jars or dried or otherwise preserved from a previous season. However, to negotiate the busy-ness of daily routines, Friday was always pizza night. Kingsolver explains in the book that they made this decision so they would never have to think about what to make on Fridays. I liked the idea of that, and something about my Sicilian roots tells me implicitly that there is no such thing as too much homemade pizza, so I started making them. One week became two, then three, and then we decided: Friday night pizza dinners really work for us!

Many people think pizza dough is really difficult. I would say that finding a good recipe is the most difficult part -- or, at least, it was until now. I've tweaked and tested and reworked and finally arrived at THE quintessential absolutely perfect (and vegan!) pizza dough recipe that, like magic, comes out wonderfully golden brown and delicious every time. Finally, you too can have the perfect homemade pizza!

Perfect Vegan Pizza Crust

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup very warm water
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
additional 1 cup very warm water
1 Tbsp vegetable oil (canola or olive)
2 Tbsp dried Italian herbs (totally optional)

In a large mixing bowl, sift your flour and make a well. Add first 1/2 cup warm water, yeast, sugar and salt. Don't skimp on the salt! With a wooden spoon, stir the well to dissolve yeast and don't fret if a little flour gets mixed in. It should look something like this:

Allow the mixture to sit for about 5 minutes so the yeast can gobble up the sugar and become foamy. When it starts to resemble a heady beer, add the final cup of very warm water, oil and herbs (if using) and then mix everything with your wooden spoon until a very loose dough forms. It'll look kind of like play-dough:

Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead. During this step, I typically end up incorporating an additional 1/4 cup or so of flour. If you started with nice fresh yeast and good organic flour, you won't need to knead forever. I usually spend between 3 and 5 minutes working the dough before placing it back in the mixing bowl and covering with a kitchen towel. Allow the dough to rise in a not-too-cool location until its volume has doubled (about an hour). If you're making dough in the morning for your evening meal, it's perfectly okay to leave it resting for hours and hours. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just bonkers.

Return the dough to your work surface. Punch it down and knead again, about the same amount of time as the first round. Place back in the mixing bowl and let rest another hour. Or more. Again, it's totally fine to let it sit for hours at this stage without running into problems.

When you're ready to get dinner on the table, prep your toppings and set aside. Punch down and push out the dough and either roll it out or do what I do and imitate those fancy Italian pizza tossers! Well, okay, so I'm not really braving enough to toss it just yet. But, the best way to work pizza dough IS with your hands. By holding your fists up in front of you like some kind of Punch & Judy doll, you can slowly work the dough around and around, stretching at the edges and occasionally hanging the dough from one hand and letting its weight do the work. To illustrate what the heck I'm talking about, check out this great video on pizza dough.

Now, here's the secret. You can assemble your pizza on a pizza peel and then slide it onto a baking stone, but I like to cheat. I cover a baking sheet in foil and spray it with a little olive oil and stretch the dough out to fit the baking sheet. Pile on the sauce and toppings, and bake at 450°F for about 12 minutes. Remove from the baking sheet and place on a wire rack or butcher block cutting board for a few minutes before cutting. I prefer a large curved blade knife over a round pizza cutter, because I think the heavier blade allows for more accuracy and easier slicing.

As you can see, this method yields a thick, doughy pizza crust. That's exactly how we like it, but perhaps you prefer a thinner crust. No problem! Using the same recipe, punch down and divide your dough in two equal pieces. Wrap one half tightly in plastic wrap and store in the freezer for later use. Using the remaining half, stretch out the dough until it covers the baking sheet. Add your toppings and bake using the same instructions to achieve that thin, crispy crust that so many of you seek.

Now, I have one more super secret (ok, not really) tip for those of you who share your household with a non-vegan. Making separate pizzas is a no brainer with this recipe. After the second rise, punch down the dough and divide it in half. Stretch out the pieces separately, but place them together on the same baking sheet. This is how we handle pizza night in our vegan-omnivore relationship and it works beautifully. As long as you pinch up the edges of each pizza, you'll have no problems with the toppings intermingling and your vegan goods will be safe and sound.

Perfect vegan pizza dough! Who would have thought it would be so easy?? Once you've tried it, I'm sure you'll be dying to make Fridays pizza night in your house as well.

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