Alimentary, My Dear
Think Small! Quick and Easy Minipizzas
By Tamia Nelson
November 20, 2012
Back when Farwell and I were prospecting for stones and bones along highway rights‑of‑way and utility corridors — the contracts said we were there to conduct archaeological surveys, of course — we celebrated the end of each week's work with a homemade pizza. And we kept on doing this even after we'd turned over our last shovelful of earth and pensioned off our Marshalltown trowels. It hasn't always been easy, however. It's hard to summon much enthusiasm for keeping the oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour during northern New York's increasingly frequent spells of sultry weather.
Such was the case on a recent day in September. Not only was it oppressively hot, but I'd discovered that there was no frozen dough in the fridge, and — not to put too fine a point on it — I was too lazy to make a fresh batch. So even stovetop pizza was out of the question. But traditions are more honored in the observance than the breech, so I looked around the kitchen for inspiration. Then my eye fell on a package of English muffins…
I figured I had nothing much to lose, so I hung my Test Kitchen sign on the door and got to work. And the result?
Quick and Easy Minipizzas
No, these don't come close to equaling the products of big city pizzerias. They don't even rise to the standard set by my own homemade pizza. But they're light years ahead of no pizza at all. And how do they measure up? Well, my previous camp staple, a stovetop pizza baked in a covered cast‑iron skillet sets the bar pretty high. See for yourself:
It's every bit as good as it looks, too. But it's not something that faint‑hearted cooks will want to attempt. Dough has to be mixed, allowed to rise, and pressed into a round, then quick‑cooked in the skillet on both sides. After that, it has to be removed and topped, before being returned to the pan, covered, and given a final bake. It's a stovetop pizza, to be sure. It doesn't need an oven. But like I said, it's not for the faint of heart. English muffin minipizzas are a lot simpler, and in camp, simple is always good.
Admittedly, the connection between the English muffin and pizza isn't obvious. But the muffin is well suited to this unconventional role. The signature nooks and crannies hold the sauce so it doesn't ooze off into the skillet and burn, and the "crust" is pleasingly crunchy on the outside, yet still nicely chewy in the middle. English muffins also travel well, stacked one on top of another in the plastic bag that covered the original carton. And provided they're reasonably fresh and protected from damp, they'll likely keep through a week‑long trip. They're certainly good for a three‑day weekend.
Interested? Then here's …
How to Make Minipizzas
The recipe is easy to scale up or down. One English muffin yields two minipizzas, just about enough for a single paddler. (Better double the ration if it's been a hard day, though.) A salad is the perfect accompaniment if you can manage it — and you probably can, at least on short trips.
Toppings are up to you. I like tomato sauce (from a small can or shelf‑stable retort pack), along with mozzarella, grated Parmesan, and a little provolone (if I have it). Plus minced fresh garlic (of course!), dried oregano, and a twist of black pepper. Mushrooms or sweet peppers add flavor, besides giving the minipizzas a nutritional boost — as does olive oil, drizzled over the pizzas just before serving. But it's an optional extra. I often omit it.
So much for the preliminaries. Let's get to work. Start by splitting the muffins. And use a fork for the job, not a knife:
A fork‑split muffin will have a lot more topography than one that's been sawn in half with a blade, and those hills and valleys help hold the sauce. In the right‑hand photo above, I've laid out a selection of toppings: one clove of fresh garlic, half a small banana pepper, and a mushroom. All are sliced thin — an imperative for stovetop cookery, since the heat won't be as high as it is in an oven, and the cooking time is much shorter, too.
Now toast the split muffins in your skillet. I prefer a seasoned cast‑iron pan, even if this means I need to coat it with a film of oil. (If there are more than two of you, you'll have to resort to batch‑toasting — or get a bigger skillet.) What kind of oil? I used canola in my Test Kitchen experiment, but corn or peanut oil would also work. Olive oil comes in a distant fourth. Its comparatively low smoking point (375 degrees Fahrenheit for extra‑virgin oil) makes it a poor choice for stovetop cookery, and in any case, its delicate flavor is wasted when used to grease a pan.
Once you've prepped your skillet, the real work begins. Heat the pan until the oil shimmers. (A medium‑high flame should do the job.) Then press each muffin half onto the oiled surface, split‑side down, and toast. Once the split surfaces of the muffins have browned — they may char in places, but that's not a problem — lift them out and put them on a cutting mat, a plate, or some other clean surface. The whole process will take just a minute or two. Toast only the split side!
Now remove the skillet from the flame and set it down someplace safe. Don't clean it. You'll be wanting it again.
It's time to assemble your pizzas. The right‑hand photo (above) shows how it's done. One set of muffin halves reveals the toasted surfaces. The other illustrates pizzas‑in‑process. The key to success is to avoid adding too much. If a muffin is overloaded, the toppings won't heat through, the cheese will avalanche off the muffin (if, that is, you can get it to melt in the first place), and the pizzas will come apart in your hands when you try to eat them.
With that cautionary note in mind, here's the drill: Spread sauce right up to the edge of each muffin half. Dust with oregano and black pepper. Now add the garlic and a few toppings, finishing off with the cheese. Don't stack veggies on the cheese.
The left‑hand photo in the panel below shows the assembled pizzas, all ready for the skillet:
As you can see, I added quite a lot of cheese. First I tore mozzarella slices into smaller pieces and scattered them over the other toppings. Then I ripped a slice of provolone into strips and draped it over the mozzarella. Lastly, I sprinkled a little Parmesan over the provolone and finished off with a dusting of oregano, though this final touch was as much for appearance as for flavor.
Next, I put the skillet back on the stove and brought a bit more oil to the shimmering point before I placed the pizzas in the pan. (Right side up, please. The toppings belong on top. And you still want a medium‑high flame.) A spatula is a useful tool for this operation, and it also helps if you cup your hand over your creations during the transfer, to avoid spills. (Keep your fingers away from the hot pan, though!) Arrange the minipizzas so each has a bit of elbow‑room (see the right‑hand photo above), then cover the pan and let the heat do its work.
This will take a few minutes, at most. Resist the temptation to lift the cover and peek. You'll just waste fuel. Use your ears, instead. A vigorous sizzle will tell you when the cheese has melted and started to run down onto the hot skillet. That is the time to check on progress. You won't have long to wait. My pizzas were done in just five minutes.
Don't expect to see the bubbling, golden‑brown cheese topping that you'd find on an oven‑baked pizza. You won't. Still, the smoky confines of the covered skillet will color the cheese to some extent. The smoke also lends a pleasing (if spurious) wood‑oven flavor to your minipizzas. And once your eyes have confirmed what your ears suggested — that the cheese has indeed melted — it's time to lift the pizzas from the skillet with a spatula and serve them up. If you'll be making a second batch, add a little more oil to the skillet (only if necessary) and continue. The photo on the right (above) shows a well‑seasoned pan. There was just enough oil to prevent the bottoms of the minipizzas from burning, but not so much that the muffins swam in the stuff. Cleanup was a breeze, too. I simply waited for the pan to cool and wiped it with a moist paper towel, then allowed it to air‑dry. Nonstick doesn't get any easier.
Enough about the wonders of cast iron. Notice that I've said nothing about portaging. But the fact that cast iron is also used to make dumbbells will tell you what to expect. You'd better have a cast‑iron excuse ready to offer the unlucky paddler who gets to carry the kitchen pack.
It's time to see how the minipizzas came out:
Looking good! And they tasted even better than they looked. Sometimes sloth is rewarded.
Which doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement. Feel free to ring the changes. And here are some of the many possibilities:
English Muffins There are plenty to choose from, and this is one place where you don't need to buy a name brand. In fact, I've found that inexpensive store‑brand muffins are often firmer and less moist than their more heavily advertised counterparts. This means that the no‑name knockoffs travel better in the pack. They also hold up better in the pan. So go ahead and be a cheapskate. No one you know is looking, anyway.
Sauce An alternative to traditional tomato sauce from a can or Tetra Pak is Amore paste from a tube, with the sun‑dried tomato and the basil pesto both being contenders. Or you might like to try your favorite salsa.
Spices are Nice Dried basil and oregano are good with all tomato‑based sauces. The same can be said of dried rosemary. And then there's garlic, otherwise known as the staff of life (though coffee warrants that tag in other contexts). Fresh garlic is best by far, but Amore garlic paste will do in a pinch. Hint: Discretion is important when using Amore garlic paste. A little goes a long way.
Cheese Use whatever appeals: cheddar, blue cheese, provolone, ricotta salata, Romano, goat cheese… Even "cheese products" like Velveeta can be pressed into service. Don't go overboard, however. Loading muffins with too much cheese of any kind is asking for trouble. In my Test Kitchen example, I pushed the limits, and while I got away with it, you might not.
Vegetables Sliced black olives. Diced onions or hot peppers. Mushrooms. Whatever tickles your fancy. Just be sure to dice it small or slice it thin. You could also build a pissaladière by substituting sautéed onions for tomato sauce, sprinkling dried thyme over the onions, and crowning the edifice with crumbled goat cheese. Plus anchovies and black olives, if you want to be authentic.
Meat Smoked sausage and pepperoni head the list, though you can use fresh sausage if you have it. (But be sure to cook any fresh meat first.) Or you could follow the lead of Monty Python and embrace SPAM in all its infinite variety. But don't overdo the SPAM. Unless a party of Vikings is coming to dinner, that is. Then you'd better stock up. Or else.
What did I tell you? There are endless possibilities. And pizza isn't just for evenings in camp, either. How about a minipizza breakfast on lazy weekend outings? Start with a toasted cinnamon‑raisin English muffin, then add cream cheese and fruit, along with a sprinkle of real cinnamon. Or a slice SPAM, of course. If that's not a breakfast for champions, I don't know what is.
Pizza is a favorite meal, as well as a versatile one, but only the most ambitious cooks will tackle the job of making pizza in camp. Now, however, there's a camp pizza for the rest of us. What's the secret? The humble English muffin. With a package of muffins in your pack and a skillet ready for the stove, you're good to go. So think small. And bring pizza to the backcountry.