Making great pizzas without cheese

Kristen Hartke

THE WASHINGTON POST – I love pizza – but no longer eat cheese. So, in recent years, I began to think of pizza as more of a memory than a meal.

My fifth birthday was the stuff pizza dreams are made of, at least to a kid living in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 1970s. Judy, my mom’s artsy friend who ran a day care out of her apartment on St Mark’s Place, marched the half-dozen kids under her care down to the pizza shop on the corner, where we stood on the sidewalk watching, with utter delight, as the Pizza Man spun dough in the air while Judy ordered a large pie. Twenty minutes later, we were sitting in a circle on the floor in the darkened apartment, surrounding a steaming hot pizza festooned with candles while everyone sang Happy Birthday. No birthday party has really ever matched it since.

When my mother and I moved to New Haven, Connecticut, a year later, we landed in another city that treats its pizza with the gravity it deserves. Locals will ask whether you are a supporter of Pepe’s or Sally’s, the city’s two nearly century-old pizzerias, and judge you on the response. Years later, I married a guy from Detroit, a city with its own intense pizza tradition.

It wasn’t until I started making pizza, first in a shop in Florida when I was 18, where I pushed out pies four nights a week for nearly a year, and later on Friday nights for my family and friends, that I really started thinking about what makes pizza good – and what makes it terrible. Both became more apparent to me when I did what might seem unthinkable to any true pizza-lover: After spending most of my life as a cheese-eating vegetarian, I transitioned to a vegan diet. Pizza suddenly became a problem. Or so I thought.

I began wondering how I could make pizza that had the right aroma, texture and flavour, but without cheese. Even though commercial plant-based cheese has come a long way over the past few years, it sometimes doesn’t melt or brown quite the way it should, and the result can be, well, less than appealing. While I was happy with the herb-flecked pizza dough I had developed over years of practice, I knew that it wasn’t enough.

From left: vegan pizza with miso-caramelised onions and shiitake mushroom, and vegan white pizza with artichoke tofu ricotta and roasted garlic. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

It was a pizza from chef Michael Schlow’s now-shuttered Casolare in DC that gave me a place to start: a thin crust smeared with a tangy tomato sauce and dotted with just a few capers and olives, each offering notes of salt and vinegar that nearly negated the need for cheese. Because I had a time-tested dough recipe already, I began working on the sauce, settling on pureeing sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil into a base of crushed tomatoes and a touch of smoked paprika, providing a deep layer of flavour against the herbaceous crust.

Still, I craved cheesiness of some kind – the fat and umami that bring richness to pizza.

A conversation years ago with vegan cheesemaker Kale Welch, co-owner of the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis, got me thinking about that umami, because vegan cheese is often flavoured with miso, a salty, earthy fermented paste made from beans. I had often made cheese pizza topped with caramelised onions, and it occurred to me that those onions, if cooked in miso, could become a stand-in for the cheese: soft, stretchy, oily and rich. Cook them again on top of a pizza at 500 degrees and you even get a few crispy edges, just as you might with cheese.

It was an epiphany.

Because, let’s be honest, cheese is about fat and texture. Fat, as a flavour carrier, delivers seasonings straight to our taste buds, while texture is so important to our perception of food that we’ll instantly reject something based on how it feels in our mouths. So, once we’re armed with that knowledge, crafting pizza without cheese becomes an exercise in recognising what part the crust, sauce and toppings can play in making a perfect pie.

After my caramelised-onion breakthrough, I decided to add to my pizza thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms that I pre-bake until they start to get crisp. And then I started considering how to create a white pizza. I quickly figured out that whipping pureed artichokes, with their meaty depth, into tofu made a satisfyingly luscious ricotta cheese that easily stands in for the dairy version.

Can a good cheese enhance a pizza? Sure – but it shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting. And a truly great pizza doesn’t need it at all.

HERBED PIZZA DOUGH

Active time: 20 minutes | Total time: 40 minutes (with resting time)

Four to eight servings; makes enough for two 12-inch pizzas

Make Ahead: The prepared dough can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to three days before using. The dough also can be shaped into crusts and frozen on a lightly floured baking sheet, then wrapped tightly in freezer-safe plastic wrap for up to three months.

INGREDIENTS

315 grammes unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting the work surface

240 millilitres hot water

Four and a half teaspoons fast-acting instant yeast

135 grammes semolina flour or fine cornmeal, plus more for dusting the work surface

Two tablespoons olive oil

One tablespoon dried herbs, such as tarragon, oregano, thyme and/or basil

Two teaspoons barley malt syrup, honey or light agave syrup

Half a teaspoon kosher salt

Half a teaspoon sweet paprika

Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS

In a bowl of a food processor, combine 125 grammes of the all-purpose flour, the hot water and yeast, and pulse until uniform. Add the semolina flour or cornmeal, olive oil, dried herbs, barley malt syrup (or honey or agave syrup), salt, paprika and black pepper, and pulse to combine.

Add the remaining 190 grammes of all-purpose flour and blend the dough until it forms a ball, adding more flour as necessary until you get a soft dough that isn’t sticky. If the dough is too dry, you can add one teaspoon of hot water at a time until it is pliable. Process the dough for about 30 seconds. (If you don’t have a food processor, use a large bowl and your clean hands to mix the dough – it’ll take about an extra 10 minutes.)

Lightly flour a clean countertop and turn the dough out onto it. Knead the dough until smooth, about 30 seconds, then cover with a large bowl and let rest until the dough is slightly puffed and softened, about 20 minutes.

Divide the dough in half. You can either prepare the crusts for pizza, or wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate or shape the dough into crusts and freeze until needed.

To prepare the crusts two for pizzas, position racks in the top third and middle of the oven, and preheat to 500 degrees. If you have pizza stones, place them on a bottom rack while the oven is preheating; otherwise use inverted, large, rimmed baking sheets.

In a small bowl, combine two tablespoons all-purpose flour with one tablespoon semolina flour or cornmeal and use the mixture to dust your work surface. Take half of the pizza dough and loosely form it into a ball in your hands. Place the dough on the floured countertop and gently flatten it into a disk.

Pick up the disk and, holding it between your fingertips and leaving about one inch around the perimeter, constantly turn the disk in a circular motion, letting the disk to slightly stretch down toward the countertop as you turn it. When the disk is about an eight-inch circle, place it on the countertop and use your fingertips to continue stretching it into a larger circle, making sure to leave the edges a little thicker.

Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough from the centre outward until circular, about 14 inches wide. Fold over the edges of the dough, lightly crimping with your fingertips, creating a one-inch border. Gently slide a large piece of parchment underneath the shaped dough. Repeat with the second half of dough, if using.

Top the pizzas as desired. Slide the pizzas with the parchment onto a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet, then transfer to the heated pizza stones or sheet pans. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the crust is puffed and golden and the surface is bubbling.

Using a pizza peel, transfer the pizzas to cutting boards and discard the parchment. Cut the pizzas into wedges with a knife or pizza wheel and serve.

VEGAN WHITE PIZZA WITH ARTICHOKE TOFU RICOTTA AND ROASTED GARLIC

Active time: 45 minutes | Total time: one hour 45 minutes

Two to four servings

The idea for this pizza comes from spinach artichoke dip – minus the spinach. Blending olive oil-marinated artichokes into firm tofu creates a creamy dairy-free alternative to traditional ricotta, and the roasted garlic adds a touch of smoky sweetness. You will have ricotta left over; save it for another dish, such as lasagna, or use it as a spread or dip for crackers or vegetables. Your favourite fresh or frozen pizza dough can be used, but food writer Kristen Hartke recommends using her Herbed Pizza Dough for this dish. That makes enough dough for two 12-inch pizzas; the other half can be frozen for later use.

Make Ahead: Tofu ricotta can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.

Storage Notes: Leftover pizza can be refrigerated for up to four days.

NOTE: The oil from the artichokes is essential to smooth ricotta. If you can’t find artichokes packed in olive oil, substitute three quarters cup plain cooked artichoke hearts (frozen, fresh or canned) and a quarter cup of good-quality olive oil.

INGREDIENTS

For the roasted garlic

One large head garlic, unpeeled

One teaspoon olive oil

For the artichoke tofu ricotta

One package firm or extra-firm tofu, drained

Eight ounces artichoke hearts (packed in olive oil), roughly chopped (retain the oil)

One teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the pizza

One and a half cups Artichoke Tofu Ricotta

Half cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Two tablespoons all-purpose flour

One tablespoon semolina flour or cornmeal

One pound pizza dough (or 1/2 of the related Herbed Pizza Dough recipe)

One teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

One teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

One teaspoon coarse sea salt

Half a cup fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

One tablespoon plus one teaspoon olive oil, divided

DIRECTIONS

Make the roasted garlic: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Remove some of the loose papery skin on the garlic, making sure to leave the cloves connected. Use a sharp knife to slice about a quarter inch off the top, to expose the cloves. Place the trimmed garlic on a square of aluminium foil and drizzle with the olive oil, making sure the cloves are well coated. Wrap the foil loosely around the garlic and roast for about 45 minutes, or until the cloves are golden and softened.

Remove from the oven to cool, unwrap and gently squeeze the bottom of the cloves to push them out of the skin. Leave the cloves whole or roughly chop them. (Leave the oven on.)

Make the artichoke tofu ricotta: While the garlic is roasting, in the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the tofu, artichokes with their oil, zest, salt and pepper and process until smooth. Taste, and season with more salt, if desired. Use right away or refrigerate until needed. You should get about three cups; you’ll use one and a half cups on the pizza.

Make the pizza: In a medium bowl, stir together the tofu ricotta and parsley until well combined.

Increase the oven temperature to 500 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it on the rack while the oven is preheating; otherwise use a large, rimmed baking sheet.

In a small bowl, combine the all-purpose flour with semolina flour or cornmeal and use the mixture to dust your work surface. Take the pizza dough and loosely form it into a ball in your hands. Place the dough on the floured countertop and gently flatten it into a disk.

Pick up the disk and, holding it between your fingertips and leaving about one inch around the perimeter, constantly turn the disk in a circular motion, letting the disk slightly stretch down toward the countertop as you turn it. When the disk is about an eight-inch circle, place it on the countertop and use your fingertips to continue stretching it into a larger circle, making sure to leave the edges a little thicker.

Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough from the centre outward until circular, about 14 inches wide. Fold over the edges of the dough, lightly crimping with your fingertips, creating a one inch border.

Gently slide a large piece of parchment under the shaped dough.

Using the back of a spoon or an offset spatula, evenly spread the tofu ricotta over the dough to form a thick layer. Dot with the roasted garlic, then sprinkle with the lemon zest and red pepper flakes. Brush the crimped border with one tablespoon of the olive oil then sprinkle it with a little sea salt all around. Drizzle the remaining one teaspoon of olive oil across the pizza.

Slide the pizza with the parchment onto a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet, then transfer to the heated pizza stone or sheet pan. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the crust is puffed and golden and the surface is bubbling.

Using a pizza peel, transfer the pizza to a cutting board and discard the parchment. Cut the pizza into wedges with a knife or pizza wheel, sprinkle with the basil and serve.

VEGAN WHITE PIZZA WITH ARTICHOKE TOFU RICOTTA AND ROASTED GARLIC

Active time: One hour 30 minutes | Total time: two hours, 30 minutes

Four to eight servings (makes two 12-inch pizzas)

Food writer Kristen Hartke calls this her “Friday Night Pizza”, the one that is the biggest crowd-pleaser among vegans and omnivores alike, with lots of smoky, rich flavours. Hartke cooks thinly sliced onions in miso until golden brown to add richness. The recipe below makes two 12-inch pizzas. Your favourite or frozen pizza dough can be used, but Hartke recommends using her Herbed Pizza Dough for this dish. That recipe makes enough dough for two pizzas. Each of this pizza’s ingredients can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen.

Make Ahead: Every element of this pizza can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen. The pizza sauce can be refrigerated for up to one week in an airtight container, or frozen for up to three months. The shiitake bacon can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week. The caramelised onions can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week, or frozen for up to three months. The recommended dough (see related Herbed Pizza Dough recipe) can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to three days. The dough can also be shaped into crusts and flash-frozen on a lightly floured baking sheet, then wrapped tightly in freezer-safe plastic wrap for up to three months.

Storage Notes: Leftover pizza can be refrigerated for up to four days.

INGREDIENTS

For the sun-dried tomato sauce

One can no-salt added crushed or diced tomatoes

Three ounces sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (do not drain)

One teaspoon dried oregano

Half teaspoon smoked paprika

Kosher salt, to taste

For the miso-caramelised onions

Quarter cup olive oil

Three tablespoons yellow or red miso paste

Four to five large yellow onions, thinly sliced

For the shiitake mushrooms

One and a half pounds fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps thinly sliced

Two tablespoons olive oil

Two tablespoons soy sauce

One teaspoon smoked paprika

Vegetable cooking spray or olive oil

For assembling the pizzas

Two tablespoons all-purpose flour

One tablespoon semolina flour or fine cornmeal

Two pounds pizza dough (or the related Herbed Pizza Dough recipe), divided

Two cups sun-dried tomato sauce (recipe above), divided

Two cups miso-caramelised onions (recipe above), divided

Two cups shiitake mushroom, divided

Two tablespoons dried oregano, divided

Two teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, divided

Two tablespoons plus two teaspoons olive oil, divided

One teaspoon coarse sea salt, divided

DIRECTIONS

Make the sun-dried tomato sauce: In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the canned and sun-dried tomatoes, oregano and paprika, and process until fairly smooth. Taste, and season with salt, if desired. Use right away or refrigerate until needed. You should get about two cups.

Make the miso-caramelised onions: In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the miso and stir gently into the oil until it begins to dissolve. Add the onions and stir to coat in the oil and miso, then decrease the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the miso is completely dissolved and the onions become soft, golden and fragrant, about 45 minutes to one hour. Use right away or refrigerate until needed. You should get about two cups.

Make the shiitake mushroom: Position racks in the top third and middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the mushrooms, olive oil, soy sauce and smoked paprika. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and spray lightly with vegetable spray or brush with olive oil. Spread the shiitakes in a single layer over the parchment and lightly spray or brush with the spray or oil.

Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the slices begin to brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. You should get about two cups.

Make the pizzas: Position two racks in the middle and bottom third of the oven, and preheat to 500 degrees. If you have pizza stones, place one on each rack while the oven is preheating; otherwise use inverted, large, rimmed baking sheets.

In a small bowl, combine the all-purpose flour with the semolina flour or cornmeal and use the mixture to dust your work surface. Take the pizza dough and loosely form it into a ball in your hands. Place the dough on the flour countertop and gently flatten it into a disk.

Pick up the disk and, holding it between your fingertips and leaving about one inch around the perimeter, constantly turn the disk in a circular motion, letting the disk slightly stretch down toward the countertop as you turn it. When the disk is about an eight-inch circle, place it on the countertop and use your fingertips to continue stretching it into a larger circle, making sure to leave the edges a little thicker.

Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough from the center outward until circular, about 14 inches wide. Fold over the edges of the dough, lightly crimping with your fingertips, creating a one-inch border.

Gently slide a large piece of parchment underneath the shaped dough. Using the back of a spoon or an offset spatula, evenly spread one cup of the sun-dried tomato sauce on top of the dough. Spread one cup of the miso-caramelised onions evenly over the tomato sauce, then top with one cup of the shiitake mushroom.

Sprinkle one tablespoon of the oregano and one teaspoon of the red pepper flakes over everything, then brush the crimped edges with one tablespoon of the olive oil. Sprinkle a little sea salt on the border.

Drizzle an additional teaspoon of oil across the pizza.

Repeat with the second crust and remaining toppings.

Slide the pizza with the parchment onto a pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet, then carefully transfer to one of the heated pizza stones or sheet pans. Repeat with the second pizza.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the crust is puffed and golden and the surface is bubbling. Using a pizza peel, transfer the pizza to a cutting board and discard the parchment. Using a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet, transfer the pizza from the stone to a cutting board and discard the parchment. Cut the pizza into wedges with a knife or pizza wheel and serve right away.