Pizza potluck

Every now and then I decide to have a party where I invite people over to have fun and chat while I feed them a bunch of homemade pizza. The format which seems to work best is a “pizza potluck,” where I provide the basics and everyone else brings interesting things to try as toppings. It’s a great party for someone who has a lot of friends but doesn’t have a lot of social energy and likes to make their friends happy and have people meet each other but would rather be a wall flower at their own party. Like me.

I’ve done this a few times now. Here’s some notes for things to do and things to avoid.

Things to provide

Equipment

At the very least you’ll want a baking stone (affiliate link), a pizza peel (affiliate link), and a wooden cutting board (affiliate link). I like also having a wooden peel (affiliate link) (as I like to use the wooden one for assembling the pizza and a metal one for retrieving it) although that’s optional. You’ll also want one or more pizza cutters (affiliate link); more than one is necessary if you have concerns over cross-contamination (allergies, strict vegans, etc.).

Dough

First, you’ll want a bunch of dough. I use a modified version of Alex Ainouz’s recipe. A pretty good rule of thumb is to make two pizza’s worth for every three people arriving, which is to say, for every guest make the recipe with:

  • 110 grams bread flour (I use King Arthur (affiliate link), apparently in Europe the kind to look for is “Tipo 00”)
  • 80 grams water (at around 100ºF/40ºC – yes I realize those aren’t the same temperature but they’re both approximations)
  • 3.5 grams salt
  • 0.25 grams yeast

Prepare the dough at least the night before, the day before that if possible:

  1. Put the (warm) water, some of the flour, the salt, and the yeast into your proofing container; I use a large food storage box (affiliate link) (don’t forget the lid! (affiliate link))
  2. Stir until combined, and then slowly add the rest of the flour while continuing to stir
  3. Cover and allow to rise for two hours (I like to put it on a heating pad (affiliate link) to kickstart the fermentation a bit)
  4. Put in your refrigerator overnight

Tomato sauce

I just use Kroger’s store brand (or Private Selection brand, if you’re feeling fancy) marinara sauce. It’s cheap, it tastes good, and it involves basically zero prep work (aside from opening a jar). One jar should have enough sauce for a couple dozen pizzas.

If you absolutely want to make your own, though, and don’t mind spending a lot of money on your canned tomatoes, the Bon Appétit Perfect Pizza recipe seems pretty good.

Cheese

For the base pizza, I like to just get a large bag of shredded mozzarella (again, Kroger store brand, because I’m cheap; if you can get their “Italian blend” that’s got a nice subtle smokiness to it), and one ball of fresh mozzarella.

For Parmesan, Parmigiano Reggiano is what most people hold up as the standard but I’ve grown fond of Sarvecchio, which has a milder flavor and a bit more moisture content. (Also a much lower price point!)

Smoked oil

One nice way to add a bit more smoky, wood-fired flavor to your domestic oven pizza is by making some smoked oil. You can use Alex’s gravity bong technique but what I do is fill an olive oil dispenser bottle partway, then use an infusion smoker (affiliate link) to fill the air space with wood smoke, then shake it until the smoke gets absorbed into the oil, then repeat a few more times to really build up some extra smoke flavor.

This is great to drizzle on top of the pizza before you put it in the oven.

Basic toppings

In my experience, it’s rare for someone to bring pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, or basil, so if those are things you want on a pizza you should probably have them on-hand. Pepperoncini peppers are good to have around as well, as well as having some crushed red pepper flake.

Accommodating dietary restrictions

For folks who won’t/can’t do dairy, Daiya makes a pretty decent mozzarella substitute that isn’t likely to cause other allergies. Nutritional yeast works pretty well in lieu of Parmesan.

Marinated tofu can be interesting. I wouldn’t recommend other meat substitutes though.

Folks with celiac or other severe gluten intolerances may want to skip this, as there’s basically no way to prevent gluten cross-contamination.

Other ingredients

You’ll want to have some extra flour (all-purpose is fine for this and many other purposes) and some cornmeal (not corn starch/corn flour!).

Things to request that guests bring

Generally, encourage people to bring enough of a single topping for a single pizza. The following guidelines are helpful to establish:

  • Nothing that needs significant extra prep (e.g. no raw meats, olives should be pre-pitted, etc.)
  • Prefer pre-sliced/chopped things
  • Things that can work as both an appetizer and a topping are great
  • Also things that are a bit different than the usual pizza fare, like a hearty curry or smoked salmon
  • Also they should be safe to keep out for a few hours
  • You should also indicate that it’s okay to bring drinks and desserts!

In my experience, most people bring way more than necessary. Fortunately they usually leave the unused stuff with me too.

Common duplicates will be pesto (which makes a great alternative to tomato sauce, but watch out for folks with nut allergies!) and sweet/bell peppers, and also don’t be surprised if at least one person decides to bring extra dough or mozzarella.

The day of the party

5-6 hours before the party, take the dough out of the refrigerator and put it on the counter. You may also want to put it on a heating pad for a couple hours to warm it up a bit more quickly.

About an hour before it’s time to start making pizza, put your baking stone on the middle oven rack and start preheating your oven to as hot as it will go.

Set up your stations in order:

  • Dough (the container thereof)
  • Kneading/shaping (a work surface where you can dust the dough with flour and shape it; I use a cutting board)
  • Toppings/assembly (have your sauce, corn meal, and pizza peel here – if you’re going for the two-peel approach, this is where the wooden peel should go)
  • Oven! (if you’re doing the two-peel approach, keep your metal peel here for turning and retrieval)
  • Pre-service – cutting board, pizza cutter, and serving platters/plates

For the inevitable toppings where someone brought something that requires prep, hopefully you have some counter space elsewhere that you can place a cutting board or whatever. Toppings prep is also a thing where you can enlist the help of the guests who insist on helping out. (And if someone brought a raw meat topping and you have a spare cooktop/portable burner/etc. you can put someone to work on that too.)

Everything else is pretty straightforward; for as long as pizza is needed:

  1. Dust the assembly peel with cornmeal
  2. Take a pizza’s worth (100-150 grams) of dough from the proofing container, dust it with flour, knead and shape it into a pizza
  3. Put the dough on the peel and give it a little shimmy-shake to ensure it isn’t stuck
  4. Sauce it, add cheese and toppings
  5. Give it another little shimmy-shake, then slide it on down onto the hot baking stone
  6. 8-10 minutes later (after it’s cooked, before it’s burned) take it out of the oven and put it on the cutting board to cool a bit
  7. After it’s cooled enough to cut, cut it and put it on a serving platter or whatever
  8. Send it off into the world to be enjoyed (but remember to take slices for yourself as well, you need to eat too!)

This scales to around a dozen guests or so. If you have more than that you’ll want multiple baking stones and actual assembly-line helpers in the kitchen. Hopefully your kitchen is bigger than mine, in this case.

Also every few pizzas or so you’ll probably want to remove the left-over cornmeal from your baking stone. A bench scraper and a spare plate or bowl are good for this purpose. It’s nice to have some left behind to add more smoky flavor (especially in the rare case that your kitchen doesn’t have a wood-fired oven!) but having a smoke-filled kitchen is less fun, even as much as it’s a nice dramatic flair.

Some ideas for various pies

  • The standard Margherita: tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, smoked oil; add torn fresh basil after baking
  • Standard meaty pie: tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, salami, Parmesan, crushed red pepper
  • Pesto pie: use basil pesto as sauce, choose any sort of cheese, put a lighter topping (cooked chicken or various vegetables or whatnot)
  • Caramelized onion flatbread: caramelized onions as sauce, a cheese such as smoked mozzarella or Gouda or Gruyère, drizzle of smoked oil on top
  • Greek pie: tomato sauce, feta cheese, kalamata olives, chopped bell peppers/shallots/artichoke hearts, fresh oregano
  • Arugula pie: drizzle the crust with some flavored oil (lemon-infused grapeseed oil is great, smoky or plain olive oil are great too), baby arugula, Gouda/Gruyère, crushed red pepper
  • Chicken tikka masala: shredded chicken tikka masala (spreading the sauce/curry out as much as possible), a light dusting of mozzarella, maybe some thinly-chopped shallots; optionally add a drizzle of plain yogurt after it comes out
  • Smoked salmon, goat cheese, dill, and capers
  • Dessert pizza: chocolate chips, mini marshmallows, optionally add walnuts or peanuts or whatever; top with whipped cream after it cools (suggested pairings: espresso, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and/or ironic detachment)

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