Perfecting the Personal Pizza

A short while ago we blogged about our first attempt at a grilled pizza, with some success. The visual effect left something to be desired, so not satisfied with mediocrity, we vowed to make several more over the course of time. With that resolve, we spotted a Roasted Tomato, Fennel and Asiago Pizza (Cooks Illustrated) that appealed to our culinary sensibilities and used that recipe as our base this time around.

While I was hoping to make the garlic-herb pizza crust from scratch, we had a premade pizza dough in the frig that was about to expire. (Those of you with wheat issues may want to use a gluten-free dough.) As you may recall in the previous pizza blog, Russ had a bit of an issue rolling the dough into some semblance of a circle. This time however he had a lot more success.

He discovered that there was more hand working the dough, not so much rolling it out. The bubbles take a beating under a rolling pin, leaving the finished product dense and tough. Instead, think light and gentle, and work with your hands to pull and stretch the dough out to your desired size. If the dough proves impossible to work with—snapping back when stretched, for instance—it’s either been overworked or is too cold. Let it sit at room temperature for a full 15 minutes to let the gluten relax and the temperature rise before trying again.

As luck would have it, just as we were going to start making the pizza, an unexpected rain storm burst out of nowhere (predictions were ZERO percent precipitation that day!) So Plan B was to use the oven, which we preheated to 550 degrees. (Note this recipe is for grilling pizza.)

The evening before, we roasted the tomatoes for 20 minutes as described in this recipe–in the oven, not on the grill. But the next day they seemed too watery to me. Having roasted tomatoes before, I knew they usually take a long time, so I popped them back in for 1 1/2 hours at 325 degrees. This eliminates moisture and concentrates the flavors—a very important step. They came out beautifully!


While Russ worked the dough, I placed the 11″ pizza stone in the oven to preheat; prepared the onion, fennel, garlic mixture in a sauté pan; and grated the Asiago cheese (we used more like a cup.) The dough was split in two, and the first pizza was assembled directly on the hot pizza stone, put in the oven for 5 minutes, turned and cooked for another 3 minutes. Perfectly browned crust! The second try, Russ decided to assemble the pie on a cookie sheet and slide it onto the hot pizza stone. GONK. Without a pizza peel and cornmeal, not a smart move! We finally managed, but made a bit of mess with toppings falling off.

As a final touch we added fresh basil from the garden cut into ribbons. We oohed an aaahed as we ate, definitely agreeing we’ll make this combo again! For those who prefer a bit of meat, a good addition would be crumbled Italian sausage with fennel. Although, if you do add other ingredients, you may want to scale back on the fennel/onion mixture so that the pizza doesn’t get soggy.




Garlic-Herb Pizza Crust

  • 6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 1 package dry active yeast
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 2 teaspoons table salt plus additional for sprinkling

Fennel Topping

  • 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil plus extra for drizzling
  • 1 large Spanish onion (about 1 1/4 pounds), halved and sliced thin
  • 1 bulb fennel medium (about 1 pound), sliced thin
  • 4 large cloves garlic sliced thin
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Roasted Tomatoes

  • 12 plum tomatoes (small), halved lengthwise
  • 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
  • Salt and ground black pepper


  • 1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese (about 1 ounce)


  1. For the crust: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a small skillet; add next 3 ingredients and cook over low heat until garlic softens, about 5 minutes. Cool.
  2. Sprinkle yeast and sugar over 1/4 cup warm water and let stand until yeast starts to swell, about 5 minutes. Mix flour, cornmeal, and salt in a food processor. Add 1 cup cool water and herb oil to yeast mixture. With machine on, gradually pour liquid into dry ingredients; process until a rough ball forms. If dough is too sticky or dry, add flour or water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Let dough rest for 5 minutes, then continue to process until dough is smooth, about 35 seconds.
  3. Knead dough by hand a few seconds to form smooth, round ball; place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth and let rise until dough doubles in size, about 2 hours
  4. Punch dough down and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll each portion to form a smooth, round ball. Place the balls on a lightly floured surface, cover with a damp cloth, and let rest until they puff slightly, about 30 minutes.
  5. Roll each dough ball into a 7-inch round, flouring work surface and dough as necessary. Place on a floured cookie sheet; sprinkle top with flour. Stack the rounds in groups of four.
  6. For the fennel topping: Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and fennel; sauté until vegetables soften, about 8 minutes. Add garlic; sauté until garlic softens, about 2 minutes. Stir in thyme, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes; season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside. (Can cover and refrigerate overnight.)
  7. For the roasted tomatoes: Heat oven to 375 degrees or heat grill. If roasting tomatoes in oven, place tomato halves in a roasting pan, brush with remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; roast until tomatoes are just tender, 20 to 30 minutes. (Personally, I found this wasn’t nearly long enough—more like 90-120 minutes.) If grilling, place oiled and seasoned tomatoes, cut side down, on grill; grill until marked, about 5 minutes. Turn tomatoes cut side up; grill until just tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Do not turn off grill. (The tomatoes can be set aside at room temperature up to 6 hours ahead.)
  8. To grill pizza crusts, top, and serve immediately: Brush tops of 4 dough rounds with some of remaining olive oil (from garlic-herb pizza crust measurements), then sprinkle each with salt. Grill, oil side down, covered, until dark brown grill marks appear, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Burst any bubbles that develop. Brush dough tops with oil, then flip. Quickly spread a portion of the fennel-onion topping over each pizza round, top with 3 roasted tomato halves, sprinkle with the Asiago, and drizzle with olive oil. Cover and grill until pizza bottoms are crisp and browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately and repeat process with remaining 4 pizza rounds.
  9. To grill pizza rounds to top and broil at a later time: Brush tops of 4 dough rounds with some of remaining olive oil, then sprinkle each with salt. Grill, oil side down, covered, until dark brown grill marks appear, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Burst any bubbles that develop. Brush dough tops with oil, then flip. Grill until bottoms are brown, about 2 minutes longer. Repeat with remaining dough rounds. Can be covered and stored at room temperature up to 6 hours. To serve: Heat broiler. Spread a portion of the fennel-onion mixture over each pizza, top each with 3 roasted tomato halves, sprinkle with cheese, and drizzle with oil. Broil until toppings sizzle and cheese melts, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

NOTE: If you’re topping your pizza with something that’s moist or wet (like fresh mozzarella), you want to partially bake the crust before proceeding with the add-ons. Bake it until it’s just firm enough to stand up to the extra weight, then make your pizza pretty. How to tell when the crust is perfectly cooked? Use tongs to carefully lift the pizza and peek underneath it—in the center of the pie, not the quicker-cooking edges. Oh, and P.S.: If it’s a thin, crispy crust you’re going for, you will definitely want to par-bake, every time.

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