Unlike the bar and bat mitzvah parties of my youth, which were often like pint-sized weddings, where barely a dozen preteen friends and a smattering of cousins ate grown-up food, mingled, and danced awkwardly among a sea of elders, today's parties honor the bar/bat mitzvah peer group. After all, whose celebration is this anyway?
Since pizza is most teenagers' favorite food, how about doing something original? Anybody up for a pizza-making party? Talk about a practical skill to take into his teenage years.
It's a joyous, bonding experience as the bar mitzvah boy leads off by making the first pizza, then gets to watch, instruct, kibitz and comment, as each of his friends takes a turn. Instead of a disc jockey urging everyone to dance, a pizza maven will teach the teens how to assemble the flatbread of our ancestors. Even though a Neapolitan baker is credited with inventing the popular snack, ancient Israelites baked flat, unleavened bread in rustic mud ovens, then covered it with a topping of their choice.
The FOB (father of the bar/bat mitzvah) can spin the tunes; the MOB (mother of the bar/bat mitzvah) can oversee the event.
Boys enjoy the activity as much as girls and are often more creative pizza makers because they're not so worried about being perfect, said chef and food stylist Rori Trovato, who has held many a pizza-making party for her children.
Author of "Dishing With Style: Secrets to Great Tastes and Beautiful Presentations" (Clarkson Potter, 2004), Trovato calms our nerves, assuring us that that the Neapolitan Pizza Pie is very forgiving. The innovative mother of two hates predictably round pies. Instead, her organically shaped Pizza Margheritas billow out at the edges, and she urges kids to form their dough into animals, stars or whatever the young pizzaiolo wishes to create. He can even cut his pizzas into tiny squares to trade with his friends.
"When hosting a pizza party, organization is key," said baker Peter Reinhart, author of "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza," (Ten Speed Press, 2003). He points to the French term mise en place -- having all the ingredients prepared in advance and everything in its place before you begin cooking, the same as it is in a pizzeria.
Although buying prepared pizza dough is recommended, if you must make it from scratch assemble it the day before and divide it into balls big enough to make two individual pizzas. Leaving it in the refrigerator overnight actually gives it more flavor, Reinhart said. When ready to assemble the pizzas, remove only as many as you need.
The pizza maven can demonstrate how to roll the dough, brush it with oil, then top it with sauce and each guest's favorite ingredients. As each pizzaiolo-in-training takes his masterpiece out of the oven the look of pride on his face makes you realize why you went to all this trouble. And, after all, how often are you the MOB?
Essential Tools: Pizza stone, wooden baker's peel, a rimless baking tray or very wide spatula, long-handled tong, roller-style pizza cutter or large sharp knife, Microplane zester or good cheese grater and a rolling pin. If making dough, you'll need an electric mixer with a dough hook or a food processor.
The Table: Set one large table or several smaller ones with a washable tablecloth, the essential tools listed above, cheeses and graters, bowls of sauces, topping and condiment oils in small jars with metal spouts so guests can assemble pizzas easily. Divide the tasks into stations -- a dough-making area to roll out, stretch and shape the pizzas, a topping area for making the pizzas and a third for cutting and serving them after they're baked.
Topping Ideas: Thick tomato sauce, pesto sauce, a variety of cheeses (mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and gorgonzola or goat cheese); sautéed or caramelized onions and garlic; sautéed mushrooms, including cremini and portabella; sautéed or roasted red, yellow, orange or green peppers; kalamata or oil-cured olives (pits removed); anchovies; roasted purple or yellow potatoes, sun-dried or oven dried tomatoes; and sautéed radicchio.
Tips for Assembling Pizzas: The oven should be heated to 550 F for 1 1/2 hours before making the pizzas. Assemble pizzas just before transferring them to the oven. Liberally flour the pizza peel. Keep pizzas loose on peel, making sure the end of it is clean so pizzas will slide off easily on to the pizza stone. Brush raw dough with olive oil, then the tomato or pesto sauce, then the toppings, which should all be at room temperature. Don't overload the pizza or when you slide it on to the stone the toppings might spill over and stick to the stone. Don't have any ingredients that are too watery or juicy or the pizza will end up soggy. Check pizza after 10 minutes; if it has not browned enough, bake one to two minutes longer until cheese is bubbling and color is pleasing. Work quickly; pizza dough is impatient.
Classic Margherita Pizza
From "Dishing with Style."
Prepared pizza dough
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes in their juice
4 to 5 whole leaves of basil
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, plus more to taste
In a large saucepan over medium high heat, sauté garlic cloves in olive oil until golden brown, four to six minutes. Turn off the heat for five minutes to cool the oil. Add all the remaining sauce ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove and discard the basil leaves and garlic cloves. Adjust seasoning with salt or sugar, if needed. Store in a plastic or glass container for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced 1/4 inch thick
6 to 8 whole basil leaves
Kalamata olives, for garnish
Preheat oven to 550 F. Roll out dough into individual or large size pizzas. Transfer pizzas onto a lightly floured pizza peel. Quickly top each pizza with sauce, leaving about a 1-inch border around the edges. Lay mozzarella slices on top to cover and carefully slide the pizza onto the hot stone. Do not attempt to move pizzas on the stone; they will stick. Bake individual pizzas for six to eight minutes and the large pizza for 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned and bubbly. Using long handled tongs, remove pizza from oven, sliding it onto peel, cutting board or plate. Top with the basil, tearing the leaves as you place them. Place an olive in the center of each pizza.
From "American Pie:" My Search for the Perfect Pizza."
This recipe makes a smooth, creamy pesto. It can be baked on top of focaccia or pizza, or drizzled over it after it comes out of the oven. It will keep for about a week in the refrigerator, but will be at its best during the first 24 hours. You can substitute toasted walnuts for the pine nuts, or add them in equal parts.
2 cups fresh basil leaves
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
In a blender or food processor, combine the basil, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice and puree until smooth. Add half the pine nuts and blend for a few seconds to grind them coarsely. Transfer the puree to a bowl and fold in the cheese, the remaining pine nuts, pepper and salt. Place in an airtight container and keep refrigerated until needed.
Makes about two cups.
From cooking teacher and caterer Jean Brady.
4 large heads of garlic, sliced in half crosswise
4 sprigs rosemary, chopped
4 sprigs thyme, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F. Sprinkle half of herbs on bottom of baking dish; place garlic in dish, cut sides up. Pour oil over garlic; season with salt, pepper, and remaining herbs. Cover and bake until tender, about one hour. To serve, set out roasted heads of garlic. Holding the garlic head, cut side down; squeeze the desired amount of garlic puree directly on to the pizza dough. You can also use a demitasse spoon to scoop out the cooked puree.