Baked mozzarella balls

I recently bought bucket of little mozzarella pearls, thinking that they would be really easy for pizza, pasta bakes, etc. Usually I’d buy the small tubs at the supermarket which hold probably 12-15 balls of mozzarella which is plenty for two pizzas. I soon realised, then, that having this BUCKET of mozzarella would take me a while to get through, most probably not before they’d gone off if I were using them at my usual speed. I was having evil thoughts about deep-frying the whole lot, which would almost certainly have induced some sort of dangerous arterial contraction, so I decided against it.

Instead, though, I thought about baking them, because there’s much less fat involved that way, and though you’re still eating loads of cheese there is just something that sounds so much worse about deep-frying cheese, right?

It’s a fairly tricky process but the result is worth it. I will put a disclaimer here that these are NOT as delicious as deep-fried mozzarella, as you can’t get the exterior quite so crispy and the interior quite so gooey without it all just oozing everywhere. But as a slightly healthier alternative, they’re really not bad. It took me a few goes to get the process right but I got there in the end. I decided to go with semolina instead of breadcrumbs for the coating, as semolina is crunchier and slightly sweet which I think goes really well. Also there is no fussing around with making the breadcrumbs or anything beforehand. The only thing I might try again is toasting the semolina before coating the mozzarella, so that it’s EVEN crunchier when the mozzarella is baked.

These would be really nice to serve as appetisers or as party nibbles (I was thinking that they would be great alongside some chorizo crisps made in the same way I made the crispy chorizo in my last post). There is a bit of faffing and watching them like a hawk, but I think it pays off!

 

Baked mozzarella balls

Below are the quantities for around 12 mozzarella balls, just increase as necessary.

12 mozzarella pearls

1/2 cup semolina

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon parmesan, grated

 

Basil leaves and tomato sauce to serve

 

Method

The first thing to do is drain the mozzarella balls and put them in the freezer for around 15 minutes. When you take them out you want them to be REALLY firm but not totally frozen.

Whilst they’re in the freezer, combine the semolina with some seasoning and the grated parmesan in a freezer bag. Line a baking tray with parchment and preheat the oven to 220C.

Working quickly, get the mozzarella pearls out of the freezer and tip them into the freezer bag. Give them a good shake until they’re coated in the semolina mixture and then tip everything onto the baking sheet. Put them into the oven for around 1 minute and then take them out and test their firmness. If they’re getting very soft, then slide the parchment onto a plate and refrigerate for a few minutes, before putting back into the oven. If after the first minute they’re not too squidgy (it really depends on your oven) then put them back in for another 30 secs-1min and test again. Once squidgy put on a plate in the fridge and repeat the process, until the semolina is crispy and the cheese is gooey but not oozing into a flat mess on the tray. I grated a bit more parmesan over them at this point actually; cheese-on-cheese, what could be better than that?!

Once they’re out of the oven, serve immediately. I like these speared on a cocktail stick with a baby basil leaf and dipped in tomato sauce. Yummmmm.

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Pizza

Making pizza has been a bit of an ongoing saga for me. Unfortunately, there is a very fine line between tasty pizza and cardboard, so getting the recipe right is crucial. After several years of sporadic attempts, I’ve finally found a recipe and a method that works and now we eat homemade pizza almost every week!

The pizza dough recipe I use is from the Jamie Oliver book ‘Jamie at Home’. Below is the recipe as it appears in the book, but I halve this amount because the full amount makes so much dough, even in my largest bowl it oozes over the sides as it rises and is in danger of bursting the cling film! I guess I could split it into two bowls, but that means more washing up. Also I find it harder to handle that much dough (being a weakling) and it takes so much longer to knead, so in my mind it’s better to make it twice as often but use half as much effort.

Even with half the amount of dough, it makes four generously-sized pizzas. The dough freezes amazingly well, so when I make it I use half there and then, and then stash the rest in the freezer and thaw overnight when I want to use the next lot. Obviously if you did want to make the full batch then you can freeze all the rest! The pizzas I made today were from a frozen batch so I don’t have any photographs of the dough being made, just from the stretching out onwards.

Pizza Dough

Makes around 8 pizzas

1kg strong white bread flour or Tipo ‘00’ flour or 800g strong white bread flour or Tipo ‘00’ flour, plus 200g finely ground semolina flour
1 level tablespoon fine sea salt
2 x 7g sachets of dried yeast
1 tablespoon golden caster sugar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
650ml lukewarm water

Regular (coarser) semolina for stretching out the dough

A note here: I use Dove’s Farm organic strong white bread flour (which I LOVE) and I buy semolina flour from the farm shop. For my most recent batch I’d run out of semolina flour though so I just used all bread flour, it’s no big deal. I also add more olive oil and a bit more caster sugar than the recipe says, because I think the dough benefits from being quite sweet and, combined with the olive oil, helps to eliminate all traces of carboardiness.

Method:

(NOTE: This is not the method from the book. This is how I do it)

The first thing I do is measure out the warm water, add the sugar, yeast and olive oil, and stir. Leave this to start getting frothy while you weigh out the flour.

Weigh out the flours and salt and sieve them either into a bowl or straight onto the work surface. To be honest, I used to put it on the worktop, but you need to make a well in the centre and pour the wet ingredients in, and quickly mix together to form the dough. Those moments are SO frantic, trying to contain the liquid and stop it pouring over the flour mound and onto the floor, that I just can’t cope with it! Now I just mix it in a bowl, which is far more civilised and less likely to induce a heart attack. I just add the liquid slowly and fork liquid and flour together until they come together to form a dough, then bring it together with my (floured) hands at the end. Depending on the flour you have in the bag you might need more/less liquid each time you make it. If I need to add more liquid, I usually use half olive oil and half water.

Whatever method you’ve used, once you’ve got a ball of dough you need to start kneading. Flour the work surface and your hands, and knead the dough. If you’re unfamiliar with kneading, you basically just grab the top and bottom half of the ball of dough with each hand, and, using the heels of your hands, pull them apart to basically stretch and tear the dough. Then bring it together again and repeat the same thing. Turn it over and rotate it as you go, keep flouring the surface (or the dough, if it’s a bit sticky) as you need to, and after a while you’ll notice that the texture of the dough changes completely. It will be much more elastic, and really smooth. Once you’ve reached this point, form it into a ball and put it into a floured bowl, dust the top with flour (this stops it sticking to the clingfilm) and then cover with clingfilm.

Leave the dough to rise in a warm place. I don’t have an airing cupboard or even any proper radiators, so I just turn the oven on low when I’m kneading the dough, and leave it for 5-10 mins to get warm. Then I just put the covered bowl in there and shut the door.

When the dough is ready it should have doubled or more in size. Once it’s risen, remove the clingfilm and knock back the dough (this is basically just punching the air out with your fist, immensely satisfying).  Now you’re ready to stretch it out. I always stretch my dough out with semolina rather than flour, because it gives the dough a nice sweetness and makes the crust really crunchy. Also I find it easier to push the dough around as the semolina works better to stop it sticking to the surface, I find. So sprinkle the surface liberally with semolina, and knead the dough a little more so it’s smooth again. Then divide your dough into however many pizzas you’re making, and take one of the pieces.

Stretching out the dough is hard to explain and even harder to photograph. I basically do the following things, in roughly this order:

I push the ball of dough into a flatter disc with my fist.

Then I push the edges of the dough out with my fingertips and spin the dough so it stays roughly circular.

I then pick it up in one hand, hold it on the edge and hang it like in the picture. Then I use the other hand and pull the dough apart bit by bit, and rotate it. Basically you want to try and thin out the middle, so doing this uses the miracle of gravity and the dough’s own weight to stretch it out further.

After that you should have a bigger circle of dough that’s pretty thin in the centre but still thick and doughy on the edges. Press the edges out with the heel of your hand whilst pushing away from you to thin it out as much as possible.

Once the dough is almost there, lift it onto your baking tray. If you wait until it’s too thin then you risk tearing it when you put it on the tray. It’s no biggie if you do tear it, just pinch the sides of the hole together to repair it. You should repair any holes, because otherwise when you get the sauce on it will seep through the hole and stick to the tray. DO NOT WANT.

Once it’s on the tray, you can use your fingertips to squash out the thicker edges until it’s as thin as you want it.

Now it’s ready to load with good stuff. As far as sauce is concerned, I usually make mine with passata, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar and oregano. Although today I’d been gardening for 7 hours and was pretty tired, so I cheated and used some sauce from a jar, and there is no shame in that whatsoever! I also like making a pepperonata for the base instead of using tomatoes, which is just peppers softened down in some olive oil until they’re almost a mush. So tasty!

As for toppings, you don’t need me to tell you that the possibilities are endless. You can make it meaty, veggie, vegan, anything!

My favourite at the moment is a bit of a half and half: I had spinach and asparagus on one side, ham and artichokes on the other, and an egg in the middle.

For the spinach, I just heated some olive oil in a pan and added garlic. Once the smell of the garlic hits you from the pan, add the spinach and cook until wilted down. When it’s wilted add a squeeze of lemon juice (I use just less than half an average sized lemon), salt and LOTS of pepper. As you can see, I don’t wilt mine down too much and I don’t squeeze all the water out of it either, because I figure you’re just losing all the nice olive oil and lemon juice you put on it! It doesn’t make the pizza soggy anyway which is the main thing.

Then it’s just a case of assembling everything, and tearing the mozzarella on. I NEVER slice the mozzarella for two reasons: 1) I like the way you get thicker chunks if you tear it, which melt better and 2) it goes further if you tear it into smaller lumps.

I then just drizzle the edges in olive oil and put it in an oven preheated to full whack (on my oven this is about 230 degrees C)

For the egg, I don’t put it on at the start because I like a runny yolk. I leave the pizzas in the oven for almost 10 minutes (or until the start juuuuuust going golden at the edges) and then take them out. NOW, I’ve had too many disasters with breaking the yolk on eggs when I’ve put them on the pizza, and, rather embarrasingly, have been so irrationally angry I’ve thrown utensils across the kitchen. I JUST LOVE A NICE RUNNY YOLK OKAY?! I’ve therefore now adopted the method of breaking the egg into a small glass and then pouring it on to the pizza, that way if it breaks I can just try another one. No more tantrums!

So, once the egg’s on the pizza, return it to the oven for 3-5 minutes until the white is cooked and, if you like a runny yolk as I do, the yolk is still nice and wobbly. Then I just top the pizza with a really good grinding of black pepper (I swear I’m not as obsessed with pepper as I appear…) and a good grating of parmesan. Enjoy! And if you don’t manage to eat it all, any leftovers are really good as lunch the next day too….