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Warm your soul with homemade pizza

The change in the weather has put me in a "gather around the hearth" kind of mood. That always means food of a more soul-warming nature. Like pizza! Homemade, of course. The activity of making your own creations is really a whole lot of what eating pizza is all about.

It used to be that the only way to obtain a ball of ready-made pizza dough was at the source: your local pizza parlor. Indeed, most establishments will sell you small, medium or large balls at a very nominal price.

Many local supermarkets also sell raw dough. You’ll find it in the refrigerator sections, typically near the cheeses or health foods.

Whether you're entertaining your own brood of energetic children, or having an evening with grown-up friends, it's quite fun to roll and press the dough into shape and then construct the toppings.

For inspiration, all you have to do is check out your favorite pizza parlor’s menu. But for some specific recipes, consider the creations below.

When it comes to cooking your homemade creations, you’ll obtain the crispiest crust by using a pizza stone. Using a pizza stone more or less mimics the effects of cooking a pizza in a masonry oven. The porous nature of the stone also helps absorb moisture from the dough, which contributes to the crispy crust phenomenon. Small pizza stones that fit in any conventional oven or an enclosed barbecue can be purchased at cookware shops.

For those of you trying to watch your diet, consider the following “diet pizza” concept: Set the oven to its highest temperature; place a pizza stone in the oven for 30 minutes if you have one (if you don't, use a baking sheet; the bottom crust just won't be quite as crunchy and wonderful).

Place the pizza dough on a heavily floured surface and stretch and pull, using your hands or a rolling pin, into about a 14-inch round. Place on a lightly floured pizza peel (if you are going to be transferring the pizza onto a preheated pizza stone) or onto a rimless baking sheet or pizza pan.

Brush the edges of the crust with olive oil, and cover the top with any combination of seasoned grilled vegetables seafood and chicken and roasted garlic. Sprinkle the pizza with a couple tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. If using a pizza stone, carefully slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone in one quick, forward-and-back motion. If using a pizza pan, place the pan in the oven. Bake for about 12 to 14 minutes. You won't have all the goo of a typical pizza, but you will have something great — and healthful — to eat.

I’m also providing you with my simple homemade pizza sauce recipe. It’s fast and simple to prepare, and tastes very fresh and wonderful.

Jan’s Quick-and-Tasty Pizza Sauce

Makes about 1-1/2 cups sauce.

24 ounces (3 8-ounce cans) tomato sauce

5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt to taste (depending on the tomato sauce you use, salt may not be necessary)

Freshly ground black pepper

Optional: about 2 tablespoons of finely minced fresh basil

In a small saucepan, combine the tomato sauce with the garlic and olive oil. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer 3 to 4 minutes, to develop the flavor of the garlic. Remove from heat. Adjust seasoning by adding salt if necessary, the pepper, and the basil (if using). Let cool. Store in the refrigerator when not using. Keeps for several weeks. Makes enough sauce for 2 large pizzas.

Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Bacon, Blue Cheese and Figs

Makes one pizza.

4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch wide strips

1 ball pizza dough

Flour, for dusting surface

1 cup caramelized onions (recipe follows)

12 dried mission figs, stems trimmed, and each fig cut into small pieces

3/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola

Extra-virgin olive oil, to drizzle

Freshly cracked black pepper

If using a pizza stone, begin to preheat the oven and stone to 550 degrees at least 45 minutes before cooking.

Also, be sure your onions are caramelized before you begin preparing the pizza.

Place the bacon in a skillet and set over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until brown and crispy. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small bowl.

Place the pizza dough on a heavily floured surface and stretch and pull, using your hands or a rolling pin, into about a 14-inch round. Place on a lightly floured pizza peel (if you are going to be transferring the pizza onto the preheated pizza stone) or onto a rimless baking sheet or pizza pan.

Cover with the toppings, careful not to press on the dough and weigh it down, beginning with the caramelized onions, then the figs and bacon, and finally the Gorgonzola, leaving about a 1/2-inch border. If using a pizza stone, carefully slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone in one quick, forward-and-back motion. If using a pizza pan, place the pan in the oven.

Cook until the crust has browned on the bottom and the top is bubbling and brown in spots, about 10 minutes. Drizzle with a little olive oil and some cracked black pepper. Serve hot.

Chicken and Bell Pepper Pizza with Barbecue Sauce

Makes 1 pizza

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

1 cup spicy or hickory-flavored barbecue sauce

1 ball of pizza dough

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced

1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1/3 cup thinly sliced, drained, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled

1-1/2 cups packed shredded mozzarella cheese (about 6 ounces)

If using a pizza stone, begin to preheat the oven and stone to 550 degrees at least 45 minutes before cooking.

Combine chicken and barbecue sauce in small bowl. Let mixture stand for 15 minutes. (Can be prepared up to 12 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate).

Place the pizza dough on a heavily floured surface and stretch and pull, using your hands or a rolling pin, into about a 14-inch round. Place on a lightly floured pizza peel (if you are going to be transferring the pizza onto the preheated pizza stone) or onto a rimless baking sheet or pizza pan.

Spread the chicken mixture over the top, then arrange the onion, bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts over. Sprinkle with oregano. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Finally, spread the cheese evenly over.

If using a pizza stone, then carefully slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone in one quick, forward-and-back motion. If using a pizza pan, place the pan in the oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the topping is golden and bubbly, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Triple Cheese Pizza

Makes 1 pizza

1 ball of pizza dough

1/2 cup pesto (either homemade or store-bought)

1-1/2 cups grated Fontina cheese (about 6 ounces)

8 Roma-style tomatoes, seeded, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled

1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese (about 2 ounces)

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Fresh basil leaves (optional)

If using a pizza stone, begin to preheat the oven and stone to 550 degrees at least 45 minutes before cooking.

Place the pizza dough on a heavily floured surface and stretch and pull, using your hands or a rolling pin, into about a 14-inch round. Place on a lightly floured pizza peel (if you are going to be transferring the pizza onto the preheated pizza stone) or onto a rimless baking sheet or pizza pan.

Spread pesto over the top, then sprinkle evenly with the Fontina cheese. Arrange tomato slices on top and season with pepper. Sprinkle oregano over the surface, then mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. If using a pizza stone, then carefully slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone in one quick, forward-and-back motion. If using a pizza pan, place the pan in the oven.

Bake until the crust is golden brown and the topping is golden and bubbly, about 15 minutes. Garnish with basil leaves and serve. Yields 4 servings.

Tricolor Pizza with Garlic-Olive Spread

Makes 1 pizza

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced rings

1/2 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced rings

1/2 large orange bell pepper, thinly sliced rings

1/2 large yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced rings

1 14-inch round of unbaked pizza dough

About 3/4 cup of Jan’s Quick-and-Tasty Pizza Sauce (or your own favorite bottled pizza sauce)

3 cups (12 ounces) shredded Mozzarella (low-moisture, part skim)

Scant 1/2 cup Muffuletta Relish (a garlic-olive spread; recipe follows) or tapenade (olive spread) see note below

1 8-ounce ball fresh mozzarella, cut into 6 or 8 1/4-inch thick rounds

1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano

1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

If using a pizza stone, then begin to preheat the oven and stone to 550 degrees at least 45 minutes before cooking.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and peppers and saute, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes (can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead).

Place the pizza dough on a heavily floured surface and stretch and pull, using your hands or a rolling pin, into about a 14-inch round. Place on a lightly floured pizza peel (if you are going to be transferring the pizza onto the preheated pizza stone) or onto a rimless baking sheet or pizza pan.

Spread the surface of the pizza with enough pizza sauce to cover evenly. Layer on the shredded mozzarella, then top with the Muffuletta Relish and spread out a bit. Now distribute the onion-pepper on top of the olive relish, then arrange the fresh mozzarella slices evenly over the onion mixture.

If using a pizza stone, carefully slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone in one quick, forward-and-back motion. If using a pizza pan, place the pan in the oven and bake until the cheese softens, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with the chopped fresh oregano and toasted pine nuts and return to the oven for another 5 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

Note on Muffuletta and Tapenade: Muffuletta is my zesty garlic-flavored variation on the classic olive spread known as tapenade. If you don’t want to make the muffuletta spread, then use the tapenade, which is available commercially in most wellstocked supermarkets.

Muffuletta Garlic-Olive Relish

Makes about 1-3/4 cups

This is a zesty spin on simple tapenade. It’s kicked up a notch in garlic, olive oil and other goodies, and is a classic condiment on the New Orleans specialty, the Muffuletta Sandwich, which is basically a submarine sandwich concoction of Italian-style meats and cheeses. And, of course, it is also delicious on pizza.

1/2 cup coarsely chopped, pimiento-stuffed olives

1/2 cup coarsely chopped, pitted, black olives

1/4 cup coarsely chopped red onion

1/4 cup coarsely chopped, fresh, Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (more to taste)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons drained and rinsed capers

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1/4 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place the olives, onion, parsley, vinegar, garlic, capers, oregano, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse the mixture until the ingredients are finely chopped. Add the olive oil and continue processing until the mixture is thoroughly chopped but not pureed. Adjust seasonings, adding additional vinegar if it needs a "zing," or additional olive oil if the mixture seems too "sharp." Will keep in the refrigerator for at least one month. Because the olive oil solidifies at low temperatures, remove from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

Tri-color pizza. Photo by Jan Roberts-Dominguez